This Day In History: January 12

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After his bank fails in the Panic of 1837, Joseph Smith flees Kirtland, Ohio, to avoid arrest and heads for Missouri to rebuild his religious community.

A sensitive and religious-minded man since his youth, Joseph Smith claimed the angel Moroni visited him in 1823, when he was 17 years old, and told him he was destined to become a modern prophet of God. For four years, Smith said he made annual visits to a hill in upstate New York where he received instructions preparing him for his new prophetic role. In 1827, he unearthed gold tablets inscribed in a mysterious language. Two years later, Smith created a local sensation when he revealed his discovery and made known his plans to publish a new volume of scripture based on his translation of the golden plates.

In March 1830, Smith published 5,000 copies of a volume he called The Book of Mormon. More often met with outrage than belief, Smith’s revelations nonetheless took root in the spiritually fertile era of the 1830s. Upstate New York was already a hotbed of religious revivalism, and Smith’s new religion appealed to Americans searching for spiritual values amidst the bustling economic growth of a rapidly expanding nation. In contrast to the radical individualism of the lone pioneer, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stressed the power of mutual cooperation and sacrifice for the good of the whole. Nearly two decades later, when the Latter-day Saints established their new theocratic state in Utah, this emphasis on cooperation would transform a desert into one of the richest and most productive farming regions in the West.

The path to Utah, though, was long and difficult, and Smith would not live to see the promised kingdom. Gathering his growing band of followers in western New York, Smith made the first of a long series of moves in search of a place where his unique vision of a community of Latter-day Saints could be realized. In the 1830s, the Latter-day Saints settled in the town of Kirtland, Ohio, where Smith founded the first LDS-controlled bank, putting his economic and spiritual practices to work. Unfortunately, Smith’s Kirtland bank failed during the national financial Panic of 1837, and he fled to avoid potential criminal prosecution by angry and disillusioned former believers, some of whom claimed he had mismanaged their investments.

The remaining faithful followed Smith to Missouri, where persecution and rumors (true but exaggerated) that the Saints were practicing polygamy forced them to flee again. In 1839, Smith established the new town of Nauvoo on the sparsely populated Illinois frontier, where he hoped the Latter-day Saints would finally be left alone. Unfortunately, continued reports of polygamy and Smith’s decision to declare himself a candidate for U.S. president in the spring of 1844 inspired fierce dislike of the Latter-day Saints in Illinois as well. In June, 1,500-armed men surrounded Nauvoo, and to prevent bloodshed, Smith and his brother Hiram agreed to be jailed in the nearby town of Carthage. Several days later an angry mob stormed the jail and murdered both men.

Many predicted the religious community would collapse with Smith’s death, but under the leadership of his successor, Brigham Young, the Saints regrouped and once again moved west. This time they did not stop until they reached the shores of the Great Salt Lake of Utah. There they laid the roots for a religious community that continues to thrive to this day.