Vicki Knasel Brown. Journalism History. Volume 45, Issue 3, 2019.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints struggled for recognition as the indigenous American sect launched in Fayette, NY on April 6, 1830, and searched for a permanent home. After migrating to Ohio, the first group of Mormons began relocating to Missouri in 1831 and continued to move into the state as late as 1838. Though Mormon founder Joseph Smith declared that God revealed Jackson County, Missouri, as Zion and Independence, Missouri, as the New Jerusalem, non-Mormons already settled in the area began to question the Mormons’ presence. Violence broke out between Mormons and established settlers in 1833, and Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs issued Executive Order 44 on Oct. 27, 1838, to force Mormons out of the state.
Although much has been written about the Mormon migration to Missouri, the violence, and the governor’s order, little has been written about the media coverage of the conflict and the Saints’ subsequent expulsion. A growing scholarly evaluation of Mormon media continues to build. A strong body of work has developed concerning media views and portrayal of Mormons but much of the work focuses on the LDS Church after its move to Utah (see S. Baker and D. Stout). One study deals with press coverage of society’s reaction to polygamy, and one considers the role Mormon newspapers may have had in Smith’s death in Illinois in 1844. This study is important because it provides insight into the development of the Mormon press, which began in Missouri, and how it compared to commercial and religious press of the study period. Religion was an integral part of society. This study contributes to the understanding of ways in which both the commercial and religious press communicated society’s religious aspect. Additionally, religious newspaper and magazine editors hoped to reach an audience beyond their denomination and wanted their publications to serve a news function.
This study examined the coverage of three general circulation newspapers and three faith-based newspapers from 1831-1839. It sought to discover how the commercial newspapers portrayed the Mormons, how the religious newspapers portrayed the Mormons, how the selected papers portrayed the conflict itself, and how coverage of the conflict differed between the general circulation and the religious newspapers. American society was in the middle of upheaval throughout the decade. Overwhelmed with national change and dissention, editors mostly ignored Mormon activity and treatment until the last few years before Mormons were forced out.
Americans divided over re-establishing a federal banking system, with states issuing currency and with counterfeiting rampant. Banking issues and speculation in real estate caused the Panic of 1837 and an economic depression. In addition to economic woes, tension over slavery rose throughout the period. Missouri was created as a slave state in 1821 as part of the Missouri Compromise, which also allowed Maine to join the Union as a free state. Slavery challenged religious denominations, as well.
Religious demographics also were changing. New groups challenged older Protestant denominations. The period between the American Revolution and the Civil War saw social experimentation, including new ways of expressing religion. Short-lived movements, like secular and faith-based utopias, and longer sustained religions, such as the Shakers and the Oneida, sprang up. The Second Great Awakening, an evangelical movement that revived in the 1830s from the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, spurred revivalism.
Journalism, too, underwent changes in the 1830s, primarily because of advances in printing technology, which by the 1830s which meant cheaper production. Publishers sold their papers for one cent—the “penny press”—and began shifting coverage to topics more citizens would want to read. Newspapers produced from 1783 to 1832 catered to political parties. But with First Amendment protection and cheaper production costs, publishers and editors began to see news as a commodity to be sold. Newspaper shifted from serving politicians and focused on covering news of daily life. But political influence was not erased from newspapers in the 1830s. Some editors, including those in capital cities, were active in political party local committees, or used their newspapers to push candidates and policies. That political influence remained in the Jefferson City, Missouri newspapers throughout the 1830s.
Nearly fifty newspapers, including general circulation and religious, existed in Missouri from 1830 to 1840, many of them short-lived. Some were language newspapers that catered to immigrant communities. This study examined articles from three English-language commercial newspapers – the Columbia-based Missouri Intelligencer, also known as the Missouri Intelligencer/Boon’s Lick Advertiser, which became the Columbia Patriot in December 1835; the Jefferson City Jeffersonian Republican, which also was published as the Jefferson City Republican; and the St. Louis-based Missouri Republican, which became the Missouri Republican Daily on Sept. 20, 1836. The study also included three religious publications —the Mormon newspaper, the Evening and Morning Star, which started in Independence, Missouri, as a monthly in September 1831, becoming the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate in October 1834, the Elder’s Journal in November 1837, and Times and Seasons in November 1839; the Catholic newspaper, Shepherd of the Valley; and the Baptist publication, Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer.
