Since early 1830 the Latter-day Saints have acknowledged the American Indian as a remnant of the house of Israel, who great promises have been extended to. Referring to these people as “Lamanites,” a Book of Mormon prophet declared, “At some period of time they will be brought to believe in his [God’s] word, and to know of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers; and many of them will be saved” (Alma 9:17). The 1830 Saints believed these promises and were moved since the early days of the Church to bring to pass their fulfillment.
The Church was barely six months old when Oliver Cowdery was called by revelation to go to the Lamanites and preach the gospel (see D&C 28:8). Subsequently, Peter Whitmer, Jr.; Ziba Peterson; and Parley P. Pratt were called to assist him (see D&C 30:5; 32:1–3). The destination of the missionaries was “the borders by the Lamanites” (D&C 28:9). This phrase was understood to refer to the line between Missouri and the Indian territory to the west. For more than twenty years many Americans had agitated for the removal of Indians from the Eastern States to a permanent Indian frontier in the plains beyond. As a result of this agitation, less than four months before the call of the missionaries, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the “Indian Removal Act.” The Shawnee and Delaware Indians from Ohio, anticipating these developments, made the move on their own as early as 1828–29. Both tribes settled near the Kansas River just west of the Missouri border.
Following the second conference of the Church, preparations for the missionary journey began in earnest. Emma Smith and several other sisters made arrangements to furnish the missionaries with necessary clothing. Even though Emma was not well, she spent many hours sewing suitable clothing for each missionary. Saints in the Fayette, New York, area generously furnished food, and Martin Harris supplied copies of the Book of Mormon for distribution. Before departing, the missionaries bound themselves in writing to give “heed unto all [the] words and advice” of Oliver Cowdery. They pledged to proclaim the “fulness of the Gospel” to their brethren, the Lamanites.1 On 18 October they began their fifteen-hundred-mile westward trek.
The missionaries visited a friendly tribe of Seneca Indians on the Cattaraugus Reservation near Buffalo, New York, where they paused just long enough to introduce the Book of Mormon as a record of their forgotten ancestors. “We were kindly received, and much interest was manifested by them on hearing this news,” Parley reported.2 Leaving two copies of the book, the missionaries journeyed onward. So far as is known, these were the first American Indians to hear the message of the Restoration in this dispensation.
When the elders arrived in northeastern Ohio, they reached an area popularly known as the Western Reserve because in colonial times it was allotted to Connecticut as a “western reserve.” Parley P. Pratt was familiar with this country, having lived at Amherst, fifty miles west of Kirtland, for about four years before his conversion to the Church. Parley had studied under Sidney Rigdon, a prominent minister in the area who presided over a group of seekers (people seeking a return to New Testament Christianity). At one time Sidney merged his interests with those of another seeker, Alexander Campbell, and helped found the church called the Disciples of Christ, also known as the Campbellites. But Rigdon disagreed with Campbell on certain doctrinal practices and formed his own group, the Reformed Baptist Society. Because of his former close associations with Rigdon, Elder Pratt convinced his companions to visit Sidney in Mentor, Ohio, where he testified to his former teacher that the Restoration had occurred, including the restoration of divine authority. Oliver Cowdery, an eyewitness to the restoration of the priesthood, bore firsthand testimony of that event.
Although Sidney treated the missionaries cordially and with respect, his was no instantaneous conversion. He told the elders, “I will read your book, and see what claims it has upon my faith.” The elders then asked to present their message in Rigdon’s church. Consent was given, “the appointment was accordingly published, and a large and respectable congregation assembled.” At the end of the meeting, Rigdon, with commendable open-mindedness, told his listeners that the message they had just heard “was of an extraordinary character, and certainly demanded their most serious consideration.” He reminded the congregation of the Apostle Paul’s advice to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).3
Meanwhile, the elders were not idle. Less than five miles from Rigdon’s home in Mentor was the village of Kirtland, where numerous members of Sidney’s congregation lived. The missionaries preached from house to house, likewise receiving respectful attention. Soon some residents were convinced that no one among them possessed the divine authority necessary to administer gospel ordinances and that they had not been authoritatively baptized themselves. After much study and prayer, many people, including Sidney Rigdon, requested baptism at the hands of the missionaries. News of their teachings spread rapidly. Parley reported, “The people thronged us night and day, insomuch that we had no time for rest and retirement. Meetings were convened in different neighborhoods, and multitudes came together soliciting our attendance; while thousands flocked about us daily; some to be taught, some for curiosity, some to obey the gospel, and some to dispute or resist it.”4
Within three weeks of the missionaries’ arrival, 127 persons were baptized. Prominent among the number were Isaac Morley, Levi Hancock, Lyman Wight, and John Murdock, well-known residents of the area who were destined to play an important role in future Church affairs. In reminiscing later about his own baptism and its effect upon him, John Murdock wrote that “the Spirit of the Lord sensibly attended the ministration, and I came out of the water rejoicing and singing praises to God, and the Lamb.”5
Another early Ohio convert, Philo Dibble, who lived about five miles east of Kirtland, was told of a “golden Bible.” Curious, he sought out the missionaries and, after hearing Oliver Cowdery speak, believed and presented himself for baptism. His description of the spiritual power attending his reception of the Holy Ghost may be a clue to why so many early Saints found joy in the Restoration:
“When I came out of the water, I knew that I had been born of water and of the spirit, for my mind was illuminated with the Holy Ghost.
