“Early Saints and the Millennium,” Ensign, Aug. 1979, 43
Three times during the night of 21 September 1823, and again the following morning, the angel Moroni repeated his message to Joseph Smith: God had a special work for him to accomplish. Joseph would be an instrument in restoring the fulness of the gospel, in preparation for the millennial reign of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Beginning with the inspired translation of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of divine authority, this marvelous work would fulfill prophecy and bring Joseph Smith to the attention of a world moving ever closer to fulfillment of prophecies regarding its sinfulness.
As Moroni educated Joseph Smith “respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days” (JS—H 1:54), the instructions were prefaced with scriptural foreshadowing. Moroni recited Malachi’s prophecy of events to precede the final judgment, and Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom and the gathering of latter-day Israel. The angel said that the judgment of those who rejected Christ, anticipated in Peter’s sermon at the Jerusalem temple, was near at hand. Joel’s prophecy of signs in the heavens and of an outpouring of the spirit was also soon to be fulfilled. In all that he said, Moroni impressed on young Joseph the lateness of the hour in the divine timetable. (See JS—H 1:33–41.)
Those who later listened with an ear of faith to Joseph Smith likewise were awed by the implications of Moroni’s message. These were the last days. Time was short. The Saints were among those given the opportunity to help reestablish the kingdom of God for the last time. From the day of their conversion to the hour of their death, many of these first-generation members of the restored church of Christ labored intently, expecting to see the Second Coming in their lifetime. This anticipation directly influenced Church history from the 1830s through the end of the century, and continues to affect our lives today.
If the ancient forewarnings repeated anew by Moroni were not enough to convince the first Latter-day Saints of the immediacy of things the Lord was reiterating these truths through modern revelation The preface to the Doctrine and Covenants (section 1, received by Joseph Smith in 1831) spoke clearly of a day “nigh at hand, when peace shall be taken from the earth, and the devil shall have power over his own dominion” (D&C 1:35). The same millennial message threaded its way through other revelations given through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Seldom was a revelation recorded in the earliest days of the Restoration without a reference of some kind to the events of the Second Coming. (See especially D&C 29, D&C 33, D&C 43, D&C 45, D&C 49, D&C 63, D&C 65, D&C 76, D&C 77, D&C 86, D&C 87, D&C 88, D&C 101, D&C 106, D&C 112, D&C 130, and D&C 133 and JS—H 1.)
These revelations reinforced the biblical and Nephite prophecies of signs that would precede an ushering in of the Millennium. There would be signs in the heavens and on earth, war and wickedness, all evidencing the need for repentance and the security offered by the gospel.
It was not difficult for some Saints to infuse reports of world events with a sense of millennial portent. A regular feature on “signs of the times” or “passing events” in early issues of the Millennial Star reported insurrections, revolutions, rioting, preparations for war, shipwrecks, fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, hailstorms, major crop losses, epidemics of smallpox and cholera, and—on a positive note—inventions and improvements in communications and transportation.
Joseph Smith encouraged Church historians to include in the official History of the Church—and it continued late in the daily “Journal History”—reports of natural disasters and human misfortune. Even the titles of early Church publications reflected millennial expectations: The Evening and The Morning Star (Independence, 1832), The L.D.S. Messenger and Advocate (Kirtland, 1834), Times and Seasons (Nauvoo, 1839), The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star (Manchester, 1840), and Zion’s Watchman (Sydney, New South Wales, 1853).
This “official” attention to the signs of the times carried over into personal records. One devoted diary keeper, Elder Wilford Woodruff, added to his annual summaries of each year’s accomplishments his own lists of portentous events. At the close of 1840, for example, he recorded flooding along the Mississippi River, preparations for war in France and the Middle East, cholera in Paris, poverty in England, ships lost at sea, the sighting of a meteor over Cincinnati, crime in urban areas, and so on. “None feel more interested in the signs of the Heavens and the earth which clearly indicate these great and important events than the Latter Day Saints,” he wrote.1
Many of the rank and file Church members felt similarly. When revolution wracked France and threatened other nations of Europe in 1848, diarist James Hall in Salt Lake City felt the wars represented “the signs of the coming of the Son of Man … very evidently manifested.”2 In numerous other diaries, in sermons, in hymns, and in Church publications, concerned members exhibited watchful obedience. This was their response to the parable in which the fig tree foreshadows the approaching summer by sending forth the tender leaves of spring (see D&C 45:37, Matt. 24:32–33). To be prepared for the glorious season of peace, it was important to watch and listen for its signals.
