Mormonism and persecution/Danites
- Critics claim that Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon supported the formation of a vigilante band called the “Danites.”
- Critics claim that the Danites were pledged to “plunder, lie, and even kill if deemed necessary."
Regardless of their original motives, the Danites ultimately were led astray by their leader, Sampson Avard. Avard attempted to blame Joseph Smith in order to save himself. Joseph, however, clearly repudiated both the organization and Avard.
- Danites in anti-Mormon polemic—
Critics continue, as they long have, to appeal to the "Danites" in Utah as a source of Mormon power, terror, and control. (Link)
The Danites were a brotherhood of church members that formed in Far West, Missouri in mid-1838. By this point in time, the Saints had experienced serious persecution, having been driven out of Kirtland by apostates, and driven out of Jackson County by mobs. Sidney Rigdon was publicly preaching that the Saints would not tolerate any more persecution, and that both apostates and mobs would be put on notice. The Danite organization took root within this highly charged and defensive environment.
The Danites are sometimes confused with the “Armies of Israel,” which was the official defensive organization that was tasked with defending the Saints. This is complicated by the fact that members of the Danite organization also served in the “Armies of Israel.”
The Danites were led by Dr. Sampson Avard, and the group appears to have been formally formed about the time that Sidney Rigdon gave his “Salt Sermon” in Far West, in which he gave apostates an ultimatum to get out or suffer consequences. According to Avard, the original purpose of the band was to “drive from the county of Caldwell all that dissented from the Mormon church.” Once the dissenters had left the country, the Danites turned their attention to defending the Saints from mobs. Avard, however, took this purpose one step further by including retaliation against those who persecuted the Saints. Thus, the Danites began operating as a vigilante group outside the law. This, unfortunately, included stealing and plundering from those who stole and plundered from the Saints. The Danites believed that if they consecrated plundered goods to the Church, that they would be protected in battle. The group held secret meetings, with special signs used to identify themselves to one another.
Much of the information that we have about the Danite organization comes from the document describing the criminal court of inquiry held against church leaders in Richmond, Missouri on November 12, 1838. When the group’s activities were exposed and church leaders brought to trial, Avard became a primary witness for the prosecution, and laid the blame for the Danites at the feet of Joseph Smith. Avard claimed that he had been acting under the direction of the First Presidency.
Several witnesses indicated that Avard indicated that he would lie in order to incriminate the Church, and it is apparent that he testified in order to save himself. Avard even produced a “Danite Constitution” for the court, despite the fact that nobody else in the organization had ever heard of it or seen it until that time.
Joseph Smith referred to the Danites as a “secret combination.”  Referring to Avard’s testimony before the judge, B.H. Roberts states,
- This lecture of the doctor's revealed for the first time the true intent of his designs, and the brethren he had duped suddenly had their eyes opened, and they at once revolted and manfully rejected his teachings. Avard saw that he had played and lost, so he said they had better let the matter drop where it was. As soon as Avard's villainy was brought to the knowledge of the president of The Church he was promptly excommunicated, and was afterwards found making an effort to become friends with the mob, and conspiring against The Church. This is the history of the Danite band, "which", says the Prophet Joseph, "died almost before it had an existence."
Legends of “Danites” persisted for many years as the Saints moved to Nauvoo and later to Utah. The mysterious “Danites” have served as villains in fictional stories such as the first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Danites are sometimes associated with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, since one of the principal protagonists of that unfortunate event, John D. Lee, was himself once a member of the Danites in Missouri. With the help of imaginative writers, the mysterious “Danites” took on the status of an “urban legend” as a shadowy, mysterious vigilante group which enforced the will of church leaders by practicing blood atonement on those who opposed them. Brigham Young gave his opinion of such rumors during a conference talk on April 7, 1867 when he said:
- Is there war in our religion? No; neither war nor bloodshed. Yet our enemies cry out "bloodshed," and "oh, what dreadful men these Mormons are, and those Danites! how they slay and kill!" Such is all nonsense and folly in the extreme. The wicked slay the wicked, and they will lay it on the Saints.
- [note] Leland H. Gentry, "The Danite Band of 1838", BYU Studies Vol. 14, No. 4. 1974, p. 4.
- [note] Document Containing the Correspondence, Orders &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; And the Evidence Given Before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit of the State of Missouri, at the Court-House in Richmond, in a Criminal Court of Inquiry, Begun November 12, 1838, on the Trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and Others, for High Treason and Other Crimes Against the State., (1841) U.S. Government Printing Office.
- [note] Gentry, p. 5.
- [note] Gentry, p. 9.
- [note] Gentry, p. 7.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:179. BYU Studies link
- [note] Document, p. 40.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 3:209–210. BYU Studies link
- [note] Gentry, p. 11-12.
- [note] B.H. Roberts, The Missouri Persecutions, 1900, p. 220
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:30.