The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901

Author: William Alexander Linn

Chapter VI. Radical Dissensions in the Church—Origin of the Danites—Tithing

While the church, in a material sense, might have been as prosperous as Corrill pictured, Smith, on his arrival, found it in the throes of serious internal discord. The month before he reached Far West, W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer, of the Presidency there, had been tried before a general assembly of the church,* and almost unanimously deposed on several charges, the principal one being a claim on their part to $2000 of the church funds which they had bound the Bishop to pay to them. Whitmer was also accused of persisting in the use of tea, coffee, and tobacco. T. B. Marsh, one of the Presidents pro tem. selected in their places, in a letter to the prophet on this subject, said:—

* For the minutes of this General Assembly, and text of Marsh’s letter, see Elders’ Journal, July, 1838.

"Had we not taken the above measures, we think that nothing could have prevented a rebellion against the whole High Council and Bishop; so great was the disaffection against the Presidents that the people began to be jealous that the whole authorities were inclined to uphold these men in wickedness, and in a little time the church undoubtedly would have gone every man his own way, like sheep without a shepherd."

On April 11, Elder Bronson presented nine charges against Oliver Cowdery to the High Council, which promptly found him guilty of six of them, viz. urging vexatious lawsuits against the brethren, accusing the prophet of adultery, not attending meeting, returning to the practice of law "for the sake of filthy lucre," "disgracing the church by being connected with the bogus [counterfeiting] business, retaining notes after they had been paid," and generally "forsaking the cause of God." On this finding he was expelled from the church. Two days later David Whitmer was found guilty of unchristianlike conduct and defaming the prophet, and was expelled, and Lyman E. Johnson met the same fate.* Smith soon announced a "revelation" (Sec. 114), directing the places of the expelled to be filled by others.

* For minutes of these councils, see Millennial Star, Vol. XVI, pp. 130-134.

It was in the June following that the paper drawn up by Rigdon and signed by eighty-three prominent members of the church was presented to the recalcitrants, ordering them to leave the county, and painting their characters in the blackest hues.* This radical action did not meet the approval of the more conservative element, which included men like Corrill, and he soon announced that he was no longer a Mormon. Not long afterward Thomas B. Marsh, one of the original members of the High Council of Twelve in Missouri, and now President of the Twelve, and Orson Hyde, one of the original Apostles, also seceded, and both gave testimony about the Mormon schemes in Caldwell and Daviess Counties. Cowdery and Whitmer considered their lives in such danger that they fled on horseback at night, leaving their families, and after riding till daylight in a storm, reached the house of a friend, where they found refuge until their families could join them.

* See p. 81 ante. For the full text of Rigdon’s paper, see the "Correspondence, Orders, etc., in Relation to the Mormon Disturbances in Missouri," published by order of the Missouri legislature (1841).

The most important event that followed the expulsion of leading members from the church by the High Council was the formation of that organization which has been almost ever since known as the Danites, whose dark deeds in Nauvoo were scarcely more than hinted at,* but which, under Brigham Young’s authority in Utah, became a band of murderers, ready to carry out the most radical suggestion which might be made by any higher authority of the church.

* Lee’s "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 158.

Corrill, an active member of the church in Missouri, writing in 1839 with the events fresh in his memory, said* that the members of the Danite society entered into solemn covenants to stand by one another when in difficulty, whether right or wrong, and to correct each other’s wrongs among themselves, accepting strictly the mandates of the Presidency as standing next to God. He explains that "many were opposed to this society, but such was their determination and also their threatenings, that those opposed dare not speak their minds on the subject . . . . It began to be taught that the church, instead of God, or, rather, the church in the hands of God, was to bring about these things (judgments on the wicked), and I was told, but I cannot vouch for the truth of it, that some of them went so far as to contrive plans how they might scatter poison, pestilence, and disease among the inhabitants, and make them think it was judgments sent from God. I accused Smith and Rigdon of it, but they both denied it promptly."

* "Brief History of the Church," pp. 31, 32.

Robinson, in his reminiscences in the Return in later years, gave the same date of the organization of the Danites, and said that their first manifesto was the one directed against Cowdery, Whitmer, and others.

We must look for the actual origin of this organization, however, to some of the prophet’s instructions while still at Kirtland. In his "revelation" of August 6, 1833 (Sec. 98), he thus defined the treatment that the Saints might bestow upon their enemies: "I have delivered thine enemy into thine hands, and then if thou wilt spare him, thou shalt be rewarded for thy righteousness; . . . nevertheless thine enemy is in thine hands, and if thou reward him according to his works thou art justified, if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him, thine enemy is in thine hands and thou art justified."