Even though there could be no mistaking that these were momentous times, early Latter-day Saints wondered about the precise timetable. While missionaries set out to preach the gospel and warn the world—a necessary precondition of the Second Coming—at least some nineteenth century students of the scriptures became unduly concerned with the calendar. No doubt they implored the Prophet for answers, and he inquired of the Lord for understanding.
On one such occasion in 1832, Joseph Smith interpreted a few difficult passages in the Revelation of John. (See D&C 77.) These selective insights may have sustained interest in the symbolism of the apocalyptic scriptures, but Church leaders appreciated how preoccupation would interfere with essential tasks. It became necessary in 1839 to caution the elders against speculation: “The horns of the beast, the toes of the image, the frogs and the beast mentioned by John, are not going to save this generation,” warned an epistle signed by six apostles, “for if a man does not become acquained with the first principles of the gospel, how shall he understand those greater mysteries which the most wise cannot understand without revelation” (Times and Seasons, 1:13–14).
The Saints were reminded that not even the angels serving at the throne of God would know the exact day—but many millennialists speculated and calculated from the writings of Daniel and John the Beloved. Joseph Smith observed in 1843 that earlier he had sought earnestly through prayer to know the time of the Second Coming. A voice replied, “Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.” This answer left him wondering, the Prophet said, “whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. I believe,” he told the Saints at Ramus, Illinois, “the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.” (D&C 130:15–17.)
Eight years earlier the Prophet had mentioned this occurrence to a gathering in Kirtland. At this meeting of 14 February 1835, the same at which the Twelve were chosen, he charged the missionaries to “go forth to prune the vineyard for the last time, or the coming of the Lord, which was nigh—even fifty-six years should wind up the scene” (History of the Church, 2:182). Ignoring the conditional “if” of the inspired utterance (the Prophet obviously did not reach the specified age), some Saints in Utah anticipated the Millennium in 1891, and some even designated February 14, it being the anniversary of the Kirtland meeting. Others chose 23 December 1890, the eighty-fifth anniversary of the Prophet’s birth, as the eventful day.
The possibility that 1890 or 1891 might be the critical year tantalized some members. (A few years later they concentrated on 1900 or 1901.) Those who had expected the American Civil War of the 1860s to usher in the Millennium transferred their expectations forward when peace followed Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House.
A decade before the new millennial deadline, and despite official cautions by Church leaders, speculation among some members was widespread. “We have noticed in our experience,” the Deseret News editorialized on 3 August 1881, “that when persons belonging to this Church have attempted to fix dates to prophecies, no matter how plausible their arguments and apparently correct their calculations, they have made as lamentable failures as those adventist prognosticators who have spread consternation and dismay among simple people, and deluded their own followers into folly.” General Authorities warned against the date-setting fad. “We have had no authority given unto us,” President George Q. Cannon said in 1884, “no message to designate the hour nor the day, nor even the year when the Lord would make His appearance” (Journal of Discourses, 26:40). Wise Latter-day Saints took this counsel, soundly based in scripture, and sought to be ready, through worthiness, no matter when the day came.
Latter-day Saints were not alone in their watchfulness. Christians, from the day of the resurrected Savior’s ascension on the mount, had been told of his return in glory. But Latter-day Saint doctrines differed perceptibly from millennial teachings of traditional Christianity, especially those ideas dominant from medieval through early modern times.
Latter-day Saint doctrines rejected Augustine’s interpretation in The City of God of a millennium already begun. According to this view, Christ established his millennial kingdom during his first mortal ministry. This teaching said that the earthly church and kingdom would grow as an alternative to Satan’s coexisting kingdom of wickedness. At the end of the Millennium, after Christian teachings had saturated an increasingly peaceful world, Jesus would return in final judgment, but would not reign on earth in a literal sense.3
In contrast, Joseph Smith’s revelations reinforced the biblical depiction of premillennial war and wickedness. Following a long apostasy, the restored gospel would be preached internationally but with relatively few believers. The Millennium would begin when the Savior returned in partial judgment to inaugurate a reign of peace. During Christ’s personal reign on earth, Satan would be bound. Honorable people would coexist with the Saints in a paradisiacal or terrestrial world. Then, after a final testing and last confrontation between good and evil (the battle of Gog and Magog), a last judgment would cleanse the earth of those persons unworthy of a celestial glory.4
Early Latter-day Saints seemed less concerned with the “amillennial” Augustianian view, whose major premise contrasted easily with their own beliefs, than with certain Protestant teachings similar to their own. A number of denominations active in trans-Appalachian America believed, as did the Saints, that the Lord would soon personally usher in the Millennium and alter conditions in a corrupt world. This similarity of belief sometimes led to questioning and uncertainty.
