The so-called Mormon conflict that occurred in Hancock County, Illinois, during the 1840s has been frequently discussed by historians but is not well understood. Nevertheless, the main events in that famous frontier episode are easily summarized. Expelled from Missouri in 1839, the Mormons fled to western Illinois, where they soon established the city of Nauvoo under the leadership of their prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr. Situated on a bend of the Mississippi River in Hancock County, Nauvoo grew rapidly during the next seven years as a flood of Latter Day Saints settled in the area. A separatist community with a zionic religious purpose, Nauvoo was a city of over ten thousand people by the time of Smith's death in 1844.
Even as Latter Day Saints gathered there and Smith sent missionaries far and wide to attract converts, relations with surrounding non-Mormons steadily degenerated. Within the city, critics of Smith arose and established a newspaper in the spring of 1844. City authorities at Smith's urging declared the paper a nuisance and sent the local police to destroy it, and that act galvanized non-Mormon opponents, who threatened, and prepared for, violence against the Saints. Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested, but before they could be tried, a mob stormed the county jail at Carthage and killed them. The accused leaders of the mob, including Thomas C. Sharp, the fiery anti-Mormon editor of the nearby Warsaw newspaper, were tried in the circuit court but not convicted. Frequent intimidation and sporadic violence characterized ensuing relations between Mormons and non- Mormons until the former, by then under the leadership of Brigham Young, agreed to leave the county. Thousands of Saints headed west in the late winter and spring of 1846, but some refused to go. Intimidation and violence again erupted. In September a non-Mormon posse of perhaps six hundred men battled Nauvoo militia, took over the city, and expelled the remaining Mormons.
Why this series of events occurred was, of course, a matter of dispute among the participants. Each side blamed the other, but unfortunately, neither side understood the other very well. The modern explanation of the conflict has been developed primarily by Mormon scholars, most of whom view the conflict in western Illinois not only as historians but also as members of the same interpretive community as the Nauvoo Mormons of the 1840s. That is, many of them assume that the early church was led by divine revelation through Joseph Smith and that the Saints were innocent followers of God, persecuted by enemies who failed to recognize their righteousness. Although using the tools of modern scholarship, those scholars too often view the Mormon conflict only as part of the sacred history of their church -- a church whose mission was, and is, to restore erring humanity's true relationship to God, hasten the millennium, and bring salvation to the peoples of the Earth.