What such a license would mean to a following like Smith’s can easily be understood.

The next step in the same direction was taken during the exercises which,accompanied the opening of the Kirtland Temple. Three days after the dedicatory services, all the high officers of the church, and the official members of the stake, to the number of about three hundred, met in the Temple by appointment to perform the washing of feet. While this was going on (following Smith’s own account),* "the brethren began to prophesy blessings upon each other’s heads, and cursings upon the enemies of Christ who inhabit Jackson County, Missouri, and continued prophesying and blessing and sealing them, with hosannah and amen, until nearly seven o’clock P. M. The bread and wine were then brought in. While waiting, I made the following remarks, ’I want to enter into the following covenant, that if any more of our brethren are slain or driven from their lands in Missouri by the mob, we will give ourselves no rest until we are avenged of our enemies to the uttermost.’ This covenant was sealed unanimously, with a hosannah and an amen." **

* Millennial Star, Vol. XV, pp. 727-728.

* "The spirit of that covenant evidently bore fruit in the Fourth of July oration of 1838 and the Mountain Meadow Massacre."—The Return, Vol. II, p. 271.

The original name chosen for the Danites was "Daughters of Zion," suggested by the text Micah iv. 13: "Arise and thresh, O daughter of Zion; for I will make thine horn iron, and I will make thine hoofs brass; and thou shalt beat in pieces many people; and I will consecrate thy gain unto the Lord, and their substance unto the Lord of the whole earth." "Daughters" of anybody was soon decided to be an inappropriate designation for such a band, and they were next called "Destroying (or Flying) Angels," a title still in use in Utah days; then the "Big Fan," suggested by Jeremiah xv. 7, or Luke iii. 17; then "Brothers of Gideon," and finally "Sons of Dan" (whence the name Danites,) from Genesis xlix. 17: "Dan shall be a serpent by the way, an adder in the path, that biteth the horse’s heels, so that his rider shall fall backward."*

* Hyde’s "Mormonism Exposed," pp. 104-105.

Avard presented the text of the constitution to the court at Richmond, Missouri, during the inquiry before Judge King in November, 1838* It begins with a preamble setting forth the agreement of the members "to regulate ourselves under such laws as in righteousness shall be deemed necessary for the preservation of our holy religion, and of our most sacred rights, and the rights of our wives and children," and declaring that, "not having the privileges of others allowed to us, we have determined, like unto our fathers, to resist tyranny, whether it be in kings or in the people. It is all alike to us. Our rights we must have, and our rights we shall have, in the name of Israel’s God." The President of the church and his counsellors were to hold the "executive power," and also, along with the generals and colonels of the society, to hold the "legislative powers"; this legislature to "have power to make all laws regulating the society, and regulating punishments to be administered to the guilty in accordance with the offence." Thus was furnished machinery for carrying out any decree of the officers of the church against either life or property.

* Missouri "Correspondence, Orders, etc.," pp. 101-102.

The Danite oath as it was administered in Nauvoo was as follows:— "In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, I do solemnly obligate myself ever to regard the Prophet and the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as the supreme head of the church on earth, and to obey them in all things, the same as the supreme God; that I will stand by my brethren in danger or difficulty, and will uphold the Presidency, right or wrong; and that I will ever conceal, and never reveal, the secret purposes of this society, called Daughters of Zion. Should I ever do the same, I hold my life as the forfeiture, in a caldron of boiling oil."*

* Bennett’s "History of the Saints," p. 267.

John D. Lee, who was a member of the organization, explaining their secret signs, says,* "The sign or token of distress is made by placing the right hand on the right side of the face, with the points of the fingers upward, shoving the hand upward until the ear is snug up between the thumb and forefinger."

*Lee’s "Mormonism Unveiled," p. 57.

It has always been the policy of the Mormon church to deny to the outside world that any such organization as the Danites existed, or at least that it received the countenance of the authorities. Smith’s City Council in Nauvoo made an affidavit that there was no such society there, and Utah Mormons have professed similar ignorance. Brigham Young, himself, however, gave testimony to the contrary in the days when he was supreme in Salt Lake City. In one of his discourses which will be found reported in the Deseret News (Vol. VII, p. 143) he said: "If men come here and do not behave themselves, they will not only find the Danites, whom they talk so much about, biting the horses’ heels, but the scoundrels will find something biting THEIR heels. In my plain remarks I merely call things by their own names." It need only be added that the church authority has been powerful enough at any time in the history of the church to crush out such an organization if it so desired.