Some members of the Church acquainted with Shaker beliefs, or converted in Ohio from that sect in the 1830s, wondered about the correctness of specific Shaker claims concerning the Lord’s second coming. From their beliefs in the absolute equality of the sexes, the Shakers derived the notion that because Jesus, as God incarnate, had been a man in his first earthly ministry, he would express the female attributes of godhood and appear as a woman at his second coming. When asked about these related matters, the Prophet Joseph Smith, in his important millennial revelation of March 1831, dismissed them as unscriptural. “Be not deceived,” the Lord told Leman Copley, a convert from Shakerism. (See D&C 49:7, D&C 15, D&C 22, D&C 23.)
Years later, in February 1843, visitors to Nauvoo tried to convince the Prophet that William Miller, founder of the Adventist movement, had correctly calculated the precise date for the commencement of the Lord’s reign. President Smith turned to the scriptures and “showed them the fallacy of Mr. Miller’s data … and preached them quite a sermon.” He explained to his guests that translation errors in the Bible had thwarted Miller’s attempt to understand the Lord’s timetable. “I told them the prophecies must all be fulfilled; the sun must be darkened and the moon turned into blood, and many more things take place before Christ would come.” (History of the Church, 5:272.) In both this and the earlier attempt to identify specifics, the Prophet focused attention on prophecies yet to be fulfilled before the Second Coming.
Two of the millennial preconditions especially important to Latter-day Saints appear, among other places in the scriptures, in section 49: “But before the great day of the Lord shall come, Jacob shall flourish in the wilderness, and the Lamanites shall blossom as the rose. Zion shall flourish upon the hills and rejoice upon the mountains, and shall be assembled together unto the place which I have appointed.” (D&C 49:24–25.) The early Saints recognized the significance of a modern gathering of Israel and the role the Lamanites were to play in establishing the New Jerusalem.
Mentioned in the tenth Article of Faith, the teaching of “the literal gathering of Israel” gave Latter-day Saints a personal role to play in preparing for the Millennium. A warning voice would sound in every nation, and missionaries of the Church would be those watchmen. It is noteworthy that Elder Parley P. Pratt couched his popular outline of Church doctrine, The Voice of Warning (1837), in a millennial framework. Within nine years, he had distributed thirteen thousand copies of this missionary pamphlet. It was intended, he said in the preface, “as a warning voice, or proclamation of truth, to all people into whose hands it may fall, that they may understand, and be prepared for the great day of the Lord” (p. 8).
A more directly millennial tract was Elder Pratt’s Letter to the Queen of England, Touching the Signs of the Times, and the Political Destiny of the World (1841), addressed to the reigning British monarch, Queen Victoria:
“Know assuredly,” he wrote, “that the world in which we live is on the eve of a revolution more wonderful in its beginning, more rapid in its progress, more powerful in its operations, more extensive in its effects, more lasting in its influence, and more important in its consequences than any which man has yet witnessed upon the earth: … the angels have desired to look into it, and heaven itself has waited with longing expectation for its consummation” (pp. 2–3).
Although by no means the only theme contained in the missionary literature of the times, the millennial doctrine of the Church occupied a place of importance among the teachings of the restored gospel. It was one of several basic truths followers of the Prophet Joseph Smith carried to the world.
Another aspect of the proselyting activity expected of the premillennial Church of Jesus Christ was begun when Oliver Cowdery guided the mission to the Lamanites in Missouri in 1831. This led to the subsequent establishment of a “center place” for the gathering in Jackson County, Missouri, and to plans to build there the twenty-four temples of the New Jerusalem.
