Danites

Always interested in Mormon history, I’m currently reading a book about the 1856 Mormon handcart tragedy. Before getting to the heart of the story, the author (David Roberts) provides a sketch of some of the history of the Saints leading up to the handcart “experiment.” Mr. Roberts touches on a bit of Mormonism’s past that we really haven’t discussed at Mormon Coffee; I thought you might like to read this. He writes about the infamous Danites:

By 1838 the numbers of Mormons in northwest Missouri had swelled to between eight thousand and ten thousand, 1,500 of them in Far West alone. It was too large a throng to be ignored. And the Saints did their part to stir up trouble. The paranoia engendered by very real persecution and vilification around Palmyra and Kirtland transmuted in Far West into grandiose assertions of superiority.

One of [Joseph] Smith’s closest associates, Sampson Avard–[Fawn M.] Brodie calls him “cunning, resourceful, and extremely ambitious”–proposed forming a secret Mormon army. [Sidney] Rigdon was enthusiastic, and Smith listened.

Thus was born the most nefarious organization ever to coalesce within the Mormon church. Referred to at various early stages as the Brothers of Gideon, the Daughters of Zion, or the Sons of Dan, the band–less an army than a kind of secret police–soon became known as the Danites. They took their name from a verse in Genesis: “Dan shall be a serpent by the way, and adder in the path, that biteth the horse heels, so that his rider shall fall backward.”

Men handpicked for their skill with guns and their courage, the Danites were sworn to secrecy and invested with cabalistic handshakes and signals. They would prove, across nearly half a century, well into Brigham Young’s reign in Utah, a devastatingly effective cadre of assassins, targeting apostates, enemies, right Gentiles, and even Indians–in effect, the KGB of the Mormon church. Both Smith and Young would aver that the Danites never existed. In 1859, the famous journalist Horace Greeley arrived in Salt Lake City and won from Young one of the first interviews he ever gave to a professional newspaperman. Greeley pressed the Prophet hard, asking, among other questions, “What do you say of the so-called Danites, or Destroying Angels, belonging to your church?” Brigham smoothly countered, “What do you say? I know of no such band, no such persons or organization. I hear of them only in the slanders of our enemies.”

Leonard J. Arrington, whose Brigham Young: American Moses, published in 1985, is considered by orthodox Mormons to be the definitive life of the second Prophet, turns somersaults to deny the existence of the Danites in Utah. He insists that Young had instead “created a small force of Minute Men” charged with recapturing stolen livestock and establishing emigrant way stations, not with perpetrating murders and assassinations. As for the Danites, Arrington insists, “They played and continue to play a major role in western fiction, and many readers have imagined Brigham as a military dictator with a personal army of avengers who carried out his orders to capture, torture, and kill people who crossed him.” (Many non-Mormons regard Arrington’s voluminous biography as a partisan whitewash, and insist the definitive life has yet to be written.)

There is simply far too much evidence not only of the existence of the Danites, but of the specific murders and assassinations carried out by thugs whose names and characters we can identify. One of the most notorious, Bill Hickman, who eventually fell out with Young, collaborated in 1872 with an anti-Mormon journalist to publish his confessions of many a murder and robbery ordered by the Prophet, under the lurid title Brigham’s Destroying Angel. And from 1838, within weeks of the founding of the secret society, a text survives in which Smith himself sums up Avard’s clandestine orders to his Danite captains. Among other duties, they were instructed “to go out on a scout of the borders of the settlements, and take to yourselves spoils of the goods of the ungodly Gentiles” and “you will waste away the Gentiles by robbing and plundering them of their property; and in this way we will build up the kingdom of God.”

In the middle of 1838, Missouri settlers indeed began to complain of goods and livestock stolen, of barns and houses burned. (David Roberts, Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy, 2008, pages 50-51. Emphasis retained from the original.)

Mr. Roberts does not identify the source of Joseph Smith’s 1838 summing up of Danite orders (Roberts quotes Avard, not Smith), but he may be referring to this entry in Smith’s journal:

July 27th [1838] [For] Some time past the brethren or Saints have come up day after day to consecrate and to bring their offerings into the store house of the Lord to prove him now herewith and se[e] if he will not pour us out a blessings that there will not be room enough to contain it. They have come up hither. Thus far, according to order /revelation/ of the Danites. We have a company of Danites in these times, to put right physically that which is not right, and to cleanse the Church of every [very?] great evil[s?] which has hitherto existed among us inasmuch as they cannot be put to right by teachings and persuasyons. This company or a part of them exhibited on the fourth day of July [-] They come up to consecrate, by companies of tens, commanded by their captain over ten. (An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith, 198, Scott H. Faulring, editor. Brackets retained from the original.)

