Jordan Bell and Dr. Richard Bennett, Church History and Doctrine
Our research suggests that though the late Kirtland period was very difficult for the faith of the Latter-Day Saints, a large majority continued to identify with the Church through the Nauvoo period. Significant numbers eventually gathered with the Saints in Utah.1
On December 2nd, 1836, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints met to constitute a bank in Kirtland, Ohio called the Kirtland Safety Society. Sidney Rigdon was elected President of the new bank, and Joseph Smith was elected cashier. As a result of rampant speculation and the Panic of 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society failed as a financial institution. The period that followed proved to be one of the most trying in the young Church’s history. Many, discouraged by their financial losses and the apostasy of some prominent leaders, became disaffected with Joseph Smith and the rest of the Church. But how many actually left? And how many of the original 187 investors – those likely to have been impacted most by the bank’s collapse – remained with the rest of the Church after the fiasco of the Kirtland Safety Society?
In order to answer this question, we worked to track down vital information about each of these 187 charter members of the Safety Society. Our main assumption was that whether or not someone was affiliated with the Saints at a particular time could be suggested by where that person lived and died.
The early Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints placed great emphasis on place. Members of the Church were to gather into one body in order to establish and build a Zion community. Because of this, we can assume that the location of an individual near or far from the gathering of the Saints is a potential indicator of whether the individual identified with the Church at that time.
In addition, Latter-Day Saints tended to colonize new settlements, such as Nauvoo, IL and Salt Lake City, UT for the location of their Zion. These areas also had little to offer those not associated with the religious movement. This leads us to believe in an even stronger correlation between location and LDS affiliation. For example, if Individual X moved to California in 1850, he was probably connected with the gold rush in some way. If Individual Y moved to Utah in 1850, she was probably LDS. If the Mormons had gathered to California, it would be more difficult to guess why an individual traveled there.
In researching the faith of the Kirtland investors, it is important to remember that many early members of the Church wandered in and out of membership. For this reason we chose to look at several general time periods rather than specific years. This allowed us to use a variety of sources, none of which was comprehensive by itself.
In determining whether an individual was affiliated with the LDS Church within a given time period, actual biographical information took precedence over inference based on dates and places of death, marriage, etc. For instance, Amasa Lyman died in Utah in 1877. Despite being a member and even Apostle of the Church in Utah, he renounced his faith and was excommunicated in 1870. He is not reported as part of the Church for the Utah period.
There are many of the investors that we are yet unable to account for. They are grouped into a separate category. Because the LDS people generally kept careful records, it is likely that these unknowns were not numbered with the Saints after Kirtland, though we have found some exception to this rule.
We relied heavily on the following sources:
• Membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1830-1844 by Susan Easton Black
• Database of the Historical Pioneer Research Group
• Journal History of the Church, LDS Archives
• Database of The Book of Abraham Project
• Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel Database, LDS Church
• Biographical Registers of BYU Studies
For the Nauvoo Period (1839-1846), we found that 133 of the investors (71%) were present with the Saints in Nauvoo, while 15 (8%) had left the Church and 2 (1%) had died. We are yet unable to account for the remaining 37 investors (20%).
We also investigated those who traveled the Mormon Trail to Utah. Among those crossing the continent with the Mormons were 79 of the Kirtland investors (42%). The count of the apostates grew to 31 (17%), largely due to the power struggle after Joseph Smith’s death. Twenty-two (12%) of the investors had died by this time, while a significant 55 (29%) are unaccounted for.
Of the 187 investors, it appears that at least 69 (37%) died in the faith after traveling to Utah. Thirty-four (18%) are believed to have apostatized, while 29 (16%) had previously died (faithful). We again are uncertain about the remaining 55 investors (29%).
While there is more work left to do, particularly in researching those yet unknown to us, our preliminary results show that a large majority of those who lost money in the Kirtland Safety Society’s failure made it at least to Nauvoo. This implies that the Kirtland difficulty, though highly significant, may have had less quantitative impact on the Church than was previously thought.
The results of this research were presented at an ORCA-sponsored poster session September 26-27, 2011 at Brigham Young University. A paper on the results is also in preparation for submission to the annual BYU Religious Education Student Symposium to be held February 17, 2012. With further research and critique, we expect to submit a revised paper to a peer-reviewed journal such as BYU Studies or Journal of Mormon History.