14 Visions and Nightmares

“Visions and Nightmares,” chapter 14 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)

Chapter 14: “Visions and Nightmares”

Chapter 14

Visions and Nightmares

Tar and Feathers

In January 1832, Joseph, Emma, and the twins were living in the home of Elsa and John Johnson in Hiram, Ohio, about thirty miles south of Kirtland.1 The Johnsons were around the same age as Joseph’s parents, so most of their children had married and moved out of their spacious farmhouse, leaving plenty of room for Joseph to meet with church leaders and work on his translation of the Bible.

Before their baptisms, Elsa and John had been members of Ezra Booth’s congregation. In fact, it had been Elsa who was miraculously healed by Joseph, leading Ezra to join the church.2 But while Ezra had lost his faith, the Johnsons continued to support the prophet, just as the Whitmers and Knights had done in New York.

That winter, Joseph and Sidney spent much of their time translating in an upstairs room at the Johnson home. In mid-February, as they read in the Gospel of John about the resurrection of just and unjust souls, Joseph wondered if there was not more to know about heaven or the salvation of humankind. If God rewarded His children according to their deeds on earth, were traditional notions of heaven and hell too simple?3

On February 16, Joseph, Sidney, and about twelve other men sat in an upstairs room in the Johnson home.4 The Spirit rested on Joseph and Sidney, and they grew still as a vision opened before their eyes. The glory of the Lord surrounded them, and they saw Jesus Christ at the right hand of God. Angels worshipped at His throne, and a voice testified that Jesus was the Only Begotten of the Father.5

“What do I see?” Joseph asked as he and Sidney marveled at the wonders they saw. He then described what he beheld in the vision, and Sidney said, “I see the same.” Sidney then asked the same question and described the scene before him. Once he finished, Joseph said, “I see the same.”

They spoke like this for an hour, and their vision revealed that God’s plan of salvation started before life on earth and that His children would be resurrected after death through the power of Jesus Christ. They also described heaven in a way no one in the room had ever imagined. Rather than being a single kingdom, it was organized into various kingdoms of glory.

Expanding on the apostle Paul’s description of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Joseph and Sidney saw and described specific details about each kingdom. The Lord prepared telestial glory for those who had been wicked and unrepentant on earth. Terrestrial glory was for those who had lived honorably in life but had not fully obeyed the gospel of Jesus Christ. Celestial glory was for those who accepted Christ, made and kept gospel covenants, and inherited the fullness of God’s glory.6

The Lord revealed more about heaven and the Resurrection to Joseph and Sidney but told them not to record it. “They are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit,” He explained, “which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him.”7

When the vision closed, Sidney looked limp and pale, overcome by what he had seen. Joseph smiled and said, “Sidney is not used to it as I am.”8

As the Saints in Kirtland learned of Joseph’s grand vision of heaven, William Phelps was setting up the church’s printing office in Independence. He had been a newspaper editor much of his adult life, and along with working on the Book of Commandments, he hoped to publish a monthly newspaper for the Saints and their neighbors in Missouri.

Writing in a strong, confident voice, William penned a public announcement for the paper, which he planned to call The Evening and the Morning Star. “The Star will borrow its light from sacred sources,” he declared, “and be devoted to the revelations of God.” He believed the last days had arrived, and he wanted his newspaper to warn the righteous and wicked alike that the gospel was restored and that the Savior would soon return to the earth.

He wanted to print other items of interest as well, including news reports and poetry. But even though he was a man of strong opinions who rarely passed up the chance to speak his mind, William insisted that the newspaper would not meddle in politics or local disputes.

He had been a politically active editor for other newspapers and had sometimes peppered his articles and editorials with opinions that irritated his opponents.9 Staying above the fray in Missouri would be challenging. Still, the prospect of writing news articles and editorials thrilled him.

William was sincere in his plan to focus the paper on the gospel, and he understood that his first priority as church printer was publishing the revelations. “From this press may be expected, as soon as wisdom directs, many sacred records,” he promised his readers.10

Back in Ohio, Joseph and Sidney’s vision was causing a stir. Many Saints quickly embraced the newly revealed truths about heaven, but others had a hard time squaring the vision with their traditional Christian beliefs.11 Did this new view of heaven save too many souls? A few Saints rejected the revelation and left the church.

