Mormons return to state they once fled

When members were expelled from Missouri, they largely left as one church; now they’™re returning as many

Of the 144 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temples around the world, two are in Missouri: one in St. Louis that was dedicated in 1997 and the other, above, in Liberty, dedicated in 2012.
Ryan Schuessler

Columbia, Mo. — Carl Glasemeyer was 3 years old when his family packed up their lives in South Texas and headed for Missouri.

“[My father] actually had a dream that he felt God was telling him to move [to Missouri],” said Glasemeyer, whose family were members of the Restoration Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Although we didn’t end up in Independence specifically, where the church is headquartered, we moved really close. We just uprooted everything and had to find jobs and a different school.”

Although he has since left the church for personal reasons, his family was part if a wave of members from the Latter-day Saints movement who have relocated to Missouri despite a history of persecution in the state. The Mormon community in Missouri has grown by tens of thousands in recent years, according to church statistics and the U.S. Religion Census. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints alone has grown by more than 200 percent — more than 40,000 people — since 1990, raising it from the 21st to the 17th largest Mormon population in the United States.

Mormonism is one of the fastest-growing religions in the U.S., according to USA Today, adding 2 million members and nearly 300 new congregations over the past decade. For the several churches that now fall under the umbrella of the Mormon tradition, what looks like normal growth in Missouri is also a rebirth in a historical homeland.

The Mormon story in the U.S. is one of expulsion and migration. The church was established in New York in the early 19th century by Joseph Smith Jr., who is held as a prophet. Smith later moved the church to Ohio, then Missouri. It didn’t take long for the Mormon community to grow, creating tension with other Missourians.

“That’s when you started getting a lot of anti-Mormon groups,” said Pete Grigsby, a representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in western Missouri. “They didn’t like Mormons and what they stood for,” like land claims and the abolition of slavery. 

“There began to be large numbers of people who decided that it was time for these [Mormons] to move on,” added Thomas Spencer, an academic and the author of “The Missouri Mormon Experience.”

That was around the time Jeremiah Morgan’s great-great-great-grandparents joined the movement in Missouri. Morgan, of Kansas City by way of Iowa, moved to Missouri as a child in the early 1980s, nearly two centuries after his ancestors were expelled from the state.

“I knew it was an important place for our family,” he said. “And my mother felt it was an important place.”

‘I thought it was fairly ironic to move to Missouri, because I had family that lived here, and they were part of the exodus.’

Karen Smith

former Utah state representative

Tension between the Mormons and Missourians turned violent in 1838 during a series of conflicts today known as the Mormon wars. Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued Executive Order 44, colloquially referred to as the Mormon extermination order.

“The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace — their outrages are beyond all description,” the order stated.

An illustration of the flight of Mormons from Jackson County, Mississippi, in the 1830s, published in the book “Life in Utah, or the Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism,” published in 1870.
Interim Archives / Getty Images

After the church relocated from Ohio to Far West, Missouri, in 1837, Mormons moved to western Missouri en masse. Missourians were threatened by the Mormons’ collective political power, largely directed by Joseph Smith. A riot broke out in 1838 at a local election, which set the course for further violence. Later that year, a Mormon vigilante group attacked a legal Missouri militia, thinking it was another mob, leading Boggs to issue the extermination order. In the violence that followed, 22 people, mostly Mormons, were killed.

Largely robbed of their property and fleeing persecution, church members — about 10,000 people at the time — moved to Illinois, where a similar conflict and expulsion followed in 1844. The community then moved west and settled at the Salt Lake in Utah, commonly seen as the center of Mormon life in modern America.

For those who believe in religious freedom in this country, according to Thomas, the Mormon experience in Missouri tells a different story. “They tolerated a very narrow band of belief systems,” he said of rural western U.S. society at the time.

Missouri Executive Order 44 was not formally rescinded until 1976, when then-Gov. Kit Bond wrote, “Expressing on behalf of all Missourians our deep regret for the injustice and undue suffering which was caused by this 1838 order, I hereby rescind Executive Order Number 44, dated October 27, 1838, issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs.”

“I thought it was fairly ironic to move to Missouri,” said Karen Smith, a former Utah state representative who moved to Missouri 20 years ago after her husband was offered a job there. “Because I had family that lived here and they were part of the exodus.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the largest Mormon denomination of the movement — officially re-established itself in Missouri in 1911. Its membership today across the state approaches 70,000, having added nearly 20,000 in the past decade, according to church statistics. And that’s just the one denomination.

When the Mormons were expelled from Missouri, they largely left as one church. Now they are returning as many, some of which are headquartered in western Missouri.

“If you put them all together, then you’ve got a lot of people in this part of Missouri,” said Grigsby, who moved to Missouri from Virginia. And if you merged them with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “you would have a mighty church around here.”

While the movement has fragmented, the spiritual importance of Missouri remains relatively consistent.

According to Latter-day Saints tradition, Adam and Eve lived in Adam-ondi-Ahman, a largely agricultural plot of land today in Daviess County, Missouri, after being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The city of Independence, Missouri, is seen as Zion or New Jerusalem, where Christ will return and fulfill biblical prophecy.

Of the 144 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints temples around the world, two are in Missouri — one each on the east and west ends of the state. The St. Louis temple was dedicated in 1997, and another in Liberty in 2012.

“I have met some families who have moved here because they felt inspired to come here,” Grigsby said. “But most of them I’ve met have moved here because a job opportunity brought them here, but once they got here, they realized what it meant to live here.”

That’s the case for Ryan Jenkins, who moved from Utah to Columbia, Missouri, six months ago to teach at the Institute of Religion in Columbia, a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–operated center where university and high school students learn about church theology and history.

“I understand Joseph Smith had revelations that deal with Missouri. But for me, [moving here] wasn’t some kind of spiritual gathering,” Jenkins said. Still, he believes it’s important his students know their “heritage has a really colorful story that unfolded an hour and a half west of here.”

“The Missouri experience is very important to Mormons,” Thomas said, “but the Mormon experience is not important to Missourians. They often forget it.”

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