Alright guys, so after being driven from their homes by mobs of Missourians in Jackson County, Latter-day Saints were eventually allowed to build their own city in Caldwell County called Far West. But as Saints poured in from Kirtland and other areas, by 1838 the Missourians started to get nervous again.
The Saints and leaders in Far West were also getting nervous—particularly when it came to a few people who had left or were excommunicated from the Church but continued to live in the city. In June 1838, Sidney Rigdon gave his famous “salt sermon,” in which he essentially said he believed that apostates should be driven out. At about this same time a new organization materialized called the Danites, who took it upon themselves to put Rigdon’s words into action.
OK so here’s the deal—unless you’re super familiar with the Danites, honestly, forget everything you’ve heard about them. For decades people have taken the fact that there were some secret elements to this society as permission to say whatever they wanted about them. The vengeful Danites show up in dozens of 19th-century fiction novels, and even today people think the Danites were basically the Church’s secret hit squad up through the days of Brigham Young. But the actual historical record paints a very different picture.
The group was originally called “The Society of the Daughter of Zion,” founded by Jared Carter, George Robinson, and Sampson Avard, with Avard as spokesman. Their purpose was initially to “warn out” apostates whose actions were thought to be a threat to the Church. “Warning people out of town” was not a very nice thing to do, but it was fairly common in 19th-century communities and had happened to the Saints many times (not that that justifies it).
After the apostates in question were gone, the Society of the Daughter of Zion essentially became an independent militia called the “Danites.” As a matter of fact, both Danite and Caldwell County militia members marched publicly during Far West’s 4th of July parade.
“Since it was technically legal to form an independent militia company, Mormon leaders and Danite officers likely considered the creation of the Danite corps to be a division of the county militia…” So the line between the county militia and the Danites became very blurred, especially since many Danites were also members of the official militia. That said, the Danites were not recognized as an official independent militia by the state, which made them a paramilitary group. And their more secretive side, which we’ll talk about in a moment, definitely differentiated them from the regular militia.
Despite all the rumors…the Danites really didn’t do much at all. They existed from June to October 1838—only 5 months—and there were only ever about 300 of them. The events they’re associated with are mostly not even Danite operations, they were simply participants in other wartime military operations, such as the strategic pillaging and burning of Gallatin and Millport, which we’ll talk about in another episode.
There’s one instance where many Danites and Danite leaders visited the unfriendly justice of the peace Adam Black and pressured him into signing an affidavit stating he would treat the Saints fairly, which is like…something you should do anyway.
That said, it was the radical teachings promulgated within Danites ranks that I think are most disturbing to people today. Sampson Avard and others had Danite members meet in secret. You were initiated into the group with an oath of secrecy, under threat of death—the first rule about Danitism was that you do not talk about the secret side of Danitism.
They had secret signs to recognize each other by. They took an oath of allegiance to support one another no matter the circumstances. If someone did something illegal, they vowed to protect them until they could be tried within the Danite justice system, instead of the official government system. And radical loyalty to the First Presidency was used as sort of a rallying cry for Danites, even though it’s doubtful anyone in the First Presidency was actually an oath-taking member of this group.
Joseph Smith was very aware that the Danites existed, and even attended some of their meetings. According to the Church’s website, “Historians generally concur that Joseph Smith approved of the Danites but that he probably was not briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities.” According to the testimony of Reed Peck, Sampson Avard “did not explain to the presidency what his teaching had been in the society.” But just how involved Joseph Smith and the First Presidency were with the Danites is still a murky issue, and where you stand on it will largely depend on whose story you choose to believe.
After the war in 1838, Sampson Avard was arrested and immediately broke his secrecy oath, claiming the whole Danite thing was all the First Presidency’s idea. Which was exactly what the court wanted to hear. It’s one of the reasons why Joseph and other leaders were sent to Liberty Jail, where they stayed during the winter of 1838. Meanwhile, Avard got off scot-free, and, not surprisingly, wasn’t killed for breaking his super-secret oath. You can believe Avard, but there are quite a few reasons to be skeptical of his testimony, which I have linked to in the YouTube description of this video. Researcher Leland Gentry wrote,
“Not until the trial was in progress did Joseph Smith and his close associates become aware of the full extent of Avard’s work.” And from prison, Joseph denied involvement with the “many false and pernicious” teachings of Sampson Avard. Anyway, to sum this all up: Wild stories about the Danites have led many to believe they were basically the Church’s own League of Shadows. But the truth is, they were more on par with the Mystery Men. Check out the notes and links in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
- “The Danite Band of 1838,” by Leland H. Gentry (BYU Studies): https://bit.ly/3flDyvQ
- From the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/33x4fvo
- More from the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/39Zw5S5
- Record of the testimonies given by Avard and others that are often used as sources regarding Danite practices (see relevant note below): https://bit.ly/33xqgdr
- Scholar Hugh Nibley commenting on the legendary “Danites” and how the legends are used by antagonists of the Church: https://bit.ly/30f8pGg
- From the Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/30pqBx0
- Valuable description of Danites from contemporary source: https://bit.ly/2PooZNE
- The perspective of Danites from another knowledgeable Latter-day Saint: https://bit.ly/39ZUTcX
- Some example of how Danite myths were perpetuated in fictional literature: https://bit.ly/30rzUMP
- Biography of Jared Carter: https://bit.ly/3iieoA9