Mormonism and persecution/Danites
Questions and Answers
Gospel Topics: "At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites"
"Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," Gospel Topics on LDS.org:
At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians. Historians generally concur that Joseph Smith approved of the Danites but that he probably was not briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities. Danites intimidated Church dissenters and other Missourians; for instance, they warned some dissenters to leave Caldwell County. During the fall of 1838, as tensions escalated during what is now known as the Mormon Missouri War, the Danites were apparently absorbed into militias largely composed of Latter-day Saints. These militias clashed with their Missouri opponents, leading to a few fatalities on both sides. In addition, Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.22 Though the existence of the Danites was short-lived, it resulted in a longstanding and much-embellished myth about a secret society of Mormon vigilantes.
Question: Did Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon support the formation of a vigilante band called the Danites?
The Danites are sometimes confused with the “Armies of Israel,” which was the official defensive organization that was tasked with defending the Saints
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, and which was supported by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. This is complicated by the fact that members of the Danite organization also served in the “Armies of Israel.”
Although Joseph Smith was aware of the intent of the Danites to cleanse the Church of "evil," he rejected the illegal activities of the Danite band
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.
Question: When was the Danite band formed and why?
Sidney Rigdon gave a speech against dissenters on 17 June 1838 in Far West known as the "Salt Sermon"
Rigdon's speech was directly targeted at dissenters within the Church, and strongly implied that they should leave.
Leland H. Gentry,
The first official encouragement given to removing these "dissenters" from Caldwell County came in the form of a speech given by Sidney Rigdon on Sunday, 17 June 1838. Familiarly known in church history annals as the "Salt Sermon," Rigdon's address remains one of the controversial events of the period.
Gentry notes John Corrill's description of the sermon,
President Rigdon delivered from the pulpit what I call the "Salt Sermon;" 'If the salt hath lost its savour, it is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men,' was his text; and although he did not call names in his sermon, yet it was plainly understood that he meant the dissenters or those who had denied the faith. He indirectly accused some of them with crime.
The Danites appear to have been formally created about the time that Sidney Rigdon gave his “Salt Sermon” in Far West
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.”:25 Once the dissenters had left the country, the Danites turned their attention to defending the Saints from mobs.
Question: Is it true that the Danites were pledged to “plunder, lie, and even kill if deemed necessary?"
Sampson Avard began retaliation against those who persecuted the Saints, including stealing and plundering
After the dissenters left Far West, Avard, took the idea of defending the Saints 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.:4 The Danites believed that if they consecrated plundered goods to the Church, that they would be protected in battle.:9 The group held secret meetings, with special signs used to identify themselves to one another.
Question: How were the activities of the Danite band exposed?
Sampson Avard was eventually brought to trial, and he blamed Joseph Smith for the Danite's activities
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.:7
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.:11-12
Joseph Smith rejected the Danite band and referred to them as a "secret combination"
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."
Sampson Avard had a reputation for not being trustworthy
There is clear consensus among both Mormon and non-Mormon early sources that Sampson Avard was not trustworthy. Additionally, there is a well-documented case of Avard attempting to do what he was eventually accused of doing with the Danites: taking advantage of inefficient and ambiguous lines of communication and authority to establish his own command.
In his biography of John Taylor, B.H. Roberts recorded an incident wherein Avard tried take over the Church in Canada by feigning authority from Joseph Smith, when he in fact did not have any. For many years this account was not supported by any first-hand accounts, but recently this incident has been confirmed by an account in the journal of Joseph Horne, a member of the Church who rode with Avard up to Canada and witnessed the attempt to take over the Church there.
Question: Did the Danite band persist even after they were exposed?
Legends of “Danites” persisted for many years as the Saints moved to Nauvoo and later to Utah
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.
- Danites in anti-Mormon polemic—
Brief Summary: Critics continue, as they long have, to appeal to the "Danites" in Utah as a source of Mormon power, terror, and control. (Click here for full article)
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Leland H. Gentry,"The Danite Band of 1838", BYU Studies, 14/4 (1974)
The Danites made their appearance during a very troubled period in Mormon history. For this and other reasons, one finds much difficulty in isolating the many threads in order to lay bare the facts. One major purpose of this paper is to examine the Danite Band in terms of its origin, purpose, and organizational structure. A second objective is to show who was responsible for the formation and perpetuation of the movement and why.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- "Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (May 2014)
- Leland H. Gentry, ""The Danite Band of 1838"," Brigham Young University Studies 14 no. 4 (1974). 423.
- John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Commonly Called Mormons) (1839), 31. Cited in Gentry, "The Danite Band", 423.
- 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.
- 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. Volume 3 link
- 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. Volume 3 link
- B.H. Roberts, The Missouri Persecutions, 1900, p. 220
- B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City, Bookcraft, 1963), 43-44.
- The Journal of Joseph Horne, Jr., 1858-1861: Including His Life Summary. LDS archives, 7. Horne’s account is also cited in Corwin L. Nimer, "Treachery and False Swearing in Missouri: The Rise and Fall of Sampson Avard," Mormon Historical Studies 5, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 37-60.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 12:30.