“Every Snare,” chapter 23 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 23: “Every Snare”
Jonathan Crosby worked on his new home in Kirtland throughout the fall of 1836. By November he had put up the walls and the roof, but the house still had an unfinished floor and no windows or doors. With the baby coming soon, Caroline had been urging him to finish the house as quickly as possible. Things were working out fine with their landlady, Sister Granger, but Caroline was anxious to move out of the tight quarters and into her own house.1
While Jonathan labored feverishly to make the house livable before the baby came, church leaders announced their plans to start the Kirtland Safety Society, a village bank designed to boost Kirtland’s struggling economy and raise money for the church. Like other small banks in the United States, it would provide loans to borrowers so they could purchase property and goods, helping the local economy grow. As borrowers paid these loans back with interest, the bank would turn a profit.2
Loans would be issued in the form of banknotes backed by the Safety Society’s limited reserve of silver and gold coins. To build up this reserve of hard money, the bank would sell shares of stock to investors, who committed to make payments on their shares over time.3
By early November, the Kirtland Safety Society had more than thirty stockholders, including Joseph and Sidney, who invested much of their own money in the bank.4 The stockholders elected Sidney as president of the institution and Joseph as cashier, making him responsible for the bank’s accounts.5
With plans for the bank in place, Oliver went east to purchase materials for printing banknotes, and Orson Hyde went to apply for a charter from the state legislature so they could operate the bank legally. Joseph, meanwhile, urged all the Saints to invest in the Safety Society, quoting Old Testament scriptures that called on the ancient Israelites to bring their gold and silver to the Lord.6
Joseph felt that God approved of their efforts, and he promised that all would be well if the Saints heeded the Lord’s commandments.7 Trusting the prophet’s word, additional Saints invested in the Safety Society, although others were more cautious about purchasing stock in an untried institution. The Crosbys thought about purchasing shares, but the high cost of building their home had left them no money to spare.8
Around the start of December, Jonathan had finally installed windows and doors for the house, and he and Caroline moved in. The interior was still unfinished, but they had a good cooking stove to keep them warm and fed. Jonathan had also dug a well nearby where they could fetch water easily.
Caroline was happy to have a home of her own, and on December 19, she gave birth to a healthy baby boy as a blinding snowstorm swirled outside.9
Winter enveloped Kirtland, and in January 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society opened for business.10 On its first day, Joseph issued crisp banknotes, fresh from the printing press, with the institution’s name and his signature on the front.11 As more Saints took out loans, often using their land as collateral, the notes began circulating around Kirtland and elsewhere.12
Phebe Carter, who had recently moved to Kirtland from the northeastern United States, did not invest in the Safety Society or take out a loan. But she stood to benefit from the prosperity it promised. She was nearly thirty years old and unmarried, and she had no family in Kirtland to rely on for support. Like other women in her situation, she had few options for employment, but she could earn a modest income sewing and teaching school, as she had done before moving to Ohio.13 If Kirtland’s economy improved, more people would have money to spend on new clothes and education.
For Phebe, though, the decision to come to Kirtland had been spiritual, not economic. Her parents had opposed her baptism, and after she announced her plans to gather with the Saints, her mother protested. “Phebe,” she had said, “will you come back to me if you find Mormonism false?”
“Yes, Mother, I will,” Phebe promised.14
But she knew she had found the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Some months after arriving in Kirtland, she had received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith Sr. that assured her great rewards on earth and in heaven. “Be comforted, for thy troubles are over,” the Lord told her. “Thou shalt have long life and see good days.”15
The blessing confirmed the feelings Phebe had when she left home. Too sad to say goodbye in person, she had written a letter and left it on the family table. “Be not anxious for your child,” it read. “I believe that the Lord will take care of me and give me that which is for the best.”16
Phebe had faith in the promises of her patriarchal blessing. It said she would be the mother of many children and marry a man with wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.17 But so far Phebe had no prospects of marriage, and she knew she was older than most women who married and started having children.
One evening in January 1837, Phebe was visiting friends when she met a dark-haired man with pale blue eyes. He was a few days older than she was and had recently returned to Kirtland after marching with the Camp of Israel and then serving a mission in the southern United States.
