“Though the Mob Kill Us,” chapter 17 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 17: “Though the Mob Kill Us”
When violence erupted in the streets of Independence, William McLellin fled his home and hid in the woods, terrified of the mobs. After destroying the church’s printing office, the people of Jackson County had ransacked Sidney Gilbert’s store and driven many Saints from their homes. Some men had been captured and whipped until they bled.1
Hoping to avoid their fate, William stayed in the woods for days. When he learned that a mob was offering a cash reward to anyone who captured him or other prominent church members, he slipped away to the Whitmer family’s settlement along the Big Blue River, several miles to the west, and kept out of sight.
Alone and afraid, William was racked with doubts. He had come to Independence believing the Book of Mormon was the word of God. But now he had a price on his head. What would happen if a mob found him? Could he stand by his testimony of the Book of Mormon then? Could he declare his faith in the restored gospel? Was he willing to suffer and die for it?
As William agonized over these questions, he met David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery in the woods. Even though there was a reward out for Oliver too, the men had reason to believe the worst had passed. The people of Independence were still determined to drive the Saints out of the county, but the attacks had stopped and some church members were returning to their homes.
Looking for reassurance, William turned to his friends. “I have never seen an open vision in my life,” he told them, “but you men say you have.” He had to know the truth. “Tell me, in the fear of God,” he demanded, “is that Book of Mormon true?”
Oliver looked at William. “God sent His holy angel to declare the truth of the translation of it to us, and therefore we know,” he said. “And though the mob kill us, yet we must die declaring its truth.”
“Oliver has told you the solemn truth,” David said. “I most truly declare to you its truth.”
“I believe you,” William said.2
On August 6, 1833, before Joseph learned the extent of the violence in Missouri, he received a revelation about the persecution in Zion. The Lord told the Saints not to fear. He had heard and recorded their prayers, and He promised with a covenant to answer them. “All things wherewith you have been afflicted,” the Lord assured the Saints, “shall work together for your good.”3
Three days later, Oliver arrived in Kirtland with a full report of the attacks in Missouri.4 To quiet the mobs, Edward Partridge and other church leaders had signed a pledge, promising the people of Independence that the Saints would leave Jackson County by the spring. None of them wanted to abandon Zion, but refusing to sign the pledge would have only put the Saints in more peril.5
Horrified by the violence, Joseph approved of the decision to evacuate. The next day, Oliver wrote church leaders in Missouri, instructing them to look for another place to settle. “Be wise in your selection,” he advised. “Another place of beginning will be no injury to Zion in the end.”
“If I were with you, I should take an active part in your sufferings,” Joseph added at the end of the letter. “My spirit would not let me forsake you.”6
Afterward, Joseph remained shaken for days. The terrible news had come while he was facing intense criticism in Kirtland. That summer, a church member named Doctor Philastus Hurlbut had been excommunicated for immoral behavior while on a mission. Soon Hurlbut had started speaking out against Joseph at well-attended meetings and collecting money from critics of the church. With this money, Hurlbut planned to travel to New York to look for stories he could use to embarrass the church.7
As pressing as the problems in Ohio were, however, Joseph knew the situation in Missouri needed his full attention. Reflecting on the violence, Joseph realized that the Lord had neither revoked His command to build Zion in Independence nor authorized the Saints to give up their land in Jackson County. If they abandoned their property now, or sold it to their enemies, getting it back would be nearly impossible.
Desperate to receive specific directions for the Missouri Saints, Joseph prayed to the Lord. “What more dost Thou require at their hands,” he asked, “before Thou wilt come and save them?” He waited for an answer, but the Lord gave him no new instructions for Zion.
On August 18, Joseph wrote personally to Edward and other leaders in Zion. “I know not what to say to you,” he admitted. He had sent them a copy of the August 6 revelation, and he assured them that God would deliver them from danger. “I have His immutable covenant that this shall be the case,” Joseph testified, “but God is pleased to keep it from mine eyes the means how exactly the thing will be done.”
In the meantime, Joseph urged, the Saints should trust in the promises the Lord had already given them. He counseled the Saints to be patient, rebuild the printing office and store, and seek legal ways to recover their losses. He also implored them not to abandon the promised land, and he sent them a more detailed plan for the city.
