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