“The Camp of Israel,” chapter 18 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 18: “The Camp of Israel”
For days following the meteor shower, Joseph expected something miraculous to happen. But life continued as normal, and no other signs appeared in the heavens. “My heart is somewhat sorrowful,” he confided in his journal. More than three months had passed since the Lord had revealed anything for the Saints in Zion, and Joseph still did not know how to help them. The heavens seemed closed.1
Adding to Joseph’s anxiety, Doctor Philastus Hurlbut had recently returned from Palmyra and Manchester with stories—some false, others exaggerated—about Joseph’s early life. As the stories spread around Kirtland, Hurlbut also swore he would wash his hands in Joseph’s blood. The prophet soon began using bodyguards.2
On November 25, 1833, a little more than a week after the meteor shower, Orson Hyde arrived in Kirtland and reported on the Saints’ expulsion from Jackson County.3 The news was harrowing. Joseph did not understand why God had let the Saints suffer and lose the promised land. Nor could he foresee Zion’s future. He prayed for guidance, but the Lord simply said to be still and trust in Him.
Joseph wrote Edward Partridge immediately. “I know that Zion, in the own due time of the Lord, will be redeemed,” he testified, “but how many will be the days of her purification, tribulation, and affliction, the Lord has kept hid from my eyes.”
With little else to offer, Joseph tried to comfort his friends in Missouri, despite the eight hundred miles between them. “When we learn of your sufferings, it awakens every sympathy of our hearts,” he wrote. “May God grant that notwithstanding your great afflictions and sufferings, there may not anything separate us from the love of Christ.”4
Joseph continued to pray, and in December he finally received a revelation for the Saints in Zion. The Lord declared that they had been afflicted for their sins, but He had compassion on them and promised they would not be forsaken. “They must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham,” He explained to Joseph, “for all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified.”
As He had before, the Lord instructed the Saints to purchase land in Zion and seek legal, peaceful means to get back what they had lost. “Zion shall not be moved out of her place,” He declared. “They that remain, and are pure in heart, shall return, and come to their inheritances.”5
While the revelation urged peaceful negotiations with the people of Independence, the Lord also indicated that Zion could be reclaimed by power. He told a parable about a vineyard that had been taken from slothful servants and destroyed by an enemy. When the lord of the vineyard saw the destruction, he chastised the servants for their negligence and called them to action.
“Go and gather together the residue of my servants, and take all the strength of mine house,” he commanded, “and go ye straightway unto the land of my vineyard, and redeem my vineyard.” The Lord did not interpret the parable, but He told the Saints that it reflected His will for the redemption of Zion.6
Two months later, Parley Pratt and Lyman Wight came to Kirtland with more news from Missouri. Friendly people across the river from Jackson County had given the Saints food and clothes in exchange for labor, but they were still scattered and discouraged. They wanted to know when and how Zion would be rescued from its enemies.7
After hearing the report, Joseph rose from his chair and announced that he was going to Zion. For six months, he had offered encouraging words and hope to the Saints there as he dealt with other challenges in Kirtland.
Now he wanted to do something for them—and he wanted to know who would join him.8
In April 1834, at a meeting of a small branch of the church in New York, twenty-seven-year-old Wilford Woodruff listened to Parley Pratt recount the Lord’s latest revelation to Joseph Smith. It called on the Saints to raise five hundred men to march with the prophet to Missouri. “The redemption of Zion must needs come by power,” the Lord declared. “Let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake.”9
Parley invited the young and middle-aged men in the branch to go to Zion. Every man who could be spared was expected to go.
At the end of the meeting, Wilford introduced himself to Parley. He and his older brother Azmon had joined the church three months earlier, and both were teachers in the Aaronic Priesthood. Wilford said he was willing to go to Zion, but he had bills to pay and accounts to collect before he could leave. Parley told him it was his duty to get his finances in order and join the march.10
Later, Wilford spoke to Azmon about going to Zion. Although the Lord had called on every able-bodied man in the church to join the march, Azmon decided to stay, reluctant to leave his home, family, and farm. But Wilford was unmarried, and he was eager to go to Zion with the prophet.11
Wilford arrived in Kirtland a few weeks later and met Brigham Young and Heber Kimball, who had recently moved to Ohio with their families. Heber worked as a potter, and he and his wife, Vilate, had two children. Brigham was a carpenter with two small daughters. Recently, he had married a convert named Mary Ann Angell after his first wife, Miriam, had passed away.12 Both men were willing to join the march, despite the sacrifices their families would have to make.