“… While in bed that night I felt what appeared to be a hand upon my left shoulder and a sensation like fibers of fire immediately enveloped my body. … I was enveloped in a heavenly influence, and could not sleep for joy.”6
The brief stopover the missionaries made in the Western Reserve that November bore immediate and lasting fruits. These Ohio conversions more than doubled Church membership in only three weeks. It was as the Lord had promised the Saints by revelation: “For behold the field is white already to harvest; and lo, he that thrusteth in his sickle with his might, the same layeth up in store that he perisheth not, but bringeth salvation to his soul” (D&C 4:4; see also 11:3; 12:3). The missionaries ordained Sidney Rigdon and a few others and left them in charge of the ministry. In company with Frederick G. Williams, who had practiced medicine in Kirtland prior to his conversion, they continued their westward journey toward the “border of the Lamanites.”
Shortly after the missionaries left Kirtland, Sidney Rigdon and a close associate, Edward Partridge, decided to go to New York “to inquire further” into the origins of the restored gospel that had just been introduced to them. Lydia Partridge wrote, “My husband partly believed, but he had to take a journey to New York State and see the Prophet” before he could be satisfied.7 According to Philo Dibble, Partridge also went in behalf of others. He was told by a neighbor, “We have sent a man down to York State to find out the truth of this work, and he is a man who will not lie.”8
Arriving in Manchester, New York, in December 1830, Sidney and Edward learned that Joseph was living with the Whitmers in Fayette township, twenty miles away. Upon inquiring among the neighbors concerning the Smith family, they found that their reputation had been impeccable until Joseph had made known his discovery of the Book of Mormon. They also noted the “good order and industry” of the family farm. Edward and Sidney found the Prophet at his parents’ place in Waterloo, where Edward asked Joseph Smith to baptize him. Four days later Edward was ordained an elder by Sidney Rigdon, his friend and traveling companion.9
Joseph Smith was impressed with Sidney and Edward from the first. He referred to the latter as “a pattern of piety, and one of the Lord’s great men.”10 Shortly after Edward’s baptism, the Prophet received revelations setting forth the duties and callings of both men. Because of his influence upon his followers, the Lord compared Sidney to John the Baptist, who had prepared the way for Jesus Christ. Sidney’s new assignment was to serve as scribe for Joseph Smith (see D&C 35:4, 20). Edward was called to preach the gospel “as with the voice of a trump” (D&C 36:1). Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were admonished to strengthen the Church wherever it was found, but “more especially in Colesville; for, behold, they pray unto me in much faith” (D&C 37:2).
The faith of the Colesville Saints was rewarded with a visit from the Prophet and his new associate, Sidney Rigdon. Here Sidney’s oratorical gifts were first evidenced in the Church as he obeyed the command he had received by revelation to “preach my gospel and call on the holy prophets to prove his words” (D&C 35:23). He delivered an effective and powerful sermon.
