Joseph Smith's death led to a bitter succession crisis not unlike what had occurred following the death of Muhammad. Since Smith had not officially named his successor, his death caused great confusion and deep spiritual hopelessness among his followers in the Mormon city of Nauvoo. Many questions needed to be answered, but the most important one was who would succeed Joseph Smith as the ultimate Prophet of Mormonism.
Initially, the succession process to replace Joseph Smith seemed like a chaotic free-for-all. At the time of Smith's murder, the majority of the LDS Twelve Apostles were in the eastern United States, preaching and campaigning for Smith's presidency. Once they received the bad news of Smith's death, they rushed back to Nauvoo. But Sidney Rigdon, once Smith's primary Bible scribe and a longtime Mormon leader, had already arrived in Nauvoo from Pittsburgh, claiming that he should be the future guardian of the church.
A few days later, just in time, Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and many of the other apostles arrived to oppose Rigdon, whom they considered to be a Mormon apostate.
A special church conference was called on August 8, 1844, in order to make the final decision on Smith's replacement. Rigdon spoke first, arguing that he was the chosen of God. When Brigham Young spoke, however, it was reported that he seemed to be transfigured into Joseph Smith himself; it was claimed that even his voice sounded like Smith's. Many interpreted the transfiguration of Young as proof that God's prophetic mantle had fallen on him. Through an almost unanimous vote by the conference members, the decision was made to replace Joseph Smith with Brigham Young, and Sidney Rigdon was officially excommunicated from the LDS Church.
Immediately following the appointment of the new Mormon successor, there was a major split between Brigham Young and Joseph Smith's wife Emma. In fact, it seems rather revealing that Young never even visited Emma after Joseph's death. Emma disapproved of Young and was emphatic that her husband had ordained their eleven-year-old son, Joseph III, as his successor. In the end, however, she was ignored and shunned. When the Mormons departed for the Salt Lake Valley, Emma Smith refused to go, and she remained in Nauvoo, Illinois, and eventually remarried.
In 1860, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-now the Community of Christ-would be started in Independence, Missouri, with Joseph Smith III becoming its first president. Today, it owns Joseph Smith's grave and his two homes in Nauvoo, Illinois.
The Mormon Migration to Utah (1846-1847)
During the year following Joseph Smith's death, Brigham Young and the LDS Twelve Apostles began to focus their attention on the Great Salt Lake Valley west of the Rocky Mountains as the new destination for the Mormon Zion. At this time, the Utah Territory was a poorly defined and loosely governed Mexican province. Young and the other LDS apostles desired a new Mormon gathering place that was in total isolation from the non-Mormon world. They concluded that the desolate Salt Lake Valley was just the place to build their Mormon version of the kingdom of God on earth.
The Six-Month Trek to Utah
The Mormons were planning to leave Illinois in the spring of 1846. But they feared that federal military troops were coming to attack Nauvoo; and so it was that in February, Mormon wagons hurried across the frozen Mississippi River into Iowa, tearfully looking back at what they called the City of Joseph. They waited out the brutally cold winter, and that spring the Saints began the two-thousand-mile trek to Utah. The Mormons marched for five months across the three hundred miles of Iowa plains; and by summer they had reached the valley of the Missouri River, which was the western Iowa border.
Hundreds of Mormons gathered at a location called Winter Quarters, near Omaha, Nebraska. The strategic plan was that the majority of Mormons would settle at Winter Quarters through the winter of 1846-1847 while a pioneer group led by Brigham Young pushed on into the Salt Lake Valley to establish an encampment and begin planting crops. The vanguard group led by Brigham Young reached the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847.
The Mormons in Utah
Brigham Young named the Salt Lake region Deseret, which is a word from the Book of Mormon meaning "beehive." This was symbolic of Young's vision that the new Zion would become a hive of cooperative activity and prosperity, a totally independent Mormon society operating only under Joseph Smith's revelatory laws of God.
While the early pioneers worked hard to prepare for the hundreds of Mormons who would arrive in the valley, Brigham Young returned to Winter Quarters to help lead the waiting Mormons to the new Zion. It was in Winter Quarters that Young was officially ordained the second President and Prophet of the Latter-day Saints on December 5, 1847, three years after the death of Joseph Smith.
The first company of wagons led by Brigham Young left Winter Quarters on April 16, 1847, on the thousand-mile journey across the Rocky Mountains to Utah. Located on the north side of the Platte River, the Mormon Trail paralleled the Oregon Trail. In 1847, thirteen separate companies of Mormon pioneers totaling approximately two thousand made the Utah journey. Although the first trek has become celebrated, the migration of Mormons to the Utah Territory continued for more than ten years.
Utah Mormonism under Brigham Young (1847-1877)
The word isolated best describes Utah Mormonism under the thirty-year rule of Brigham Young from 1847 to 1877, the longest reigning Prophet the Mormons have ever had. When the Mormons first arrived in Utah's Great Salt Lake Basin, they were very happy in their self-imposed segregation from their Gentile enemies. They could now build their version of the kingdom of God in peace and self-sufficiency.
However, the early exclusive Mormonism created by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young would be required to go through many significant developments and changes over the next half-century, from July 24, 1846, to January 4, 1896. These many changes would be required before the Great Salt Lake Valley would be considered politically and legally worthy by the United States government to become an official American state.
Mormons in Mexican Territory (1847-1850)
For the first three years following their arrival in the Great Salt Lake Valley, the Mormons lived in Mexican land outside of the jurisdiction and laws of the United States. As a result, the Mormons were totally free to live under the practical organizing skill of Brigham Young and operate openly as an LDS Church theocracy.
The first major task was to determine the place to build a new Mormon city. Within the first few days of their Salt Lake arrival, Young chose ten acres on which to build a temple. Today, it is known as Temple Square in Salt Lake City. Salt Lake City was designed around Temple Square. The Mormon leaders of the First Presidency and the Quorum of Twelve Apostles were given plots of land near the temple site where they could build their homes. Brigham Young built a long row of log houses where his wives and families could live. Every street of the city was numbered running parallel to the four sides of the temple site. The city streets were divided up into wards, and each ward was overseen by a Mormon bishop.
During the first few years, the Mormons struggled to survive. Although they worked extremely hard, it was the California gold rush that provided the supplies and finances that they needed to turn the desert into Zion. In 1849, thousands of non-Mormons traveled through the Salt Lake Valley to California, and they were willing to buy goods from the Mormons at inflated prices. Although Brigham Young hated the interaction with the non-Mormon Gentiles, the gold-rush income served to provide the Mormons with the finances they needed. By the 1850s, many new Mormon towns were being established, colleges being started, and hundreds of Saints being settled that were supported by gold-rush money.