Section 111 is a good example of how understanding a revelation’s historical background can help us understand its spiritual significance.
The Kirtland Temple had been finished and dedicated in March 1836, leaving the Saints in Kirtland and the Church itself impoverished and deeply in debt. In addition, the troubles in Zion (Missouri) had also heavily taxed the spiritual and temporal resources of the Church, which was barely six years old at this time. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith left Kirtland in late July and traveled to Salem, Massachusetts. They rented a house, preached publicly, and went from house to house to teach the gospel. During their stay at Salem Doctrine and Covenants 111 was given (see History of the Church, 2:464–65).
Elder Brigham H. Roberts wrote: “Ebenezer Robinson, for many years a faithful and prominent elder in the church, and at Nauvoo associated with Don Carlos—brother of the Prophet—in editing and publishing the Times and Seasons, states that the journey to Salem arose from these circumstances. There came to Kirtland a brother by the name of Burgess who stated that he had knowledge of a large amount of money secreted in the cellar of a certain house in Salem, Massachusetts, which had belonged to a widow (then deceased), and thought he was the only person who had knowledge of it, or of the location of the house. The brethren accepting the representations of Burgess as true made the journey to Salem to secure, if possible, the treasure. Burgess, according to Robinson, met the brethren in Salem, but claimed that time had wrought such changes in the town that he could not for a certainty point out the house ‘and soon left.’” (Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:411.)
The Prophet Joseph Smith’s motives for following William Burgess’s suggestion to search for the hidden treasure in Salem were good, prompted by his love for the Saints and for the Church. It appeared that in one incredible stroke of good fortune the Church could gain money enough to clear itself of its debts and care for the suffering Saints in Kirtland and Zion. The leading elders had no thought of personal gain in the trip. So the Lord was not displeased with their journey, “notwithstanding [their] follies” (D&C 111:1).
Their folly lay in the fact that less than three years earlier, the Prophet Joseph Smith had received counsel from the Lord about the Church’s indebtedness (see D&C 104:78–80; see also Notes and Commentary on D&C 104:78–80). At that time Church members were told that if they would humble themselves and seek through diligence and the prayer of faith to be relieved of their indebtedness, the Lord would send means for their deliverance. Now, still deeply in debt, Church leaders were trying to solve the financial difficulties of the Church through their own efforts. The Lord reminded them that He could give them power to pay their debts and that He would deal mercifully with Zion (see D&C 111:5–6).
Occasionally Church members with financial difficulties are tempted to seek relief in highly speculative investments. They focus on the hope that the Lord will take away their problems and reward their sincerity in a sensational way, when more often the Lord blesses us through quiet miracles or by giving us the means to work our way out of our problems. The lessons of section 111 are of great value to Saints in all circumstances.
The Lord allowed the Prophet Joseph to go to Salem, for in Salem was a treasure of much greater value to the kingdom than that for which they had come. There were many souls in Salem whom the Lord knew would accept the gospel. Their conversion would greatly benefit the Lord’s work because these new members of the Church would unite their efforts with those of the Saints and contribute generously to the cause of Zion.
Elder Erastus Snow wrote of his own later experiences in Salem: “Until this time [6 July 1841] I had been calculating to spend the summer in the country and return home to Nauvoo late in the fall in compliance with advice given me by President Joseph Smith when I left in Nov. last—But President Hyrum Smith and [William] Law who had been east as far as Salem, Massachusetts and just returned through Philadelphia on their way home again [counseled] that I should not return to Nauvoo in the fall but that I should go immediately with Brother Winchester to Salem Mass. and try to establish the kingdom in that city. They left with us a copy of a revelation given about that people in 1836 which said the Lord had much people there whom he would gather into his kingdom in his own due time and they thought the due time of the Lord had come. Though I felt anxious to go home in the fall and thought it would involve what little property I had in the West in a difficulty to stay I felt willing to do the will of the Lord. I prayed earnestly to know his will and his spirit continually whispered to go to Salem. … The conference also voted that I should go and promised their prayers in my behalf that God might open an effectual door for the word.” (Journal of Erastus Snow [1841–47], Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, pp. 3–5.)
Later entries in his journal show that Elder Snow baptized over one hundred people from the time he arrived in Salem until he returned to Nauvoo on 11 April 1843. For example Elder Snow indicated that there were ninety members in the Salem Branch on 28 May 1842 (see p. 27).
“In due time the Almighty will give Salem into ‘your’ hands (vs. 4), that the Elders shall have power over it, insomuch that ‘they,’ probably meaning the people of the city, shall not discover ‘your secret parts’. (Cf. Isa. 3:17, ‘shame.’) Not only that, but also the wealth of the city, its gold and silver, shall be in possession of the brethren. This verse is obviously a prophecy of some future happening, even yet future, and evidently looks forward to a day when the Lord’s Kingdom will be established upon the earth, when towns, cities, and nations will be governed under his direction by brethren holding the Priesthood. When that day comes, the Elders of the Church will govern even Salem without being shamed by the people of the city. Its wealth will also be theirs. The meaning here is that it will be used, not so much for their own personal desires, as for righteous purposes.” (Sperry, Compendium, pp. 609–10.)
Righteous servants of the Lord who seek His help in their decisions can know that He approves their actions through the peace and confidence that comes to their souls. By being sensitive to the Spirit, the Lord’s people can be continually led by Him in their lives (see Alma 58:11; D&C 6:22–23; 8:2–3). This verse is also a reminder that when we follow the Spirit, we know where the Lord wants us to be.
Elder B. H. Roberts said that the Lord’s instructions to learn about the ancient inhabitants of Salem were given, “doubtless having in view the securing of their genealogies and redemption of the past generations of men who had lived there; so that if for a moment the weakness of men was manifested in this journey, we see that fault reproved and the strength and wisdom of God made manifest by directing the attention of his servants to the real and true treasures that he would have them seek, even the salvation of men, both the living and the dead” (Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:412).
Verse 9 of this section was also of great importance to the Prophet because of his special association with the people of Salem. Smith and Sjodahl pointed out that “history is, perhaps, the most useful knowledge a missionary can have, next to a thorough understanding of the principles of the gospel, but ‘ancient inhabitants’ refers more particularly to the ancestors of the Prophet. The Revelation was given at Salem, the county seat of Essex County, Massachusetts. It was in that county that Robert Smith, the first of the Smith family in America, settled. It was the residence of many more of the pioneer immigrants to America, whose descendants joined the Church. At Salem, the county seat, the records for all the towns in the county were kept, and the Smiths’ record, among others, were there. The matter of genealogy evidently entered into the inquiry concerning the ‘ancient inhabitants,’ for a purpose which was manifest later, of the salvation of the dead.” (Commentary, p. 729.)