“Seven Thunders Rolling,” chapter 6 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 6: “Seven Thunders Rolling”
In the fall of 1847, Oliver Cowdery was living with his wife, Elizabeth Ann, and their daughter Maria Louise in a small town in Wisconsin Territory, nearly five hundred miles from Winter Quarters. He was forty-one years old and practicing law with his older brother. Almost two decades had passed since Oliver had served as Joseph Smith’s scribe for the translation of the Book of Mormon. He still believed in the restored gospel, yet for the last nine years he had been living apart from the Saints.1
Phineas Young, Brigham Young’s older brother, was married to Oliver’s younger sister Lucy, and the two men were close friends and often exchanged letters. Phineas frequently let Oliver know he still had a place in the Church.2
Other old friends reached out to Oliver as well. Sam Brannan, Oliver’s former apprentice in the Kirtland printing office, had invited him to sail with the Saints on the Brooklyn. William Phelps, who had once briefly left the Church himself after falling out with Joseph Smith, likewise invited Oliver to go west. “If you believe that we are Israel,” William wrote, “come on and go with us, and we will do you good.”3
But Oliver’s resentment ran deep. He believed that Thomas Marsh, Sidney Rigdon, and other Church leaders had turned Joseph and the high council against him in Missouri. And he feared that his disaffection from the Church had hurt his reputation among the Saints. He wanted them to remember the good things he had done, especially his part in the translation of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the priesthood.4
“I have been sensitive on this subject,” he once wrote to Phineas. “You would be, under the circumstances, had you stood in the presence of John with our departed brother Joseph, to receive the lesser priesthood, and in the presence of Peter, to receive the greater.”5
Oliver also was unsure if the Quorum of the Twelve had authority to preside over the Church. He respected Brigham Young and the other apostles he knew, but he did not have a witness that they were called of God to lead the Saints. For now, he believed the Church was in a dormant state, awaiting a leader.
In July, around the time the advance company entered the Salt Lake Valley, former apostle William McLellin had visited Oliver. William wanted to start a new church in Missouri based on the restored gospel, and he hoped that Oliver would join him. The visit prompted Oliver to write his wife’s brother David Whitmer, a fellow witness of the Book of Mormon. Oliver knew William was planning to visit David as well, and he wanted to know what David thought about William and his work.6
David wrote back six weeks later, noting that William had indeed visited him. “We have established, or commenced to establish, the church of Christ again,” David announced, “and it is the will of God that you be one of my counselors in the presidency of the church.”7
Oliver considered the offer. Forming a new church presidency with David and William in Missouri would give him another chance to preach the restored gospel. But was it the same gospel he had embraced in 1829? And did David and William have authority from God to establish a new church?8
Early in the morning on October 19, 1847, apostles Wilford Woodruff and Amasa Lyman spotted seven men emerging from a distant scattering of trees. Normally, strangers on the trail posed no threat. But the sudden appearance of these men set Wilford on edge.
For the last two days, he and Amasa had been hunting buffalo with several other men to feed Brigham Young’s struggling return company. Winter Quarters, their destination, was still more than a week’s journey away. Without the buffalo meat piled into the hunters’ three wagons, the company would be hard-pressed to finish their journey. Many of them were already sick.9
The apostles watched the strangers carefully, wondering at first if they were Indians. But as the figures drew nearer, the apostles could see that they were white men—possibly soldiers—on horseback. And they were charging full speed at the hunting party.
Wilford and the hunters drew their weapons in defense. But when the strangers rode up, Wilford was surprised and delighted to see the face of Hosea Stout, the police chief in Winter Quarters. The Saints in Winter Quarters had learned about the return company’s desperate straits, and Hosea and his men had been dispatched to supply provisions for the travelers and their animals.10
The assistance bolstered the return company, and they pressed forward. On October 31, when they were about a mile from the settlement, Brigham signaled his company to stop and assemble. The hard day of travel was almost over, and the men were anxious to see their families, but he wanted to say a few words before they disbanded.
“Thanks for your kindness and willingness to obey orders,” he said. In a little over six months, they had traveled more than two thousand miles with no major accidents and no deaths. “We have accomplished more than we expected,” Brigham declared. “The blessings of the Lord have been with us.”11
He dismissed the men, and they returned to their wagons. The company then drove the remaining mile to Winter Quarters. As the wagons rolled into the settlement shortly before sunset, Saints emerged from their cabins and hovels to welcome the men back. Crowds formed along the streets to shake hands with them and rejoice in all they had accomplished under the guiding hand of the Lord.12
Wilford was overjoyed to see his wife and children again. Three days earlier, Phebe had given birth to a healthy baby girl. Now the Woodruffs had four living children: Willy, Phebe Amelia, Susan, and newborn Shuah. Wilford also had one son, James, with his plural wife, Mary Ann Jackson, whom he had married shortly after returning from England. Mary Ann and James had gone to the Salt Lake Valley earlier that year with Wilford’s father.