The vision further troubled some of their neighbors, who were already bothered by the letters Ezra Booth had published in a local newspaper. As the letters spread Ezra’s criticisms against Joseph, other former members of the church joined in, raising questions in the minds of people whose family and friends worshipped with the Saints.12

As the sun set one evening in late March 1832, a group of men met in a brickyard half a mile from the Johnsons’ home. In the kiln, the men built a fire to heat pine tar. As the sky grew darker, they covered their faces in soot and slipped away into the night.13

Emma was lying awake in bed when she heard faint tapping on the window. The noise was loud enough to catch her attention, but not unusual. She thought nothing of it.

Nearby, Joseph lay on a trundle bed, his steady breathing a sign that he was asleep. The twins had measles, and earlier that night Joseph had stayed up with the sicker of the two so Emma could sleep. After a while, she awoke, took the baby from him, and told him to rest. He had to preach in the morning.

Emma was drifting off to sleep when the bedroom door swung open and a dozen men burst into the room. They seized Joseph by the arms and legs and started to drag him from the house. Emma screamed.

Joseph thrashed wildly as the men tightened their grip. Someone grabbed him by the hair and yanked him toward the door. Wrenching one of his legs free, Joseph kicked a man in the face. The man stumbled backward and toppled down the doorstep, clutching his bleeding nose. Laughing hoarsely, he scrambled back to his feet and shoved a bloody hand into Joseph’s face.

“I’ll fix you,” he snarled.

The men wrestled Joseph out of the house and into the yard. He fought against their grip, trying to free his powerful limbs, but someone seized him by the throat and squeezed until his body went limp.14

Joseph awoke in a meadow some distance from the Johnson house. The men were still holding him tightly, a little off the ground, so he could not break free. A few feet away, he saw the half-naked figure of Sidney Rigdon stretched out in the grass. He looked dead.

“Have mercy,” Joseph begged the men. “Spare my life.”

“Call on your God for help,” someone shouted. Joseph looked around and saw more men joining the mob. One man stepped out of a nearby orchard with a wooden plank, and the men stretched Joseph across it and carried him deeper into the meadow.

After they had gone some distance from the house, they tore away his clothes and held him down while a man approached with a sharp knife, ready to mutilate him. But the man took a look at Joseph and refused to cut him.

“Damn you,” another man howled. He leapt on Joseph and raked his sharp fingernails across the prophet’s skin, leaving it raw and lacerated. “That’s the way the Holy Ghost falls on folks,” he said.

Joseph could hear other men a short distance off, arguing over what to do with him and Sidney. He could not hear every word they said, but he thought he heard a familiar name or two.

Once the arguing stopped, someone said, “Let’s tar up his mouth.” Filthy hands forced his jaw open while a man tried to pour a bottle of acid down his throat. The bottle broke on Joseph’s teeth, chipping one of them.

Another man tried to cram a paddle of sticky tar into his mouth, but Joseph shook his head back and forth. “Damn you!” the man cried. “Hold up your head.” He jammed the paddle into Joseph’s mouth until the tar oozed over his lips.

More men came with a vat of tar and poured it over him. The tar ran down his lacerated skin and through his hair. They covered him with feathers, dumped him on the cold ground, and fled the scene.

After they left, Joseph tore the tar from his lips and gasped for air. He struggled to his feet, but his strength failed him. He tried again and this time managed to stay upright. Stray feathers flitted in the air around him.15

When she saw Joseph stumbling to the Johnsons’ door, Emma fainted, sure the mob had mangled him beyond recognition. Hearing the commotion, several women in the neighborhood had rushed to the house. Joseph asked for a blanket to cover his battered body.

For the rest of the night, people tended to Joseph and to Sidney, who had lain in the meadow a long time, barely breathing. Emma scraped the tar from Joseph’s limbs, chest, and back. Elsa Johnson, meanwhile, used lard from her pantry to ease the hardened tar from his skin and hair.16

The next day, Joseph got dressed and preached a sermon from the Johnsons’ doorstep. He recognized some of the men from the mob in the congregation, but he said nothing to them. In the afternoon, he baptized three people.17

Still, the attack had caused plenty of damage. His body was bruised and aching from the beating. Sidney lay in bed, delirious, teetering between life and death. The mob had dragged him out of his house by his heels, leaving his head unprotected as it bounced down the steps and across the cold March ground.

