“‘Like Gold Seven Times Purified’: Early Saints in Missouri,” Ensign, Apr. 1979, 51
Elizabeth Haven, a cousin of Brigham Young and Willard Richards, was one of the thousands of Mormons driven away from her new home in Missouri in 1839. A literate and educated woman of twenty-seven, she wrote from Quincy, Illinois, to another cousin expressing the grief, the pathos, and the faith that run through that entire confused and confusing period:
“O! how Zion mourns, her sons have fallen in the streets by the cruel hand of the enemy and her daughters weep in silence. It is impossible for my pen to tell you of our situation, only those who feel it, know. Between five and seven thousands men, women and children driven … in poverty to seek for habitations where they can find them. … The Stakes of Zion will soon be bereft of all her children. By the river of Babylon we can sit down, yes, dear E, we weep when we remember Zion.”
Her almost instinctive comparing of modern Israel to ancient adds deeper poignancy to her message. It was not just a home or mere possessions that had been lost, but the promised inheritance of Zion. For a time, some bewildered and suffering Saints may have thought that even the idea of Zion had been lost.
But Elizabeth Haven, striving for perspective and understanding, added another dimension—a positive one—to life in Missouri: the persecutions reported in the papers had opened many doors to missionaries. “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform,” she concluded. “Many have been sifted out of the church, while others have been rooted … in love and are the salt of the earth. … We are to be tried (every one who inhabits the celestial kingdom) like gold seven times purified.”1
Two of our hymns preserve this paradoxical picture of the Mormon Missouri experience. W. W. Phelps wrote, with real feeling:
This earth was once a garden place,
With all her glories common,
And men did live a holy race,
And worship Jesus face to face,
(Hymns, no. 389.)
That’s the ideal, idyllic Missouri. The ugly side is preserved in another hymn:
Remember the wrongs of Missouri;
Forget not the fate of Nauvoo.
When the God-hating foe is before you,
Stand firm and be faithful and true.
(Hymns, no. 37.)
Because these two views of our Missouri past are found repeatedly in the writings of the time, it is easy for us today to generalize the early Saints’ emotions into a simple story of “God-hating foes” opposing “faithful and true” Saints. But the reality of their experience was, of course, more complex. Because the genuine hope and longing for Zion that the Saints brought with them to Missouri were not compatible with the hostility and cruelty they found there, the Saints, forced to live at odds with their neighbors, were subject to turbulent emotions: justice outraged by their sufferings, anger at their tormenters, gratitude for the snatches of normalcy, and, overwhelmingly, the strengthened faith of those who had been “seven times” tried.
The suffering of the Missouri Saints was real. For the most part, it occurred in two distinct periods—the 1833–34 expulsion from Jackson County and the 1838–39 expulsion from the state. In two brief autobiographical paragraphs, John Riggs summarizes his experiences during the later period:
“I helped to move the Saints during the time the mob was burning the Saints’ houses. I was in Adam-on-Diahman with the Prophet and drove his baggage wagon. I returned to Far West and was in the company to go to Hauns Mill to help the Saints, but a messenger arrived bringing the bad news of the massacre.
“I was … in the Crooked River battle nearby when Paterson O. Danyon [Patrick O‘Bannion] fell, then David W. Patten. … I was in company with one hundred and twenty horsemen at the time George M. Hinckle turned traitor. I was guard at the time that the Prophet, P. P. Pratt, … and others were … delivered over to the mob. … The next morning we were all marched out on the public square … and then and there we had to lay down our firearms and were turned over as prisoners of war. … A terrible time it was.”2
In most cases the suffering was unmerited. Chapman Duncan, living in Independence during the 1833–34 persecutions, remembers: “The first demonstration of mob violence that I know of was in the evening after we had gone to bed. A stone was thrown into the window. It hit the bed on the bedstead very near my head.”3 His laconic account leaves to our imagination the terror of being aroused from sleep by random violence.
