“Come Life or Come Death,” chapter 9 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 9: “Come Life or Come Death”
The Sunday after the church was organized, Oliver preached to the Whitmer family and their friends in Fayette. Many of them had supported the Book of Mormon translation but had not yet joined the church. After Oliver finished speaking, six people asked him to baptize them in a nearby lake.1
As more people joined the new church, the immensity of the Lord’s commission to take the gospel to the world weighed on Joseph. He had published the Book of Mormon and organized the Lord’s church, but the book was selling poorly and those who sought baptism were mostly his friends and relatives. And Joseph still had much to learn about heaven and earth.
People who joined the church often came seeking the gifts of the Spirit and other miracles they read about in the New Testament.2 But the restored gospel promised believers something even greater than wonders and signs. Benjamin, a wise prophet and king in the Book of Mormon, had taught that if people yielded to the Holy Spirit, they could shed their sinful nature and become saints through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.3
For Joseph, the challenge now was how to move the Lord’s work forward. He and Oliver knew they had to cry repentance to all people. The field was ready to harvest, and the worth of every soul was great in the eyes of God. But how could two young apostles—a farmer and a schoolteacher, both in their early twenties—move such a great work forward?
And how could a small church in rural New York rise above its humble beginnings and grow to fill the entire world?
After the baptisms in Fayette, Joseph began the hundred-mile trip back to his farm in Harmony. As busy as he was with the new church, he had to plant his fields soon if he wanted a successful fall harvest. His payments to Emma’s father on the farm were already late, and if his crops failed, he would have to find another way to pay off his debt.
On his way home, Joseph stopped at Joseph and Polly Knight’s farm in Colesville, New York. The Knights had long supported him, but they still had not joined the church. Joseph Knight in particular wanted to read the Book of Mormon before he embraced the new faith.4
Joseph stayed a few days in Colesville, preaching to the Knights and their friends. Newel Knight, one of Joseph and Polly’s sons, often talked with the prophet about the gospel. One day, Joseph invited him to pray at a meeting, but Newel said he would rather pray alone in the woods.
The next morning, Newel went to the woods and tried to pray. An uneasy feeling came over him, and it grew worse as he started for home. By the time he reached his house, the feeling was so oppressive that he begged his wife, Sally, to get the prophet.
Joseph hurried to Newel’s side and found family members and neighbors watching fearfully as the young man’s face, arms, and legs contorted wildly. When Newel saw Joseph, he cried, “Cast the devil out!”
Joseph had never tried to rebuke the devil or heal someone before, but he knew Jesus had promised His disciples the power to do so. Acting quickly, he caught Newel by the hand. “In the name of Jesus Christ,” he said, “depart from him.”
As soon as Joseph spoke, the contortions stopped. Newel slumped to the floor, exhausted but unharmed, muttering that he had seen the devil leave his body.
The Knights and their neighbors were astonished by what Joseph had done. Helping them carry Newel to a bed, Joseph told them it was the first miracle performed in the church.
“It was done by God,” he testified, “and by the power of godliness.”5
Hundreds of miles to the west, a farmer named Parley Pratt felt the Spirit urging him to leave his home and family to preach of the prophecies and spiritual gifts he found in the Bible. He sold his farm at a loss and trusted God would bless him for giving up everything for Christ.
With only a few items of clothing and just enough money to make the journey, he and his wife, Thankful, left their home and headed east to visit family before he set out to preach. As they traveled by canal, however, Parley turned to Thankful and asked her to go on without him. He felt the Spirit directing him to get off the boat.
“I will come soon,” he promised. “I have a work to do in this region.”6
Parley disembarked and walked ten miles into the countryside, where he came upon the home of a Baptist deacon who told him about a strange new book he had acquired. It claimed to be an ancient record, the man said, translated from gold plates with the help of angels and visions. The deacon did not have the book with him, but he promised to show it to Parley the following day.
The next morning, Parley returned to the deacon’s house. He opened the book eagerly and read its title page. He then turned to the back of the book and read the testimonies of several witnesses. The words drew him in, and he started the book from the beginning. Hours passed, but he could not stop reading. Eating and sleeping were a burden. The Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and he knew the book was true.7
Parley soon made his way to the nearby village of Palmyra, determined to meet the translator of the book. People in town pointed him to a farm a few miles down the road. As Parley walked in that direction, he saw a man and asked him where he could find Joseph Smith. The man told him that Joseph lived in Harmony, a hundred miles south, but introduced himself as Hyrum Smith, the prophet’s brother.
They talked most of the night, and Hyrum testified of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and the Lord’s work in the latter days. The next morning, Parley had preaching appointments to fulfill, so Hyrum gave him a copy of the book and sent him on his way.