Joseph and Emma’s babies also suffered. While his twin sister Julia’s health improved steadily, little Joseph grew worse, and he died later that week. The prophet blamed his son’s death on the cold air that poured into the house when the mob dragged him away.18

A few days after the baby’s burial, Joseph returned to the work despite his grief. Following the Lord’s commandment, he set out for Missouri on April 1 with Newel Whitney and Sidney, who was still weak from the attack but had recovered enough to travel.19 The Lord had recently called Newel to serve as a bishop of the Saints in Ohio and directed him to consecrate surplus money from his profitable businesses to help support the store, printing office, and land purchases in Independence.20

The Lord wanted the three men to go to Missouri and covenant to cooperate economically with leaders in Zion to benefit the church and better care for the poor. He also wanted them to strengthen the Saints so they would not lose sight of their sacred responsibility to build the city of Zion.21

When they arrived in Independence, Joseph convened a council of church leaders and read a revelation that called on him, Edward Partridge, Newel Whitney, and other church leaders to covenant with each other to manage the church’s business concerns.22

“I give unto you this commandment, that ye bind yourselves by this covenant,” the Lord declared, “every man seeking the interest of his neighbor, and doing all things with an eye single to the glory of God.” Bound thus together, they called themselves the United Firm.23

While he was in Missouri, Joseph also visited members of the old Colesville Branch and others who had settled in the area. Church leaders seemed to be working well together, the new printing office was preparing to publish the first issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, and many church members were eager to build up the city.24

But Joseph sensed hard feelings toward him from some of the Saints, including a few of their leaders. They seemed to resent his choice to stay in Kirtland rather than move permanently to Missouri. And some still seemed upset about what had happened on his last visit to the area, when he and some of the elders had disagreed about where to establish Zion in Missouri.

Their resentment surprised him. Did they not realize he had left his grieving family and traveled eight hundred miles just to help them?25

While Joseph was visiting the Saints in Independence, William McLellin was struggling spiritually in Ohio. After being called as a missionary, he had spent the winter preaching the gospel, first in towns and villages east of Kirtland and later to the south. Although he had enjoyed some success early on, poor health, bad weather, and uninterested people now left him discouraged.26

As a teacher, he was used to obedient students who listened to his lessons and did not talk back. As a missionary, however, he was often at odds with people who did not respect his authority. Once, while delivering a long sermon, he was interrupted several times and called a liar.27

After months of setbacks, he started to question whether it was the Lord or Joseph Smith who had called him on a mission.28 Unable to settle the matter in his mind, he left the mission field and found a job clerking at a store.29 In his free time, he scoured the Bible for evidence of the restored gospel and argued with skeptics about religion.

In time, he chose not to return to his mission. Instead, he married a church member named Emeline Miller and decided to accompany a group of about a hundred Saints to Jackson County, where land was readily available. In a revelation to Joseph, God had rebuked William for abandoning his mission, but William believed he could start over in Zion.

He wanted to do it on his own terms, however. In the summer of 1832, he and his company moved to Missouri without a recommendation from church leaders, which the Lord required migrating Saints to obtain so that Zion would not grow too quickly and strain resources. When he arrived, he also did not go to Bishop Partridge to consecrate his property or receive an inheritance. Instead he bought two lots in Independence from the government.30

The arrival of William and the others overwhelmed Bishop Partridge and his counselors. Many of the newcomers were poor and had little to consecrate. The bishop did his best to get them settled, but it was a challenge to arrange homes, farms, and employment for them while Zion’s economy was still fragile.31

William, however, believed his large company fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy that many people would come to Zion. He found work as a schoolteacher and wrote his relatives about his faith.

“We believe that Joseph Smith is a true prophet or seer of the Lord,” he testified, “and that he has power and does receive revelations from God, and that these revelations when received are of divine authority in the Church of Christ.”32

Such notions were beginning to unnerve his neighbors in Missouri, though, especially when they heard some church members say that God had appointed Independence to be the center place of their promised land.33 With the arrival of William’s company, the Saints in Zion numbered around five hundred. Already resources were getting scarce, driving up prices on local goods.34

“They are crowding in,” one woman observed as more Saints settled around her. “I do think they ought to be punished.”35