Determining the most appropriate general circulation newspapers from the decade was a challenge. Many newspapers begun in the 1830s survived for only a year or two. Those that thrived often changed ownership and names, making some of them difficult to trace. Finding newspapers that published throughout the decade and that had complete samples available was difficult. The availability of newspaper archives and an attempt for diversity in location within the state and in varied political viewpoints were the primary factors in selecting the commercial newspapers studied. The Missouri Intelligencer/Boon’s Lick Advertiser, published from 1827 to 1835, was chosen in an attempt to find an available newspaper from the western part of the state that included a substantial portion of the timeframe to be studied. Unfortunately, several issues from 1835 are missing. The paper was sold and its name changed to the Columbia Patriot, with the first issue appearing on Dec. 12, 1835. Only a limited number of issues published between November 1837 and January 1842 still exist. Few newspapers were published in the western portion of the state until the mid- to late 1800s.
The Jeffersonian Republican also was called the Jefferson City Republican. Started on June 14, 1826, the newspaper was published until 1847, and was considered the “official organ of the state and federal governments and [the publisher] was the state printer.” It was included because it focused most of its coverage on state government and reflected the government’s position on most matters.
The Missouri Republican was founded as the Missouri Gazette and Louisiana Advertiser in 1808, with the name later changed to the St. Louis Missouri Gazette. Published weekly from 1822, the Missouri Republican became twice-weekly, and then a tri-weekly. The paper became a daily on Sept. 20, 1836, with the name changed on July 1, 1837. Considered a top daily, the Republican was included because the Mormons saw it as an ally.
Editors of the religious newspapers saw their editorial role as pastoral. The editors/publishers were clergy and denominational leaders, not journalists, who promoted the position of their individual denominations and targeted pastors, other denominational leaders, and publishers and editors.
The study includes the Mormon newspapers published throughout the period for a nuanced understanding of the coverage. The LDS Church began its first newspaper, the Evening and Morning Star, in Independence in September 1831. Although the newspaper published primarily church-related information, in its early volumes news from outside the Mormon community was included under the heading “Worldly Affairs.” But even that outside news “illustrated some point of Mormon doctrine.”
The Evening and Morning Star was suspended while it was relocated to Kirkland, Ohio in 1833. After completing its second volume, the Mormons replaced it with the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, published from October 1834 to September 1837. That newspaper folded when the Mormon bank, an independent system that issued its own currency, failed in Kirkland during the Panic of 1837. LDS founder and leader Joseph Smith re-started the Mormon publication, naming it the Elder’s Journal and himself as editor. He chose as publisher the president of the Mormons’ highest governing body, the Twelve Apostles.
But an Ohio court forced the closure of the short-lived Elder’s Journal in November 1837 to satisfy a legal judgment caused by the Mormon bank failure. Smith joined the Mormons in Far West, Missouri, and published issues of the Elder’s Journal in July and August 1838 there before more trouble developed. After the LDS Church relocated to Illinois, Times and Seasons was started in November 1839. Again, Smith took over, becoming publisher and editor.
The Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer was included, even though it was produced in Louisville, Kentucky, beginning in 1828, and later moved to Upper Alton, Illinois. Published semi-monthly by John Mason Peck, a denominational leader, and A. Smith, the paper started as the Western Pioneer and became the Western Pioneer and Baptist Standard-Bearer on June 30, 1836, covering Baptists in Illinois, Missouri, and states that bordered the Mississippi River. In late 1837 or early 1838, the Western Pioneer and the Baptist Banner merged to create the Baptist Banner and Western Pioneer, with John Waller of Louisville, Kentucky, and Peck as editors. In February 1839, The Baptist in Nashville, Tennessee, merged with it. The paper espoused the Baptist viewpoint as its editors interpreted it.
The Shepherd of the Valley, a Catholic newspaper produced in St. Louis from 1832 to 1836, was one of the state’s earliest denominational newspapers. It was a house organ, especially after the Western Catholic Association formed and, beginning with the paper’s second volume, replaced publisher Francis H. Taylor with a committee of three priests.
Textual analysis was used to understand the sense-making practices of people of historic time within their cultural setting and through their cultural setting. The study attempted to understand the sense-making of the press “culture” of the six newspapers as they reflected Mormon and non-Mormon culture and society’s concerns. By using textual analysis applied to the historical record as it appeared in selected newspaper accounts, the study attempted to uncover themes that reflected Mormons, their religion, the upheaval the society of the 1830s was undergoing, and the conflict that flared between Mormons and non-Mormons.
The indexes for the Missouri Intelligencer/Boon’s Lick Advertiser and the Jefferson City Jeffersonian Republican/Republican were searched using the terms “Mormons,” “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” “Latter-day Saints,” “Joseph Smith,” “Sidney Rigdon” (Smith’s spokesman who later led a schism), the “Turner Committee” (the joint state Senate and House committee formed to investigate the so-called Mormon War after the Mormons were evicted from Missouri), “extermination order,” and “Mormon War.” Additional terms used to determine the sample of articles to analyze included “imposter,” “delusion,” “fanaticism,” and “fanatics.” Each available issue of the other four newspapers were read and articles for analysis determined using the same set of terms. This method yielded 187 articles with the pertinent key words from the six newspapers (see Appendix A). Each article was read three times and then coded.
