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CRISIS AT KIRTLAND
Murderous Threats and Plots, 1835-1837
by Dale R. Broadhurst
---( March 2001 )---
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(This Web-Page is Still Under Construction)
The Crisis at Kirtland ContinuesJoseph Smith's courtroom victory over the anti-Mormon activist, D. Philastus Hurlbut, in April of 1834 granted the Mormons only a temporary respite from what they saw as unjustified "persecution" from their neighbors. At the end of November in that same year, another vocal foe of the Kirtland Saints published the first anti-Mormon book in nearby Painesville. His effort, entitled Mormonism Unvailed, was little publicized and probably little read at the time. The book, which contained some of the material previously collected by D. P. Hurlbut, may have been an unwelcome irritant but it posed no serious threat to Smith and his church. Its editor and publisher, Eber D. Howe, left the publishing business early in 1835 and did nothing to further harass the Mormons.
In the months that followed Smith's return to Kirtland, from leading his failed Zion's Camp military expedition to "redeem" Jackson county, Missouri, the major threats directed at the Mormon Church came more from within than without. Dissension within the Kirtland ranks reared its ugly head in the wake of Joseph Smith's 1834 failures in Missouri and, by 1838, gained sufficient disruptive power to drive his most loyal followers out of Ohio altogether. The rise of the Kirtland dissidents did not happen in a vacuum, however; it was a dangerous drama played out upon a field of social, political and legal conflict. At one end of that field stood Joseph Smith, Jr., the charismatic advocate of a fast-growing theocracy with himself at its head. At the other end stood certain influential Geauga county "Gentiles": the Whig politicians, the Campbellite church leaders, and disgusted businessmen like Grandison Newell of Mentor. Between the opposing forces were the Saints themselves, mostly clustered around their spirited leader, but in many cases scattered so far afield as to stand on common ground with Smith's non-Mormon adversaries.
In the past Gentile opponents like Grandison Newell were largely content to remain out of public view and allow ex-Mormon malcontents such as D. P. Hurlbut and Joseph Wakefield the publicity of being Joseph Smith's chief enemies in and around Kirtland. Newell and the Campbellites helped provide the necessary funding and perhaps some protection for Hurlbut and his ilk, but they relied upon dissenters from the fringes of the Mormon movement to carry out the tangible attacks. With the withdrawal of D. P. Hurlbut from the anti-Mormon scene in the spring of 1834, Grandison Newell eventually took his place as the icon of anti-Mormon activism in northern Ohio.
Grandison Newell, along with confederates such Josiah Jones, Orris Clapp and Nathan Corning, Jr., had been an active supporter of anti-Mormonism during that perilous period sandwiched between the Jackson County expulsion of November 1833 and the Hurlbut legal contest ending in April 1834. In the months following that anti-Mormon defeat in the court house at Chardon, Newell and his associates no doubt kept up the pressure upon the Kirtland Saints by aiding and abetting various other dissenters and apostates who bore their own grudges against Joseph Smith and his Church. There is reason to believe that Newell was hopeful of recruiting Smith's own secretary and scribe, Elder Warren Parrish, to his anti-Mormon cause. Although publicly unsuccessful in staging thus coup within the ranks of the Saints, he did manage to stake out some common ground, if only briefly, with Church officials Orson Hyde and Luke S. Johnson. This was a notable feat during the notorious summer of 1837, at period that Heber C. Kimball recalled as a time when "there were not twenty persons on earth that would declare that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God."