Parley opened the book at his next opportunity and discovered, to his joy, that the resurrected Lord had visited the people of ancient America and taught them His gospel. The message of the book, Parley realized, was worth more than all the riches of the world.
When his preaching appointments were over, Parley returned to the Smith house. Hyrum welcomed him back and invited him to visit the Whitmer farm, where he could meet a growing congregation of church members.
Eager to learn more, Parley accepted the invitation. A few days later, he was baptized.8
In late June 1830, Emma traveled with Joseph and Oliver to Colesville. Word of Joseph’s miracle that spring had spread throughout the area, and now the Knights and several other families wanted to join the church.
Emma was also ready to be baptized. Like the Knights, she believed in the restored gospel and in her husband’s prophetic call, but she had not yet joined the church.9
After arriving in Colesville, Joseph worked with others to dam a nearby stream so they could hold a baptismal meeting the following day. When morning came, however, they discovered that someone had wrecked the dam overnight to prevent the baptisms from taking place.
Disappointed, they held a Sabbath-day meeting instead, and Oliver preached on baptism and the Holy Ghost. After the sermon, a local minister and some members of his congregation broke up the meeting and tried to drag one of the believers away.
Emma was all too familiar with opposition to Joseph and his message. Some people called him a fraud and accused him of trying to profit off his followers. Others mocked believers, calling them “Mormonites.”10 Wary of trouble, Emma and the others returned to the stream early the next day and repaired the dam. Once the water was deep enough, Oliver waded into the middle of the pool and baptized Emma, Joseph and Polly Knight, and ten others.
During the baptisms, some men stood along the bank, a short distance back, and heckled the believers. Emma and the others tried to ignore them, but when the group headed back to the Knight farm, the men followed, shouting threats at the prophet along the way. At the Knights’ house, Joseph and Oliver wanted to confirm the newly baptized women and men, but the group of hecklers outside swelled to a noisy mob of fifty.
Worried they might be attacked, the believers fled to a neighboring house, hoping to finish the confirmations in peace. But before they could perform the ordinances, a constable arrested Joseph and carried him off to jail for causing an uproar in the community by preaching the Book of Mormon.
Joseph spent the night in custody, unsure if the mob would capture him and carry out their threats. Emma, meanwhile, waited anxiously at her sister’s house while she and their Colesville friends prayed for Joseph’s safe release.11
Over the next two days, Joseph was tried in court and acquitted, only to be arrested and tried again on similar charges. After his second hearing he was set free, and he and Emma returned to their farm in Harmony before she and the Colesville Saints could be confirmed as members of the church.12
Back home, Joseph tried again to work on his farm, but the Lord gave him a new revelation on how he should spend his time. “Thou shalt devote all thy service in Zion,” the Lord declared. “In temporal labors thou shalt not have strength, for this is not thy calling.” Joseph was told to plant his fields and then set off to confirm the new members in New York.13
The revelation left much uncertainty in Emma’s life. How would they earn a living if Joseph devoted all his time to the Saints? And what would she do while he was away serving the church? Was she supposed to stay at home, or did the Lord want her to go with him? And if He did, what would be her role in the church?
Knowing Emma’s desire for guidance, the Lord spoke to her in a revelation given through Joseph. He forgave her sins and called her an “elect lady.” He directed her to go with Joseph in his travels and promised, “Thou shalt be ordained under his hand to expound scriptures, and to exhort the church.”
He also calmed her fears about their finances. “Thou needest not fear,” He assured her, “for thy husband shall support thee.”
The Lord then instructed her to make a selection of sacred hymns for the church. “For my soul delighteth in the song of the heart,” He said.14
Soon after the revelation, Newel and Sally Knight visited from Colesville, and Sally and Emma were confirmed. As the two women received the gift of the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord filled the room. Everyone rejoiced and praised God.15
Later that summer, Joseph and Emma paid off their farm with the help of friends and moved to Fayette so Joseph could devote more time to the church.16 After they arrived, however, they learned that Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses and a teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood, had started to seek revelations for the church through what he thought was a seer stone.17 Many Saints, including Oliver and some members of the Whitmer family, believed these revelations were from God.18
Joseph knew he was facing a crisis. Hiram’s revelations mimicked the language of scripture. They spoke of the establishment of Zion and the organization of the church, but at times they contradicted the New Testament and truths the Lord had revealed through Joseph.