His name, she learned, was Wilford Woodruff.18
Throughout the winter, the Saints in Kirtland continued to borrow large sums of money to purchase property and goods. Employers sometimes paid workers in banknotes, which could be used as currency or redeemed for hard money at the Kirtland Safety Society office.19
Soon after the Safety Society opened for business, a man named Grandison Newell began hoarding banknotes. A longtime resident of a nearby town, Grandison hated Joseph and the Saints. He had enjoyed some prominence in the county until the Saints arrived, and now he often looked for ways, legal or otherwise, to harass them.20
If church members came to him for work, he would refuse to hire them. If missionaries preached near his home, he would organize a group of men to pelt them with eggs. When Doctor Philastus Hurlbut began collecting slanderous statements against Joseph, Grandison helped finance his work.21
Yet despite his efforts, the Saints kept gathering to the area.22
The opening of the Kirtland Safety Society gave Grandison a new point of attack. Concerned about the rising number of banks in Ohio, the state legislature had refused to grant Orson Hyde a charter. Without this approval, the Safety Society could not call itself a bank, but it could still take deposits and issue loans. Its success relied on stockholders making payments on their shares so the institution could maintain its reserves. Few stockholders had enough hard money to do that, however, and Grandison suspected the Safety Society’s reserves were too small to sustain it for long.23
Hoping the business would collapse if enough people redeemed notes for gold or silver coins, Grandison traveled around the countryside purchasing Safety Society notes.24 He then brought his stack of notes to the Safety Society office and demanded cash in return. If the officers did not redeem them, he threatened, he would press charges.25
Cornered, Joseph and the Safety Society officers had no choice but to redeem the notes and pray for more investors.
Although he had little money, Wilford Woodruff purchased twenty shares in Kirtland Safety Society stock.26 His good friend Warren Parrish was the Safety Society’s secretary. Wilford had traveled west with Warren and his wife, Betsy, as part of the Camp of Israel. After Betsy died in the cholera outbreak, Warren and Wilford served a mission together before Warren returned to Kirtland and became Joseph’s scribe and trusted friend.27
Since his mission, Wilford had moved from place to place, often living off the kindness of friends like Warren. But after meeting Phebe Carter, he began thinking about marriage, and investing in the Safety Society was one way he could establish himself financially before starting a family.
By the end of January, however, the Safety Society was facing a crisis. While Grandison Newell was trying to wipe out its reserves, newspapers in the area were publishing articles that cast doubt on its legitimacy. Like others around the country, some Saints had also speculated in land and goods, hoping to get rich with little effort. Others neglected to make the required payments on their stock. Before long, many workers and businesses in and around Kirtland refused to accept Safety Society notes.28
Fearing failure, Joseph and Sidney temporarily shut down the Safety Society and traveled to another city to try to partner with an established bank there.29 But the Safety Society’s poor start had shaken the faith of many Saints, leading them to question the prophet’s spiritual leadership that had spurred their investment.30
In the past, the Lord had revealed scripture through Joseph, making it easy for them to exercise faith that he was a prophet of God. But when Joseph’s statements about the Safety Society appeared to go unfulfilled, and their investments began to slip away, many Saints became uneasy and critical of Joseph.
Wilford continued to trust that the Safety Society would succeed. After the prophet partnered with the other bank, he returned to Kirtland and responded to the complaints of his critics.31 Later, at the church’s general conference, Joseph spoke to the Saints about why the church borrowed money and established institutions like the Safety Society.
The Saints had begun the latter-day work poor and destitute, he reminded them, yet the Lord had commanded them to sacrifice their time and talents to gather to Zion and build a temple. These efforts, though costly, were vital to the salvation of God’s children.32 To move the Lord’s work forward, church leaders had to find a way to finance it.
Still, Joseph regretted how much they owed creditors. “We are indebted to them, to be sure,” he admitted, “but our brethren abroad have only to come with their money.” He believed that if Saints gathered to Kirtland and consecrated their property to the Lord, it would do much to relieve the church of its burden of debt.33
As Joseph spoke, Wilford felt the power of his words. “Oh, that they might be written upon our hearts as with an iron pen,” he thought, “to remain forever that we might practice them in our lives.” He wondered how anyone could hear the prophet speak and still doubt that he had been called of God.34
Yet doubts persisted. By mid-April, Kirtland’s economy worsened as a financial crisis overwhelmed the nation. Years of excessive lending had weakened banks in England and the United States, causing widespread fear of economic collapse. Banks called in debts, and some stopped issuing loans altogether. Panic soon spread from town to town as banks closed, businesses failed, and unemployment soared.35
In this climate, a struggling institution like the Kirtland Safety Society stood little chance. Joseph could not do much to fix the dilemma, yet some found it easier to blame him than the national economic panic.
