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KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

Mormons returning to northwest Missouri, 174 years after 'extermination order'

Ever since Mormon prophet and founder Joseph Smith revealed the Book of Mormon in 1830, his followers have struggled for acceptance. If you want to understand the "why" behind this rocky relationship, the rolling farmland of northwest Missouri might be the best place to start -- the birthplace of the human race, according to Joseph Smith, and the place where Christ will first step down in the second coming. 

In this Health & Wealth report, Mormons are moving back to the sacred lands of Daviess County, 174 years after being driven out by the state militia.

Drive down Highway 13 in northwest Missouri, past the Gallatin Quarry ("We Rock" is their slogan), and you'll also pass a small blue billboard with an arrow: Adam-Ondi-Ahman, it announces, a historic site of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Indeed, Mormons have a long, long history in this part of the state, going all the way back to Creation. 

According to Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith, the Garden of Eden was in Jackson County, Missouri. After the Fall, Adam traveled east of Eden, to what is now Daviess County, to the spot Mormons call Adam-Ondi-Ahman. The church now owns over 3,000 acres here, rolling farm land along the Grand River. Missionaries tend the grounds, and in the summer, Mormons from around the country stop by in tour busses.

Adam-Ondi-Ahman, between Highway 13 and the Grand River.

But it was here too, that in the 1830s, Latter-day Saints suffered glaring persecution, culminating in 1838, when the Governor of Missouri ordered that Mormons must be "exterminated or driven from the state."

Tom Spencer, history professor at Northwest Missouri State University, said the treatment of early Mormons here reflects a "noxious blend" of religious bigotry, land hunger, and cultural difference.  

"If you ever believed that religious freedom existed in America in the 19th century, Mormons are a great counter-argument," said Spencer, who edited a recent book on Mormons in Missouri.

When they first came to Missouri, Mormons settled in Jackson County, which, in the 1830s, was on the western frontier of the United States. But the new arrivals weren't made welcome. For one thing, most Mormons were of Northern extraction, while other settlers in western Missouri came largely from the South.

"These were people who, while they didn't really hold slaves, they believed in racial hierarchy and they believed in slavery," said Spencer. So while slavery wasn't the central issue in the conflict, it was one of many cultural differences. "I mean, the Mormons were an easy target. They were different. Their beliefs were different."

In Jackson County, Missourians ransacked Mormon homes and businesses, tarred and feathered Mormon leaders, and finally drove them out, first to neighboring Clay County, and then, finally, to Caldwell and Daviess Counties, to the area around Adam-Ondi-Ahman.

There, Mormons began arming themselves to defend against their neighbors. On August 6, 1838, tension broke into outright warfare, when a group of Missourians tried to stop Mormons from voting in Gallatin, the county seat. That day, Mormons beat them back with sticks, stones, and teacups and saucers. But it was a short-lived victory: by the end of the year, Mormons had fled to Illinois, where Joseph Smith was later killed by a mob. From thence, the long trip over the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to what is now Utah.

But now, the Mormon community in Daviess County is growing again. "We usually have on average a family a month moving in to the Gallatin area," said Barry Bartlett, who moved here with his family in 1995, from Phoenix, Az. The Bartletts were likely some of the first Mormons to move here since the 19th century.

Bartlett is well aware of the history that went down in Daviess County. In fact, his great, great great great grandfather was here, stick in hand, when fighting broke out in 1838. "John Lowe Butler, he picked up a stick and kind of ended the fight by knocking a few of them on the head."

When Bartlett moved here, his family and the few other Mormons in the area started meeting Sundays at the local high school. But when school started they had to move elsewhere, so they found space in an old funeral home. As more and more church members moved to the area, they quickly outgrew the space.

In 2005, the church built a gleaming new building to house the swelling membership. But the congregation kept growing, and in 2008, they added on to the building. Membership has gone from less than 100 in the early 2000s to close to 400 today.

That's a large number in a town whose population is less than 2000. So why are Latter-day Saints moving here?

"I think that if we have a hundred people that have moved in, there are a hundred different reasons," said Bryan Youd, the bishop in charge of the local church in Gallatin. Youd said he moved here for the rural, small-town lifestyle. 

But many are moving here because of the area's religious significance.

Lamar Oyler moved here from southern Missouri two years ago. "I think we're called to be able to be here to prepare the area for the second coming of our Savior, and that will be soon," he said. "We haven't been given a deadline or a date or a time, but it will happen when it happens."

According to Church teachings, when Christ returns in the second coming, Adam-Ondi-Ahman, here in Daviess County, will be the first stop.

"We'll be here and do what we can, and try to help our Father in heaven and His cause," said Oyler.

Beliefs like these, stemming from the Book of Mormon or Joseph Smith's revelations, these set Mormons apart from other Christians. In fact, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only about half of Americans consider Latter-day Saints to be Christians, though that is how Mormons self-identify.

So I put the question to Jeremiah Morgan, the stake president who oversees the Mormon Church in this part of Missouri -- I asked whether the church ever tries to downplay these different beliefs.

"What we believe to be true, we do not wish to downplay," said Morgan. But, he said, church members often prefer to focus on those beliefs that are more essential to their faith.

"Where exactly the Garden of Eden is, or where exactly Noah and the Arc landed are interesting, but not necessarily essential. It's more essential that I be a person who is humble and obedient and willing to follow Jesus Christ."

The Pew Research poll also found that more than two-thirds of Mormons still don't feel like they are seen as part of mainstream America, and almost half feel there is a lot of discrimination against them.

Morgan admits there may still be some bias or prejudice against Mormons. "And really, that's too bad, because that's what history should teach us, that those things ought to be done away with."

That history can be found preserved at the Missouri State Archives in Jefferson City, where state archivist John Dougan guards the paper trail of Missouri's past, housed in a climate-controlled bunker. When I stopped by recently, he showed me the "Mormon extermination order," signed by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs in 1838, a yellowed document of lilting cursive that Dougan said Mormons still ask to see when they visit. 

"I guess I should also point out too, related to this, there is another really important document," Dougan said, as he flipped through a file box to find it.

In 1976, Governor Kit Bond officially apologized to Mormons on behalf of all Missourians, and rescinded Boggs' infamous extermination order.

"So there is kind of a happy ending to this story," said Dougan. "It was 130-something years later, but there actually was closure in 1976 to this incident."


Confused about who is who? These are the people heard in this story, in order of appearance:

Barry Bartlett, Mormon Church member in Daviess County; Jeremiah Morgan, Mormon stake president in northwest Missouri; Aletha Turley and Austin Bonnett, both local church members; Shay Esbeck, local construction worker; John Dougan, Missouri state archivist; Tom Spencer, historian at Northwest Missouri State; Bryan Youd, bishop of the Mormon church in Gallatin; Lamar Oyler, Steve and Barbara Cord, and Andrian Warner, all local church members.