“I am Spartacus!:” The Brother of Gideon and the Corporate Nature of Danite Identity

At a Sunday meeting in Far West in early June, 1838, John D. Lee heard Joseph Smith order “the brother of Gideon” to put a man out, for his presumption in not uncovering his head in the house of God.[1] Lee would later enter into an oath-bound organization, sworn to uphold the First Presidency in all of their actions, and to defend the Mormon Kingdom of God in its claim to the lands of many of the counties of Missouri. Today, we recognize this band as the “Danites,” in connection with a scripture from the Book of Daniel describing the Kingdom of God as a little stone which would roll forth to fill the whole earth. Other names by which the Danites were known included “the Big Fan,” “the Daughter of Zion,” and “the Brother of Gideon.”

My fellow WWE blogger Christopher Smith suggests the “Brother of Gideon” title applied exclusively to Danite leader Jared Carter. Apparently, Gideon Carter was in turn “the brother of Jared,” a delightful play on a Book of Mormon character. (Ether 3) But did the moniker apply to more than one man?

John Whitmer said the elders “began to form themselves into a secret society which they termed the brother of Gideon, in the which society they took oaths that they would support a brother right or wrong, even to the shedding of blood.” [2] John C. Bennett suggested that the name had a scriptural allusion which he was unable to discover.[3] A likely scriptural explanation is found in Judges 6:11, which thematically links the group’s several objectives by the concept of threshing and grinding.

Where be all his miracles which our fathers told us of, saying, Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt? But now the LORD hath forsaken us, and delivered us into the hands of the Midianites. And the LORD looked upon him, and said, Go in this thy might, and thou shalt save Israel from the hand of the Midianites: have not I sent thee? …. Surely I will be with thee, and thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man. (Judges 6:13, 14, 16)

One can easily see how the Danites related with this passage, identifying themselves as Gideon, with the Missouri settlers as the Midianites. Here Gideon is urged by God, appearing as an angel, to use his power to deliver the Israelites. The phrase, “thou shalt smite the Midianites as one man” is ambiguous, and the preferred reading is that the Israelites would be able to destroy their enemies as if they were a single person. But the passage could alternatively suggest to a reader that “Gideon” was a group, acting “as one man” in concert to accomplish the Lord’s purposes.

W. W. Phelps testified that he overheard Sidney Rigdon say in a Danite meeting that whoever was caught speaking against the First Presidency would be delivered “over to the hands of the Brother of Gideon.” Said he, “I knew not, at the time, who or what it meant.”[4] Reed Peck recalled an address by Sidney Rigdon, informing the church that those who would not comply with the law of consecration, should be “delivered over to the brother of Gideon and be sent bounding over the prairies as the dissenters were a few days ago.” Indeed, “all matters comprising anything not completely subject to the will of the Presidency, were to be managed by the terrible brother of Gideon.”[5] Jared Carter would have had to have been powerful indeed to chase out all of the church members who had not yet given up their excess property to the Bishop, or who were speaking against the First Presidency.

Further evidence that the “Brother of Gideon” did not refer solely to Jared Carter is given by W.W. Phelps’ description of a meeting, attended by the First Presidency, at which those who were resisting the consecration program were threatened they would be handed over to the “Brother of Gideon.” One man rose to defend himself, continuing to speak even after being ordered to leave the house. Danite Captain Sampson Avard demanded, “Where are my ten men?” Thirty or more men stood up, whereupon the man agreed to leave the house.[6] The brethren found code names to be useful in the intimidation of their adversaries. The ambiguity surrounding “the brother of Jared” and the Danite band in general was one of the things causing fear. Oliver Huntington wrote:

There was a great hu[e] and cry about the Danites, all over the county and among the army…many stories were in circulation the most horrid and awfully distorted opinions their minds could imagine, and they all thought that every depridation was committed by the Danites…

Knowing that this was the belief of their neighbors, the Danites “concluded to make the best of it. So every mysterious trick and bold adventure which had been transacted, was placed upon them and every body knew there had a company of Mormons fled to the Indian territories, …and they, it was stated, were the Danites, a most daring band of braves, who were bound together like the Masons.[7]

It is apparent that many of the companies themselves had code names. Jonathan Dunham’s unit of fifty men went by the name of “the Fur Company.”[8] King Follett was captain of 12 men, called “the Regulators.”[9] Orrin Porter Rockwell’s company was called “the Destroying Angel,” and there was another company labeled “the Destructives.”

Joseph Smith, likely the originator of these sobriquets, put them to use in directing action. This continued into Nauvoo, when Smith directed the assassination of Governor Boggs. In the same way that he used the title “Brother of Gideon” to direct military action, he called for the “Destroying Angel” to retaliate against Boggs’ extermination order: “The exterminator should be exterminated and the Destroying Angel will do it by the right hand of his power. I say it in the name of the Lord God!” Bennett also claimed that the prophet had declared in a First Presidency meeting, “The Destroying Angel will do the work; when God speaks, His voice must be obeyed.”[10] Though many historians believe it was Rockwell alone who attempted to assassinate Boggs, John C. Bennett showed his understanding of the principle of corporate identity at work: “I feel…certain…that Rockwell, as a member of the Daughter of Zion, acted as the conductor or guide; and that, one of the twelve composing the Destroying Angel, assisted by Rockwell, did the deed.”[11]

As they had been exhorted, in stirring language by their Prophet and his first counselor, the Danites were fighting for their freedom, homes, their wives, and their children; and their holy religion. They believed they were throwing off the yoke of oppression. “I am the brother of Gideon,” their hearts cried, as they shouldered a corporate identity in their civil disobedience against the state. Whenever any Missourian ran into trouble with the Saints, he was dealing not only with Jared Carter (although he was Sparticus, too). He was contending with the brother of Gideon, that man who was called to deliver the people of Israel and restore them to their land. The brother of Gideon, to a man, was zealous for the redemption of Zion.