Mary Ann’s cousins, Joseph and Chandler Holbrook, were also joining the march, along with their wives, Nancy and Eunice, and their young children. Nancy and Eunice planned to help the few other women in camp, who would cook, wash clothes, and nurse the sick and wounded along the way to Missouri.13
Women who stayed home found other ways to support the march. Shortly before leaving for Zion, Joseph said, “I want some money to help fit out Zion, and I know that I shall have it.” The next day, he received $150 from a Sister Vose in Boston.14
Wilford and a handful of Saints left for Zion on May 1. Joseph, Brigham, Heber, and the Holbrooks—along with about a hundred other volunteers—left Kirtland several days later and joined up with Wilford along the road.
Once assembled, the force was only a small fraction of the five hundred the Lord had called for.15 But they headed west in good spirits, determined to fulfill the Lord’s word.
Joseph had high hopes for his small band, which he called the Camp of Israel. Although they were armed and willing to fight, as the ancient Israelites had been when they battled for the land of Canaan, Joseph wanted to resolve the conflict peacefully. Government officials in Missouri had told church leaders there that Governor Dunklin was willing to send the state militia to accompany the Saints back to their lost lands. He could not, however, promise to keep mobs from driving them out again.16
Joseph planned to request the governor’s aid once the Camp of Israel arrived in Missouri, then work with the militia to return the Saints to Jackson County. The camp would remain in Zion for a year to keep the Saints safe from their enemies.17
To ensure that everyone in camp was provided for, camp members put their money in a general fund. Following Old Testament patterns, Joseph divided the men into companies, with each group electing a captain.18
As the Camp of Israel moved farther west, Joseph worried about entering enemy territory with his small force. His brother Hyrum and Lyman Wight had recruited additional men among the branches of the church northwest of Kirtland, but they had not yet joined up with the Camp of Israel and Joseph did not know where they were. He also worried that spies were watching the camp’s movements and counting their numbers.19
On June 4, after a month of marching, the camp reached the Mississippi River. Joseph was tired and sore from the journey, but he felt ready to confront the challenges that lay ahead.20 He learned that reports and rumors of the camp’s movements had already reached Missouri, and hundreds of settlers were preparing for a fight. He wondered whether the Saints were strong enough to face them.
“Camp is in as good a situation as could be expected,” he wrote Emma while sitting on the riverbank, “but our numbers and means are altogether too small.”21
The next day was hot and muggy as the Camp of Israel waited to cross the river into Missouri. The Mississippi was more than a mile wide, and the camp had only one boat to ferry them across. As they waited, some camp members hunted and fished while others fought off boredom and looked for shade to escape the summer sun.
The camp spent two tedious days crossing the river. By the end of the second day, they were tired and on edge. Now that they were in Missouri, many of them feared surprise attacks. That evening, Joseph’s watchdog startled everyone when it began barking at the last company to arrive in camp.
Sylvester Smith, the captain of the arriving company, threatened to kill the dog if it did not stop barking. Joseph calmed the animal, but Sylvester and his company were still complaining about it the next morning.22
Hearing their complaints, Joseph called camp members together. “I will descend to the spirit that is in the camp,” he announced, “for I want to drive it from the camp.” He started to mimic Sylvester’s behavior from the night before, repeating the captain’s threats against the dog. “This spirit keeps up division and bloodshed throughout the world,” he said.
Sylvester, who was no relation to Joseph, was unamused. “If that dog bites me,” he said, “I will kill him.”
“If you kill that dog,” Joseph said, “I will whip you.”
“If you do,” said Sylvester, “I shall defend myself!”23
The camp watched the two men stare each other down. So far, no fights had broken out among them, but weeks of marching had frayed everyone’s nerves.
At last, Joseph turned away from Sylvester and asked the Saints if they were as ashamed as he was of the feeling in the camp. He said they were acting like dogs rather than men. “Men ought never to place themselves on a level with beasts,” he said. “They ought to be above it.”24
The mood in camp settled down after that, and the small band trekked deeper into Missouri. Nancy and Eunice Holbrook stayed busy attending to their daily tasks, yet they understood that every step they took toward Jackson County placed them in more and more danger.25
Not long after the main body of the camp crossed the Mississippi, Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight arrived with their recruits, increasing the camp’s numbers to more than two hundred volunteers.26 Camp leaders were still worried about an attack, however, and Joseph told the men who had families with them to seek shelter for their wives and children.