Five pertinent themes emerged, including theology, politics and patriotism, theocracy, legal processes and First Amendment rights, and war and conflict. The theological theme centers on disagreement over which group is God’s chosen people. The politics and patriotism theme focuses on how the newspapers perceived Mormons would vote, particularly on which party they would support. Theocracy grows out of politics/patriotism because of the perception that Mormons believed God is to be obeyed first, even if obedience conflicts with legal authority. The legal processes and First Amendment rights theme comes from the Mormons’ attempt to bridge the religious differences between themselves and others by appealing to the U.S. Constitution. War and conflict seem to have been constant concerns in Missouri from before its statehood through the Civil War.
Mormons and Media Limitations in Missouri
Mormons moved to Missouri in 1831, settling primarily in Jackson, Clay, Daviess, and Carroll counties. Although some historians focus on the outbreak of violence in 1838, difficulties between Mormons and non-Mormons started in 1833 in Jackson County where the Latter-day Saints first settled. They were forced from Jackson County because non-Mormons believed the Saints would take over politically, particularly after the declaration of Jackson County as Zion and Independence as the New Jerusalem. Only the righteous could live in Zion, and if the non-Mormons or “gentiles” did not leave, the Mormons believed God would destroy them. By 1833, Mormons already made up a third of the Jackson County population, and Smith encouraged Mormons remaining in the east to migrate to Zion to be ready for the Lord’s return.
Fearful that the Mormons would take over, non-Mormons destroyed the Saints’ press. Several men also attacked Mormon businesses and homes. A non-Mormon citizens’ committee and Mormon leaders reached an agreement that forced the Saints out of Jackson County in 1833. The Mormons moved into nearby Clay County and considered its non-Mormons as “accommodating as we could reasonably expect.” As trouble brewed there, the Saints moved into Ray and Daviess counties, and later, into Caldwell County. Though Smith felt the non-Mormons in Caldwell County accepted his followers, suspicion and tension developed, and by 1838, violence had broken out between the two groups. Three battles—the standoff at DeWitt, Missouri, the raid on Gallatin, Missouri, and the Haun Mill massacre in which a Mormon child was killed—were the culmination of tensions.
The 1838 violence precipitated Governor Boggs’ executive order and became the focus of the Turner Committee, a three-man, joint Missouri Senate and House committee tasked to investigate the government’s response to the violence in 1838. After the legislature finally agreed to it, the investigation began in November 1838, ending in 1841 with the release of the committee’s report.
Although the LDS Church was unwelcomed in most of the states in which its members settled, why strong tensions and violence erupted in Missouri is unclear. Some historians point to the religious atmosphere in the nineteenth century, including the rise of a host of religious, reform, and social movements. Evangelicalism strengthened and helped create a “common … religious culture.” The movement embraced a broad spectrum of Christian traditions held together by three core beliefs: the Bible as the sole source of revelation and authority; personal, emotional salvation; and the “missionary imperative” to share the Christian gospel. Revivalism, fueled by the preaching and writing of Charles Grandison Finney and Lyman Beecher and the fervor of the Second Great Awakening (1800-1835), expanded from New England into the frontier. Restorationism—“the belief that the true church had been lost through corrupt doctrine and alliances with the state”—also moved throughout the nation in the 1800s. The LDS Church developed out of restorationism, but other proponents of the movement denied the validity of the indigenous movement.
In Missouri, the Roman Catholic Church was the first Christian denomination, becoming the largest in 1832. But the state’s population grew throughout the nineteenth century, and newcomers were mostly Protestants. Baptists began arriving in the state in the late 1700s, and, in 1805, established the first Protestant church in the state. The Disciples of Christ, stressing restorationism, established its first church in 1817. Throughout the period, Protestantism dominated U.S. religious culture. Some historians believe that because of the differences in religious understanding between Mormons and the rest of Protestantism, Mormonism became the “focused social enemy” on which the public could blame the country’s ills.
Although Catholics and Protestants chided one another over theological differences, the Protestant ire against Mormons was more intense. Many of the differences between Mormons and the established denominations angered the establishment. Mormons practiced a form of communalism that created distance between them and their neighbors. Joseph Smith proclaimed himself a prophet, and the LDS Church held strong millennial beliefs. Mormonism attracted some followers because it gave the United States more religious prominence “for God had selected Americans to serve as the carriers of a restored gospel.” Mormons taught that Jesus revealed himself to Native Americans in the New World, as well as to the Jews in the Middle East. Many Christian denominations held that revelation ended with the apostolic age. But Smith’s followers interpreted his finding the golden tablets and receiving new revelations to mean God intended to restore New Testament Christianity, beginning with Americans.
