During the winter of 1833–34 the Saints still hoped that Governor Daniel Dunklin would assist them in regaining their homes in Jackson County. On 16 December 1833, however, Joseph Smith received a revelation that raised ominous possibilities. The Lord set forth various means by which the Saints were to settle the Missouri dispute, but they were warned that if all peaceful remedies failed they might have to occupy their rightful lands by force (see D&C 101). As events unfolded, the Lord instructed the brethren in Kirtland to raise an army and go to Missouri. What was called Zion’s Camp became a reality.
After an arduous journey, Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight arrived in Kirtland from Missouri on 22 February 1834. The high council in Kirtland, which had been organized less than a week (see D&C 102 section heading), assembled in Joseph Smith’s home two days afterward to hear the pair’s report and consider the Missouri brethren’s requests for help. At the conclusion of the meeting, Joseph Smith announced that he was going to Zion to help redeem it. He asked for a vote of the high council to sanction his decision. He was supported unanimously. The Prophet then asked for volunteers to go with him. Thirty to forty of the men present volunteered, and Joseph was selected to be the “commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel.”1
That same day Joseph Smith received a revelation concerning the recruitment and size of this army. Eight men, including the Prophet, were called to help gather young and middle-aged members for Zion’s Camp and to raise money to help the oppressed members in Missouri. They were to recruit a company of five hundred men if possible—but no fewer than one hundred—to march to Missouri to redeem and restore Zion (see D&C 103:11, 15, 22, 29–40).2
Beginning in late February these eight missionaries traveling two by two visited the branches of the Church throughout the eastern United States gathering contributions and recruiting for Zion’s Camp. The Prophet was not happy with the number of volunteers they recruited. In April he suggested that the brethren in the East volunteer to go to Missouri with Zion’s Camp, or lose the chance to “better themselves by obtaining so goodly a land, … and stand against that wicked mob. …
“… If this Church, which is essaying to be the Church of Christ will not help us, when they can do it without sacrifice, … God shall take away their talent, and give it to those who have no talent, and shall prevent them from ever obtaining a place of refuge, or an inheritance upon the land of Zion.”3
Nevertheless, few in the East volunteered for the camp. One who did was a recent convert, twenty-seven-year-old Wilford Woodruff of Connecticut. Wilford was impressed with Parley P. Pratt’s impassioned appeal for volunteers, but he was hesitant to go because of his business affairs. Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal, “I told Brother Parley our circumstances. He told me it was my duty to try to prepare myself and go up to Zion. And accordingly I used every exertion to settle my accounts, arrange my affairs, and prepare myself to join my brethren to go to Missouri.”4 By 25 April, Wilford was living at Joseph Smith’s home in Kirtland helping prepare others for the camp.
On 21 April, Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight went northwest from Kirtland to seek out more recruits. They were to lead those who joined them to meet Joseph’s company at the Salt River in eastern Missouri. They visited branches of the Church in northern Ohio, Michigan, and Illinois, and eventually recruited more than twenty volunteers, over half of them from Pontiac, Michigan.5 Hosea Stout, who later played key roles in the Church, had not yet become a member in 1834 when Hyrum and Lyman went to his hometown in Michigan. Hosea later wrote, “The effect of their preaching was powerful on me, and when I considered that they were going up to Zion to fight for their lost inheritances under the special directions of God it was all that I could do to refrain from going.”6
Recruitment efforts in Kirtland were less disappointing. Many able-bodied priesthood holders in that community volunteered to march to Zion. Thirty-two-year-old Brigham Young stepped forward and tried to convince his older brother Joseph to go too. Joseph Smith declared to the two brothers, “Brother Brigham and brother Joseph, if you will go with me in the camp to Missouri and keep my counsel, I promise you, in the name of the Almighty, that I will lead you there and back again, and not a hair of your heads shall be harmed.” Hearing this, Joseph Young agreed to participate, and the three men clasped hands in confirmation of this promise.7