“It is the will of the Lord,” he wrote, “that not one foot of land purchased should be given to the enemies of God or sold to them.”8
Joseph’s letter reached Edward in early September, and the bishop agreed that the Saints should not sell their property in Jackson County.9 Although mob leaders had threatened to harm the Saints if they tried to seek compensation for their losses, he collected accounts of the abuses the Saints had endured that summer and sent them to Missouri’s governor, Daniel Dunklin.10
Privately, Governor Dunklin had contempt for the Saints, but he encouraged them to take their grievances to the courts. “Ours is a government of laws,” he told them. If the court system in Jackson County failed to execute the law peacefully, the Saints could notify him and he would step in to help. Until then, however, he recommended they trust in the laws of the land.11
The governor’s letter gave Edward and the Saints hope. They began to rebuild their community, and Edward and other church leaders in Zion hired lawyers from a neighboring county to take their case.12 They resolved that they would defend themselves and their property if they were attacked.13
Town leaders in Independence were furious. On October 26, a group of more than fifty residents voted to force the Saints from Jackson County as soon as they could.14
Five days later, at sunset, Saints in the Whitmer settlement learned that armed men from Independence were headed in their direction. Lydia Whiting and her husband, William, fled their home and took their two-year-old son and newborn twins to a house where other church members were gathering to defend themselves.
At ten o’clock that night, Lydia heard a commotion outside. The men from Independence had arrived and were tearing down cabins. They spread out through the settlement, throwing stones through windows and breaking down doors. Men climbed on top of houses and tore away the roofs. Others drove families from their homes with clubs.
Lydia heard the mob coming closer. A short distance away, they broke open the door of Peter and Mary Whitmer’s house, where many church members had taken cover. Screams broke out as men with clubs forced their way into the house. The women scrambled to reach their children and begged their attackers for mercy. The mob drove the men outside and beat them with clubs and whips.
In the house where Lydia was hiding, fear and confusion gripped the Saints. With few firearms and no plan to defend themselves, some people panicked and fled, racing for cover in the nearby woods. Afraid for her family, Lydia handed her twins to two girls huddled beside her and sent them running for safety. She then scooped up her son and followed after them.
Outside was chaos. Women and children darted past her as the mob pulled down more houses and toppled chimneys. Men lay slumped on the ground, badly beaten and bleeding. Lydia clutched her son to her chest and ran for the woods, losing sight of her husband and the girls who carried her babies.
When she reached the cover of the trees, Lydia could find only one of her twins. She took the baby and sat down with her toddler, shivering in the autumn cold. From their hiding place, they could hear the mob tearing down their house. As a long night passed, she had no idea if her husband had made it out of the settlement.
In the morning, Lydia stepped cautiously out of the woods and looked for her husband and missing baby among the bleary-eyed Saints in the settlement. To her relief, the baby was unharmed and William had not been caught by the mob.
Elsewhere in the settlement, other families were reunited. No one had been killed in the attack, but nearly a dozen homes had been leveled. For the rest of the day, the Saints picked through the rubble, trying to salvage what remained of their property, and cared for the wounded.15
Over the next four days, Zion’s leaders told the Saints to gather in large groups to defend themselves against attacks. Mobs from Independence rode throughout the countryside, terrorizing outlying settlements. Church leaders begged a local judge to stop the mobs, but he ignored them. The people of Jackson County were determined to drive every last Saint from their midst.16
Soon the mob struck the Whitmer settlement again, this time with more intensity. When twenty-seven-year-old Philo Dibble heard gunfire in the direction of the settlement, he and other Saints nearby rushed to its defense. They found fifty armed men on horseback, trampling through cornfields and scattering the frightened Saints into the woods.
Catching sight of Philo and his company, the mob fired their guns, mortally wounding one man. The Saints fired back in force, killing two of their attackers and dispersing the rest.17 Smoke from their black powder guns filled the air.
As the mob scattered, Philo felt a pain in his abdomen. Looking down, he saw that his clothes were torn and bloody. He had been hit by a lead ball and buckshot.18
Still clutching his gun and powder, he staggered back toward home. Along the way he saw women and children huddled in wrecked houses, hiding from mobs that threatened to kill anyone who helped the wounded. Faint and thirsty, Philo stumbled on until he came to the house where his family was hiding.
