“The Gift Has Returned,” chapter 13 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 13: “The Gift Has Returned”
When Joseph returned to Kirtland in late August 1831, tension still lingered between him and a few of the elders who had gone with him to Independence. After their quarrel on the banks of the Missouri River, Joseph and most of the elders traveling with him had humbled themselves, confessed their sins, and sought forgiveness. The next morning, the Lord had forgiven them and offered reassurance and encouragement.1
“Inasmuch as you have humbled yourselves before me,” He had said, “the blessings of the kingdom are yours.”2
Other elders, Ezra Booth among them, did not heed the revelation or resolve their differences with Joseph. When Ezra returned to Kirtland, he continued to criticize Joseph and complain about his actions on the mission.3 A conference of Saints soon revoked Ezra’s preaching license, and he began writing his friends scathing letters attacking Joseph’s character.4
The Lord rebuked these attacks in early September and called on the elders to stop condemning Joseph’s errors and criticizing him without cause. “He has sinned,” the Lord acknowledged, “but verily I say unto you, I, the Lord, forgive sins unto those who confess their sins before me and ask forgiveness.”
He admonished the Saints to be forgiving as well. “I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive,” He declared, “but of you it is required to forgive all men.”
He also urged the Saints to do good and build up Zion, rather than let their disagreements divide them. “Be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work,” He reminded them. “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient shall eat the good of the land of Zion in these last days.”
Before concluding His words, the Lord called a few church members to sell their property and go to Missouri. Most of the Saints were to stay in Ohio, however, and continue sharing the gospel there. “For I, the Lord, will,” He told Joseph, “to retain a strong hold in the land of Kirtland, for the space of five years.”5
Elizabeth Marsh listened eagerly as the elders returning to Ohio described the land of Zion. They spoke of deep, black soil, tumbling prairies as vast as the ocean, and a roiling river that seemed to have a life of its own. Although they had little good to say about the Missourians, many of the returning elders were optimistic about Zion’s future.
Writing to her sister-in-law in Boston, Elizabeth recounted everything she knew about the promised land. “They have erected a stone for both the temple and city,” she reported, “and purchased land as far as circumstances would admit for the inheritance of the faithful.” The temple site itself was in a forest west of the courthouse, she noted, fulfilling biblical prophecies that the forest would be “esteemed a fruitful field” and that “solitary places shall be made glad.”6
Elizabeth’s husband, Thomas, was still in Missouri preaching the gospel, and she expected him to come home in a month or so. According to the elders, most people in Missouri were not interested in the message he was sharing, but missionaries were baptizing people elsewhere and sending them on to Zion.7
Before long, hundreds of Saints would be gathering to Independence.
Hundreds of miles southwest of Kirtland, twenty-five-year-old William McLellin visited the graves of his wife, Cinthia Ann, and their baby. William and Cinthia Ann had been married for less than two years when she and the baby died. As a schoolteacher, William had a quick mind and a gift for writing. But he found nothing to comfort him in the lonely hours since he lost his family.8
One day, after teaching his class, William heard two men preach about the Book of Mormon. One of them, David Whitmer, declared that he had seen an angel who testified that the Book of Mormon was true. The other, Harvey Whitlock, astonished William with the power and clarity of his preaching.
William invited the men to teach him more, and he was again struck by Harvey’s words. “I never heard such preaching in all my life,” William wrote in his journal. “The glory of God seemed to encircle the man.”9
Eager to meet Joseph Smith and investigate his claims, William followed David and Harvey to Independence. Joseph had already returned to Kirtland by the time they arrived, but William met Edward Partridge, Martin Harris, and Hyrum Smith and heard their testimonies. He also spoke with other men and women in Zion and marveled at the love and peace he saw among them.10
While taking a long walk through the woods one day, he talked with Hyrum about the Book of Mormon and the beginning of the church. William wanted to believe, but in spite of everything he had heard so far, he still was not convinced to join the church. He wanted a witness from God that he had found the truth.
Early the next morning, he prayed for direction. Reflecting on his study of the Book of Mormon, William realized it had opened his mind to new light. He knew then that it was true and felt honor bound to testify of it. He was certain he had found the living church of Jesus Christ.11
Hyrum baptized and confirmed William later that day, and the two men soon set out for Kirtland.12 As they preached along the way, William discovered he had a talent for captivating audiences and debating ministers. He sometimes acted arrogantly when he preached, however, and he felt bad when his boasting drove the Spirit away.13
Once they arrived in Kirtland, William was anxious to speak with Joseph. He had several specific questions he wanted answered, but he kept them to himself, praying that Joseph would discern them on his own and reveal their answers. William was now unsure where to go and what to do with his life. Without a family, he could devote himself fully to the Lord’s work. But part of him wanted to look out for his own welfare first.