A second organization formed about the same time, at a fully attended meeting of the Mormons of Daviess County, was called "The Host of Israel." It was presided over by captains of tens, of fifties, and of hundreds, and, according to Lee, "God commanded Joseph Smith to place the Host of Israel in a situation for defence against the enemies of God and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints."

Another important feature of the church rule that was established at this time was the tithing system, announced in a "revelation" (Sec. 119), which is dated July 8, 1838. This required the flock to put all their "surplus property" into the hands of the Bishop for the building of the Temple and the payment of the debts of the Presidency, and that, after that, "those who have thus been tithed, shall pay one-tenth of all their interest annually; and this shall be a standing law unto them forever."

Ebenezer Robinson gives an interesting explanation of the origin of tithing. *In May, 1838, the High Council at Far West, after hearing a statement by Rigdon that it was absolutely necessary for the church to make some provision for the support of the families of all those who gave their entire time to church affairs, instructed the Bishop to deed to Smith and Rigdon an eighty-acre lot belonging to the church, and appointed a committee of three to confer with the Presidency concerning their salary for that year. Smith and Rigdon thought that $1100 would be a proper sum, and the committee reported in favor of a salary, but left the amount blank. The council voted the salaries, but this action caused such a protest from the church members that at the next meeting the resolution was rescinded. Only a few days later came this "revelation" requiring the payment of tithes, in which there was no mention of using any of the money for the poor, as was directed in the Ohio "revelation" about the consecration of property to the Bishop.

* The Return, Vol. 1, p. 136.

This tithing system has provided ever since the principal revenue of the church. By means of it the Temple was built at Nauvoo, and under it vast sums have been contributed in Utah. By 1878 the income of the church by this source was placed at $1,000,000 a year,* and during Brigham Young’s administration the total receipts were estimated at $13,000,000. We shall see that Young made practically no report of the expenditure of this vast sum that passed into his control. To Horace Greeley’s question, "What is done with the proceeds of this tithing?" Young replied, "Part of it is devoted to building temples and other places of worship, part to helping the poor and needy converts on their way to this country, and the largest portion to the support of the poor among the Saints."

* Salt Lake Tribune, June 25, 1879.

As the authority of the church over its members increased, the regulation about the payment of tithes was made plainer and more severe. Parley P. Pratt, in addressing the General Conference in Salt Lake City in October, 1849, said, "To fulfil the law of tithing, a man should make out and lay before the Bishop a schedule of all his property, and pay him one-tenth of it. When he hath tithed his principal once, he has no occasion to tithe again; but the next year he must pay one-tenth of his increase, and one-tenth of his time, of his cattle, money, goods, and trade; and, whatever use we put it to, it is still our own, for the Lord does not carry it away with him to heaven."* * Millennial Star, Vol. XII, p. 134.

The Seventh General Epistle to the church (September, 1851) made this statement, "It is time that the Saints understood that the paying of their tithing is a prominent portion of the labor which is allotted to them, by which they are to secure a futureresidence in the heaven they are seeking after."* This view was constantly presented to the converts abroad.

* Ibid., Vol. XIV, p. 18.

At the General Conference in Salt Lake City on September 8, 1850, Brigham Young made clear his radical view of tithing—a duty, he declared, that few had lived up to. Taking the case of a supposed Mr. A, engaged in various pursuits (to represent the community), starting with a capital of $100,000 he must surrender $10,000 of this as tithing. With his remaining $90,000 he gains $410,000; $41,000 of this gain must be given into the storehouse of the Lord. Next he works nine days with his team; the tenth day’s work is for the church, as is one-tenth of the wheat he raises, one-tenth of his sheep, and one-tenth of his eggs.*

* Ibid., Vol. XIII, p. 21.

Under date of July 18, came another "revelation" (Sec. 120), declaring that the tithings "shall be disposed of by a Council, composed of the First Presidency of my church, and of the Bishop and his council, and by my High Council." The first meeting of this body decided "that the First Presidency should keep all their property that they could dispose of to advantage for their support, and the remainder be put into the hands of the Bishop, according to the commandments."* The coolness of this proceeding in excepting Smith and Rigdon from the obligation to pay a tithe is worthy of admiration.

* Ibid., Vol. XVI, p. 204.


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Chicago: William Alexander Linn, "Chapter VI. Radical Dissensions in the Church— Origin of the Danites— Tithing," The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901 Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023,

MLA: Linn, William Alexander. "Chapter VI. Radical Dissensions in the Church— Origin of the Danites— Tithing." The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901, Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023.

Harvard: Linn, WA, 'Chapter VI. Radical Dissensions in the Church— Origin of the Danites— Tithing' in The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901. cited in , The Story of the Mormons, from the Date of Their Origin to the Year 1901. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from