“All was cheerful and happy,” Wilford wrote of his homecoming, “and we felt it a blessing to again meet.”13
That winter, the nine apostles in Winter Quarters and the surrounding settlements counseled together often. During these meetings, the future of the quorum weighed heavily on Brigham’s mind. On the journey back from the Salt Lake Valley, the Spirit had revealed to Brigham that the Lord wanted the Twelve to reorganize the First Presidency so that the apostles could be free to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.14
Brigham had long been reluctant to speak to the quorum about the subject. He understood that his responsibilities as president of the Twelve set him apart from the other apostles, giving him authority to receive revelation for the quorum and everyone within its stewardship.
But he also understood that he could not act alone. The Lord had revealed in 1835 that the Twelve were to make decisions unanimously or not at all. By divine direction, the apostles were supposed to act “in all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart” when making decisions. If they were going to do anything as a quorum, they would need to come together in unity and harmony.15
On November 30, Brigham finally spoke to the quorum about reorganizing the First Presidency, certain that it was the Lord’s will to move forward. Orson Pratt immediately questioned the need for change. “I would like to see the Twelve hold together perfectly and unitedly,” he said.
Orson believed that the Twelve could lead the Church in the absence of a First Presidency because a revelation had declared the two quorums to be equal in authority. The prophet Joseph Smith had also taught that a majority of the Twelve could make authoritative decisions when a full quorum was not present. For Orson, this meant that seven apostles could stay at Church headquarters to govern the Saints while the remaining five took the gospel to the nations.16
Brigham listened to Orson, but he disagreed with his conclusion. “Which is better,” Brigham asked, “to untie the feet of the Twelve and let them go to the nations, or always keep seven at home?”
“It is my feeling,” said Orson, “there should not be a three-member First Presidency, but the Twelve be the First Presidency.”17
As Orson and Brigham spoke, Wilford turned the matter over in his mind. He was willing to sustain a new First Presidency if it was the Lord’s revealed will. But he also worried about the consequences of a change. If three of the Twelve formed a First Presidency, would three new apostles be called to take their place in the quorum? And how would the reorganization of the presidency affect the role of the Twelve in the Church?
For now, he wanted the Twelve to continue as they were. Splitting up the quorum would feel like severing a body in two.18
The mountains surrounding the Salt Lake Valley seemed to catch fire in the fall of 1847 as their foliage changed to brilliant hues of red, yellow, and brown. From where her family camped amid other Saints on the temple block, Jane Manning James could see most of the mountains and much of the Saints’ new settlement, which they had begun calling Great Salt Lake City, or simply Salt Lake City. About a mile southwest of her tent lay a square-shaped fort where some Saints were building cabins for their families. Since the valley had few trees, they constructed these buildings with timber from the nearby canyons or from hard adobe bricks.19
When Jane arrived in the valley, the Saints who had come with the advance company were already running low on food. Newcomers like Jane had few provisions to spare. The milk of most cows in the valley had dried up, and the cattle were fatigued and scrawny. John Smith, the newly appointed president of the Salt Lake Stake, led the high council and bishops in providing for everyone in the valley until crops were ready to harvest, but few went to bed with full stomachs.20
Yet even with a lack of food, the settlement developed rapidly. Women and men worked together to build homes and make their surroundings comfortable. Men ventured up the canyons to cut timber and haul it down to the valley. With no sawmill, each log had to be cut into planks by hand. Roofs were made from poles and dried grass. Windows were often made from greased paper instead of glass.21
At this time, the women of the Church continued to meet together informally. Elizabeth Ann Whitney and Eliza Snow, former leaders of the Nauvoo Relief Society, often led meetings for mothers as well as for young women and little girls. As they had done in Winter Quarters, the women exercised spiritual gifts and strengthened one another.22
Like other Saints, Jane and her husband, Isaac, worked together to make a home in the valley. Jane’s son Sylvester was old enough to help with chores.23 And there was always something to do. Children could help their mothers gather wild parsnips, thistles, and sego lily roots to boost their dwindling provisions. The Saints could hardly afford to waste food. When a cow was slaughtered, they ate everything they could, head to hoof.24
Snow began to fall in early November, blanketing the tops of the mountains with white powder. Temperatures dropped in the valley, and the Saints readied themselves for their first winter.25
On an overcast day in late November, the apostles at Winter Quarters met to discuss Oliver Cowdery. Most of them had known him in Kirtland and had heard his powerful testimony of the Book of Mormon. Along with David Whitmer and Martin Harris, he had helped the prophet Joseph Smith call some of them to the Quorum of the Twelve and had taught them their responsibilities. Phineas Young had also assured them that Oliver was committed to Zion and had softened his heart toward the Church.26
With Willard Richards acting as clerk, the apostles composed a letter to Oliver. “Come,” they wrote, “and return to our Father’s house, from whence thou hast wandered.” Describing Oliver as a beloved prodigal son, they invited him to be rebaptized and ordained again to the priesthood.