Eliza Maria Partridge Lyman remembers an event that same month, July 1833, when “a number of armed men came to our house in the afternoon, and took my father [Bishop Edward Partridge] to the public square.” They tarred and feathered him and were prevented from whipping him only by “a friend of humanity.” Her mother had, three weeks before, been delivered of a baby boy and was still “very weak.” Eliza adds, “We, the children, were very much frightened.”4
Warren Smith and his family, in company with others, stopped for the night at Haun’s Mill during their move from Ohio to Missouri in 1838. A little before sunset, a mob of about three hundred armed men came upon them. Amanda Barnes Smith and her daughters saved their lives by running into the woods with bullets “whistl[ing] by me like hailstones.” But when she crept back to the mill, she saw her husband and ten-year-old son “lifeless upon the ground, and one son six years old … wounded very bad.” Then she found another small son mercilessly shot in the head under the blacksmith’s bellows where he had attempted to hide. She concludes her recital of “horror and distress,” listing her property claims, noting bitterly that she had lost “my all. The whole damage, [is] more than the State of Missouri is worth.”5
Nancy Naomi Tracy, who had joined the Church in 1834, remembers being held a prisoner in her house by the mob, still weak from the birth of a child three weeks before, “shaking with the ague by day and burning with a fever at night with no one to care for me but my little boy 5 years old” until the mob finally agreed to let her rejoin her husband in Far West.6
Mercy Rachel Fielding Thompson was trying to care for her five-month-old baby alone after the mob drove off her husband, Robert. She also took over the care of her sister, Mary Fielding Smith, who was ill from the birth of her son, Joseph F., and the complications of a severe cold. Mary knew where her husband was—in Liberty Jail—but it was three months before Mercy heard anything from Robert.
Mob activity was so intense around Far West that “at times I feard to lay my Babe down lest they should slay me and leave it to suffer worse than immediate Death,” Mercy records. By special permission, the two women were allowed to make the forty-mile trip through February weather to see Mary’s husband, Hyrum, and spend a sleepless night with the prisoners in the jail, Mercy caring for both babies. “As long as memory lasts will remain in my recollection the Creeking hinges of that door which clo[s]ed upon the noblest Men on Earth. Who can immagine our feelings as we travaild homeward? But would I sell the honor bestowd upon me of being Locked up in jail with such characters for gold? No.”7
The reaction of anger against the injustice of such suffering is understandable. The Mormons were Americans, and cherished their Constitution-promised freedoms jealously. And helplessness only increased their anger. When Luke Johnson had come to Missouri with Zion’s Camp in 1834, he had resolved to “go into Jackson Co., or die in the attempt.” He, his brother Lyman, and others, even though they knew there would be no fighting for their rights, rowed across the Missouri, climbed out on shore, “discharged three rounds of our small arms and immediately got into the boat, and with all our energies rowed back” while the angry mob lined the shore and fired back, “their balls skimming the water near us.” Undaunted, the men landed and “returned fire … across the Mo. River.”8 It may have been bravado, but Luke clearly needed to make a gesture of defiance against the persecution.
We see the same reaction in Erastus Snow, a boy of twenty and ill with a long bout of “chills and fever” during the seige of Far West. As the battle line formed, he recalls, “the Spirit came upon me. My fever left and I arose, dressed myself, and in the absence of any other weapon, I seized a pitchfork from the stable and marched into the line.”9
The same gritty spirit comes through Nathan Tanner’s account of the humiliating surrender in Far West. He had been forced to leave his wife and child at home, the baby so sick that his wife had dug a grave for it under the hearthstone. His father had come through the line the night before the surrender, so covered with blood that Nathan had recognized him only by his voice.
His helplessness and worry only increased his anger as “the gards of our enemy … ware turned loos to tantalize us what they pleased. A table was set out on the publik squair and papers made out to deed all of our lands away to pay the exspence of those that drove us.” He signed the deed, but balked when they ordered him to raise his hand and swear that he was acting of his free volition. Sarcastically, “I rased my hand and waved it over the beyanets and said it looks like a free volantear act and deed at the point of the beyanet.” One of the guards struck him senseless and he was dragged back into the compound.