Many of the men in Zion’s Camp left families with little or no money and no source of income. To prevent undue hardships, members of the Church planted gardens so the women and children could harvest corn and other crops during the army’s absence. The volunteers also gathered supplies and teams for their journey, as well as clothing, bedding, food, and arms for the Saints in Missouri. A few elders, including Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon, were left behind to supervise the ongoing construction of the temple and to direct the other affairs of the Church in Kirtland.8
On 1 May, the day appointed to begin the one-thousand-mile march, only twenty people were ready to go. Joseph Smith sent them fifty miles south to New Portage, where they were to wait for the others to join them. By Sunday, 4 May, over eighty volunteers assembled in Kirtland. Nearly all of them were young men. Some were fearful of what lay ahead. Heber C. Kimball said, “I took leave of my wife and children and friends, not knowing whether I would see them again in the flesh.”9 That day the Prophet spoke to the Kirtland Saints before departing. George A. Smith wrote: “He impressed upon them the necessity of being humble, exercising faith and patience and living in obedience to the commands of the Almighty. … He bore testimony of the truth of the work which God had revealed through him and promised the brethren that if they all would live as they should, before the Lord, keeping his commandments, … they should all safely return.”10
The next day Joseph Smith assumed his role as commander-in-chief of the army. The eighty men joined the twenty brethren in New Portage late Tuesday evening, 6 May 1834. There the Prophet organized the camp. He divided it into companies of tens and fifties and instructed each group to elect a captain, who was to assign each man his responsibilities. One recruit, Joseph Holbrook, reported that the camp was organized “according to the ancient order of Israel.”11 The men also consolidated their money into a general fund, which was managed by Frederick G. Williams, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, who was appointed paymaster. The average age of the recruits was twenty-nine, the age of their leader, Joseph Smith. George A. Smith, cousin of the Prophet, was the youngest at age sixteen, and Samuel Baker was the oldest at seventy-nine.
On 8 May the army of Israel resumed its long march west. Throughout its journey the camp was gradually strengthened with additional volunteers, arms, supplies, and money. Officers continued to recruit help from Latter-day Saints living in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. By the time Zion’s Camp crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri, it numbered 185 individuals. On 8 June at the Salt River in Missouri, where Joseph Smith had arranged to meet Hyrum Smith’s company from Pontiac, Michigan, the army was at its largest: 207 men, 11 women, 11 children, and 25 baggage wagons.
In many respects the daily routine of Zion’s Camp was similar to that of other armies. Most able-bodied men walked beside the heavily loaded wagons along the muddy and dusty trails. Many of them carried knapsacks and held guns. It was not unusual for them to march thirty-five miles a day, despite blistered feet, oppressive heat, heavy rains, high humidity, hunger, and thirst. Armed guards were posted around the camp at night. At 4:00 a.m. the trumpeter roused the weary men with reveille on an old, battered French horn. Each company gathered for prayer, then went to work at their respective assignments. Some members of the company gathered firewood, others carried water, cooked breakfast, and took down tents. Wagon wheels had to be greased and horses fed and groomed before being hitched up for the day’s journey.12
Feeding the camp was one of the most persistent problems. The men were often required to eat limited portions of coarse bread, rancid butter, cornmeal mush, strong honey, raw pork, rotten ham, and maggot-infested bacon and cheese.13 George A. Smith wrote that he was frequently hungry: “I was so weary, hungry and sleepy that I dreamed while walking along the road of seeing a beautiful stream of water by a pleasant shade and a nice loaf of bread and a bottle of milk laid out on a cloth by the side of the spring.”14
On occasion the men strained swamp water to remove wigglers (mosquito larvae), before drinking it.15 Milk and butter was often obtained from local farmers under unsanitary conditions, which raised fears among the camp of milk sickness, puking fever, or even death. But Joseph Smith advised them that unless they were told the milk was contaminated, “use all they could get from friend or enemy, it should do them good, and none be sick in consequence of it; and although we passed through neighborhoods where many of the people and cattle were infected with the sickness, yet my words were fulfilled.”16
On a number of occasions, Joseph Smith taught those in the camp to conserve natural resources and to avoid killing. One afternoon while preparing to pitch his tent Joseph and others discovered three rattlesnakes. As the men prepared to kill them, the Prophet said, “Let them alone—don’t hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation.” The snakes were carefully carried across a creek on sticks and released. Joseph instructed the camp to refrain from killing any animal unless it was necessary to avoid starvation.17