“If you desire to serve God with all your heart and become partaker of the blessings of the celestial kingdom, do these things,” they declared. “Thy soul will be filled with rejoicing.”
They gave Phineas the letter and asked him to deliver it in person.27
A short time later, Brigham met with eight other apostles at the home of Orson Hyde, who had returned from his mission in England. “I want to have a decision,” he said. “From the time I had been in Great Salt Lake City till now, the tappings of the Spirit to me is, the Church ought to be now organized.” He testified that the quorum needed to sustain a First Presidency to govern the Church so the apostles could lead missionary efforts abroad.
“I want every man to go with the conviction of the Lord. Just learn which way that the Lord goes and go with that,” he counseled. “An elder who resists the current of the Spirit will spit in his own face.”
Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde agreed that it was time to reorganize the First Presidency. But Orson Pratt once again expressed concern. He worried that the First Presidency would not seek advice from the Quorum of the Twelve and that the Twelve might also defer too quickly to the presidency’s authority, accepting its decisions before thinking through matters themselves. The Church had functioned well enough under the Twelve, he reasoned. Why change now?28
Brigham asked to hear the thoughts of each of the quorum members present. When his turn came, Wilford Woodruff shared his hesitations about creating a First Presidency, but he expressed his willingness to align his will with God’s. “Our president seems to be moved upon by the Spirit,” he said. “He stands between us and God, and I for one don’t want to tie his hands.”29
“I don’t want to see this quorum divided,” George A. Smith said next. He wished to delay his decision until he was certain of the mind of God, but he was open to change. “If it’s the will of the Lord that this course should be taken,” he declared, “I’ll twist myself to it.”
“My feelings are precisely like yours,” said Brigham. “I would not be divided in our feelings or separated no more than you would.” Still, he knew the Lord’s will. “It is in me like seven thunders rolling,” he declared. “God has brought us where we are, and we have got to do it.”30
Amasa Lyman and Ezra Benson, the two newest apostles, agreed with him. “I want to help with the Quorum of the Twelve,” Ezra said, “and I mean to stick to Brother Brigham.” He compared himself to a machine in a mill, ever ready to serve its function. He said he was perfectly willing to have the First Presidency lead him as the Lord saw fit.
“Amen!” said several apostles.
Orson Pratt stood. “I don’t consider we should act as machines,” he said. “If we are to be governed in all cases in that way, we have no room in the least degree to look at a thing in this light.”31
“It’s of importance now to organize the Church,” Brigham told Orson. “What we have done is a mere patching to what we have to do. If you tie us up, we can’t do anything.”32
Brigham’s words hung over the room, and the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the apostles. Orson knew what Brigham had said was true.33 The apostles brought the question of reorganization to a vote, and each member of the quorum raised his hand to sustain Brigham Young as the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“I suggest that Brother Young appoint his two counselors tonight,” said Orson.34
Three weeks later, on December 27, 1847, about a thousand Saints from settlements along the Missouri River gathered for a special conference. They had built a log tabernacle for the occasion on the east side of the river at a place later called Kanesville. The building was larger than any cabin in the area, but it could not hold everyone who wanted to attend.
Inside, the Saints sat shoulder to shoulder on hard log benches. Though the winter had been intensely cold so far, when the Saints arrived at the log tabernacle the weather was unseasonably pleasant. The day before, Heber Kimball had promised them that if they attended the meeting, they would have one of their best days ever and a fire would be lit that would never go out.35
On a platform at the front of the room, the apostles sat with the Winter Quarters high council. The meeting opened with singing and prayer, followed by sermons from some of the apostles and other Church leaders. Orson Pratt spoke about the importance of the First Presidency.
“The time has come when the Twelve must have their hands liberated to go to the ends of the earth,” Orson said, certain now of the Lord’s will. “If there is no First Presidency, it confines the Twelve too much to one place.” Reorganizing the presidency, he testified, allowed the Church to turn its eyes to the distant parts of the earth, where thousands of people could be waiting for the gospel.36
After the sermons, it was proposed that Brigham Young be sustained as president of the Church. The Saints then raised their hands in unison to sustain him. Taking the stand, Brigham proposed that Heber Kimball and Willard Richards be sustained as his counselors.
“This is one of the happiest days of my life,” he told the Saints. The road ahead would not be easy, but as the Saints’ leader, he would dedicate himself completely to fulfilling the Lord’s will.
“I will do right,” he promised. “As He dictates, so I will perform.”37