A little later, four “grate ruf looking men” rode across the square to him and one of them accosted him, “How do you feal Morman, as much like Fite as ushel?” Nathan retorted, “I feal about the saim.” Cocking his rifle, the Missourian invited him to come ahead. Nathan boiled over: “You poor pusalanoms courdly curs that will draw fire armes on a bear-handed man. Git down off from your horses and lay daun your arms and come at me 2 at a time and [see] if I don’t thrash the ground with you.” The Missourian backed off, commenting, “I brought my arms to Fite with.” Nathan, giving himself the last word in his record, responded witheringly, “Yes you need them.”10
But the situation was more complex than simple helplessness in the face of persecution. Benjamin F. Johnson, a husky though shy nineteen-year-old, records one of the most poignant accounts to come out of Missouri. When the Saints of the vicinity flocked in to Adam-ondi-Ahman; abandoning their farms, Benjamin and some of his companions felt compelled to go about the area securing the grain, cattle, hogs, and supplies to feed the beseiged, starving settlers. They had no choice but to bring in “whatever we could find, without regard to ownership … wherever it was found.”
No doubt some of Benjamin’s comrades considered their actions justified; some even yielded to the natural, though sinful, impulse toward retribution. Calloused by the wrongs done them and blinded to their own wrongdoing, they turned persecutors themselves. But Benjamin held back. When his group searched a man’s property for guns and ammunition that had reportedly been stockpiled there for a raid against the Mormons, Benjamin was moved to pity at the man’s “look of expectant death, and such a begging for his life.” When the family protested their innocence, the Mormons promised to leave them alone if they were telling the truth but warned “we would burn them out” if they were lying.
But the Mormons found the guns hidden in the corn shocks. Then Benjamin was torn by his Christian “pity for our enemies, even those who were plotting our destruction,” and his desire for justice. Still, he refused to join his embittered companions in their vengeful retribution. Their “pillaging” of the house, he reported, “was too much for me.” He grimly wrested away a fine horse and helped a young pregnant woman mount it, took “a roll of home made cloth” from another Mormon and strapped it on behind her saddle and tried to help the other frightened women and children to collect things they would need. “While others were doing the burning and plunder, my mission was of mercy so far as duty would permit. But of course I made enemies at home, and became more known by those who were our avowed enemies.”11 The situation was not simple—for either Mormons or Missourians.
But during the six or seven Missouri years, there were many lighter moments—times when life went on normally. Abraham O. Smoot, one of those forced to surrender at Far West, married while still a prisoner of war, “which,” he explained cheerfully, “might be considered as a proof that I had not lost hope.”12
Nor had Sarah DeArmon Pea. She joined the Church with her family when missionaries came to their Illinois home in 1835, even though the elders had to cut a hole in the December ice to do it. “I had made it a business of prayer to my father in heaven to Show me if this was the work of god and he did. So I was truly convinced that it was the true gospel and never have for one moment doubted it Since and it has now been fifty-four years Since I imbraced mormonism.”
The family began to make preparations for the move to Missouri which they would make in three years. During that time, three separate elders mentioned to her a fine young elder they thought she should marry—Charles C. Rich. Charles, having received three separate—and unsolicited—recommendations about young Sarah, wrote to her father and enclosed a letter to her.
Two weeks after the family arrived in Far West, twenty-three-year-old Sarah and twenty-eight-year-old Charles first saw each other “in a publick meeting … and without aney one pointing us out to each other we knew each other at Sight and in four month from the time we first met we ware married.”
It is an idyllic story. “We moved to our coasey and happy home and we thought we ware the happyest couple in all the land. … Things went on So nicely during the Summer we never once dreamed what was in store to brake up our happy anticipations and plans.”13 A year later, she celebrated her wedding month by crossing the Missouri River to Illinois. She was within a few weeks of giving birth to her first child; the only boat available was a canoe, and the men rowed it between cakes of ice so large that they sometimes had to jump out on the ice and push the canoe past by hand.”14
Edward Stevenson, remembering his Missouri experiences fifty-seven years later, had plenty of the same kinds of tribulations to recall. But he also gives us a precious glimpse of the Prophet Joseph encouraging the Saints in his own way when a four-inch snowstorm buried Adam-ondi-Ahman. “The Prophet seeing our forelorn condition called on us to form into two parties in Battle array.” He led one, Lyman Wight the other, and the two parties snowballed each other “with a will, full of glee and fun.” Edward, a small eighteen-year-old, records with satisfaction scoring a bull’s-eye down the neck of his burly opponent who was stooped over scooping up more snow.15
These moments were, naturally, sparse by comparison with those of tension and hardship. Yet the great legacy of Missouri must remain neither the promise of a peaceful land flowing with milk and honey nor the memory of injustice, sorrow, and suffering. Instead, the lasting legacy is in the tempered testimonies of the Saints tried in the furnace.