Unlike most armies, Zion’s Camp placed great emphasis upon spirituality. Besides company prayers the men were admonished to pray privately morning and evening. On Sundays the camp rested, held meetings, and partook of the sacrament. They were often privileged to hear the Prophet teach the doctrines of the kingdom. Those in the camp had faith that the Lord was accompanying them. The Prophet recalled, “God was with us, and His angels went before us, and the faith of our little band was unwavering. We know that angels were our companions, for we saw them.”18
On 2 June 1834 the army crossed the Illinois River at Phillips Ferry. The Prophet and a few others walked along the bluffs and found a huge mound with human bones scattered about and what appeared to be the remains of three ancient altars. A hole was dug and a large human skeleton was discovered with a stone arrowhead between its ribs. As the brethren left the hill, the Prophet inquired of the Lord and learned in an open vision that the remains were those of a man named Zelph, a former Lamanite warrior chieftain who was killed “during the last great struggle of the Lamanites and Nephites.”19
The Lord also blessed the camp to travel safely through sometimes threatening circumstances. Members of the camp generally tried to conceal their identity and objectives as they marched. Occasionally the army appeared larger or smaller than it actually was to those who tried to determine its strength. Near Dayton, Ohio, a dozen men entered the camp and concluded there were six hundred soldiers. As the camp crossed the Illinois River, the ferryman thought there were five hundred in the company.20 When they faced opposition at Indianapolis, Joseph assured the brethren that they would pass through the city without anyone being aware of their doing so. He divided them into small groups which dispersed, taking different routes through the community undetected.
Potential enemies notwithstanding, quarreling and contention within the camp became its most vexing problem. Several men feared possible dangers, some complained about changes in their life-style, and a few questioned the decisions of their leaders. For forty-five days they marched together, and the inevitable personality clashes were exacerbated by the harsh conditions they encountered. Grumblers often blamed Joseph Smith for their discomfort.
Sylvester Smith (no relation to the Prophet), a sharp-tongued group captain, frequently led the dissension. He complained that the food was poor, preparations for the journey were inadequate, and Joseph’s watchdog kept him awake at night. On the evening of 17 May, Joseph was called upon to settle a dispute among some of the brethren. He said that he found a “rebellious spirit in Sylvester Smith, and to some extent in others. I told them they would meet with misfortunes, difficulties and hindrances, and said, ‘and you will know it before you leave this place,’ exhorting them to humble themselves before the Lord and become united, that they might not be scourged.”21 The following day the prophecy was fulfilled: nearly every horse was sick or lame. The Prophet promised if they would humble themselves and overcome their discord, their animals would immediately be restored to health. By noon the horses were nimble once again, with the exception of Sylvester Smith’s mount, which soon died.
Contention soon arose again when Sylvester Smith threatened to kill Joseph’s dog. On 3 June a frustrated Joseph Smith stood on a wagon wheel and scolded the men for their lack of humility, their murmuring and faultfinding: “I said the Lord had revealed to me that a scourge would come upon the camp in consequence of the fractious and unruly spirits that appeared among them, and they should die like sheep with the rot; still, if they would repent and humble themselves before the Lord, the scourge, in a great measure, might be turned away; but, as the Lord lives, the members of this camp will suffer for giving way to their unruly temper.”22 This sad prophecy would be fulfilled within a few weeks.23
The anti-Mormons in Jackson County learned of the advancing army in June when the postmaster in Chagrin, Ohio, wrote to his counterpart in Independence: “The Mormons in this region are organizing an army to restore Zion, that is to take it by force of arms.”24 Believing that a Mormon invasion was imminent, Jackson County troops began to drill, and sentries were posted at all ferries along the Missouri River. In a vindictive spirit, hoping perhaps to discourage the return of the Saints, mobbers burned 150 homes belonging to the Mormons who lived in the county. Members of Zion’s Camp suspected that spies from Missouri had followed them for hundreds of miles. One night a Missourian went into camp and swore that he knew their destination was Jackson County and that they would never cross the Mississippi River alive.