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Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.

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About Sharon Lindbloom

Sharon surrendered her life to the Lord Jesus Christ in 1979. Deeply passionate about Truth, Sharon loves serving as a full-time volunteer research associate with Mormonism Research Ministry. Sharon and her husband live in Minnesota.
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13 Responses to Danites

  1. falcon says:

    It’s not unusual for cults like this to have a group of enforcers. I thought immediately of Jim Jones and his little band that killed the congressman and some others as they began to depart from Jonestown. This same group stood guard as the sects members “willingly” drank the koolaid that claimed the lives of some 900 of them.
    The period of history mentioned in the above article was quite violent in the United States. Remember “bloody Kansas” and the killings that took place in the controversy as to free and slave states entering the union? I visited Virginia City, Montana a few years ago and was fascinated by the story of the vigilantes there in the mid-18th century. In one day, I believe five men were lynched, including the sheriff.
    It’s all recorded in a book called “A Decent and Orderly Lynching”. The line came from an editor of a Salt Lake City newspaper who bemoaned the fact that a black man had been beaten and dragged about and then hanged for some crime. The editor came out on the side of “decent and orderly lynchings” and not these indecent disorderly affairs.
    Context is everything. The spirit of the times that the above article references, would not preclude groups like the Danites. I’d have to try and run down the source, but I remember one of the LDS leaders in Utah having a man castrated because (the man) wouldn’t give-up claim to a young woman who the leader wanted to make one of his wives. Maybe someone else can reference the story.

  2. Sharon,

    I am going to play a bit of devil’s advocate here. First, in order to do so, I will freely agree with you that the Danites existed. However, and here is the defense – they are not a central part of Mormonism. While Mormonism does have a violent side (many religions do), it is not integral to the faith as violence is in Islam. Mormonism existed before and after the Danites.

    The sticking points that I see are: the Danites were possibly created by Joseph Smith directly, Smith and Young were at the least aware of the Danites and possibly directed them, and the Danites along with the political ambitions of Mormon leaders during the mid to late 19th century show a group in transition in every respect – theological, political, sociological,
    etc.

    The Danites did exist and it is absurd to dispute the fact. The questions are: how large were they, when did they start, when did they end, how “influential” were they, and what was the relation of the GA’s (including J. Smith) to them.

    It is clear that in the quote you gave that B. Young lied. The violence perpetrated by Mormons, both real and imagined, was fairly well known across the country. I would even be willing to state that some of the Mormon violence was justified (self-defense). However, I think it is clear some was not. My question is – how much did all of this play in giving unction to the powers that be in Washington to thrust Utah into statehood minus polygamy?

  3. falcon says:

    David kind of preempted the charge that’s going to be coming when Ralph shows up, about the incidences of violence perpetrated by Christians; anything from the Spanish Inquisition to the Salem Witch trials. We’ll also be treated to endless references to Biblical OT examples of violence. But tit-for-tat recitation of events will take us off track as to the subject of this article. The interesting aspects of the Danites, for me is: Who were they? What was their function within Mormonism? What role did the Mormon doctrine of “blood atonement” have to do with the need for an enforcement group within Mormonism?

  4. Mike R says:

    There are episodes in all religions where some
    members have proved to be an embarasment to the
    rest of the group.The problem with religions that
    are authoratative, those that claim to be the
    sole channel of ultimate spiritual truth from God
    to man, are always feeling they have to protect
    that authoratative structure , that image. One
    way of protecting that image is to hide material
    from the rank and file that may prove to be
    damageing.

    We’ll never know the whole truth concerning the
    Danites and Mormon leaders relationship with them.
    There are other events in Mormon history that the
    rank and file can not know the truth of as long
    as LDS historical archives, and the contents of
    the First Pres. vault are off limits to only a
    select few.

    The precious Mormon people deserve better.

  5. Mike R says:

    near the end of my post it should have read:

    “….as long as the LDS historical archives and
    the contents of the First Pres. vault are off
    limits to all but a select few.

