In August–November 1838, Mormons and their “Gentile” Missourian neighbors clashed in the Mormon War of 1838. At issue were not only religious differences, but also basic civil liberties. Missourians had expelled the theocratic, bloc-voting Mormons from county after county, and the Mormons in turn had expelled dissenters and Gentiles from their own communities. Both sides had suffered violence and lost land and property. Brewing anger erupted in an election-day brawl in early August that escalated to full-scale war by mid-October.
On October 20 in the Mormon capital of Far West, First Counselor to the First Presidency Sidney Rigdon called a mass meeting at the schoolhouse. Joseph Smith was away at the time, coordinating raids to loot and burn Gentile stores and houses in neighboring Daviess County. Most of the attendees at the October 20 meeting were members of an infamous Mormon paramilitary organization known as “Danites,” after the biblical warrior tribe of Dan. Brigadier General Sampson Avard, second-in-command and First Presidency “spokesman” to the Danite band, assisted Rigdon in presiding over the meeting.