At the same time, Church leaders in Clay County continued to petition Governor Daniel Dunklin for assurance that he would support the Saints in returning to their homes, regaining their property, and living in peace in Jackson County. The governor acknowledged that the Saints had been wronged by being driven from their homes, and he sought to have the arms returned that were taken from the Saints when they were expelled from Jackson County the previous November. Furthermore, he recognized that an armed force sent by the state would be necessary to restore the Mormons to their lands and protect them while the courts decided the legal issues involved.
Once Zion’s Camp was in Missouri, Joseph Smith sent Elders Orson Hyde and Parley P. Pratt to Jefferson City, the state capital, to ascertain whether Governor Dunklin was still willing to honor his promise to reinstate the Saints in Jackson County with the assistance of the state militia. The interview was a bitter disappointment. Dunklin claimed that calling out the militia would probably plunge the state into open war. He advised the brethren that they could avoid bloodshed by relinquishing their rights, selling their lands, and settling elsewhere. This was unacceptable to the Church. The governor then advised an appeal to the courts, but the brethren felt that he knew this was not practical. Officers of the court were among the anti-Mormons in the county, so it was like referring them to a band of thieves to sue for the recovery of stolen property.26 Parley was also convinced that the governor was a coward and was morally obligated to resign for failing to live up to the obligations of his office.
Elder Pratt and Elder Hyde rejoined the approaching Zion’s Camp. Their report dashed any hopes that the Missouri Saints would be allowed to return to their homes peacefully. The brethren also realized that the anti-Mormons were waiting to destroy all Mormons who attempted to settle in Jackson County. The Prophet called upon God to witness the justice of the Saints’ cause and the sincerity of their vows. Angered and frustrated by the governor’s decision, Zion’s Camp resumed marching.
Meanwhile, Judge John J. Ryland of Clay County arranged a meeting for 16 June at the courthouse in Liberty. A committee of citizens from Jackson County and representatives of the Saints in Clay County were to meet in an effort to resolve the dispute. A large, unruly, belligerent crowd gathered at the meeting. The non-Mormons proposed to purchase within thirty days all property owned by the Saints in Jackson County at prices determined by three disinterested arbiters or to have the Mormons do likewise and buy all their property within the same time period. This proposal was unrealistic. The Saints did not have enough funds to purchase even a fraction of the land owned by the non-Mormons, and they could not sell their land in Zion because they had been commanded by the Lord to purchase and settle it.27 These facts, of course, were all known by the anti-Mormons. Tempers flared as Jackson County representative Samuel Owens swore that the Missourians would fight for every inch of ground rather than let the Saints return.
“A Baptist priest … said, ‘The Mormons have lived long enough in Clay county; and they must either clear out, or be cleared out.’
“Mr. Turnham, the moderator of the meeting, answered in a masterly manner; saying, ‘Let us be republicans; let us honor our country, and not disgrace it like Jackson county. For God’s sake don’t disfranchise or drive away the Mormons. They are better citizens than many of the old inhabitants.’”28
The Mormon committee prepared a statement specifying that the Saints would not commence hostilities, and they promised to respond to the Jackson County proposition within a week. Soon thereafter the Saints prepared a counterproposal suggesting that a neutral committee determine the value of the property of those in Jackson County who refused to live with the Latter-day Saints, and that the Saints buy that property within a year. Moreover, the Saints promised to stay out of Jackson County until full payment was made. These negotiations unfortunately proved futile.29
By 18 June, Zion’s Camp arrived within a mile of Richmond, the county seat of Ray County. As the army encamped, the Prophet had a premonition of danger. He went into the woods and prayed for safety, and he was assured that the Lord would protect them. He had the camp roused in the early morning hours, and they left without prayers or breakfast. As they marched through Richmond, a black slave woman agitatedly told Luke Johnson, “There is a company of men lying in wait here, who are calculating to kill you this morning as you pass through.” They met no resistance, although they were able to make only nine miles, being slowed down by broken wagon wheels.