Many members felt they saw a divine hand in the United States government policy to move Indians who were native to the Atlantic states westward across the Mississippi. This removal policy, they noted, congregated large numbers of Indians in an area designated by the Lord as the site for the New Jerusalem. This was important, they felt, because prophecy said that Lamanite members of the Church were to play a significant role in building that new city and its temples.
Fulfillment of that prophecy was not yet to be, nor was the Church itself to remain long at the center place. After the expulsion of the Saints from Jackson County, the Prophet led Zion’s Camp, intent upon “redeeming Zion”—returning the Saints to their abandoned property. The small army of Mormon volunteers did not fulfill that assignment, the return to Jackson County was postponed, and other places were designated for settlement. In his Fishing River revelation, the Prophet explained that because of disobedience the Lord had extended to a future date the establishment of the millennial capital. The Saints had been unable to overcome selfishness as required by Zion’s law of consecration and stewardship. “Zion cannot be built up,” the revelation said, “unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:5).
Joseph Smith further surprised some exiled Saints when he advised them from Liberty Jail to sell their Missouri properties. (See Millennial Star, 16:788.) This counsel discouraged thinking that the return might take place soon. After the exodus to Utah, popular feeling was mixed on the matter. Some members settled in for a long wait, while others, who thought the American Civil War signalled an imminent judgment upon the nations, gathered supplies and planned for the eastward trek to Missouri. Their mistaken reading of the times caused them to look for more certain guidance.5
After a few more false assessments, more and more of the Saints were willing to remember the Prophet’s inspired revision of the Lord’s words in Matthew: “And what I say unto one, I say unto all men; watch, therefore, for you know not at what hour your Lord doth come. …
“Who, then, is a faithful and wise servant, whom his lord hath made ruler over his household, to give them meat in due season? Blessed is that servant whom his lord, when he cometh, shall find so doing.” (JS—M 1:46, 49–50.)
For Latter-day Saints in the twentieth century, the advice is still applicable. While continuing to watch for signs of the times and while remaining aware of some of the places that will play special roles in the last days, the Church has concentrated its efforts on preparing a righteous people for the Second Coming. Church members are wise to avoid entanglement in the unknowns of time and place; there is much to do before the Bridegroom comes.
Living now, with the hour of the Lord’s return that much closer, we might ask ourselves: Have we any less an obligation than our predecessors to assist in the Lord’s “marvelous work” of carrying the gospel to the world? Can we ignore the parallel responsibility of offering proxy saving ordinances under the authority restored by Elijah’s Kirtland Temple visit? Can the work of fulfilling the promises to the Lamanites succeed without our united effort? Can we afford to shun the call to gather ourselves, our thoughts, actions, and families out of spiritual Babylon, to establish stakes of Zion around the world?
Those who pioneered seemed to understand clearly those obligations required of this last generation of covenant people. With zeal, they implemented the instructions that were given to them and to us. They devoted their minds and their might to the work. Yes, they watched for the promised signs, anticipated tribulations, experienced revelations, and looked forward optimistically and with faith to the reign of righteousness. But their experiences have taught us the importance of personal righteousness. In terms of what we may need to know, the day and the hour are less important than the state of the inner soul. And as President Spencer W. Kimball said recently: “We can bring the gospel with its healing balm and its powerful programs to countless numbers, not only to introduce the gospel to them but to show them in our communities how we live and how they can live and better their lives.” (“The Uttermost Parts of the Earth,” Ensign, July 1979, p. 2.)
Millennial expectations have given the Church optimism and courage, and a sense of being urgently about the Lord’s work. Even though we have other reasons for preaching the gospel, building temples, storing our year’s food supply, and sponsoring Lamanite educational programs—in short, for keeping the commandments—it is also true that all of these religious activities carry millennial overtones. As we engage in the work announced to the Prophet Joseph Smith by heavenly messengers, we identify ourselves as the Lord’s Saints of the latter days. With William W. Phelps, we continue to rejoice in anticipating the day of the earth’s salvation:
In faith we’ll rely on the arm of Jehovah
To guide through these last days of trouble and gloom;
And after the scourges and harvest are over,
We’ll rise with the just when the Savior doth come.
Then all that was promised, the Saints will be given,
And they will be crowned with the angels of heav’n,
And earth will appear as the garden of Eden,
And Christ and his people will ever be one.
(Hymns, no. 118.)