15th April 1869

Guernsey Mormon Sampson Avard dies in Illinois

How did a Guernsey Mormon come to die in Illinois in 1869?

Sampson Avard was born in St Peter Port on 23 October, in either 1800 or 1803, and emigrated to the United States when he was around 20 years old. He married, then moved from city to city through Virginia and Ohio, eventually settling in Pennsylvania. A very devout man, he preached his faith and was briefly ordained as a high priest of the Mormon religion.

Just two years after that ordination he’d been excommunicated. Why? Because Avard was living a second life as leader of a group of Mormon vigilantes called the Danites.

Avard and the Danites

Avard had been inspired by Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), when he read a passage about the tribe of Dan defending the Mormons on Earth. That’s not to say that Smith himself approved of what the Danites did under Avard’s leadership. Indeed, he spoke out against their violence on several occasions.

Had Avard simply been interested in defence, he might have been allowed to carry on with what he was doing. The trouble was, he went far further than that. Instead defence, he chose offence, robbing neighbouring non-believers. He also supported the church against former members who had been excommunicated, yet were still living on land that was part paid for using Mormon funds. The Danites decided that the church – and its possessions – needed defending, and they demanded that the newly excommunicated members left the county.

Some of the former Mormons took the threat seriously and crossed a river into the neighbouring county. This made the county’s existing residents worry that they were facing an imminent violent Mormon invasion. A militia leader was assigned to defend the county but, in much the same way that Avard had harassed his non-Mormon neighbours, the militia leader, Samuel Bogart, went on the offensive. He crossed into Mormon land and harassed the church members. He took three of them captive, and the Mormons armed themselves for a battle to win them back.

Events take a violent turn

A gun battle ensued, leaving three Mormons and one member of the militia dead. The governor of Missouri declared the Mormons an enemy. He ordered that they be either exterminated or driven from the state. The church leaders were arrested and charged with treason, and Avard testified against them, claiming that Joseph Smith, not he, was the leader of the Danites.

Smith and other church leaders were committed for trial. They escaped before the trial could begin, and Smith excommunicated Avard, who lived the next 30 years outside the church.

He died in Madison County, Illinois, on 15 April 1869.


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