If one tries, it is not hard to imagine the wonder that must have been had for the colonies at the time Sherlock Holmes was published. It was a frontier, the edge of the ‘civilised’ world. From there came adventure, wonder and excitement. Even the cultures of the colonials were shaping into an exotic and strange oddity. And not least among these was Mormonism and the Danites; a fundamentalist militia within Mormonism that has the special privilege among religious groups to have been excommunicated by the holy founder himself.
Mormonism was seen as a bizarre group. Based on the discoveries claimed by Joseph Smith in Missouri, self-styled prophet of Mormonism, the religion is based on new writings that add to the Christian traditions. The tablets that Smith found shed a new light on the history of The Bible, placing the United States as a central site and the actual promised homeland of the Israelites.
Though to many this notion may seem strange, the teachings of The Book of Mormon found tens of thousands of followers, created cities and erected temples, developing a culture and people that flourish to this day. And within this new religion we find the sect known as The Danites.
During the expansion of Mormonism there were on-going hostilities with the established Missouri settlers, which gave way rise to the Mormon wars – a group of wars over territory and ideology between the Mormons and neighbouring settlers in different corners of Missouri and Utah.
Specifically the 1838 Mormon War based in Missouri began after the Mormon population started to migrate on mass to the Jackson County town of Independence and the surrounding areas. They did so due to a decree from Smith that near this town would be the new site of Zion after giving a proclamation of the second coming of Christ.
The ideological clash of culture was more than biblical. With the Mormons taking a strong anti-slavery position, the locals became increasingly upset and angry with this strange group of people that questioned their way of life. Tensions rose to the point of mass violence.
Within this backdrop there were a group of zealots that had organized to weed out dissenters. With violence breaking out, this group later became a paramilitary and enforcement organisation working as a militia and the secret police of Jackson.
The Danites had formed largely in secret, meeting with church heads to discuss how to deal with the growing problems that Mormons were facing. The Mormon empire was facing a lot more than just hostility from non-Mormons; the migration of Mormons to the area was huge, but so were those that were leaving the faith; the churches finances were in ruins, their bank at their first base in Utah failing.
Cohesion was a central theme in the worries of the Mormon establishment, a concern that was extenuated by the violence perpetrated on its people by the local Missourians. Those that left the church but still lived nearby, to Mormon law, held murky legal standings. They were also an ideological threat, an example of dissent.
So The Danites sought to intimidate, silence and kill if needed, for the good of the church. They attacked those that had left the church to make examples of them as well as Mormons who questioned anything The Danites viewed as central tenants – which could often be simplified to anything the church said.
The Danites threats were very specific. In this example a letter is written to a list of dissenters. The threat is not subtle.
“…for out of the county you shall go, and no power shall save you. And you shall have three days after you receive this communication to you, including twenty-four hours in each day, for you to depart with your families peaceably; which you may do undisturbed by any person; but in that time, if you do not depart, we will use the means in our power to cause you to depart; for go you shall.”
The Danites were never recognised officially by the first presidency (though critics press the responsibility by questioning Smith’s involvement and condemning the church whether he was aware or not). However, during public meetings a sermon was given that said of dissenters to be like “salt that had lost its savour” and that dissenters would be “trodden under the foot of men.” This was largely taken by the Danites as being a message for them and became further emboldened by this legitimacy.
The Danites were brutal in their role in the enforcement of its own people and the war crimes they perpetrated against Missourians, but the controversy also lay within the church itself. Samuel Avard who was known as the leader of The Danites, later gave testimony against Smith himself, accusing the founder of being the overall leader of the group with full awareness of their actions – given the popular belief that Avard was the actual leader and a well-known zealot, his actions were of course met with surprise. Avard was downgraded in position and later excommunicated from the church.
Historians claim that The Danites died with Avard and the group disbanded. But over the years that followed, rumour and speculation continued that The Danites were still operating from the shadows, carrying out attacks on anyone that questioned the church’s authority, whether Mormon or gentile. They from this point became a myth that permutated Mormon culture, a secret organisation that lay behind the cloak.
And the myth has lived on, whether repeated over the years in attacks on the Mormon Church, or being fictionalised into stories like The Study In Scarlet. Often they are depicted as having become a worldwide organisation that has infected the highest echelons of society, other times a ragtag group of vigilantes much like a terrorist cell, operating without any larger group to qualify their existence or actions.
But it is easy to see why the myth is so attractive, the story of many different secret groups popular in conspiracy theories and fiction alike. So though most likely The Danites have long since died out, their legend lives on and probably will for some time.