A Warning from Kirtland

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“A Warning from Kirtland,” Ensign, Apr. 1989, 26

A Warning from Kirtland

Most Latter-day Saints remained faithful through the troubled times in Ohio, but there is a lesson for us in the lives of those who fell away.

Approximately two years after the Prophet Joseph Smith dedicated the Kirtland Temple, more than sixteen hundred Latter-day Saints abandoned that House of the Lord, vacated their homes and property, and headed toward western Missouri. They left not of their own free will, but because they had to. One of those who fled Kirtland, Hepzibah Richards, described the situation:

“They are driven out of this place as truly as the Saints were driven out of Jackson County 4 years ago, though in a different manner. There they were driven by force of arms, here by persecution, chiefly from the dissenters.”1

Joseph Smith observed that Brigham Young fled 22 December 1837, “in consequence of the fury of the mob spirit that prevailed in the apostates who had threatened to destroy him because he would proclaim publicly and privately that he knew by the power of the Holy Ghost that I [Joseph Smith] was a Prophet of the Most High God, that I had not transgressed and fallen as the apostates declared.”2 A few days later, the Prophet also fled from Kirtland amid apostate mobocracy.3

How had the Church reached this point of great danger? Just a few years before, the Saints had enjoyed great faith and spiritual prosperity. How could apostasy take root and flourish in such an atmosphere? Some scholars have believed that the apostasy was widespread, constituting a majority of the Church. Recent research, however, indicates that the numbers were a minority, though their impact was powerful. The apostasy in Kirtland is a somber lesson in what we as disciples of Christ should avoid if we wish to stay true and faithful.

Throughout the 1830s, Joseph Smith was threatened whenever he was in Ohio. In 1832, while living in Hiram (twenty miles from Kirtland), the Latter-day prophet and Sidney Rigdon were beaten and their bodies covered with tar and feathers. Writing from Mentor (next to Kirtland) in January 1834, one non-Mormon declared that four or five men guarded Joseph Smith every night against the mobs that threatened the Mormons.4 Some contemporaries of the Prophet sincerely believed that if Joseph Smith had not left for western Missouri, he would have been assassinated.5

Even after Brigham Young and Joseph Smith left Kirtland during the winter of 1837–38, threats on the lives and property of other Latter-day Saints continued, eventually forcing the Church out of Ohio. By the end of July 1838, Church members had almost entirely abandoned Kirtland. Apparently, the enemy outside the Church had not been sufficiently strong to drive the Mormons from Kirtland before 1838, but in the spring and summer of that year, apostates gave the oppressors much greater strength, and Church members left what had once been their refuge.

Just two years earlier, the outlook for the future of the Church in Kirtland had been bright. From mid-1833 to early 1836, the Latter-day Saints had sacrificed to build a house for the Lord. And in the weeks before and after its dedication, they enjoyed the richest outpouring of the Spirit yet in the short history of the Restoration.

Orson Pratt explained: “God was there, his angels were there, the Holy Ghost was in the midst of the people, the visions of the Almighty were opened to the minds of the servants of the living God. … [The Latter-day Saints] were filled from the crown of their heads to the soles of their feet with the power and inspiration of the Holy Ghost. … In that Temple … the people were blessed as they never had been blessed for generations and generations.”6

During ten meetings held in the temple between 21 January and 1 May 1836, the Saints beheld heavenly beings, and in five of the sessions, many saw the Savior. Members not only communed and sang with angels, but they were uncommonly blessed with the gifts of prophecy, of speaking in tongues, and of healing.7

The reflections of contemporaries—those who remained faithful and those who left the Church—help us better understand how apostasy could grow so rapidly in little more than a year. Some twentieth-century historians have shown a tendency to concentrate on economic forces as the major cause of this apostasy. They especially point to the demise of the Kirtland Safety Society (a banking enterprise) as the paramount factor. Such a theory, however, is misleading and oversimplifies the situation.