The New York Saints were also blessed by important doctrinal revelations given to Joseph Smith. Between June and October 1830 he worked on an inspired revision of the book of Genesis. Joseph said that at the time “much conjecture and conversation frequently occurred among the Saints, concerning the books mentioned, and referred to, in various places in the Old and New Testaments, which were now nowhere to be found. The common remark was, ‘They are lost books;’ but it seems the Apostolic Church had some of these writings, as Jude mentions or quotes the Prophecy of Enoch, the seventh from Adam.”11 To the joy of the Church, which now numbered about seventy in New York, the Lord revealed a portion of the ancient book of Enoch, which included a lengthy prophecy about the future. Through this account, now found in Moses 7 in the Pearl of Great Price, the Lord “encouraged and strengthened the faith of His little flock … by giving some more extended information upon the Scriptures” than was previously known.12
Meanwhile, the five missionaries to the Indians continued to preach to all people as they proceeded westward. Parley P. Pratt wrote, “Some wished to learn and obey the fulness of the gospel. … Others were filled with envy, rage and lying.”13
Fifty miles west of Kirtland, in Amherst, Ohio, Parley was arrested on a frivolous charge, tried, found guilty, and ordered to pay a fine. Because he could not pay, Parley spent the night locked in a public inn. The next morning, he was visited briefly by his companions and urged them to move ahead on their journey, promising to soon rejoin them. Parley reported: “After sitting awhile by the fire in charge of the officer, I requested to step out. I walked out into the public square accompanied by him. Said I, ‘Mr. Peabody, are you good at a race?’ ‘No,’ said he, ‘but my big bull dog is, and he has been trained to assist me in my office these several years; he will take any man down at my bidding.’ ‘Well, Mr. Peabody, you compelled me to go a mile, I have gone with you two miles. You have given me an opportunity to preach, sing, and have also entertained me with lodging and breakfast. I must now go on my journey; if you are good at a race you can accompany me. I thank you for all your kindness—good day, sir.’
“I then started on my journey, while he stood amazed and not able to step one foot before the other. … He did not awake from his astonishment sufficiently to start in pursuit till I had gained, perhaps, two hundred yards.… He now came hallooing after me, and shouting to his dog to seize me. The dog, being one of the largest I ever saw, came close on my footsteps with all his fury; the officer behind still in pursuit, clapping his hands and hallooing, ‘stu-boy, stu-boy—take him—watch—lay hold of him, I say—down with him,’ and pointing his finger in the direction I was running. The dog was fast overtaking me, and in the act of leaping upon me, when, quick as lightning, the thought struck me, to assist the officer, in sending the dog with all fury to the forest a little distance before me. I pointed my finger in that direction, clapped my hands, and shouted in imitation of the officer. The dog hastened past me with redoubled speed towards the forest; being urged by the officer and myself, and both of us running in the same direction.”
Having eluded both the dog and the officer, Elder Pratt rejoined his companions via an alternate route. Parley later learned that Simeon Carter, whom he had left a Book of Mormon with, along with about sixty others in that area had joined the Church and formed a branch.14
The missionaries had not forgotten their charge to teach the gospel to Native Americans. At Sandusky, Ohio, they stopped for several days among the Wyandot Indians. Parley wrote, “They rejoiced in the tidings, bid us God speed, and desired us to write to them in relation to our success among the tribes further west.”15
It was winter when the intrepid missionaries left Sandusky for Cincinnati, and they walked all the way. The winter of 1830–31 is known in midwest annals as the winter of the deep snow. The latter part of December 1830 was “bitter cold, a blinding, swirling blur of snow, and leaden, lowering skies, combined to make this storm a thing to paralyze that prairie country. It seems to have continued for days, unabated—a wonder, at first, then a terror, a benumbing horror as it became a menace to [the] life of men and animals.”16 In Cincinnati, Ohio, five days before Christmas, the elders boarded a steamboat bound for St. Louis. Ice floes, however, choked the Ohio River, compelling them to disembark in Cairo, Illinois, and continue on foot. “Twenty miles from St. Louis, … a dreadful storm of rain and snow” forced a week’s delay and left snow “in some places near three feet deep.”