Much of church doctrine reflected a move toward Christian socialism and a belief that God’s disfavor would be reflected in the country’s political structure. Mormons believed God’s kingdom would come on earth. Central to early Mormon theology was the idea that followers were to live with the expectation that God’s kingdom would come soon. God’s laws, rather than a nation’s laws, were to be obeyed when the two conflicted. The idea that God’s directives should trump the U.S. legal system contributed to the political tensions. Historian Kenneth H. Winn describes the Missouri conflict in terms of republicanism, with Mormons accusing non-Mormons of anarchy and non-Mormons accusing the Latter-day Saints of tyranny.
Some historians, notably J. Spencer Fluhman, believe religious differences—and Protestant unwillingness to consider or treat with respect other interpretations of the Bible—as the primary reason for the political strain that developed. Though Mormons generally left an area when trouble surfaced over their religion, they also “routinely engaged” in partisan politics “as a means of counteracting what they regarded as infringements on their religious liberty.” Mormons agreed to leave Jackson County, Missouri in 1833, but decided to stand their ground in 1838.
Political influence in Missouri’s western counties also was at issue for the established settlers, particularly in Jackson County. The non-Mormons feared LDS members would take over the government as Mormon migration into western Missouri continued and their numbers grew. Because the Mormons believed Jackson County was Zion, the unrighteous—the gentiles—should not be allowed to live there.
Faith-based and commercial journalism of the decade reflected some differences among religions. In the United States, religious denominations, already publishing books, tracts, and magazines, began using the newspaper format in the early 1800s. At least two religious magazines were in circulation by 1805, and the first religious newspaper appeared in 1808. Mormons contributed to religious journalism by publishing their first newspaper in Missouri. The LDS Church needed to get the message of God’s kingdom to its people and its newspaper was a vehicle. Mark Silk describes the need for faith traditions to spread their message. For some, religious knowledge is often inseparable from observance. Part of the problem is that belief often cannot be separated from its expression, even in the news media.
Spreading its understanding of God’s new revelation was a primary reason for the LDS Church to publish a newspaper, partly to counteract the “false reports and foolish stories” other newspapers were printing about the Mormons. But more importantly, Mormons believed that human beings would develop God’s kingdom on Earth as part of America’s mission. All Mormon periodicals had to “help build the ‘Kingdom’ politically, economically, and spiritually.” Historian M.B. McLaws sees the Mormons’ pursuit of their “mission,” including expressing it through the press, as the primary cause of conflict with non-Mormons in the 1800s.
Publishers of religious newspapers may have had an inflated sense of the influence their printed words had on denominational adherents. Extensive illiteracy was a problem in some geographic areas. Also, missionaries and church leaders spread the gospel primarily through the spoken word. Lucas Volkman contends that while the evangelical press helped improve literacy, it also “produced imagined communities of like-minded readers” because it overestimated its attraction. He points specifically to the effect on Missourians’ violent responses to slavery. Likely, evangelical newspapers had that effect about other topics, too, including the LDS Church.
Commercial press still gave some deference to religion in the 1830s, although religion had lost much of its dominance. Silk indicates that bias was part of the commercial media’s coverage of, or at least references to, religion during that timeframe because in the West “anticlerical politics” had not made it acceptable for “overt hostility to religion.” Media historian Doug Underwood believes commercial press coverage of religion became marginal after the Civil War. Early in the 19th century, religion still influenced commercial newspapers. But the “penny press” began to turn newspapers from partisan coverage and caused most publishers to concentrate on circulation and revenue. By the 1830s, “religion was no longer dominant” but became just one among several news items to cover. Powerful media mogul James Gordon Bennett recognized religion could be covered as news, and proclaimed journalism “to be a potentially greater moral force than organized religion.” He recognized the importance of religion to readers and began to include it in his newspaper, the New York Herald. The commercial newspapers in this study followed Bennett’s example, often promoting or covering local religious events. Their editors also used biblical references and church language, indicating that they assumed their readers either were religious or were familiar enough with Christianity and the Bible to understand those references.
A number of social and political factors also limited the commercial press. General circulation media took a soft approach to uncovering government abuse, which might have influenced coverage of the Mormon conflict in Missouri. The commercial press was fragmented and localized so that it often did not deal with issues on a national scope. The Missouri Republican/Republican Daily was an exception, however, choosing to fill its news holes almost exclusively with national and international political news and opinion. It rarely dealt with local concerns but slowly began to shift throughout the 1830s to include more local coverage. Libel issues caused many commercial newspaper publishers and editors to ignore, rather than to deal with a problem or conflict. Government spending on “official” notices placed in commercial media kept some newspapers from reporting government abuses.