That night, William went home with Joseph and asked him for a revelation from the Lord, as he knew many others had done. Joseph agreed, and as the prophet received the revelation, William heard the Lord answer each of his questions. His anxiety gave way to joy. He knew he had found a prophet of God.14
A few days later, on November 1, 1831, Joseph called a council of church leaders together. Ezra Booth had recently published a letter in a local newspaper accusing Joseph of making false prophecies and hiding his revelations from the public. The letter was widely read, and many people had begun to grow wary of the Saints and their message.15
Many Saints also wanted to read the Lord’s word themselves. Since there were only handwritten copies of the revelations Joseph had received, they were not well known among most church members. Elders who wanted to use them in missionary work had to copy them by hand.
Knowing this, Joseph proposed publishing the revelations in a book. He was confident that such a book would help missionaries share the Lord’s word more easily and provide correct information about the church to curious neighbors.
The council talked the matter over for hours. David Whitmer and a few others opposed publishing the revelations, worried that making the Lord’s plans for Zion more public might cause problems for the Saints in Jackson County. Joseph and Sidney disagreed, insisting that the Lord wanted the church to publish His words.16
After more debate, the council agreed to publish ten thousand copies of the revelations as the Book of Commandments. They assigned Sidney, Oliver, and William McLellin to write a preface to the book of revelations and present it to them later that day.17
The three men began writing immediately, but when they returned with a preface, the council was unhappy with it. They read it over, picking it apart line by line, and asked Joseph to seek the Lord’s will on it. Joseph prayed, and the Lord revealed a new preface for the book. Sidney recorded His words as Joseph spoke them.18
In the new preface, the Lord commanded all people to hearken to His voice. He declared that He had given Joseph these commandments to help His children increase their faith, trust in Him, and receive and proclaim the fullness of His gospel and everlasting covenant. He also addressed the fears of those like David who worried about the content of the revelations.
“What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself,” He declared, “and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.”19
After Joseph spoke the words of the preface, several members of the council said they were willing to testify of the truth of the revelations. Others in the room were still reluctant to publish the revelations in their current form. They knew Joseph was a prophet, and they knew the revelations were true, but they were embarrassed that the word of the Lord had come to them filtered through Joseph’s limited vocabulary and weak grammar.20
The Lord did not share their concern. In His preface, He had testified that the revelations came from Him, given to His servants “in their weakness, after the manner of their language.”21 To help the men know the revelations came from Him, He issued a new revelation, challenging the council to select the wisest man in the room to write a revelation like the ones Joseph had received.
If the man selected for the task was unable to do it, everyone in the room would know and be responsible to testify that the Lord’s revelations to Joseph were true, despite their imperfections.22
Taking up a pen, William tried to write a revelation, confident in his mastery of language. When he finished, though, he and the other men in the room knew what he had written had not come from the Lord.23 They admitted their error and signed a statement testifying that the revelations had been given to the prophet by the inspiration of God.24
In council, they resolved that Joseph should review the revelations and “correct those errors or mistakes which he may discover by the Holy Spirit.”25
Around this time, Elizabeth Marsh welcomed a traveling preacher named Nancy Towle into her home in Kirtland. Nancy was a small, wiry woman with large eyes that burned with the intensity of her convictions. At thirty-five, Nancy had already made a name for herself preaching to large congregations of women and men in schools, churches, and camp meetings across the United States. After talking with her, Elizabeth could tell that she was well educated and firm in her beliefs.26
Nancy had come to Kirtland with a purpose. Although she usually kept an open mind about other Christian churches, even when she disagreed with them, Nancy was sure the Saints were deluded. She wanted to learn more about them so she could help others resist their teachings.27
Elizabeth did not support such a mission, but she could understand that Nancy was defending what she thought was the truth. She listened to them preach and saw some baptisms in a nearby river. Later in the day, she and Elizabeth attended a confirmation meeting with Joseph, Sidney, and other church leaders.28
At the meeting, William Phelps confronted Nancy about doubting the truth of the Book of Mormon. “You shall not be saved unless you believe that book,” he told her.
Nancy glared at William. “If I had that book, sir, I would burn it,” she said. Nancy was shocked that so many talented and intelligent people could follow Joseph Smith and believe in the Book of Mormon.
“Mr. Smith,” she said, addressing the prophet, “can you, in the presence of Almighty God, give your word by oath that an angel from heaven showed you the place of those plates?”
“I will not swear at all,” said Joseph wryly. Instead, he approached those who had just been baptized, placed his hands on their heads, and confirmed them.
Turning to Nancy, Elizabeth testified of her own confirmation. “No sooner his hands fell upon my head,” she said, “than I felt the Holy Ghost as warm water go over me.”
Nancy was offended, as if Elizabeth had accused her of not knowing what the Spirit of the Lord felt like. She looked at Joseph again. “Are you not ashamed of such pretentions?” she said. “You who are no more than any ignorant plowboy of our land!”
Joseph testified simply: “The gift has returned back again, as in former times, to illiterate fishermen.”29