Young Edward Stevenson was one of these. Driven from his home in Daviess County with only “one wagon-load of products from my 40 acres,” the main support of his widowed mother, totally unrecompensed for his land and improvements, he commented with tough understatement: “I thought this rather hard, but it did not convince me that my religion was not true.”16
Eliza R. Snow, hiking out of Adam-ondi-Ahman in winter, was taunted by a militiaman: “‘Well, I think this will cure you of your faith.’ Looking him squarely in the eye, I replied, ‘No, Sir, it will take more than this to cure me of my faith.’ His countenance dropped, and he responded, ‘I must confess you are a better soldier than I am.’” Eliza’s final comment on the situation is stinging: “I pressed on, thinking that, unless he was above the average of his fellows in that section, I was not complimented by his confession.”17
Benjamin F. Johnson, at April conference on the Illinois side, soberly appraised his experience: “I was now twenty-one, with increased health, energy, endurance, and animated with brighter hope than before had ever inspired me, all begotten within me through a travail in tribulation and Sacrifice since leaving Kirtland not more than nine months ago.
“In looking back over the vicissitudes through which I had passed in that short period it seemed more like a dream than a reality; and when I think of it all as real, I feel a weight of gratitude to God that I find no words to express.”18
For Drusilla Dorris Hendricks, a convert from Tennessee, Missouri was where her faith matured. In a simple, almost homely account, she tells how she and her husband joined the Church in 1835 and moved to Missouri in 1836 with their four small children. They settled in Clay County, gave up their land, moved to Caldwell County, and hoped for peace. Even though they had very little time to prepare for winter and a prairie fire burned their twelve tons of hay, they were able to crib six acres of corn as their winter’s supply.
“I never lived happier in my life,” said Drusilla. A frail woman before joining the Church, she gave the Word of Wisdom credit for letting her “walk three miles and not tire. … We never missed a meeting for we loved the Saints and had confidence in them. We read considerable, mainly the Bible, Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants; had our children baptized when eight years old and in fact could hardly keep them waiting until they were old enough.”
They had three years of peace, another child, and a prosperous farm when violence erupted again in the fall of 1838. Her husband was frequently gone with the other men guarding the settlement, and she was always “willing for him to go.” One night when Charles C. Rich brought word that a mob was gathering on Crooked River, she got up, lit a fire, put her husband’s pistols in his overcoat pocket, belted on his sword, and handed him his gun. She went back to sleep and awoke at dawn, thinking she heard gunfire. The Battle of Crooked River was being fought at that moment. The next day they took her to James, paralyzed from the neck down. For the next year, she nursed him faithfully, stood off the mobs, and tried to feed the family on what little food they could find. Her husband, still paralyzed, had broken out “in sores all over his body so that you could not put a pin point on him without putting it on a sore, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.”
They ate the last food in the house—a saucer full of corn meal and “one spoonful of sugar.” In her extremity, Drusilla left us this tender experience: “The conflict began in my mind: ‘Your folks told you your husband would be killed and are you not sorry you did not listen to them?’ I said, No I am not. I did what was right. If I die I am glad I was baptized for the remission of my sins for I have an answer of a good conscience. But after that a third person spoke. It was a still, small voice this time, saying, ‘Hold on, for the Lord will provide.’ I said I would for I would trust in Him and not grumble.”19
Her trust was repaid. Her husband remained an invalid, but the family came to Utah, united with the Saints. For they and so many like them had done more than survive Missouri. They had triumphed.