Commercial and Religious Press Coverage
The commercial and religious press covered Mormons differently, with the general circulation newspapers choosing a political perspective and the faith-based press portraying Mormons in religious terms. The five themes — theology, politics and patriotism, theocracy, legal processes and First Amendment rights, and war and conflict —that emerged through textual analysis point out those differences.
The general circulation newspapers’ political point of view included legal and First Amendment issues. Both the Missouri Intelligencer and the Missouri Republican/Republican Daily were remarkably even-handed in some respects. All the commercial newspapers relied on a variety of sources to provide content, often reprinting articles from other general circulation newspapers. The selected newspapers printed verbatim eyewitness accounts and either entire or excerpts from transcripts of legislative action and county meetings. The inclusion of such variety led to that even-handedness, except in the Jefferson City papers. The two outside of the capital city also printed letters from Mormon leaders and pro-Mormon eyewitnesses to the violence.
The Missouri Republican/Republican Daily was the most even-handed of the studied commercial papers. At first, its editor saw the Latter-day Saints as unworthy of coverage, although the newspaper had been reprinting stories from other papers and including minutes of non-Mormon meetings. The Missouri Republican editor sometimes editorialized as a lead into a reprinted story. He called Mormons a “sect of fanatics” in a comment to an account of a July 1833 non-Mormon citizen meeting in Jackson County. But he also pointed out that the actions of both sides—Mormon and non-Mormon—were “wholly at war with the genius of our institutions” and “subversive of good order.” In late 1833 and early 1834, the paper printed a letter to the editor from a non-Mormon leader and a handbill from the Mormons that defended their actions in the Jackson County conflict. Then the editor declared he had included “sufficient” coverage and that “matters of more general importance claim precedence in our columns.”
Yet, the paper never stopped including information in its pages. Coverage slowed down considerably from 1835 through 1837, but as the conflict broadened in western Missouri, it stepped up coverage in 1838. It covered nearly all the discussions in the Missouri House and Senate about the conflict and the governor’s response. The political ramifications of the Mormon presence in Missouri, rather than religion or even First Amendment rights, were its first priority.
The selected faith-based newspapers naturally portrayed Mormons in religious language and generally followed their denomination’s stand on theology. Both the Catholic and Mormon papers dealt with religious liberty, while the Baptist editors remained silent about First Amendment rights.
Theology rose naturally, even for the commercial press, because the LDS Church is a religious community. The three selected commercial newspapers did not use theology overtly to express opinions of Mormons as a group but provided a glimpse of Mormon beliefs and the non-Mormon response to them. When the editors chose to address Mormon theology at all, they usually did so only to denigrate it, sometimes including stories such as an account of Smith creating the appearance of an angel at baptisms in Ohio.
Surprisingly, the most in-depth piece on Mormon theology appeared in the Missouri Intelligencer April 13, 1833 issue as a reprint from the Ohio Atlas. While the article was worded in such a way that the explanation borders on sarcasm, it mentioned miracles, authority, angels, and other aspects of Mormon beliefs: “They all pretend to the gift of miracles, of tongues, of healing their sick, visions, &c. though, like all modern miracles—often TOLD but never SEEN.” The story explained that Mormons expected Christ to return and reign on Earth for 1,000 years; that the Saints were restoring the Bible to “its primitive purity”; and that Mormon leaders talked with angels, visited the third heaven, and conversed “with Christ face to face.” The writer also acknowledged the Mormon place in the religious upheaval of the period.
While most of the points were made in an effort to discredit the Saints, the writer either adhered to traditional Christianity or at least knew enough to use Christian terminology such as “miracles,” “tongues,” and “visions” in context. The writer referred to “the Ark of the Covenant,” “Aaron’s Rod,” and “the Pot of Manna” without explaining what those articles were or their significance. By reprinting the story, the Missouri Intelligencer editor must have believed his readers would understand the writer’s sarcasm about Mormon beliefs. Even though the commercial editors did not refer explicitly to Christianity, surprisingly, only a few letters to the editor from pastors and other church leaders appeared in the three examined commercial newspapers. The most notable pastoral account came from the Reverend Isaac McCoy of Shawnee in Jackson County. Apparently, his version of the violence in that county in 1833 appeared first in the Western Monitor, a newspaper in Fayette in Howard County, and picked up by other newspapers around the state. McCoy declared politics, not religion, caused the uproar in the west because Mormons were never disrupted as they worshipped.
Editorial comment sometimes resorted to using derogatory names or adjectives about Mormons that smacked of religious undertones, particularly “deluded” and “fanatics” that appeared in the three papers, either directly in editorial comments or as part of reportage. The Missouri Intelligencer, in its June 23, 1832 issue, even praised the Evening and Morning Star, the first Mormon newspaper, when its first edition was released, calling it “handsomely executed.” But even while describing it and wishing the best for the Mormon paper, the Intelligencer still referred to the “strange doctrine promulgated.” Calling the Mormons and their religion derogatory names was a crude way for commercial newspaper editors to lead readers to believe the newspapers were protecting the community’s religious beliefs.