Instead of reaching their intended destination of Liberty, they camped just inside Clay County on a hill between two branches of the Fishing River. When Joseph learned that mobs were preparing to attack, he knelt and prayed again for divine protection. Joseph’s fears were confirmed when five armed Missourians rode into camp cursing and swore that the Mormons would “see hell before morning.”30 They boasted that nearly four hundred men had joined forces from Ray, Lafayette, Clay, and Jackson counties and were then preparing to cross the Missouri River at Williams Ferry and “utterly destroy the Mormons.”31 Sounds of gunfire were heard, and some of the men wanted to fight, but the Prophet promised that the Lord would protect them. He declared, “Stand still and see the salvation of God.”32
A few minutes after the Missourians left, a small black cloud appeared in the clear western sky. It moved eastward, unrolling like a scroll, filling the heavens with darkness. As the first ferry load of mobbers crossed the Missouri River to the south, a sudden squall made it nearly impossible for the boat to return to pick up another load. The storm was so intense that Zion’s Camp abandoned their tents and found shelter in an old Baptist meetinghouse nearby. When Joseph Smith came in, he exclaimed, “Boys, there is some meaning to this. God is in this storm.”33 It was impossible for anyone to sleep, so the group sang hymns and rested on the rough benches. One camp member recorded that “during this time the whole canopy of the wide horizen was in one complete blaze with terrifying claps of thunder.”34
Elsewhere the beleaguered mobbers sought any refuge they could. The furious storm broke branches from trees and destroyed crops. It soaked and made the mobbers’ ammunition useless, frightened and scattered their horses, and raised the level of the Fishing River, preventing them from attacking Zion’s Camp. The Prophet recalled, “It seemed as if the mandate of vengeance had gone forth from the God of battles, to protect His servants from the destruction of their enemies.”35
Two days later, on 21 June, Colonel John Sconce and two associates of the Ray County militia rode into Zion’s Camp to learn of the Mormons’ intentions. “I see that there is an Almighty power that protects this people,” Sconce admitted.36 The Prophet explained that the only purpose of Zion’s Camp was to help their brethren be reinstated on their lands and that their intent was not to injure anyone. He said, “The evil reports circulated about us were false, and got up by our enemies to procure our destruction.”37 Sconce and his companions were so affected by the stories of the unjust trials and suffering of the Saints that they promised to use their influence to offset feelings against the Mormons.
The next day, 22 June, Joseph received a revelation communicating the Lord’s dissatisfaction with the members of the Church for their disobedience and selfishness:
They “do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them;
“And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:3–4).
This chastisement was directed specifically to members of the branches who were slow in sharing themselves and their means for the cause of Zion (see vv. 7–8). The Saints had to learn their duty and gain more experience before Zion could be redeemed (see vv. 9–10). Thus the Lord said, “it is expedient in me that mine elders should wait for a little season, for the redemption of Zion” (v. 13). He promised the obedient that they would receive an endowment from on high if they continued faithful (see vv. 11–12). If Zion’s Camp did not succeed in its military objectives, it did succeed in serving the purposes of the Lord. Speaking of the men in the camp he said, “I have heard their prayers, and will accept their offering; and it is expedient in me that they should be brought thus far for a trial of their faith” (v. 19).
