Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer was one book I had to finish. Not so much because of the true crime aspects, as sensational as they may be, but because of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that Krakauer reported. As I read, I began to note some basic similarities between Joseph Smith and Eric Janson. The former was the founding prophet for the Mormons and the latter was the founding prophet of the Bishop Hill colony in Henry county, Illinois. I made my home in Bishop Hill for years, so reading this book became something of a personal journey.
Joseph Smith Jr.
Born: Dec. 23, 1805
Died: June 27, 1844 [age 39]
Cause of death: gunshot
Spouse(s) Emma Smith & other plural wives
Eric (Erik Jansson) Janson
Born: December 19, 1808
Died: May 13, 1850 [age 41]
Cause of death: gunshot
Spouse Maja Stina died of cholera. Janson remarried in September 1849. Plural wives? Not to my knowledge.
Smith was swept up in the American “Second Great Awakening". In Sweden, Janson was part of the Pietist Movement that had spread northward from Germany.
Smith had visions of a golden book. Janson had mystical experiences and claimed his rheumatism was cured.
1831 Smith and his followers moved from western New York to Ohio, to Missouri, and then to Nauvoo, Illinois. Janson led his pietist sect to emigrate from Sweden to US in 1846. They settled in west central Illinois. They Americanized themselves by learning the language and, in some cases, changing their names.
For a time, Nauvoo grew to be second largest city outside of Chicago. Bishop Hill, named for Janson’s birthplace, also grew but not nearly as much. Bishop Hill colonists used John Deere’s new plow to break the prairie and grow sustaining crops. Their letters sent back to Sweden sparked a wave of immigration to the US.
Smith landed in jail in Carthage, IL, and was fatally attacked by a mob. Janson was jailed in Sweden prior to escaping for America. His beliefs conflicted with the state religion. He was at the Henry County courthouse on business when he was attacked by former colonist John Root.
After Janson’s death, Bishop Hill colony had a group of trustees take control of the colony business. Which was in very bad shape. In no small part because a doctor Janson had called in during a cholera outbreak sued to get his bill paid.
Where did Dr. Robert Foster come from? —Nauvoo.
Nearing bankruptcy and depopulated by desertions, the Bishop Hill colony could still list the following: “100 men, 250 women, 200 children. It owned 4000 acres, a church, grist and flour mills, 3 dwelling houses, and 5 other buildings.” This list doesn’t begin to do justice to the imposing scale of those colony buildings. Most still exist.
The dissolution of the Bishop Hill colony began in 1862 but, because of the Civil War, was not finalized until 1879. The 200 remaining “Janssonists” dispersed among: the Methodist church, Pleasant Hill Shakers, and Seventh Day Adventists.
I found these rough similarities uncanny, but Jon Krakauer’s book plumbed a depth of violence in the background of the Mormon religion and its fundamentalist factions that I never experienced in my time living in Bishop Hill. I would subscribe to the following quote:
“The Bishop Hill colony was not insular & makes a useful contrast to Mormons in Nauvoo & the Amanas, both contemporaries.”