Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly referred to as the Mormons or Latter-day Saints, had a significant influence on the settling of the trans-Mississippi West. In the spring of 1820 the church's founder, Joseph Smith Jr., claimed to have received a visitation by God and Jesus Christ in upstate New York. In 1823, Smith asserted, the angel Moroni revealed to him the location of golden plates recounting the resurrected Christ's appearance to peoples in the Western Hemisphere. In 1827 Smith acquired these plates and began translating them into the Book of Mormon, a companion scripture to the Bible.

On April 6, 1830, Smith and several followers founded the Church of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, Seneca County, New York. Missionary labors commenced, meeting with significant success at home and abroad. Others, however, greeted the Latter-day Saints and their prophet with skepticism at best and persecution at worst. The Saints sought a more tolerant place to practice their religion and migrated, first to Kirtland, Ohio, and then to various settlements in Missouri. Persecution mounted and mobs forcibly drove the Saints to Nauvoo, Illinois. On June 27, 1844, violence erupted, and a local militia murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in Carthage, Illinois.

Persecution intensified, and in 1846 the Saints were driven from Nauvoo. Smith's successor, Brigham Young, and the majority of the Latter-day Saints began the exodus west to Kanesville (Council Bluffs, Iowa) and Winter Quarters (Florence, Nebraska). The following year, a portion of those who had temporarily settled on the Missouri River continued west along the north side of the Platte to Salt Lake City, Utah. From 1847 to 1869 more than 70,000 Mormons migrated across the Plains to the Great Basin. During 1846-47 a Mormon battalion of 549 men, sixty women, and several children volunteers served under Gen. Stephen W. Kearny during the Mexican War. They marched 1,850 miles from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in a southwesterly direction across the Great Plains through Santa Fe to San Diego, California, in perhaps the longest infantry march in American history.

Initially, the Mormons viewed the Great Plains as a barrier to cross in order to reach their "Zion" in the Great Basin. They established temporary settlements, freight stations, ferry crossings, and a Perpetual Emigrating Fund to assist overland emigrants. Although they made their headquarters in Salt Lake City, they also founded more than 400 settlements from Canada to Mexico and from the Pacific to the Great Plains. Initial settlement in the Great Plains took place in the western portions of Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming. By 1895 Mormon settlement of southern Alberta made it the first stake (a group of five to eight wards and branches) organized outside the United States. Today, every major city in the Great Plains has at least one congregation.

Although the Latter-day Saints are America's fifth-largest church, the majority of adherents now live outside North America. In 2000 membership exceeded 11 million and was growing by approximately 400,000 annually. In the Great Plains states and Prairie Provinces, membership exceeded 600,000, with more than 50,000 members each in Alberta, New Mexico, and Wyoming, 100,000 in Colorado, and 200,000 in Texas. Of the church's 100 or more temples, twelve lie within or near the Great Plains: in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Billings, Montana; Bismarck, North Dakota; Cardston, Alberta; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Edmonton, Alberta; Houston, Texas; Lubbock, Texas; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Regina, Saskatchewan; and Omaha (Winter Quarters), Nebraska.

See also TRANSPORTATION: Mormon Trail.

Jay H. Buckley Brigham Young University

Allen, James B., and Glen M. Leonard. The Story of the Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992.

Ludlow, Daniel H., ed. Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992.

Previous: Catholic Sisterhoods | Contents | Next: Comfort, E. Nicholas

XML: egp.rel.011.xml