[1]John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled; Including the Remarkable Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop John D. Lee (Albuquerque: Fierra Blanca Publications, 2001) (1877), p. 56.

[2]John Whitmer, “Book of John Whitmer,” 24, LDSCA; in Marvin Hill, Quest for Refuge, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1989), 75.

[3]John C. Bennett, History of the Saints, or, An Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism (Boston: Leland and Whiting, 1842), 265.

[4]W.W. Phelps Testimony, Senate Document 189, 43-44.

[5]MSS SC 530; Reed Peck manuscript; 19th Century Western and Mormon Manuscripts; L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, 91-92.

[6]Phelps’ Testimony, Missouri Documents, quoted in Kingdom in the West, p. 237-238.

[7]Oliver Huntington Autobiography, Typescript, HBLL.

[8]Reed Peck Testimony, Senate Document 189, 20.

[9]Reed Peck Testimony, Senate Document 189, 20.

[10]Bennett, History of the Saints, 281.

[11]Bennett, History of the Saints, 286.



“I am Spartacus!:” The Brother of Gideon and the Corporate Nature of Danite Identity — 6 Comments

  1. “This continued into Nauvoo, when Smith directed the assassination of Governor Boggs.”

    Wow, making this accusation and then using John D. Lee and John C. Bennett as reliable sources. Sharp and the penny novel has risen from the dead.

  2. Interesting, Cheryl. I hadn’t seen Whitmer’s and Bennett’s references to this title, which certainly do strengthen your case that it applied to the whole organization. Of course, Bennett would have been influenced by W. W. Phelps’s testimony at the 1838 hearing, so he’s not a reliable source. But Whitmer’s testimony is more persuasive, especially since he also refers to the Danites as “Gideonites,” a unique term not found in Phelps’s testimony.

    FWIW, Reed Peck was fairly clear that he wasn’t using the term to apply to the whole organization: “The independence of the church was to be supported it laws and the behests of the presidency enforced by means of this layal band of Danites, under command of Jared Carter, the terrible brother of Gideon became the additional title of ‘Captain Genl of the Lords hosts’ His subalterns were Maj Genl Sampson Avard Brigd Genl C. P. [-] Coln Geo W. Robinson also a Lieut Coln Maj. Secretary of War an Adjutant. . . . In the fore part of July the ‘brother of Gideon’ or Jared Carter Capt Genl of the Danites having complained to Joseph Smith of some observations made by Sidney Rigdon in a Sermon, was tried for finding fault with one of the presidency and deprived of his station and Elias Higbee was appointed in his stead.” Peck also hinted that the Carter brothers had matching scriptural nicknames when he later referred to “Gideon Carter brother of Jared.” Peck had better firsthand information about the organization than any of the others you cited, including John Whitmer, so his testimony should probably be given primacy.

    My guess would be that “brother of Gideon” was a nickname for Carter, not for the organization, but that because Smith talked vaguely of turning people over to the “brother of Gideon,” some hearers understandably thought this was a name for the organization. It would not surprise me, however, if members of the organization had sometimes referred to themselves as “Gideonites” after their leader.

    The “brother of Gideon” title probably isn’t drawn directly from a specific Bible passage; rather, it probably originated as a counterpart to Gideon Carter’s “brother of Jared” nickname, the more intuitive of the two monikers.

  3. YeaRight:
    You are correct, I do tend to take Bennett seriously, especially when he concurs with other sources.

    As you noted, William Law made a statement that he had heard Joseph Smith say, “I sent Rockwell to kill Boggs, but he missed him, it was a failure; he wounded him instead of sending him to Hell.” (March 30, 1887 Law interview, reported in the SL Tribune July 31, 1887) A similar accusation had earlier been made by Joseph Jackson in the Warsaw Signal of June 5, 1844.

    Furthermore, Boggs himself became convinced that Joseph Smith was behind the attack: he issued a sworn statement shortly after the assassination attempt saying that he “believes, and has good reason to believe from evidence and information now in his possession, that Joseph Smith, commonly called the Mormon Prophet, was accessary before the fact of the intended murder.” (Sangamo Journal, January 19, 1843)

    I use this information in my post mainly to show that the term “Destroying Angel,” while sometimes applied to Rockwell himself, was also understood by Bennett to mean the group of 12 men that Rockwell commanded as a Danite officer. This would hold true whether or not you believe his accusation against Joseph Smith.

  4. Chris, I want to be sure to emphasize that I believe the term “brother of Gideon” also applied to Jared Carter. The coincidence of Gideon also being called the “brother of Jared” is just too sweet. But there were many layers to the various names behind the Danites, as I hope to show in forthcoming writings. I think Reed Peck uses it in both ways, but I’ll have to go back and see if I can find you an example.

  5. There were layers, Cheryl, but there was also confusion and misuse. Take, for instance, Charles Thompson’s misappropriation of the name “Baneemy.” There were few people who understood the term’s true (Hebrew) meaning well enough to correct Thompson on this point, even if they’d been willing to do so. In the case of the Danites, W. W. Phelps was explicitly speculating about the meaning of the term, and he was presumably in communication with other dissenters (including Whitmer) about the latest Danite developments. His statement also influenced almost all later interpreters of the Missouri Danites, including Bennett. So we have to be careful about accepting the interpretations of Danite codes offered in these “outsider” sources.

  6. Pingback: Gadianton Robbers and Spiritual Wives: John Whitmer on the Kirtland Church | Worlds Without End