Last week, on July 24th, the state of Utah and Mormons everywhere celebrated Pioneer Day, the anniversary of the 1847 arrival of the Mormons to the Salt Lake Valley. I’ve been reading newspaper articles reporting on various celebrations from all over the country. One from Puyallup, Washington got me curious. In the article, while briefly chronicling LDS history, the freelance journalist wrote this:
“The Saints had been despised, unwanted and hunted down. Orders had been issued to shoot them on sight and their prophet Joseph Smith had been murdered by an Illinois mob in June 1844. The Saints knew if they stayed in Illinois, their days were numbered.”
I wondered about the “orders…issued to shoot them on sight” and so I googled “shoot Mormons on sight.” I found an abundance of comments from Mormons repeating the claim:
“…one of my great-grandmothers several times removed was forced to flee Missouri after Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an extermination order, basically making it legal to shoot Mormons on sight”
“FACT: Up until the 1970’s it was legal in the state of Ohio to shoot a Mormon on sight!!!”
“At one point, the governor of Missouri even issued an ‘extermination order,’ which mandated that any Mormons who refused to leave the state were to be shot on sight.”
“An extermination order is issued by a person in governnmental control. When Gov. Milburn Boggs did that it made it legal to shoot a Mormon on sight, man, woman, or child. Not sure if there was a bounty or not, but it was legal to mass murder. It was open season on Mormons.”
“Legal to mass murder”? Hmmm….
The “Extermination Order” issued by Governor Boggs on October 27, 1838 was this:
Headquarters of the Militia,
City of Jefferson, Oct. 27, 1838.
Gen. John B. Clark:
Sir:–Since the order of this morning to you, directing you to cause four hundred mounted men to be raised within your Division, I have received by Amos Rees, Esq. of Ray county, and Wiley C. Williams, Esq. one of my aids, information of the most appalling character, which entirely changes the face of things, and places the Mormons in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State. Your orders are, therefore, to hasten your operations with all possible speed. 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. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may consider necessary. I have just issued orders to Maj. Gen. Willock, of Marion county, to raise five hundred men, and to march them to the northern part of Daviess, and there unite with Gen Doniphan, of Clay, who has been ordered with five hundred men to proceed to the same point for the purpose of intercepting the retreat of the Mormons to the north. They have been directed to communicate with you by express, you can also communicate with them if you find it necessary. Instead therefore of proceeding as at first directed to reinstate the citizens of Daviess in their homes, you will proceed immediately to Richmond and then operate against the Mormons. Brig. Gen. Parks, of Ray, has been ordered to have four hundred of his Brigade in readiness to join you at Richmond. The whole force will be placed under your command.
I am very respectfully,
your ob’t serv’t,
L. W. Boggs, Commander-in-Chief
This executive order was officially rescinded on June 25, 1976. Was it, therefore, “open season on Mormons,” “legal to shoot Mormons on sight,” and “legal to mass murder” in the state of Missouri for 138 years?
What did the “extermination order” actually call for? Language is somewhat fluid, so we need to understand what words meant when they were said or written. Consider the definition of “exterminate” from Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:
EXTERMINATE, v.t. [L. extermino; ex and terminus, limit] Literally, to drive from within the limits or borders. Hence,
1. To destroy utterly; to drive away; to extirpate; as, to exterminate a colony, a tribe or a nation; to exterminate inhabitants or a race of men.
2. To eradicate; to root out; to extirpate; as to exterminate error, heresy, infidelity, or atheism; to exterminate vice.
The emphasis of the word had to do with driving out, not with killing. LDS Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith understood that the intention of the “extermination order” was a call for the displacement of the Saints. He explained, “…this action was a concerted effort on the part of state officials, to…cause them [Church members] to be driven from the state” (Church History and Modern Revelation, 3:155).
Months before Governor Boggs issued his order, LDS leader Sidney Rigdon gave a speech in which he told the Latter-day Saints,
“And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between them and us a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood be spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us; for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed–Remember it then all Men.”
Sidney Rigdon spoke of spilling blood; Governor Boggs did not. In fact, Governor Boggs later stated that he had hoped to curb the Mormon insurrection without bloodshed, thinking his call for several thousand troops would “awe them into submission.”
As a side note, as I researched this topic, I found it interesting that late LDS Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, in his little book Truth Restored, wrote of this time, “…mobs [against the Mormons] menacingly rode through the Mormon communities, determined to wage ‘a war of extermination'” (page 57). Mr. Hinckley used terminology directly from Sidney Rigdon’s speech, not from Governor Boggs’ order; yet he did not tell his readers about the initial warning issued by that Mormon leader. He did not mention that Joseph Smith’s right-hand man uttered those fightin’ words.
Another fact that is important to note regarding the action mandated by the 1838 “extermination order” is that it was issued as a military order. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism explains,
“Boggs, acting in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Missouri militia, ordered General John B. Clark to March to Ray County with a division of militia to carry out operations against armed Mormons. The order described the Mormons as being in ‘open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State.'” (Volume 1, “Extermination Order”)
This was in consequence of (among other things) the October 25th Battle of Crooked River, in which an armed company of Mormon men attacked state troops. The situation in upper Missouri continued to escalate until Joseph Smith’s surrender on November 1, 1838, bringing the Mormon War in Missouri to an end. Some believe it also ended the binding force of the “extermination order” as that was a military order given to direct troops in a time of war.
Whatever the case, the “extermination order” never gave people wholesale permission to “shoot Mormons on sight” in Missouri or anywhere else. Mormons have a skewed view of the Missouri persecutions and Governor Boggs’ “extermination order” as demonstrated by the comments quoted above. Misinformation and false assertions abound, whipping up indignation all around. Consider this comment left by someone at a web site dedicated to “Archiving Early America”:
“Hundreds of Mormons were beaten, lynched, murdered, looted, tarred and raped under color of Executive Order Number 44 [the so-called “Extermination Order”].”
This is just not true, plain and simple. History does not support this assertion, yet Mormons believe and repeat these things, all the while building their senses of identity and foundations of faith on yet one more faith-promoting deception.