“Only a Prelude,” chapter 16 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 16: “Only a Prelude”
While the plans for Zion and the temple traveled by mail to Missouri, nine-year-old Emily Partridge leapt from her bed and rushed outside in her nightclothes. In the yard behind her house, not far from the temple site in Independence, she saw one of her family’s large haystacks engulfed in flames. The fire reached high into the night sky, its bright yellow light casting long shadows behind those who stood by, helplessly watching the blaze.
Accidental fires were common on the frontier, but this one was no accident. Small mobs had been vandalizing the Saints’ property all through the summer of 1833, hoping to scare the newcomers away from Jackson County. No one had been hurt so far, but the mobs seemed to grow more aggressive with every attack.
Emily did not understand all the reasons why people in Jackson County wanted the Saints to leave. She knew her family and friends were unlike their neighbors in many ways. The Missourians she overheard in the streets had a different way of speaking, and the women wore a different style of dress. Some of them walked around barefoot in the summer and washed their clothes with large paddles instead of the washboards Emily was used to in Ohio.
These were trivial differences, but there were also major disagreements Emily knew little about. People in Independence did not like that the Saints preached to Indians and disapproved of slavery. In the northern states, where most church members had lived, owning slaves was against the law. But in Missouri, enslaving black people was legal, and the longtime settlers staunchly defended it.
The fact that the Saints usually kept to themselves did not help ease suspicions. As more of them arrived in Zion, they worked together to build and furnish homes, cultivate farms, and raise children. They were eager to lay the foundation of a holy city that would endure through the Millennium.
The Partridges’ own house, situated in the middle of Independence, was a step toward making the town into Zion. It was a simple two-story house lacking the refinement of Emily’s old home in Ohio, but it signaled that the Saints were in Independence to stay.
As the blazing haystack showed, it also made them a target.1
With tensions rising between the Saints and their neighbors in Jackson County, William Phelps decided to use the pages of the local church newspaper to calm fears. In the July 1833 issue of The Evening and the Morning Star, he published a letter to immigrating church members, counseling them to pay their debts before coming to Zion to avoid being a burden on the community.
In writing this and other words of advice, he hoped that Jackson County residents would read the paper too and see that the Saints were law-abiding citizens whose beliefs posed no threat to them or the local economy.2
William also addressed church members’ attitudes toward black people. Although he sympathized with those who wished to free enslaved people, William wanted his readers to know that the Saints would obey Missouri’s laws restricting the rights of free blacks. There were only a few black Saints in the church, and he recommended that if they chose to move to Zion, they act carefully and trust in God.
“So long as we have no special rule in the church as to people of color,” he wrote vaguely, “let prudence guide.”3
Samuel Lucas, a county judge and colonel in the Jackson County militia, was livid when he read the letter in The Evening and the Morning Star. In Samuel’s mind, William was inviting free black people to become Mormons and move to Missouri. William’s statements discouraging black Saints from settling in Missouri did nothing to calm his fears.4
With mobs already harassing the Saints in Independence and nearby settlements, it was not hard for Samuel to find others who agreed with him. For more than a year, town leaders had been rallying their neighbors against the Saints. Some had distributed handbills and called town meetings, urging people to drive the newcomers out of the area.5
Initially, most of the locals thought the Saints were harmless fanatics who pretended to receive revelations, heal by the laying on of hands, and perform other miracles. But as more and more church members settled in the county, claiming that God had given them Independence as a promised land, Samuel and other town leaders saw them and their revelations as threats to their property and their political power.
And now William’s letter stoked one of their greatest fears. Just two years before, dozens of enslaved people in another state had rebelled and killed more than fifty white men and women in less than two days. Slave owners in Missouri and across the southern states dreaded something similar happening in their communities. Some people feared that if the Saints invited free blacks to Jackson County, their presence could cause slaves to yearn for freedom and rebel.6
Since there were laws protecting the Saints’ freedom of religion and speech, Samuel and the others understood they could not put down this threat through legal means. But they would not be the first town to use violence to drive unwanted people from their midst. Acting together, they could expel the Saints from the county and get away with it.
Town leaders soon met to take action against the newcomers. Samuel and others listed their complaints against the Saints and presented the statement to the people of Independence.
The document declared the town leaders’ intention to drive the Saints from Jackson County by any means necessary. They appointed July 20 for a meeting at the courthouse to decide what to do with the Saints. Hundreds of Jackson County residents signed their names to the statement.7
When he learned of the uproar, William Phelps tried desperately to undo any offense his newspaper article had caused. The Book of Mormon declared that Christ invited all to come unto Him, “black and white, bond and free,” but William was more concerned about the entire county turning against the Saints.8
Acting quickly, he printed a single-page leaflet recanting what he had written about slavery. “We are opposed to having free people of color admitted into the state,” he insisted, “and we say that none will be admitted into the church.”9 The leaflet misrepresented the church’s stance on baptizing black members, but he hoped it would prevent future violence.10
On July 20, William, Edward, and other church leaders went to the Jackson County courthouse to meet with county leaders. The weather was unusually mild for July, and hundreds of people left their homes, farms, and businesses to attend the meeting and prepare to take action against the Saints.
