Western Empire



Brigham Young and a small company of Mormon pioneers left the western edge of the United States in 1847 bound for the Rocky Mountains in the midst of Mexican-claimed territory. The plan for a Mormon kingdom outside the United States was never realized; in 1848 the land Brigham Young had chosen for settlement by his followers came under U.S. federal control following the Mexican-American War. 

When the first group of Mormons arrived at what is now Salt Lake City, Utah in July of 1847, they immediately began laying out a city and cultivating crops for themselves and the thousands of Mormon Church members that would soon follow. Brigham Young built an empire in this western territory, continuing the political and ecclesiastical work that Joseph Smith began.

Isolation allowed the Mormons to live out their religion without interference. Brigham Young began introducing strict policies and new doctrines. Polygamy as a requirement for exaltation was publicly announced in 1852. Before this time so-called plural marriage had been practiced in secret, but when it was finally brought out in the open and word of this doctrine made its way east, the Mormons once again found themselves the object of public disapproval and reproof.

Reports of Mormon rebellion against the laws and authority of the United States also filtered east. In 1857, in an attempt to put a stop to this rebellion in Utah Territory, President James Buchanan dispatched U.S. troops to keep the peace and install federal territorial authority. The Mormons misunderstood the purpose of the approaching army and believed themselves to be at war with the United States. This created an extremely tense atmosphere in Utah Territory. All non-Mormons were viewed with extreme suspicion as the Mormons prepared for battle.

An unsuspecting group of non-Mormon pioneers making their way from Arkansas to California stumbled into this powder keg as the trail west took them through Utah. Coming under attack from what they believed to be Indians, they resisted valiantly for several days, but eventually became desperate. When Mormon leader John D. Lee approached the circled wagons and proposed a plan for rescue, the pioneers surrendered their weapons into his hands. 

What followed has become known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The unarmed and beleaguered travelers, men, women, and children, lined up single file with armed Mormon escorts beside them. As they walked toward what they thought was safety, the Mormons turned their guns upon the pioneers, killing all over the age of 8 years. One hundred and twenty people were murdered; seventeen children, too young to provide reliable testimony, were left alive and distributed among Mormon families for care.

As news of the massacre leaked out, the Mormons disavowed any involvement and blamed the Indians. Unable to prove otherwise due to the Mormons’ unwillingness to testify against one another, no one was punished for this crime until 30 years later when John D. Lee was executed as, he claimed, a scapegoat sacrificing his life for Brigham Young and the Mormon Church. Lee said,

“I do not believe everything that is now being taught and practiced by Brigham Young. I do not care who hears it. It is my last word -- it is so. I believe he is leading the people astray, downward to destruction… I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner. I cannot help it. It is my last word -- it is so." (Juanita Brooks, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, pp. 151-52)

The concerns Lee expressed in 1877 were nothing new. Even in 1857 some Mormons were growing discontented. The army approaching Salt Lake City continued to be of grave concern to Brigham Young and his people. 

Young deployed the Mormon militia to harass and delay the U.S. troops. Mormons burned three supply trains and drove hundreds of the army’s cattle into the Salt Lake Valley, forcing the U.S. troops to improvise winter quarters north of Salt Lake. Meanwhile, Brigham Young prepared his people to torch the buildings in the city and flee into the mountains if the army advanced that far. In the end, Colonel Thomas Kane, a friend to the Mormons, managed to negotiate peace in Washington D.C. and the Utah War came to a quiet end.

The relative isolation the Mormons sought and enjoyed in Utah Territory ended with the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. As travel into and out of Mormon country became easier, Brigham Young began losing his grip on his western empire. 

Brigham Young had 55 wives; polygamy was widespread in Utah Territory. The U.S. government trained its sites on eradicating polygamy among the Mormons. Young and his successor, John Taylor, insisted that the Mormons neither could nor would ever abandon polygamy. 

However, under the 1887 Edmunds-Tucker Act the Mormon Church was disincorporated and most Church property escheated to the U.S. government. In addition, Mormon polygamists were heavily fined and/or imprisoned. 

In an effort to save the Church from disintegration, in 1890 Mormon Prophet Wilford Woodruff signed The Manifesto, an official declaration stating that polygamy would no longer be practiced within the Mormon Church. New polygamous marriages continued to be solemnized in the church, however, for at least another fourteen years. 

The banning of polygamy in the Mormon Church did have its desired effect. Not only was the LDS Church able to survive, but Utah was finally granted long-sought for statehood in 1896.

Today the state of Utah looks much different than it did in 1900. Before World War II Mormon converts were encouraged to leave their homes and gather together near church headquarters in the American West. This policy changed in the middle of the 19th century. Now Mormons usually remain in their home countries and build up the LDS faith where they live. 

The Mormon Church claims over 14 million people -- more than half living outside of the United States. Recent research indicates that the number of active Mormons is actually closer to 5 million. Utah, which was once nearly 100% Mormon, now has a population closer to 50% who self-identify as members of the Mormon Church.

Thomas Monson currently holds the office of Prophet and President in the Mormon Church, the 16th man to do so in LDS history.

The Mormon Church today works hard to overcome the public perception that Mormonism is an odd fringe religion -- a perception that continues to frame the faith due to its sordid history and unbiblical doctrines. Though the public face of Mormonism has changed, the core of the LDS Church remains the same. As late Mormon President Gordon B. Hinckley explained,

“Those who observe us say that we are moving into the mainstream of religion. We are not changing. The world’s perception of us is changing. We teach the same doctrine.” (“Living in the Fullness of Times,” Ensign, 11/2001, p. 5)