A study of the records of the bank reveals that a high percentage of stockholders remained faithful and that those who lost the most did not leave the Church. Only 8 percent of the known stockholders joined the ranks of apostates, and almost half (45 percent) of this group returned to the Church.8 Though the failure of the bank generated criticism, dissatisfied members viewed it more as a symbol of failure than as the sole cause of it. Joseph Smith became a target for attack, a convenient scapegoat. As his prophetic leadership was questioned, dissension and apostasy erupted throughout the small Church.

Some Church members who lived in Kirtland during this crisis concluded that the apostates lost the Spirit through pride, selfishness, greed, immorality, and criticism. Eliza R. Snow declared that after the Latter-day Saints had received marvelous blessings, many were lifted up in the pride of their hearts: “As the Saints drank in the love and spirit of the world, the Spirit of the Lord withdrew from their hearts, and they were filled with pride and hatred toward those who maintained their integrity.”9 She explained that, following the completion of the temple, the Kirtland Saints, who were quite poor, sought economic improvement and witnessed the dawn of prosperity. A spirit of speculation gripped many Church members.

Other contemporaries linked land speculation with manifestations of selfishness among the Kirtland Saints. Joseph Smith felt that “the spirit of speculation in lands and property,” which manifested itself in many parts of the nation, was much to blame for the “evil surmisings, fault-finding, disunion, [and] dissension” in the Church. “Apostasy,” he said, “followed in quick succession.”10

An examination of land and tax records containing known apostates indicates that selfishness was indeed a factor that plagued a small group of dissidents. Seven dissidents are known to have bought and sold land in Kirtland during the period of the apostasy. Although some of them were not involved in what might be called land speculation, land records support accusations by those who complained that some members took advantage of other members by charging more than non-Mormons for land sold to Latter-day Saints.

A number of apostates also criticized Joseph Smith’s land deals during the two-year period. However, an examination of his land transactions clearly indicate that he attempted to improve the Saints’ economic status and did not try to make a lucrative profit through buying and selling land. Since most property held by Joseph Smith was, in reality, Church property, a partnership administered many of the prophet’s transactions. This land was sold for less than land sold by non-Mormons and other members. In 1837, for example, Joseph Smith and his associates sold property for an average of $18.85 per acre, compared to approximately $20 by non-Latter-day Saints for comparable or less valuable land. Meanwhile, some of the Saints who left the Church sold land for more than $44 per acre.11

After Joseph Smith fled, a number of apostates robbed and threatened the Saints, claiming that they were recovering debts owed them by the Prophet.12 However, the creditors who loaned money to Joseph Smith were not likely the persecutors of the Kirtland Saints. The known creditors were generally bankers or wealthy businessmen who lived outside the Kirtland township.13 Contemporary Saints were probably right when they complained that mobsters used Joseph Smith’s financial plight and his flight from Kirtland as an excuse to justify intolerant acts.

Some dissidents who criticized Joseph Smith claimed that his failings as a prophet went back to the failure of Zion’s Camp to put the Missouri Saints back on their land in Jackson County. Others, however, regarded the experience as one of the spiritual and educational highlights of their lives. Ironically, few participants left the Church in 1834 after the march of Zion’s Camp. More left in 1837 and 1838. Rather than being a major cause of the apostasy, the 1834 march provided the dissidents an excuse to leave the Church. Approximately sixty-eight men who journeyed with Zion’s Camp lived in or near Kirtland in 1837 and 1838. Fourteen (or 21 percent) of them are known to have left the Church. Five later returned.14

Scholars have generally assumed that there was a general apostasy in Kirtland. Brigham Young, for instance, said that the apostasy affected witnesses to the Book of Mormon, many of the Twelve, other authorities, and members in all the quorums.15 One eyewitness of the Kirtland events declared that “scarcely twenty people still considered [Joseph Smith] a prophet of God.”16

These statements seem to be supported when we look at who apostatized. All of the Three Witnesses, three of the Eight Witnesses, and one-third of the General Authorities, including three Apostles, left the Church in 1837 and 1838. Moreover, two other Apostles criticized Joseph Smith’s leadership and were nearly cut off from Church membership.