For a few of the Saints, the Lord’s command not to do battle was the final trial of their faith. Disappointed and angry, they apostatized. As a result of their insurrection the Prophet again warned the camp that the Lord would send a devastating scourge upon them as a consequence of their unrighteous complaints. The day before the revelation was given two men contracted cholera. Three days later several more were struck with the dreaded disease, which was carried in contaminated water. The epidemic spread, causing severe diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. Before it ended, about sixty-eight people, including Joseph Smith, were stricken by the disease, and fourteen members of the camp died, one of whom was a woman named Betsy Parrish.38 On 2 July, Joseph Smith told the camp that “if they would humble themselves before the Lord and covenant to keep His commandments and obey my counsel, the plague should be stayed from that hour, and there should not be another case of the cholera among them. The brethren covenanted to that effect with uplifted hands, and the plague was stayed.”39
On 25 June, during the height of the cholera attack, Joseph Smith divided Zion’s Camp into several small groups to demonstrate the Saints’ peaceful intent to the Missourians. Ten days later formal written discharges were prepared for each faithful member of the camp. Lyman Wight reported that the Prophet “said that he was now willing to return home, that he was fully satisfied that he had done the will of God, and that the Lord had accepted our sacrifice and offering, even as he had Abraham’s when he offered his son Isaac; and in his benediction asked the heavenly Father to bless us with eternal life and salvation.”40
The camp dispersed after being released by the Prophet. Some people remained in Missouri in accordance with the Fishing River revelation (see D&C 105:20), and some returned to the mission field, but most of them returned to their families in the East. On that same day, 3 July, the Prophet organized a presidency and high council in Missouri to help Bishop Edward Partridge administer the affairs of the Church in that area. Joseph Smith discouraged the Missouri Saints from holding Church meetings, however, in an attempt to allay the fears of local citizens.
Life in Clay County was easier for the Saints throughout the rest of 1834 and during 1835. This period was relatively free from persecution, and the Saints enjoyed some prosperity. Most of the non-Mormons in Clay County were cordial. The spirit of goodwill, however, began to change when Saints continued to migrate to Missouri in anticipation of returning to Jackson County and when some members of the Church bought property in Clay County. Unfortunately, a few of the members had not learned from the persecutions of Jackson County, and they incited the old settlers with talk that their lands would eventually belong to the Saints. Collectively the members failed to observe the Lord’s counsel:
“Talk not of judgments, neither boast of faith nor of mighty works, but carefully gather together, as much in one region as can be, consistently with the feelings of the people;
“And behold, I will give unto you favor and grace in their eyes, that you may rest in peace and safety” (D&C 105:24–25).
Joseph Smith and a few other leaders of Zion’s Camp arrived back in Kirtland in early August, to the relief of the Saints in Kirtland who had worried about reports that the Prophet had been killed in Missouri. Later in the month a high council court heard the complaints of Sylvester Smith and others who were still bitter over Zion’s Camp. Ten men who had participated in Zion’s Camp disputed the charges of Sylvester Smith and testified that Joseph Smith was not guilty of improper conduct. After reviewing the evidence, Sylvester admitted that he was in error and had behaved improperly.
Zion’s Camp failed to help the Missouri Saints regain their lands and was marred by some dissension, apostasy, and unfavorable publicity, but a number of positive results came from the journey. By volunteering, the members demonstrated their faith in the Lord and his prophet and their earnest desire to comply with latter-day revelation. They showed their concern for the exiled Saints in Missouri by their willingness to lay down their lives if necessary to assist them.
This rugged journey served as a test to determine who was worthy to serve in positions of leadership and trust and to receive an endowment in the Kirtland Temple. The Prophet later explained: “God did not want you to fight. He could not organize his kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”41 In February 1835 the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Quorum of the Seventy were organized. Nine of the original Apostles, all Seven Presidents of the Seventy’s quorum, and all sixty-three other members of that quorum had served in the army of Israel that marched to western Missouri in 1834.
Zion’s Camp chastened, polished, and spiritually refined many of the Lord’s servants. The observant and dedicated received invaluable practical training and spiritual experience that served them well in later struggles for the Church. The hardships and challenges experienced over its thousand miles provided invaluable training for Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others who led the exiled Saints from Missouri to Illinois and from Nauvoo across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. When a skeptic asked what he had gained from his journey, Brigham Young promptly replied, “I would not exchange the knowledge I have received this season for the whole of Geauga County.”42