In 1835, three years after joining the Church in New York, Moses Smith moved to Racine County, Wis., and is known as the first settler of Burlington, a city about 40 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Many of his family also moved from New York to Burlington and established Wisconsin’s first Latter-day Saint congregation in 1837. The branch wrote a letter to Church leaders in Kirtland, Ohio, asking them to send missionaries to the state. Receiving no response, Moses and Aaron Smith traveled to Kirtland, and met with Joseph Smith, Sr., who recommended that both men be called as presiding elders over the Church in Wisconsin.

In 1841, Joseph Smith sent 14 members to the Black River Valley in Wisconsin Territory to obtain lumber from the pine forests to be used in the construction of the temple and other buildings in Nauvoo. Workers in this “pinery expedition” floated logs some 600 miles from Church-operated sawmills in Wisconsin to Nauvoo. The group grew to about 150 members and supplied the wood for the temple through 1844 when the group disbanded.

Besides the early labors of the Smiths, missionary Elisha H. Groves was called to Wisconsin in 1840 but only preached as far as northwestern Illinois. In 1841, Amasa Lyman and William O. Clark labored in Lafayette County and baptized several individuals including Albert Carrington, future member of the Quorum of the Twelve. The combined efforts of missionaries produced seven Mormon branches in the southern part of the state by 1844.

Following Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, James J. Strang, a Wisconsin member and brother-in-law of Moses Smith, claimed to be the successor of the Prophet. Moses Smith eventually sympathized with Strang, and members from branches throughout Wisconsin became the core of Strang’s splinter group until he was shot by a disgruntled follower in 1856. Many of Strang’s followers helped form the Reorganized Church in 1860. Until Oliver Cowdery left to join the saints at Winter Quarters in 1848, he also resided in Wisconsin and practiced law and ran for political office.

After the 1846 exodus from Nauvoo, the second half of the 19th century saw some missionaries preaching in Wisconsin, followed by the few converts immigrating to Utah. It was not until the Wisconsin Conference of the Northern States Mission was organized in 1896 that the numbers of missionaries began to grow. The Church in Wisconsin expanded rapidly within the next four years, with branches being organized in Fond du Lac, Milwaukee and La Crosse. Christopher Leonard Rueckert, a former missionary in Wisconsin, was assigned by the Church in 1903 to return to Milwaukee with his family and head the new branch. On 23 March 1907, a branch chapel was dedicated. Rueckert oversaw the growth of the Church in Milwaukee from 1904 to 1914, when he died unexpectedly.

During the Depression, the saints in Milwaukee built and paid for a new building which President Heber J. Grant and Elder Rudger Clawson of the Quorum of the Twelve dedicated in 1933. When the Chicago Stake in Illinois was organized in 1936, the Milwaukee Ward was created and included in that stake. This ward was divided in 1958 and the Milwaukee Stake was created in 1963 with Demitt C. Smith as president.

During the 1930s and 1940s, membership grew in Wisconsin through the migration of Latter-day Saints seeking educational and business pursuits particularly in Madison and the larger cities. Growth also occurred through missionary work which expanded on 1 July 1978 with the formation of the Wisconsin Milwaukee Mission. In 1992, the Wisconsin Mormon Sesquicentennial was celebrated, which included a historically focused musical composition by Crawford Gates performed on July 25 by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

In 2002, membership reached 21,018.


Andrew Jenson, Encyclopedic History of the Church, 1941; David L. Clark, And They Came Singing: Mormons in Wisconsin, Church Archives; Jill Murvay Derr, “The Pinery Expedition,” Church News, 8 April 1978; R. Scott Lloyd, “Mormons in Milwaukee,” Church News, 5 December 1998.

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