A look at early records, however, indicates that the apostasy was not general among the average members. Although no known ecclesiastical records exist that identify all who were disfellowshipped or excommunicated in 1837 and 1838, and no membership records for the 1830s have been found, minute books, biographies, autobiographies, and other primary and secondary sources provide clues to early membership. Furthermore, a study of migration patterns of early Latter-day Saints provides useful insight into the number affected by the crisis in Kirtland.17

To ascertain the extent of the apostasy, I first prepared a list of members in Kirtland, using a variety of records and histories. Second, I divided the members into two categories: those who probably resided in Kirtland, and those who possibly resided there. The “probable” Saints were identified through land and tax records, biographies, and autobiographies as living there.

The “possible” Saints were those who were in the community in 1837 or 1838 but were not identified in other records as residents of that township. Some may have lived in Kirtland without ever paying a tax there or ever writing anything about their residency. Some may have lived near but not in Kirtland. Others may have been visitors or may have been passing through on their journey west. Many of the Saints signed their name to the Kirtland Camp constitution in March 1838, anticipating travel west under the direction of the seventies. We do not know when most of these people arrived in Kirtland, but they were in that community in the spring of 1838.

Finally, I compared the names on the two lists with the names on reconstructed membership lists for western Missouri, Nauvoo and vicinity, southwestern Iowa and northeastern Nebraska, and mid-nineteenth-century Utah. Though a few known apostates migrated from Kirtland to Far West, Missouri, most of those who went retained their loyalty to the Restoration. The comparison shows that 71 percent of the Kirtland Saints of 1837 and 1838 migrated to western Missouri, 69 percent settled in Nauvoo and its neighboring region, and 35 percent crossed the plains to Utah (or died during the migration). Eighty-seven percent appear on at least one of these records as having remained faithful. Thus, based on an estimated 475 Latter-day Saint families living in or near Kirtland, only about 13 percent, or approximately fifty families, left the Church during the Kirtland crisis. This estimate harmonizes with a statement by John Smith, writing from Kirtland in January 1838, that mentions that forty or fifty had recently been cut off from the Church.18 Records also indicate that about 40 percent later returned to the Church.

In light of these statistics, the statement that scarcely twenty people still considered Joseph Smith to be a prophet of God may have referred to Church leaders, not to all the members living in the Kirtland area. It’s also possible that a high percentage of the membership were critical of the Prophet but repented before they came to the point of leaving the Church. Clearly, though, the majority of the dissidents came from the ranks of the leading authorities.

Although their numbers were not great, their once-prominent positions in the Church gave them much visibility and power after they left. While some dissidents, like Luke Johnson, did not participate in or condone oppressive action against the Saints, others provided leading voices that agitated Church antagonists into action.19

In spite of this anti-Mormon activity, the Kirtland apostates did not prosper. They could not agree on a united course of action, and they split into multiple factions. Bickering and contention, which marked the dissenters’ passage from the Church, continued after excommunication. No major religious group emerged from this apostasy.

Saints who looked back on this period learned some compelling lessons of which we today need to be aware. One of the pointed lessons we learn from the Kirtland apostasy is that no one should consider himself secure from the loss of faith. Pride, criticism, speculation, envy, greed—these are enough to cause the most faithful to stumble. Parley P. Pratt, for example, declared that “envyings, lyings, strifes and divisions” caused “trouble and sorrow” in Kirtland. He admitted that he was a victim of these failings. But the Lord knew his faith—his “integrity of purpose”—and helped him in his victory against an opposing spirit.20

Orson Hyde recalled that, because he acted foolishly during this period of darkness, he temporarily lost “the light of the Holy Ghost.”21 Luke S. Johnson admitted that his mind became darkened and he neglected his Church responsibilities after he had “partaken of the spirit of speculation.”22

And yet, through it all, 87 percent of the Kirtland Saints continued to nurture their faith. They continued to sustain Joseph Smith as a prophet, sacrificing nearly all their material possessions rather than forsake the restored gospel. Despite opposition, they sacrificed their homes, the sacred temple they had built, and even their lives to carry the work of the Lord forward. We would do well to emulate their example.

Illustrated by Paul Mann