By Matthew Franck
JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri – When many of the nation’s top historians of Mormonism join Missouri elected officials at the state’s Capitol this September, they’ll participate in a conference born out of misunderstanding.
Nearly 170 years after early Mormons and Missouri settlers first clashed, misconceptions about the 1830s era still linger. American and Missouri history books often give only scant mention of the “Mormon Wars.” In many cases, the conflicts are recounted in stereotypes.
The result is continued confusion over what divided Mormons and the Missourians, and why such a document as the Extermination Order was issued. Its purpose, when announced in 1839 by Gov. Lilburn Boggs, was to drive all Mormons from the state.
And yet despite the misunderstanding, more than 100,000 residents of the Missouri trace their religious heritage to these early Mormon pioneers, finding a state with friendly neighbors and Mid-Western values.
For two years, members of the Columbia Missouri Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been working on an event aimed at addressing misconceptions about the 1830s era.
The result is the “Missouri Mormon Experience: A Conference of History and Commemoration,” an event that has snowballed to include the participation of a U.S. Senator, various other state officials and dozens of top scholars.
The conference, which will be held in the House Chambers of the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City on September 8-9, also expects to draw of participants from both inside and outside the state.
Settling the Rumors
For Columbia Stake President Michael Reall, the goal from the beginning was to both encourage greater academic understanding and create an opportunity for healing.
“The idea for a conference began as casual conversations discussng the Mormon experience in Missouri,” he said. “It was apparent that there were misunderstandings about the history of that period that carried into present feelings. For example, one person mentioned that an associate was concerned about his safety if traveling through Utah with Missouri license plates.”
Another person, reporting her plans to move to Missouri from Utah in the mid 1960s was asked if she wasn’t afraid to move there. “Why would I be afraid?” she asked. The response: “Because the Missourians don’t like Mormons.” She says that now, some 40 years later, she has never met anyone who cared that she is a Mormon or who seemed to know anything about the history of the Mormons in the state.
Reall, who also serves as the Church’s Institute director at the University of Missouri at Columbia, had long bounced around the idea of a scholarly conference on early Mormon Missouri history.
From the early planning stages, the desire was for something more than a mere history conference – one that would draw not only scholars, but a wide range of Missourians, from state dignitaries, to school teachers and members of the general public.
Today, those who organized the event marvel at the response. Proposals for papers have been submitted by numerous scholars. Presenters include BYU faculty, such as Susan Easton Black, and non-Mormons, like Jan Shipps of Indiana University. The conference has also been embraced by the Missouri State Archives, which is co-sponsoring the event.
But when the idea was first hatched, it was an intimidating one to a small group of organizers who had no experience hosting a Mormon history conference – much less one with such broad scope.
Finding a Venue
Helen Penfield, who directs public affairs for the Columbia Stake, recalls her doubts as the conference was first proposed in an early planning meeting.
“For a minute I blanked out thinking, ‘How would you even begin planning for something like that?’ she said.
And yet, many members of the Columbia Stake felt a certain calling to go forward with the event. The stake includes the Missouri capital of Jefferson City, with many members working in state government.
Those connections inspired the idea of hosting the event within the Missouri Capitol building. Stephen Davis, a member of the stake who had served as Chief Clerk of the Missouri House, quickly helped secure the venue, a reservation that was finalized with the passage of a House Resolution.
From there, organizers say everything began to fall into place.
Senator Climbs Aboard
The stake organized a small steering committee led by Dale Whitman, the former dean of the University of Missouri law school. The committee’s work followed two goals: organizing a high-caliber academic conference, while offering commemorative events that would attract the participation of state officials and the public.
The effort gained a key ally when U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond signed on to participate.
Bond served as Missouri governor 30 years ago when the state rescinded the Extermination Order. The conference will commemorate that act, honoring Bond for his role. The conference will kick off with a ceremony and concert on the steps of the Missouri Capitol. LDS entertainers from the Branson area have agreed to perform and state dignitaries like current Gov. Matt Blunt have expressed an interest in participating.
An Archival Event
Meanwhile, interest in the academic conference itself is owed largely to the support of the Missouri State Archives, working under Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan.
The Archives have not only agreed to co-sponsor the event, but have printed publications such as brochures and fliers. Additionally, the Archives are supporting a related project to digitize and post on the Internet key documents related to the era.
Promoting a New Understanding
Driving the state’s support of the event is State Archivist Kenneth Winn. While not a member of the Church, Winn has published extensively about early Mormon history in the state.
For Winn, the conference helps to satisfy a desire to bring historians of Missouri together with historians of Mormonism. As it is, he said, the two sides don’t often communicate.
“Missouri history is not integrated with Mormon history” he said. “People who write Missouri history don’t know much about Mormon history. They know the Mormon Wars exist, but they really don’t know that much about it.”
And Winn said the misunderstanding cuts both ways.
“I think there’s a good deal of stereotyping that still goes on,” he said. In the eyes of some Mormon historical accounts, he said, Missourians are portrayed as barbaric people.
“I think their motivations are more complex than simply religious persecution,” he said. “On the other hand the Church is pretty much an utter mystery to non-members of the Church.”
The upcoming conference, Winn said, will offer just the kind of communication that is sorely needed to bring greater understanding to the Mormons’ “troubled sojourn to the state.”
That kind of talk is music to ears of conference organizers like Reall.
“As we look back upon history it may become an aid to our future,” said Reall, who hopes the event will also “focus on the constructive events of that period, with the understanding that during troubled times the constructive, not the destructive, should be repeated.”
Details regarding the events, including conference topics, can be found at www.momormonhistory.org.
Matthew Franck is member of the LDS Columbia Missouri Stake. He works as a journalist who covers the Missouri state government.