Where They Came From

Where did they come from, the people that converged to form the community of early Mormons?

According to historians, many of them were former Methodists, and their worship had a Methodist flavor in their choice of hymns and the order of their services.  But there were other, smaller organizations active at the time, groups and communities based on ideas from the Bible and other sources, such as the Shakers—groups that no longer exist.  I thought it would be interesting to highlight some of these groups in the novel ‘In Clouds of Fire’ in order to describe the diverse origins of the people who joined the ‘Mormonites,’ as they were first called.

The first people we meet in the book are young Hannah Manning and her Aunt Elizabeth.  They are members of a Huguenot family.  The Huguenots, French Protestants, had to flee their native France because of their reformed religion, which made them enemies of the King, the ‘Defender of the Faith.’  Theirs was the wrong faith, so rather than renounce it, they left France and fled to any nation which would take them.  Many came to America.  My own family was part of this group, so I was able to describe them without too much trouble.  Later in the story, we meet Hannah’s young brother Rusty, and their father.  Their mother has died recently, and it is their Aunt Elizabeth’s decision to come live with them that causes Hannah and Rusty, now baptized Mormons, to leave their home and journey to Kirtland.

Nathaniel Givens, who befriends Hannah and her brother, comes from a Shaker background.  Taken in and raised by the Shakers after the loss of his parents, he has grown up with their ideals of simplicity and self-reliance, and also the concept of non-violence.  When I lived in Cleveland, I had a friend with a lovely singing voice, and she was hired by the Cleveland Museum of Art to record a number of Shaker songs.  I remember playing the songs in their written form on the flute, and being in the room with my friend as she recorded them.  I was able to learn a great deal about Shaker music and Shaker beliefs in general, and also the way of life in their communities.

The Shakers were successful in that their groups survived for almost two hundred years, fading only when the Industrial Revolution took over. The settlement of North Union, known now as Shaker Heights, was on the east side of Cleveland, not very far from Kirtland where the Mormons were located.  We know that there was contact between the two groups, and that certain people from the Shaker community did join the Mormons.  So Nat Givens’ story is not unique.

Another communal group which developed in southern Ohio was Gallipolis, the ‘City of the Gauls.’  It began as a land grant.  A group known as the ‘French Five Hundred,’ encouraged by the French King, came to settle in what they believed was going to be a sort of earthly paradise.  It ended up as anything but.  They were mainly craftsmen and skilled artisans, knowing nothing about surviving in the wilderness, and woefully unprepared for the rigors of a Midwestern winter.

After almost starving to death, many of the colonists, including my ancestors, left and found help elsewhere.  Others stayed, and out of this group came my character Gabriel Romain and his family.  The French settlers at Gallipolis were Roman Catholic; many had hoped to escape the ravages of the French Revolution.  Gabriel, our fictional resident, has spent most of his youth learning the skill of blacksmithing under the tutelage of his older brother.  However, he is more interested in helping animals and people, especially in the area of healing.  Passionately opposed to slavery, he has learned how to guide escaped slaves through the woods to safe houses after they have crossed the river.

Gabriel is bright and loves to read.  Certain members of his family decide that he should study to become a priest.  He asks them to reconsider; it is not what he wants to do.  They are insistent.  On the evening before the day he is scheduled to depart with the local priest for the seminary, he gathers what belongings he needs and steals out into the night.  He does not say good-bye.

There is one more community which contributes to the early Mormon gathering, and this is the one of slavery.  Eb, a freedman, is forced to leave the plantation where he has worked.  He journeys north from Virginia, crosses the river at Gallipolis, and meets Gabriel at a crucial point in his journey.  They travel north together, becoming friends, and stay at safe houses along the way.  Eb has left behind his wife, who is still in slavery; he hopes to work to buy her freedom.

This mixture of people eventually find the Kirtland community of Mormons and try to make their lives among them.  Their adventures will take them to Missouri and back to Ohio, to Missouri again and finally Illinois and beyond, always seeking the blessings of community and the hope of a just society, a place where ‘they will not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain,’ and where everyone will be considered a person of worth.  This was their quest.  This is what we seek today, and hopefully, some day we will find it.

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Elaine Stienon

Elaine Stienon