The commercial newspapers sometimes showed restraint. The Missouri Intelligencer occasionally softened its harshness. The newspaper included an extract of a letter to the editor in its Nov. 16, 1833 issue, following the excerpt with an editorial. “Although we have always viewed those Mormons with abhorrence, we are not prepared to justify such outrageous proceeding on the part of the citizens,” the editor proclaimed. Obviously, he drew a line between criticism of others’ beliefs and violence in the name of religion.
While the commercial newspapers concentrated on politics and assumed their readers understood biblical references, the religious papers considered spiritual questions and the Mormon place within Christianity. Although the three selected religious newspapers postured from a theological perspective, theology itself—the study of the nature of God—did not appear to be the primary concern. Instead, the three sought to show that God had chosen their denomination’s members as his people. They sought to answer the question: Whom did God favor?
From a theological perspective, the Catholic editors ignored the Mormons most of the time simply by lumping them together with all Protestants. The Catholic newspaper sometimes poked fun at Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon for their interpretations of the Bible. The paper also pointed out that Mormons were not the first to perform miracles, but that Catholic saints had done so throughout history. The editor repeatedly claimed that Jesus had established the Catholic Church and that only he—“not [Martin] Luther, [John] Calvin, [John] Knox, [John] Westly (Wesley), [Thomas] Muncer (Muntzer), Sidney [Rigdon] or Joseph” [Smith]—is the head. The Catholic editor saw all Protestants as usurpers of the “true church.”
The Baptist editor stuck to theology but did not support criticism of Mormons with Bible references. Not many issues of the Baptist papers are available to get an in-depth understanding from them of the position Baptists took on Mormons in Missouri. Although editor John M. Peck referenced the conflict in Missouri and the Book of Mormon, he seldom referred to his stand on Mormon beliefs in the Pioneer. Instead, he wrote a series for the Sunday School Journal in 1833 and printed his opinions in a pamphlet in 1835. Peck did not address concerns about the Mormons from a political perspective.
The Catholic and Baptist newspapers mostly ignored Mormon theology and spent more time writing about one another than about the Saints. Their preoccupation with discounting theological opinions with which they disagreed distracted both religious papers from more fully examining Mormonism in the 1830s. The Catholic editor felt the LDS Church was too new to be given much credence, as well.
The Mormon newspapers quoted extensively from the Saints’ scriptures to prove that God had given them the land in Jackson County as Zion. The Saints were to come together in the “land of their inheritance,” and Jesus would set up his kingdom there at his Second Coming. The LDS newspapers often included portions of the Book of Mormon and leaders’ discourses on doctrine, and several times Mormon editors questioned the conduct of professing Christians of other denominations. The Mormon newspapers reflect that church leaders understood government behavior in theological or Christian terms and expected officials and politicians to act according to religious principles.
Politics and Patriotism
During the conflict, both Mormons and non-Mormons argued that they best represented protection of the American system as patriots. Both sides used political tactics, particularly during town-hall-formatted meetings. The Jeffersonian Republican stressed the patriotism of the non-Mormons, calling them “a feeling and patriotic people.” On the other hand, the Mormon papers stressed America’s premier place in the world.
When giving its version of meetings between the two groups, each side stressed their efforts to end the tensions and establish order. Reverend McCoy declared non-Mormons in Jackson County had to call a citizens’ meeting to “prevent the maturity of the evils of which the people complained.” But Jackson County leaders overstepped when they responded to Mormon calls to the governor for protection. In an editorial, the Missouri Intelligencer pointed out that those leaders stacked a Grand Jury with non-Mormons who had been involved with destroying Mormon homes and the press, “and … consequently it would be useless to prefer bills before such a Jury … It thus appears that justice cannot be administered through the Judicial tribunals of Jackson county.” Several Missouri politicians and military members wrote letters that some commercial newspapers ran in their entirety. Many writers used the letters as a means to exonerate themselves from political blame over the treatment the Mormons received.
Politics played into newspaper coverage, particularly around national elections and particularly in the St. Louis Missouri Republican/Republican Daily because it focused on national and international news. On June 23, 1836, the newspaper denigrated Mormon participation in politics by tying the Saints to writer and lecturer Frances Wright and declaring that both had “raised the Van Buren standard.” Yet, at other times, the St. Louis newspaper stood with the Latter-day Saints. Its editor was among advocates who pushed for a legislative investigation of the violence against the Mormons and of the governor’s executive order.
