By: Ric Fergeson and Ken Dickensheets

Type: Overview Entry

Published: 1976

Updated: December 1, 1995

Mormon is the common name for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has its headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Mormon movement was founded by Joseph Smith in New York state in the 1820s and drew its early membership almost exclusively from New England and the upper Midwest. Converts often congregated in Mormon settlements in Ohio and Missouri. In 1843, after the Mormon Church relocated to Nauvoo, Illinois, Elder William C. Steffey was sent as a missionary to Texas, although results of his mission are not known. Political difficulties and growing anti-Mormon sentiment had made life in Illinois precarious for the church. With the idea of relocating his church to Texas, in 1844 Smith sent Lucien Woodworth as an envoy to the Texas government to engage in negotiations with Sam Houston to colonize a district for Mormon settlement. Woodworth returned to Nauvoo in May 1844, and church officials decided that a group of Mormons would be sent to Texas in 1845. Attracted by the warmer climate, the possibility of proselytizing among the Texas Indians, newspaper accounts of colonizing opportunities, and apparently some encouragement from Houston, Lyman Wight, a Mormon apostle, obtained permission from Joseph Smith to lead a group to Texas. When a mob killed Smith on June 27, 1844, the colonization scheme died with him; Smith's successor, Brigham Young, considered Texas an unsuitable location and turned his attention toward Utah. While the great majority of the Latter-Day Saints followed Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, a few thousand remained in the Midwest and smaller numbers joined splinter groups. Wight broke with the main body of the church under Young and led about 200 dissenters to Texas. They left Wisconsin on March 28, 1845, and traveled across Iowa, Missouri, and Indian Territory to an abandoned fort near Preston, Grayson County, Texas, where they arrived on November 19, 1845, and spent the winter. They pushed on in the spring and arrived in Austin on June 6, 1846.

Wight's colony remained through 1847 in Austin, where its workers built the city jail, hired out as carpenters, and constructed saw and grist mills near the falls of the Colorado River. The colonists thereafter moved to the Pedernales River, four miles east of Fredericksburg in Gillespie County, where they established the community of Zodiac. They built a storehouse, private homes, and laid out a series of communal farms. The 1850 census recorded 160 residents living on 2,217 acres of land with nearly $26,000 worth of improvements. Zodiac, where Wight implemented an idiosyncratic form of communitarianism he called the "common stock principle," became a mecca for Mormon dissenters. After a visit by missionaries Preston Thomas and William Martindale in 1848–49, Wight was disfellowshipped by the Mormons in Utah for his insubordination and doctrinal irregularities. Floods destroyed Zodiac in 1851, and the Mormon colony moved to a site on Hamilton Creek in Burnet County, where they established the Mormon Mill Colony. They sold this site in 1853 and lived a nomadic life for several months thereafter before settling in 1854 in Mountain Valley, southeast of Medina in Bandera County, at a site now covered by Medina Lake. Wight died in 1858 preparing to lead his followers back to Missouri. He was buried in the Mormon cemetery at Zodiac. His colony thereafter dispersed; a few remained in Texas, while others moved to Iowa, Indian Territory, or Utah.

During the next few decades, missionaries occasionally crossed Texas, but their converts worshipped in private homes or, when possible, moved to Utah. At the end of 1896 only sixty-four Mormons were counted in Texas, as well as thirty-one children under eight years of age. Around the turn of the century a new phase of activity began when Jim and John Edgar, converts from Alabama, settled in Kelsey, near Gilmer. By 1905 the Kelsey group had more than 300 members; by 1906, more than 400. A churchhouse was built, and a full church organization was put into effect in this little branch. Kelsey has continued to the present as a constant center of Mormon activity. Other small branches sprang up at Poyner (Henderson County), Spruger (Tyler County), and Williamson Settlement (Jasper County). Missionary proselytizing continued to add to the numbers, reinforced by members from elsewhere who moved into the state. By 1962, stakes (somewhat similar to dioceses) existed in Dallas, Houston, El Paso, Beaumont, San Antonio, and Shreveport, with a total of 16,000 members. During the twentieth century, the Mormon Church continued to grow in size and stature in Texas. Of the 9,400,000 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in 1995, 180,000 were in Texas. The church has organized 39 stakes, 293 wards (parishes), 119 branches (small parishes), six missions and one temple in Texas. Each stake also operates early-morning seminaries, which Mormons of high school age attend on schooldays.

The church is widely recognized for its practices of high moral standards and healthful living including member abstinence from coffee, tea, tobacco and alcohol. Its programs for strengthening and supporting the family are well known, as is its organized research into family history. The church owns and maintains the world's largest collection of genealogy data, which is available to the public through branch libraries located in many local meetinghouses. The genealogy data is collected and organized by both members and nonmembers of the church and is used as a source of organizing family history. Members believe that the family organization continues after death. The church operates temples throughout the world, such as the one constructed in Dallas in 1984. The temples are used by worthy members of the church to perform ordinances and learn more about the continuation of the family throughout eternity.

Davis Bitton, "Mormons in Texas: The Ill-Fated Lyman Wight Colony, 1844–1858," Arizona and the West 11 (Spring 1969). Bonnie Means Durning, A History of the Mormon Church in Texas, 1843–1906 (M.A. thesis, East Texas State College, 1964). J. Marvin Hunter, ed., The Lyman Wight Colony in Texas (Bandera, Texas: Frontier Times Museum, 1952). Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1941). Daniel H. Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992). James Clyde Vandygriff, Kelsey, Texas: The Founding and Development of a Latter-Day Saint Gathering Place in Texas (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1974).
  • Religion
  • Mormon
Time Periods:
  • Republic of Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ric Fergeson and Ken Dickensheets, “Mormons,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 01, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995