  6. jackg says:

    Richard Abanes, author of “One Nation Under Gods,” adroitly addresses this topic after researching LDS Church archives. BY, according to his research, had a group of men who were used as assassins and referred to as The Danites. LDS faithful will never accept such truths regarding their leaders; if they did, they just might have to leave the faith of their fathers.

    Peace…

  7. Enki says:

    David Whitsell,
    ‘While Mormonism does have a violent side (many religions do), it is not integral to the faith as violence is in Islam.’

    Why bring up anything about Islam? I am not particularly fond of islam, but what is the evidence that islam is inherently violent?

  8. Enki,

    Glad to see you are still around. Let me cover a few things. I do not know exactly when it started but Mormonism has been called “the American Islam” for awhile. That, and there is a famous speech given by Joseph Smith where he actually compares himself to Muhammad.

    I was actually trying to state something good, or at least benign, about Mormonism. Some of my early experiences with Mormonism were a bit tainted by elements that try to portray Mormonism as having a huge conspiracy to take over the United States. Part of this mindset also thinks that those who leave the Mormon church today are hunted down and killed. While this may have been true to an extant in times past (this is the debatable part about history and the Danites that I mentioned) it is not true now.

    There is nothing that I know of in Mormon sacred writings that demands the establishment of Mormon, political hedgemony. The same cannot be said of Islam.

    However . . . however . . . after having spent time in Mormon country I can testify that Mormons will try to make Mormon values the law of the land. Consider the ultra-stringent liquor laws in Utah until recently or how until the 90′s 14 year olds could marry with parental approval. I think things have gotten better in Mormondum (Utah is not considered for Mormons only at least by most that I have met) but I would imagine that one would have a hard time winning an election in some towns and counties in the Mormon corridor if one were not a “faithful” Mormon. If one is an apostate forget about it.

    As far as Islam being inherently violent, that goes beyond this thread but I will give you a few tings to chew on. The later, and thus more authoritative, Surahs in the Koran are indeed violent; the four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence have sited these over and against the “peaceful” Surahs in the Koran (which do indeed exist).

  9. Also, the “Sunnah” of Muhammad (life, practice, habits) is a universal example for all mankind (Surah 33:21). This is where we get the word “Sunni” from and Sunni Muslims make up to about 85% percent of Muslims worldwide. If one looks at the life of Muhammad, according to authoritative Muslim biographies on him, he was a 7th century Arab warlord; his mores are now the mores of over a billion people, and this I see as a problem.

  10. Enki says:

    David,
    Here is a link of interest. About top ten misconceptions about islam. #1 is that muslims are terrorists, #4 addresses intolerance within muslim societies. I got #9 wrong. Apparently Muhammad isn’t really the founder of islam!(by this writers point of view)
    http://www.jannah.org/articles/misc.html

    In theory LDS theology would not allow political hedgemony. This is by the articles of faith, the the principle of ‘free agency’. Recent political activities indicate that mormons don’t view those ideals in the same light as outsiders. Its my experience that religions generate a culture, and that culture expresses prejudice based on the values promoted by that religion. Its something that will happen in any culture and religion.

    About Surah 33:21
    One commentary about this is as follows:
    “*33:21 Satan took this verse out of context, and relied on the people’s idolization of the prophet Muhammad to innovate a whole set of unauthorized and unreasonable regulations called “Sunna of the Prophet.” This created a totally different religion (see 42:21 and Appendix 18). ”
    http://www.submission.org/suras/sura33.html

    So there is a disagreement as to the meaning of this verse. Not being a muslim, I can only give the benefit of the doubt that its taken out of context. Now has that ever happened in the christian faith?

  11. Enki,

    I will keep it short. I think we both know that the links you gave do not refer to materials written by orthodox Muslims. So, I do not think that this is how Islam would view itself. If you jettison the Sunnah of Muhammad you jettison 1,400 years of Islamic jurisprudence.

    I do agree that ideologies, including religious ideologies, have values and that they by there very nature want to promote those values over and against others. I think every ideology to some degree and individual (including atheistic ideologies and those who do not belong to any religion) does this. I do not see it as bad in and of itself and I do not see anyway around it.

  12. Enki says:

    David,
    I don’t know what is ‘orthodox’ in Islam.

  13. Paul says:

    Funny you would mention the Salem Witch trials. Joseph Smiths great aunt, who divorced Smiths uncle was hung as a witch during the wicked Salem treachery.

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