The Danites were a Mormon vigilante group who tried to fight back against Missouri mobocracy. Were they good guys or bad guys? W.W. Phelps & Thomas Marsh both testified about Danite actions in the Mormon-Missouri War in 1838. Both men were lumped in with the apostates and were excommunicated. Dr. Bruce Van Orden is the biographer of W.W. Phelps and says Phelps returned after some time out of the church. We’ll also tackle the Milk and Strippings story in which we are told in Sunday School that Marsh left the church in defense of his wife. Is that true?
GT: I do want to spend a little bit of time. I know John Hamer has written a wonderful post on the Milk and Strippings story. It seems like Thomas Marsh gets a bad rap for that whole episode, and we kind of gloss over the problems in Missouri. What were some of these other issues that Thomas Marsh had?
Bruce: I’ve already said that Phelps was egocentric and sought to excel. It got him in trouble from time to time. I’m not exonerating him from his eccentricities. But I would say that Marsh was motivated by his ego and his desire to excel, even more than Phelps was, and he didn’t have nearly the talent. He did get trained in the printing press business, and he wanted to take over the Church’s periodical that had been started after the Cowderys’ had been cut off, Oliver and Warren Cowdery. They had run the Messenger and Advocate, and so, the Messenger and Advocate died. They created a new newspaper called the Elders’ Journal. But then, that stopped in Kirtland when the Saints had to leave Kirtland. But it was reinstated in Far West, Missouri in the late summer of 1838, the Elders’ journal. It had two issues come out. Marsh wrote some lengthy articles in it, building himself up as a great man and great leader, and helping save the Church from apostasy of other people, including Phelps and all the Whitmers, but also these earlier guys in Kirtland, as well. He wanted to kind of take over the printing operation because he knew it had given Phelps power and influence. He started to do that. But Joseph preferred to have the editor be his younger brother, Don Carlos Smith, and that probably bothered Marsh to a certain extent. Marsh ended up seeing what the Danites were up to.
Bruce: It bothered him and he talked to Joseph Smith about it. Joseph didn’t really know about all of the activities of the Danites because it was secret, and he kind of sloughed it off. Then he [Marsh] saw even more in Daviess County. I guess he was losing influence, anyway. We don’t know all the reasons. He had been offended by this milk stripping issue, although I think that’s a minor event, rather than THE main event.
Bruce: But, as a minor event, it offended him and his family. So, he decided in mid-October 1838, “I’m against Joseph Smith, now.” Then he wrote that affidavit out, giving great detail to what the Danites had done, and attributing it to Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith.
GT: So, you’re saying Joseph really wasn’t aware of the Danite incidents?
Bruce: Well, that’s a historical question about how much he knew. The official version that has come down in sanitized Church History is that Joseph Smith really didn’t know about it, and it was a secret organization, and they did all these bad things. Well, he sanctioned some of their activities. They’re just no denying it. In Daviess County, he was there when they were doing it, and he didn’t stop them. But, how much he knew about the blood oaths and all that, remains to be seen. But it was Sampson Avard, one of the leaders of the Danites, who went state’s evidence on the side of the Missourian charges against Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith and George Robinson and McCray and all those guys who were arrested. The biggest testifier against the church leadership was Sampson Avard, the really dirty guy in the Danites. He went state’s evidence.
We go further into the Danites and the Missouri troubles, and who testified against Danite actions. Check out our conversation….