Several women in camp objected to being left behind. But just as the men were about to leave, Joseph called everyone together. “If the sisters are willing to undergo a siege with the camp,” he said, “they can all go along with it.”27
Nancy, Eunice, and the other women in camp said they were willing to go, happy that Joseph let them choose to continue on the march.28
Several days later, Parley Pratt and Orson Hyde came to camp with unwelcome news: Governor Dunklin had refused to provide militia support for the Saints.29 Without the governor’s aid, the camp knew, they would not be able to help the Missouri Saints return to their land in Zion peacefully. Joseph and his captains decided to press on. They hoped to reach the exiled Saints in Clay County, north of the Missouri River, and help them negotiate a compromise with the people of Jackson County.30
The Camp of Israel cut across the central Missouri prairie. About a day’s journey from their destination, a black woman—possibly a slave—called out to them nervously. “There is a company of men here who are calculating to kill you this morning as you pass through,” she said.31
The camp marched cautiously on. Plagued by wagon problems, they were forced to stop for the night on a hill overlooking a fork in the Fishing River, still ten miles from the exiled Saints. As they pitched their tents, they heard the rumbling of horse hooves as five men rode into camp. The strangers brandished weapons and boasted that more than three hundred men were on their way to wipe the Saints out.32
Alarm rippled through the Camp of Israel. Knowing they were outnumbered, Joseph posted guards around the area, certain an attack was imminent. One man begged him to strike the mob first.
“No,” Joseph said. “Stand still and see the salvation of God.”33
Overhead the clouds looked heavy and gray. Twenty minutes later, hard rains tore through camp, driving the men from their tents as they scrambled to find better shelter. The banks of the Fishing River disappeared as the water rose and surged downstream.34 Wind whipped through the camp, blowing down trees and upending tents. Bright lightning streaked the sky.
Wilford Woodruff and others in the camp found a small church nearby and huddled inside while hail pelted the roof.35 After a moment, Joseph burst into the church, shaking the water from his hat and clothes. “Boys, there is some meaning to this,” he exclaimed. “God is in this storm!”
Unable to sleep, the Saints stretched out on the benches and sang hymns through the night.36 In the morning, they found their tents and gear soaked and scattered throughout camp, but nothing was damaged beyond repair and no attack had come.
The rivers remained swollen, cutting the camp off from their enemies on the opposite bank.37
Over the next few days, the Camp of Israel made contact with the Saints in Clay County while Joseph met with officials from surrounding counties to explain the purpose of the march and plead for the Saints in Zion. “We are anxious for a settlement of the difficulties existing between us,” Joseph told them. “We want to live in peace with all men, and equal rights is all we require.”38
The officials agreed to help calm the anger of their fellow citizens, but they warned the camp not to go into Jackson County. If the Saints tried to march into Independence, a bloody battle could break out.39
The next day, June 22, in a council with church leaders, Joseph received a revelation for the Camp of Israel. The Lord accepted the sacrifices of its members but redirected their efforts to obtaining divine power. “Zion cannot be built up,” He declared, “unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom.”
The Lord told the Saints that they should wait to redeem Zion until they had prepared themselves through learning and experience to do the will of God. “And this cannot be brought to pass,” He explained, “until mine elders are endowed with power from on high.” This endowment was to come in the Lord’s house, the temple in Kirtland.
The Lord was pleased, however, with those who had marched in the Camp of Israel. “I have heard their prayers, and will accept their offering,” He said, “and it is expedient in me that they should be brought thus far for a trial of their faith.”40
After they heard the revelation, some members of the camp accepted it as the word of the Lord. Others protested, feeling that it denied them a chance to do more for the Missouri Saints. A few people were angry and ashamed that they had to return home without a fight.41
The camp disbanded soon after, and what little was left of its common fund was divided out to its members. Some people in camp planned to stay in Missouri to work and help the Saints start over, while Brigham, Heber, and others readied themselves to return to their families, finish the temple, and prepare to receive the endowment of power.42
Although the camp had not redeemed Zion, Wilford Woodruff was grateful for the knowledge he had gained on the march. He had traveled close to a thousand miles with the prophet and had seen him reveal the word of God.43 The experience left him wanting to preach the gospel.
Wilford did not yet know if preaching was in his future, but he decided to stay in Missouri and do whatever the Lord required of him.44