The Catholic newspaper dealt with politics only with regard to constitutional rights of freedom of religion and speech. The Baptist papers included only one reference to political maneuvering, a reprinted article from the Sangamo Journal that insinuated Joseph Smith and his followers were part of the “Loco Focos,” an offshoot of the Democratic Party in the mid-1800s. Many Missouri leaders were concerned about Mormon participation in local politics because they were wary of the role the Mormons’ strong faith might play in it.
Theocracy—the belief that God “governs” a nation—played a strong role, especially for the Saints. The Mormons’ calling America the “choice land” and declaring, “Jesus the Redeemer is setting up his kingdom upon the choice land above all others” disturbed non-Mormons in the western counties. They interpreted such words as a Mormon declaration to take over the government. That perception was particularly strong in Jackson County where the Saints first settled. In a July 20, 1833 citizens’ meeting, committee leaders combined fear of Mormon beliefs with the fear of a political takeover. The Missouri Republican/Republican Daily often berated the Mormons for the political stand they sometimes took. In its June 23, 1836 issue, the paper reprinted an article from the Louisville (KY) Journal that claimed Mormons were blurring the lines between religion and politics.
The Catholic and Baptist newspapers steered clear of tying church and state together and did not address the Mormon claim that God intended to set up his kingdom in western Missouri at Jesus’ Second Coming.
Legal Processes and First Amendment Rights
Of the general circulation newspapers, the Missouri Republican/Republican Daily was the most outspoken about Mormons’ rights as U.S. citizens, arguing for the Mormons from the perspective of the First Amendment and freedom of religion. But the paper showed bias over the destruction of the Mormon press on July 20, 1833. In its Aug. 9, 1833 issue, the Missouri Republican printed a verbatim account of a non-Mormon citizens’ meeting in Independence on July 20, at which participants decided to raze the Mormons’ printing office, and a meeting on July 23, at which Mormon and non-Mormon leaders discussed options for peace. The editor led the account, editorializing that the non-Mormons’ approach undermined government.
At the meeting, the non-Mormon citizens’ committee issued a list of demands, including closure of the Mormon newspaper and the printing press. When Mormon leaders did not response, committee members voted to destroy the press. Though the editor had called the “proceedings … wholly at war with the genius of our institutions,” the Republican took no stand on the destruction of the press or for the Mormons’ right to publish under the First Amendment.
But two years later, the Republican defended freedom of the press in St. Louis. Presbyterian Elijah Lovejoy produced the Observer, a religious newspaper, in St. Louis, and stood against slavery in 1834. The Republican noted several times from 1835 until Lovejoy’s murder in Alton, Illinois on Nov. 7, 1837 that it believed Lovejoy brought trouble on himself. But it did call on citizens of St. Louis not to trample on press freedom. Both the Evening and Morning Star and the Observer were religious publications. Why, then, did the Republican’s editor raise no alarm over the Mormons’ loss? Perhaps he did not consider the Mormon newspaper as important at the time because, at first, it primarily published Mormon writings. Perhaps the Republican’s editor did not see the Mormon conflict as a national concern as the slavery issue certainly was.
Mormons clung to their faith in God for strength to face persecution, and they appealed to local, state, and national governments to honor the U.S. Constitution and legal guarantees of protection. LDS leaders repeatedly pointed to First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and of speech. Mormon newspapers reflected that call throughout the period the Saints resided in Missouri. By early 1833, Mormons were asking all Americans to consider the constitutional implications.
While the Catholic editors snubbed Mormon theology, they called for the state and national governments to honor Mormon rights under the First Amendment and to enforce laws that protected freedom of religion. Through their newspapers, they joined the Mormon and the Republican Daily editors to challenge readers to think about the conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons in terms of constitutional law. In a letter to the Shepherd of the Valley, “A Catholic American” pointed out that U.S. citizens boasted about their civil liberties, yet remained silent when the rights of others were “trampled upon” and chastised Protestants from turning on one another. Several times the Shepherd quoted from or included articles from other sources promoting religious liberty.
The Baptist editors also must have felt some regard for law and order. Though no reason was given for reprinting it, a short article from the Backwoodsman, a small Cincinnati-based paper, appeared in the Oct. 5, 1838 issue of the Baptists’ Western Pioneer. The Backwoodsman story encouraged a legal settlement to the friction in western Missouri.
War and Conflict
The war and conflict theme captures most of the coverage of the violence that occurred over the Mormon settlements. All the selected newspapers published some details about the conflict itself. All but the Mormon newspapers relied on reporting by other newspapers, particularly located in and closest to the western counties. Descriptions in the general circulation newspapers indicate editors did not send correspondents to the scenes of violence, largely because they did not have the resources to do so. Most commercial and religious newspapers had no staff other than the editor, who was sometimes assisted by a family member. The tone, size, and style of the St. Louis newspaper indicate it had at least one other staff person. Larger papers, including some in the denominational press, relied on correspondents as well.