Grandison Newell's de facto alliance with some of the disgruntled Mormon leaders was a precarious and transitory phenomenon, creditable mostly to a temporary feeling of outrage among several leading Mormons at the time. Even with this uncertain succor Newell still occasionally lost his legal and media battles to Smith and the Mormon loyalists. In the end, however, Newell's side won the religio-social war and the more problematic Mormons theocrats left northern Ohio for a new gathering place in Caldwell county, Missouri. This paper, Episode Two in retelling the "Conflict at Kirtland," attempts to reconstruct forgotten (and often grim) events transpiring in Mormon history between 1835 and 1837. The majority of Mormon histories and Joseph Smith biographies either skip over the grimer episodes of this period entirely or they offer only perfunctory remarks relating to the odious state of affairs. In order to reconstruct the events of that time and in order to better understand the principal personalities involved in those events, the modern researcher is compelled to begin his study practically "from scratch."
What follows on this web-page is a preliminary assemblage of many historical bits and pieces related to Smith's 1837 trial, accompanied by a minimal presentation of analysis and commentary. This paper is still a work-in-progress. Its future re-writes and updates will collect the scattered story fragments into a single synthesis and a more "reader-friendly" report of that synthesis.
The Crux of the Crisis:
In reading less detailed explanations of that collapse (such as the one provided in 1945 by Fawn M. Brodie), students may come away from their studies with an oversimplified picture of the Kirtland Bank failure causing apostasy within the Mormon ranks and a general hostility throughout the region, which, in turn, provided the Ohio anti-Mormons with a mandate to eject Smith and his followers by the beginning of 1838. While such simplistic reconstructions of the events may contain some elements of fact, they largely overlook the charges made at the time against Joseph Smith, Jr. for supposedly being a disingenuous and debased religious leader. In order to understand such complaints and allegations, it may be helpful to take a close look at information documenting Joseph Smith's legal battles in 1837. The statutory charges filed against Smith, and all the adverse allegations promulgated in their support, can be seen as a constituting a two pronged anti-Smith attack in the courts -- an assault principally conceived and carried out by Grandison Newell. One prong of that attack was concerned with getting Smith condemned as the perpetrator of illegal financial schemes. The other, more exacting prong of Newell's legal attack was concerned with getting Smith condemned as an attempted assassin.
Today very few students of Latter Day Saint history know that the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, Jr. was tried in Geauga county, Ohio in the spring of 1837 for conspiring to murder a prominent non-Mormon resident of that county. One of Smith's closest associates in the LDS Church, Apostle Orson Hyde, testified under oath that "Smith seemed much excited and declared that [Grandison] Newell should be put out of the way, or where the crows could not find him." The idiom reportedly used by Joseph Smith in his declaration is chillingly reminiscent of death threat language attributed to top Mormon leaders operating northern Missouri only a few months thereafter. That Smith's alleged language was indeed meant to be taken as a threat of death is confirmed by the next words of Hyde's 1837 testimony: "he said destroying Newell would be justifiable in the sight of God, that it was the will of God, &c...."
Joseph Smith, Jr. and his close associates also spoke of murderous threats and plots instigated against his own life during this same period. Whether Smith was a victim of such plots or their purpetrator, it is a significant fact that he was eventually acquitted by a local judge of the serious charges which had been brought against him. Although the judge's exact reasoning in acquitting Smith remains unclear, it was obviously not for a total lack of evidence. Much evidence was presented against Smith during the course of his preliminary hearing and at his subsequent trial. So, while the judge may have the evidence insufficient for him to find the Mormon leader guilty as charged, the adverse testimony and the incriminating circumstances disclosed during Smith's trial yet remain as an ignoble stain upon the pages of early Latter Day Saint History. In the words of historian Kenneth H. Winn: "The charge was dismissed by a state court, but it succeeded in further blackening Smith's reputation." (Exiles in a Land of Liberty, 1989, p. 119).
Note: The excerpts provided below in Section 8 are taken as a textual block from copyrighted materials, without the knowledge or permission of the copyright holder. In a coming update of this web-document the copyrighted content will be scaled back to a "fair use" length suitable for use of serious students of Mormon history. In the meanwhile I ask that the content of that section of this html file not be otherwise, reproduced, distributed or permanently posted on-line.
Dale R. Broadhurst
First revision (adding notes and URLs) Feb. 28, 2001.