Cecelia, his wife, saw his wound and took off into the woods, frantic to find help. She lost her way and found no one. When she returned to the house, she said that most of the Saints had fled three miles away to the settlement where the Colesville Saints lived.19
Other Saints were scattered across the countryside, hiding in cornfields or wandering the endless prairie.20
As the Saints battled mobs along the Big Blue River, Sidney Gilbert stood before a judge in the Independence courthouse along with Isaac Morley, John Corrill, William McLellin, and a few other Saints. The men had been arrested after a man they had caught looting Sidney’s store had charged them with assault and false imprisonment when they tried to have him arrested.
The courtroom was full as the judge heard their case. With the whole town in an uproar over the Saints’ decision to defend their rights and property, Sidney and his friends had little reason to hope they would get a fair hearing. The trial felt like a sham.
While the judge listened to testimonies, false rumors reached Independence that the Saints had slaughtered twenty Missourians at the Big Blue River. Anger and confusion filled the courtroom as the spectators cried out to lynch the prisoners. Unwilling to turn them over to a mob, one of the court clerks ordered the men back to the jail for protection before the crowd could murder them.21
That night, after the outrage had cooled, William stayed behind in the jail while the sheriff and two deputies escorted Sidney, Isaac, and John to a meeting with Edward Partridge. The church leaders discussed their options. They knew they had to get out of Jackson County quickly, but they hated to leave their land and homes in the hands of their enemies. In the end, they decided it was better to lose their property than their lives. They had to abandon Zion.22
Their discussion finished at two o’clock in the morning, and the sheriff led the prisoners back to jail. When they arrived, a half dozen armed men were waiting for them.
“Don’t fire! Don’t fire!” the sheriff called out when he saw the mob.
The men leveled their guns at the prisoners, and John and Isaac bolted. Some of the mob fired after them and missed. Sidney stood his ground as two other men came up to him and aimed their guns at his chest. Bracing himself, Sidney heard the hammers snap and saw a flash of gunpowder.
Stunned, he searched his body for wounds but found that he was uninjured. One of the guns had broken, and the other had misfired. The sheriff and his deputies hurried him off to the safety of the jail cell.23
Much of Jackson County was now mobilizing for battle. Messengers canvased the countryside, enlisting armed men to help drive the Saints from the area. A church member named Lyman Wight, meanwhile, led a company of one hundred Saints, some armed with guns and others with clubs, toward Independence to rescue the prisoners.
To prevent more bloodshed, Edward began to prepare the Saints to leave the county. The sheriff set the prisoners free, and Lyman disbanded his company. The county militia was called out to keep order as the Saints left their homes, but since most of the men in the militia had been part of the attacks on the settlements, they did little to prevent more violence.24
There was nothing the Saints could do now but run.
On November 6, William Phelps wrote to church leaders in Kirtland. “It is a horrid time,” he told them. “Men, women, and children are fleeing, or preparing to, in all directions.”25
Most of the Saints trudged north, ferrying across the frigid Missouri River into neighboring Clay County, where scattered family members found each other. Wind and rain beat against them, and soon snow began to fall. Once the Saints crossed the river, Edward and other leaders set up tents and built rough log shelters to shield them from the elements.26
Too injured to flee, Philo Dibble languished in his house near the Whitmer settlement. A doctor told him he would die, but he clung to life. Before David Whitmer headed north, he sent word to Philo promising him he would live. Newel Knight then came, sat beside his bed, and silently placed his hand on Philo’s head.
Philo felt the Spirit of the Lord rest over him. As the feeling spread through his body, he knew that he would be healed. He stood up, and his wounds discharged blood and ragged bits of cloth. He then got dressed and went outside for the first time since the battle. Overhead, he saw countless shooting stars streak across the night sky.27
At the camp along the Missouri River, Saints emerged from their tents and hovels to see the meteor shower. Edward and his daughter Emily watched with delight as stars seemed to cascade around them like a heavy summer rain. To Emily, it was as if God had sent the lights to cheer the Saints in their afflictions.
Her father believed they were tokens of God’s presence, a reason to rejoice amid so much tribulation.28
In Kirtland, a knock at the door woke the prophet. “Brother Joseph,” he heard a voice say, “come get up and see the signs in the heaven.”
Joseph got up and looked outside, and he saw the meteors falling from the sky like hailstones. “How marvelous are Thy works, O Lord!” he exclaimed, remembering New Testament prophecies about stars falling from the heavens before the Second Coming, when the Savior would return and reign a thousand years in peace.
“I thank Thee for Thy mercy unto me, Thy servant,” he prayed. “O Lord, save me in Thy kingdom.”29