Deciding to give church leaders a last-minute warning before resorting to violence, Samuel Lucas and twelve other men representing the community demanded that William stop printing The Evening and the Morning Star and that the Saints leave the county immediately.11
As the bishop in Zion, Edward knew how much the Saints would lose if they gave in to the demands. Shutting down the printing press would delay the publication of the Book of Commandments, which was almost finished. And leaving the county would mean not only losing valuable property but also giving up their inheritances in the promised land.12
Edward asked for three months to consider the proposal and seek Joseph’s counsel in Kirtland. But the Jackson County leaders refused to grant his request. Edward asked for ten days to consult the other Saints in Missouri. Community leaders gave him fifteen minutes.13
Unwilling to be pressured into a decision, the Saints ended the negotiations. As the Jackson County delegation left, one man turned to Edward and told him the work of destruction would begin immediately.14
Down the street from the courthouse, Sally Phelps was at home on the ground floor of the church’s printing office, tending to her sick newborn. Her four other children were nearby. William had left hours earlier to attend the meeting at the courthouse. He had still not returned, and Sally anxiously waited for news of the meeting.
A heavy thump rattled the front door, startling her and the children. Outside, men pounded a large log against the door, trying to break it down. A crowd of men, women, and children formed around the printing office, some cheering the men on and others watching in silence.15
Once the door broke open, armed men rushed into the house and dragged Sally and the children into the street.16 They threw the family’s furniture and belongings out the front door and smashed windows. Some of the attackers climbed up to the second floor of the printing office and dumped type and ink onto the floor as other men began to tear the building down.17
Standing with her children huddled around her, Sally watched as men broke the second-floor window of the printing office and tossed out paper and type. They then heaved the printing press out the window and sent it crashing to the ground.18
In the chaos, a few of the men emerged from the printing office with their arms full of unbound pages from the Book of Commandments. “Here is the book of revelations of the damned Mormons,” one of them shouted to the crowd as he threw the pages into the street.19
Crouched together beside a nearby fence, fifteen-year-old Mary Elizabeth Rollins and her thirteen-year-old sister, Caroline, watched as the men scattered the pages of the Book of Commandments.
Mary had seen some of the pages before. She and Caroline were nieces of Sidney Gilbert, who operated the Saints’ store in Independence. One evening, at their uncle’s house, Mary had listened as church leaders read and discussed the revelations on the newly printed pages. While the men talked, the Spirit came upon the meeting, and some spoke in tongues while Mary interpreted their words. She now felt a deep reverence for the revelations, and seeing them lying in the street upset her.
Turning to Caroline, Mary said she wanted to get the pages before they were ruined. The men had started to pry the roof off the printing office. Soon they would pull down its walls, leaving nothing but rubble.
Caroline wanted to save the pages, but she was frightened of the mob. “They will kill us,” she said.
Mary understood the danger, but she told Caroline that she was determined to get the pages. Unwilling to leave her sister’s side, Caroline agreed to help.
The sisters waited until the men turned their backs, then sprang from their hiding place and grabbed as many pages as their arms could hold. As they turned to retreat to the fence, some men caught sight of them and ordered them to stop. The sisters gripped the pages tighter and ran as fast as they could into a nearby cornfield as two men followed after them.
The corn was six feet high, and Mary and Caroline could not see where they were going. Throwing themselves to the ground, they hid the pages beneath their bodies and listened breathlessly as the two men tramped back and forth through the corn. The sisters could hear them getting closer and closer, but after a while, the men gave up the search and left the cornfield.20
Emily Partridge and her older sister Harriet were fetching water from a spring when they saw a mob of about fifty armed men approaching their house. Taking cover beside the spring, the girls watched in terror as the men surrounded the house, drove their father outside, and marched him away.21
The mob led Edward to the public square, where a crowd of more than two hundred people surrounded Charles Allen, another Saint who had been captured. Russell Hicks, who had led the town meeting earlier that day, approached Edward and told him to leave the county or face the consequences.
“Call upon your Jesus!” a voice cried out.24 The mob shoved Edward and Charles to the ground, and Hicks began stripping off the bishop’s clothes. Edward resisted, and someone in the crowd demanded that Hicks let the bishop keep his shirt and trousers on.
Relenting, Hicks tore away Edward’s hat, coat, and vest and turned him over to the mob. Two men stepped forward and covered the prisoners head to foot in tar and feathers. The tar burned, eating away at their skin like acid.25
Nearby, a convert named Vienna Jaques was collecting scattered pages from the Book of Commandments off the street. Vienna had consecrated her considerable savings to help build up Zion, and now everything was falling apart.
As she clutched the loose pages, a man from the mob came up to her and said, “This is only a prelude to what you have to suffer.” He pointed to Edward’s haggard figure. “There goes your bishop, tarred and feathered.”26
Vienna looked up and saw Edward limping away. Only his face and the palms of his hands were not covered in tar. “Glory to God!” she exclaimed. “He will receive a crown of glory for tar and feathers.”27
Sally Phelps had no home to go back to that evening. She found shelter in an abandoned log stable next to a cornfield. With help from her children, she gathered brush to make beds.
As she and the children worked, two figures appeared from the cornfield. In the waning light, Sally saw it was Caroline and Mary Rollins. In their arms, the sisters cradled stacks of paper. Sally asked what they had, and they showed her the pages they had collected from the Book of Commandments.
Sally took the pages from the sisters and hid them safely beneath her brush-pile bed.28 Night was fast approaching, and she did not know what tomorrow held for Zion.