Neither the Catholic nor Baptist newspapers published citizen-committee verbatim reports, as the commercial papers often did. The three commercial newspapers also published eyewitness accounts and letters to the editor about the conflict, but the Catholic and Baptist papers did not. Little or no staff other than themselves made covering the conflict difficult or impossible, but editors of the general circulation newspapers tried to verify the news as it filtered to them from the west.
Both the Missouri Intelligencer and the Jefferson City Republican primarily published the non-Mormon perspective on the conflict. The Intelligencer softened some of the accounts by stressing it did not approve of violent responses to protect rights, regardless of negative reports that circulated about Mormon character. The Jefferson City paper stuck to official versions and did not publish any Mormon response. The St. Louis Republican Daily included much more reporting than did the Jefferson City Republican or the Missouri Intelligencer, primarily because it had more resources to cover legislative discussions in 1839, especially about the violence in 1838 and the governor’s subsequent executive order.
The Mormon newspapers told the Saints’ side of the conflict, often couching it in theological and First Amendment language. They used reports of non-Mormon citizen meetings to illustrate the point Mormon leaders consistently made: Non-Mormons hated Mormons for religious reasons or for no substantial reason at all. They had to rely on non-Mormon accounts for non-Mormon-only meetings and added their version of what took place when representatives from both sides discussed demands that often came out of the citizen sessions.
The Baptist paper referenced the violence in Missouri only a few times, with most of its stories appearing in late 1838. The editor attempted to give an overview of the conflict and the Missouri governor’s response in the paper’s Dec. 13, 1838 issue. His account was incomplete because he had not received newspapers from Missouri to verify the events.
All the selected newspapers resorted to name-calling, some of it simply because derogatory names appeared in the accounts of others. Non-Mormons and Mormons used “mob” and “banditti” to refer to each other. All the papers also used war language to refer to the conflict and to describe the actions that took place. Most called the conflict the “Mormon war.”
The selected newspapers reported the Mormon sojourn in Missouri, couching the conflict in political and religious terms. Although the examined commercial newspapers used religious terminology, they mostly took a political approach to the conflict. Among the commercial newspapers, only the Missouri Republican/Missouri Republican Daily took a strong stand for religious liberty and freedom of speech. While the Mormon newspapers repeatedly pointed out that the Latter-day Saints were persecuted because of their religious views, they primarily argued for peace from a First Amendment perspective. Although the Catholic newspaper supported Mormons’ right to freedom of religion, it and the Baptist publication ignored the Mormons and the Missouri conflict. Both believed the LDS Church would not last long.
The Mormon newspapers naturally argued from a theological perspective. Oddly, the Catholic and Baptist newspapers did not. The Mormon and Catholic newspapers reflected similar points of view about citizen rights under the First Amendment. Surprisingly, the Baptist newspaper did not do so, as well. Baptists were among the religious groups that came to America to seek religious freedom and that had pushed for religious liberty for all. Baptist editor John Mason Peck expressed his theological position in a pamphlet and other writings. He should have supported Mormons from a First Amendment perspective. Many historians believe the conflict was born of misunderstanding and wariness over religion. Others regard the conflict primarily from a political perspective. The newspaper coverage shows the conflict involved both religion and politics, and that the two cannot be separated.
Also, other concerns competed for space in the commercial newspapers—economic problems, tensions between political parties, the dispute over slavery, conflict with Native American tribes, and fights over territory. Most of these issues were of national concern. Although media reports about Mormons circulated from the LDS Church’s beginnings, the Saints and their plight were not considered of national importance. National concerns overshadowed the Mormon conflict and likely stifled coverage of the Mormons’ move into Missouri and their treatment at the hands of non-Mormons. Perhaps the conflict might not have escalated to the point of expulsion if the Jefferson City and St. Louis newspapers had had the resources and the desire to follow up claims made by non-Mormon citizen committees. Instead, Governor Boggs’ Executive Order remained in effect until Governor Kit Bond rescinded it in 1976.
This study contributes to the understanding of the ways in which the commercial and religious press of the 1830s approached coverage of religion, how the coverage was similar, and how it differed. It also sheds light on the history of the religious press as more than a niche news outlet.
Additional studies would shed more light on the Mormon experience in Missouri and whether reporting changed. An analysis of the reaction of out-of-state general circulation newspapers to the Missouri conflict would indicate whether Missourians’ feeling toward some eastern papers was justified. Analyzing Missouri media portrayal of other religious movements that developed during the same period and comparing it to the portrayal of Mormons could reveal the similarities and differences between the reactions to other new forms of Christianity and other religions.