Slowly they pressed westward, trudging through the knee-deep snow for entire days “without a house or fire,” the “bleak northwest wind always blowing in our faces with a keenness which would almost take the skin off,” wrote Parley. “The cold [was] so intense that the snow did not melt on the south side of the houses, even in the mid-day sun, for nearly six weeks.” For three hundred miles they carried their clothes, books, and food in knapsacks on their backs. All they had to eat was frozen corn bread and raw pork. Parley said the bread was “so frozen that we could not bite or penetrate any part of it but the outside crust.” For a month and a half they endured exhaustion and hardship as they traveled from Kirtland to Independence. On 13 January 1831 the missionaries arrived in Independence, Missouri, the western frontier of the United States.17
Nearing their destination, the missionaries took up residence in the home of Colonel Robert Patterson on the western boundary of Missouri while waiting for the weather to moderate. About 1 February, Peter Whitmer and Ziba Peterson set up a tailor shop in Independence to earn needed funds while Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, and Frederick G. Williams entered Indian lands to preach and introduce the Book of Mormon.18
They found a listener in William Anderson, the aged chief of the Delawares, son of a Scandinavian father and an Indian mother. The chief had been unwilling to listen to other Christians, but he was finally persuaded to hear the missionaries. With about forty tribal leaders comfortably seated in the chief’s lodge, Oliver Cowdery was invited to speak. He quickly gained their confidence as he recounted the long and difficult trip from the East to bring news of the Book of Mormon to them. He acknowledged the Indians’ present plight: once they were many, now they were few; once their possessions were great, now they were small. Skillfully he wove the Book of Mormon story into his narrative: “Thousands of moons ago, when the red men’s forefathers dwelt in peace and possessed this whole land, the Great Spirit talked with them, and revealed His law and His will, and much knowledge to their wise men and prophets.” Oliver told them that this, their history, and prophecies of the “things which should befall their children in the latter days” were written in a book. He promised that if they would receive and follow this book, their “Great Father” would make them prosperous again and return them to their former greatness. He explained that he and his companions had come to bring them copies of the book, which held the key to their future success. Chief Anderson expressed his gratitude for the white men’s kindness:
“‘It makes us glad in here’—placing his hand on his heart.
“‘It is now winter, we are new settlers in this place; the snow is deep, our cattle and horses are dying, our wigwams are poor; we have much to do in the spring—to build houses, and fence and make farms; but we will build a council house, and meet together, and you shall read to us and teach us more concerning the Book of our fathers and the will of the Great Spirit.’”
The elders “continued for several days to instruct the old chief and many of his tribe.” Their hosts’ desire to learn more about the Book of Mormon grew each day, and the elders, finding several people who could read, distributed copies among them, and the readers helped spread the word.19
Government Indian agents were in control of the area, and unfortunately the missionaries had not obtained the required permit to enter Indian lands and teach the gospel. The local Indian agent immediately informed them that they were in violation of the law and ordered them to desist until they had secured permission from General William Clark, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in St. Louis.20 Parley P. Pratt stated, however, that when news of the missionaries’ success reached the frontier settlements of Missouri it “stirred up the jealousy and envy of the Indian agents and sectarian missionaries to that degree that we were soon ordered out of the Indian country as disturbers of the peace; and even threatened with the military in case of non-compliance.”21
In a letter dated 14 February 1831, Oliver Cowdery wrote to General Clark explaining that he represented a religious society centered in New York State and wished to establish “schools for the instruction of [the Indian] children and also teaching [their elders] the Christian religion.” This they would do, he said, “without intruding or interfering with any other Mission now established.”22 It is not known if Clark ever responded to their request or granted permission. The missionaries settled in Independence and preached the gospel to interested settlers there.
Meanwhile Parley P. Pratt was selected to return to the East and report the mission and to obtain more copies of the Book of Mormon. After he left, the other missionaries’ interest in the Indians increased as they learned of the existence of the Navajos, a large, industrious tribe living about three hundred miles west of Santa Fe.23 Circumstances forced the missionaries to abandon any further attempts to take the gospel to any other Indian tribes.
Although the “Lamanite mission” was not very successful in proselyting Native Americans, it did have a significant impact on the subsequent history of the Church. It not only introduced the gospel for the first time to this remnant of the house of Israel, but it created an awareness of how important these people were in the eyes of the Lord.
In terms of conversions and immediate impact, the mission was most successful among the white settlers in the Western Reserve. Many people who would have a significant impact on the growing Church were drawn into the gospel net in Ohio. Within months there were more members in Ohio than in New York, so when conditions in New York required a move, Ohio was designated by the Lord as the gathering place and headquarters of the Church.
In another sense the mission demonstrated the motivating power of the Book of Mormon as a means of conversion and as a test of the strength conversion brought. This book of scripture was the means of redirecting the course of many lives.
The Lamanite mission also paved the way for future revelation respecting the land of Zion, although it was not so recognized right away. The precise location of the center of Zion was not yet revealed, although the Lord had already indicated to the Saints that Zion would be “on the borders by the Lamanites” (D&C 28:9). Five stalwart members of the Church now had experience in that area and could witness that this was a goodly land.