Unsure of what to do, Joseph stayed up praying one night, pleading for guidance. He had experienced opposition before, but not from his friends. If he acted too forcefully against Hiram’s revelations, he could offend those who believed in them or discourage faithful Saints from seeking revelation on their own.19 But if he did not condemn the false revelations, they could undermine the authority of the Lord’s word and divide the Saints.
After many sleepless hours, Joseph received a revelation directed to Oliver. “No one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith,” the Lord declared, “for all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church.” The Lord directed Oliver to teach this principle to Hiram.
The revelation then called Oliver to go nearly a thousand miles to the western edge of the United States to preach the restored gospel to American Indians, who were remnants of the house of Israel. The Lord said that the city of Zion would be built near these people, echoing the Book of Mormon’s promise that God would establish the New Jerusalem on the American continent prior to the Second Coming of Christ. He did not identify the city’s exact location, but He promised to reveal that information at a later time.20
A few days later, at a conference of the church, the Saints renounced Hiram’s revelations and unanimously sustained Joseph as the only one who could receive revelation for the church.21
The Lord called Peter Whitmer Jr., Ziba Peterson, and Parley Pratt to join Oliver on the mission to the West.22 Emma and other women, meanwhile, began making clothes for the missionaries. Working long hours, they spun wool into yarn, wove or knitted the yarn into cloth, and stitched the cloth together piece by piece.23
Parley had recently returned to Fayette with Thankful after sharing the gospel with her and other members of his family. When he left for the West, she moved in with Mary Whitmer, who gladly welcomed her into her home.
On the way to Missouri, Parley planned to take the other missionaries to the state of Ohio, where his former pastor, Sidney Rigdon, lived. Parley hoped he would be interested in their message.24
That same summer, in a town two days’ journey from Fayette, Rhoda Greene found Samuel Smith, the prophet’s brother, on her doorstep. Rhoda had met Samuel earlier that year when he left a copy of the Book of Mormon at her house. Her husband, John, was a traveling preacher for another faith, and he thought the book was nonsense, but he had promised to take it with him on his circuit and collect the names of anyone interested in its message.
Rhoda invited Samuel inside and told him no one had shown any interest in the Book of Mormon so far. “You will have to take the book,” she said. “Mr. Greene does not seem to feel like buying it.”
Samuel took the Book of Mormon and was turning to leave when Rhoda mentioned that she had read it and liked it. Samuel paused. “I will give you this book,” he said, returning the copy. “The Spirit of God forbids my taking it away.”
Rhoda felt overcome with emotion as she took the book back. “Ask God to give you a testimony of the truth of the work,” Samuel said, “and you will feel a burning sensation in your breast, which is the Spirit of God.”
Later, after her husband came home, Rhoda told him about Samuel’s visit. At first John was reluctant to pray about the book, but Rhoda convinced him to trust Samuel’s promise.
“I do know that he would not tell an untruth,” she said. “I know he must be a good man if there ever was one.”
Rhoda and John prayed about the book and received a testimony of its truth. They then shared it with their family and neighbors, including Rhoda’s younger brother Brigham Young and his friend Heber Kimball.25
In the fall, thirty-eight-year-old Sidney Rigdon listened politely as Parley Pratt and his three companions testified of a new work of scripture, the Book of Mormon. But Sidney was not interested. For years, he had exhorted people in and around the village of Kirtland, Ohio, to read the Bible and return to the principles of the New Testament church. The Bible had always guided his life, he told the missionaries, and it was enough.26
“You brought the truth to me,” Parley reminded Sidney. “I now ask you as a friend to read this for my sake.”27
“You must not argue with me on the subject,” Sidney insisted. “But I will read your book and see what claim it has upon my faith.”28
Parley asked Sidney if they could preach to his congregation. Although he was skeptical of their message, Sidney gave them permission.
After the missionaries left, Sidney read parts of the book and found he could not dismiss it.29 By the time Parley and Oliver preached to his congregation, he had no desire to warn anyone against the book. When he rose to speak at the end of the meeting, he quoted the Bible.
“Prove all things,” he said, “and hold fast that which is good.”30
But Sidney remained uncertain about what to do. Accepting the Book of Mormon would mean losing his employment as a pastor. He had a good congregation, and they provided him, his wife, Phebe, and their six children with a comfortable life. Some people in the congregation were even building a home for them.31 Could he really ask his family to walk away from the comfort they enjoyed?
Sidney prayed until a sense of peace rested over him. He knew the Book of Mormon was true. “Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto me,” he exclaimed, “but my Father which is in heaven.”32
Sidney shared his feelings with Phebe. “My dear,” he said, “you have once followed me into poverty. Are you again willing to do the same?”
“I have counted the cost,” she replied. “It is my desire to do the will of God, come life or come death.”33