At the April 2020 general conference, President Russell M. Nelson taught, “The very first word in the Doctrine and Covenants is hearken. It means ‘to listen with the intent to obey.’ To hearken means to ‘hear Him’—to hear what the Savior says and then to heed His counsel. In those two words—‘Hear Him’—God gives us the pattern for success, happiness, and joy in this life.”1 That pattern has held true since the earliest days of the Church, when women and men heard God’s voice and chose to follow, over river and hill, through trial and uncertainty.
One way Church members have gotten to know more about these stalwart Saints is through the Joseph Smith Papers website, josephsmithpapers.org, which is celebrating 10 years since it was first published. Over the past decade, this site has helped more than a million visitors learn about the Restoration and the lives of early Latter-day Saints.
On this anniversary, we want to honor the Church members who were never famous—the everyday Saints featured in the Joseph Smith Papers who may have faded from our established historical narratives as the years have passed. As we do today, these Church members faced many challenges in the 1830s and 1840s. Some responded by withdrawing from the Saints, some drifted from the gospel, and still others forged a stronger faith. But what they all have in common is this: in their own quiet ways, they moved the work of the Lord forward.
In the spring of 1840, Lewis Dana, a member of the Oneida Nation, was traveling down the Mississippi River in a canoe with his family. Government persecution had forced many American Indians like Lewis from their ancestral homes, and he may have been traveling to join relatives in modern-day Kansas.
One night, the Dana family stopped to rest near Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Saints welcomed them with friendship. Their overnight stay turned into a visit of several weeks. After listening to the entire Book of Mormon read out loud, Lewis decided to be baptized, as did his wife and daughter.2
Lewis was ordained an elder in the Melchizedek Priesthood, probably by Joseph Smith himself.3 Many Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo and elsewhere welcomed Lewis as the first American Indian to join the Church and believed that his conversion was a sign that God’s promises in the Book of Mormon to the Lamanites were starting to be fulfilled.
The Dana family continued their journey west, with Lewis preaching as they went. Lewis shared the gospel possibly as far west as present-day Montana. During his travels, his wife and daughter died, and he returned to the Great Lakes region to be with his people.
Then, in 1845, Lewis suddenly returned to Nauvoo, saying that he wanted to learn to read and write. The Saints willingly helped provide him with room and board and tutoring. Brigham Young, who was now leading the Church, invited Lewis to join the Council of Fifty, a group trying to find a permanent place for the Saints to settle. “In the name of the Lord I am willing to do all I can,” Lewis said.4
All that spring, Lewis shared his knowledge of the West with the council. In the summer, he led a group of missionaries to meet with leaders of the Stockbridge, Kickapoo, and Cherokee tribes. The missionaries attempted to find allies and establish temporary gathering places for the Saints to use when they left Nauvoo.
Lewis briefly returned to Nauvoo in the fall, and in October 1845, Brigham Young sealed him to Mary Goud, a white Latter-day Saint. Together the newlyweds headed west to continue Lewis’s missionary work in Indian territory. When Brigham Young led the Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, Lewis chose to stay with other displaced Indians near the Missouri River. Although he eventually drifted away from the main body of the Saints, he never lost his testimony of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ or the Book of Mormon.5
Hannah Tinkham is an example of a Latter-day Saint woman who offered all she had for the cause of Zion. She lived in New York, was possibly a weaver by trade, and may have been known by the nickname Fanny. When she was 47 years old, she traveled to Nauvoo with a group of Saints and fell ill, perhaps with malaria. She never recovered. It was recorded that she “died strong in the faith and often expressed her joy to be permitted to have her body lay with the saints in this place.”6
Before she passed away, Hannah made a specific request—that her money and belongings be given to the Church “for the building of the Temple.” Her wishes were honored, and her contribution was documented in “The Book of the Law of the Lord,” a leather-bound volume used to record tithing and other donations for the Nauvoo Temple. Her possessions included clothing, household goods, weaving tools, and a horse. She also had gold and silver coins, which brought the total of her donation to $304.07, more than a year’s worth of wages.7 This represented not only all that Hannah could offer temporally but also her spiritual commitment to support the ongoing Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
John Corrill was 36 years old when he first saw a copy of the Book of Mormon. He glanced at a few pages and concluded that the book was a fraud and the missionaries impostors. “I would not trouble myself any more about them,” he wrote.8
Not long after, he was astounded to hear that a highly respected preacher named Sidney Rigdon had joined the Church in nearby Kirtland, Ohio. John tried to convince the minister of his error, but Sidney was firm in his newfound faith. As John returned home, Proverbs 18:13 came to his mind: “He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him.”
So John got a copy of the Book of Mormon and read for weeks, this time with more sincerity in his study. The more he read, the more he saw how the restored Church fit his understanding of the Church in Christ’s day. Finally, he concluded, “It was just as consistent to look for prophets in this age as in any other.”9 That was the start of his testimony.
John was baptized in frigid water on January 10, 1831, and went on to serve a mission that same year. He served as second counselor to the Church’s first bishop, Edward Partridge, and as “keeper of the Lord’s storehouse,” John helped meet the temporal needs of many Saints.10 After enduring persecution in Missouri, John was asked to write the official history of the Church. But he never did. Troubled by decisions made by leaders, John parted ways with the Church.11
John died in 1842, and there is some evidence he had a change of heart before his passing. In 1840, a leader wrote to Joseph Smith that John “was anxious to get in the Church again.” In any case, he continued supporting the Saints, using his position within state government to try to help them when they were refugees.12
Harriet Howe was an unmarried woman who supported herself as a tailor in the Kirtland area in the early 1830s. Her younger brother Eber edited and published a local newspaper called the Painesville Telegraph.
Like John Corrill, Harriet knew and admired Sidney Rigdon. She was a member of his congregation when Latter-day Saint missionaries came to the area. Eber quickly became a fierce opponent of the new church, using his newspaper to criticize the Saints and helping publish a book to discredit Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. But despite his staunch opposition, his sister Harriet and his wife, Sophia, joined the Church.
The two women found ways to support the Church, even though it was a source of family contention. Sophia donated money to the Camp of Israel, which her husband publicly mocked her for.13 Harriet befriended and supported Joseph Smith and his family, sharing meals with them at her home and theirs and giving Emma and the children a place to stay while Joseph came to her town to conduct business.14 In 1836, Harriet sewed the veils used in the Kirtland Temple. She was also an early supporter of the Church’s banking endeavor, the Kirtland Safety Society, which failed during the nationwide financial collapse of 1837.15
When the majority of Saints moved from Ohio and Missouri in 1838, Sophia and Harriet did not go with them. Eber claimed that Harriet left the Church. Or she may simply have been too poor to pay for the move. Five years later, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve returned to Kirtland as a missionary and found a small group of dedicated Saints there, as well as many whose commitment had wavered. It is not known whether Harriet was among the several hundred who renewed their baptismal vows after hearing an Apostle preach once more.
Most of us will never show up in history books. But we, like the lesser-known Saints in the Joseph Smith Papers, can help change the world and prepare it for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. In “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles declared, “The promised Restoration goes forward through continuing revelation. The earth will never again be the same.”16 Each day, we make decisions that shape our life’s story. How will we hear and heed the Lord today?