Soon creditors were hounding Joseph and Sidney constantly. One man filed a lawsuit against them over an unpaid debt, and Grandison Newell brought false criminal charges against Joseph, claiming the prophet was conspiring against him. With each passing day, the prophet grew more concerned that he would be arrested or killed.36
Wilford and Phebe were now engaged, and they had asked Joseph to marry them. But on the day of their wedding, he was nowhere to be found, leaving Frederick Williams to perform the ceremony.37
Shortly after Joseph’s sudden disappearance, Emma received a letter from him, assuring her he was safe.38 He and Sidney had fled Kirtland, putting distance between themselves and those who wished to harm them. Their location was secret, but Newel Whitney and Hyrum knew how to contact them and were advising them from afar.39
Emma understood the dangers Joseph faced. When his letter arrived, some men—probably friends of Grandison Newell—examined its postmark, trying to learn where he was. Others were spying on his struggling store.
Although she remained optimistic, Emma worried about the children. Their one-year-old son, Frederick, was too young to understand what was happening, but six-year-old Julia and four-year-old Joseph became anxious when they learned their father would not be coming home soon.40
Emma knew she had to trust in the Lord, especially now that so many people in Kirtland were turning to doubt and disbelief. “If I had no more confidence in God than some I could name, I should be a sad case indeed,” Emma wrote Joseph at the end of April. “But I still believe that if we humble ourselves and are as faithful as we can be, we shall be delivered from every snare that may be laid at our feet.”41
Even so, she worried that Joseph’s creditors would take advantage of his absence and seize whatever property or money they could. “It is impossible for me to do anything,” she lamented, “as long as everybody has so much better right to all that is called yours than I have.”
Emma was ready for him to come home. There were few people she trusted now, and she was reluctant to give anyone anything that did not help to pay off Joseph’s debts. And to make matters worse, she feared their children had been exposed to measles.
“I wish it could be possible for you to be at home when they are sick,” she wrote. “You must remember them, for they all remember you.”42
Amid this turmoil, Parley and Thankful returned to Kirtland for the birth of their baby. As Heber had prophesied, Thankful delivered a baby boy, whom they named after Parley. But she suffered severely during the labor, and she died a few hours later. Unable to care for his newborn son alone, Parley placed him in the arms of a woman who could nurse the infant and returned to Canada. There he began planning a mission to England with the help of Saints like Joseph Fielding, who had been writing about the restored gospel to friends and relatives across the ocean.43
After he finished his mission to Canada, Parley returned to Ohio and married a young widow in Kirtland named Mary Ann Frost. He also received a letter from Thomas Marsh, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve, urging him to postpone the mission to England until the apostles could meet as a quorum that summer in Kirtland.44
While Parley waited for the other apostles to assemble, Joseph and Sidney returned to Kirtland and tried to resolve their debts and ease tensions among the Saints.45
A few days later, Sidney visited Parley and told him he had come to collect an overdue debt. Sometime earlier, Joseph had loaned Parley $2,000 to purchase some land in Kirtland. To relieve his own debts, Joseph had since sold Parley’s debt to the Safety Society, and Sidney was now collecting the money.
Parley told Sidney he did not have the $2,000 but offered to return the land as payment. Sidney told him he would have to give up his house as well as the land to satisfy the debt.46
Parley was outraged. When Joseph first sold him the land, he had told Parley that he would not be hurt in the deal. And what of Heber Kimball’s blessing promising him countless riches and freedom from debt? Now Parley felt like Joseph and Sidney were taking away everything he had. If he lost his land and home, what would he and his family do?47
The next day, Parley sent an angry letter to Joseph. “I have at length become fully convinced that the whole scene of speculation in which we have been engaged is of the devil,” he wrote, “which has given rise to lying, deceiving, and taking advantage of one’s neighbor.” Parley told Joseph he still believed in the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, but he was disturbed by the prophet’s actions.
He demanded that Joseph repent and accept the land as payment for the debt. Otherwise, he would have to take legal action.
“I shall be under the painful necessity of preferring charges against you,” he warned, “for extortion, covetousness, and taking advantage of your brother.”48
On May 28, a few days after Parley sent his letter to Joseph, Wilford Woodruff went to the temple for a Sunday meeting. As dissent mounted in Kirtland, Wilford remained one of Joseph’s staunchest allies. But Warren Parrish, who had worked side by side with Joseph for years, had begun criticizing the prophet for his role in the financial crisis and was quickly becoming a leader of the dissenters.
Wilford prayed that the contentious spirit in the church would dissipate.49 But he would not be in Kirtland much longer to help. Lately, he had felt impressed to take the gospel to the Fox Islands, off the coast of the northeastern state of Maine, near the home of Phebe’s parents. He hoped that on the way there, he would have the chance to teach his own parents and younger sister the gospel. Phebe would join him to meet his family and take him farther north to meet hers.50
As eager as he was to be with family, Wilford could not help worrying about Joseph and the state of the church in Kirtland. Taking a seat in the temple, he saw Joseph at the pulpit. In the face of so much opposition, the prophet appeared cast down. He had lost thousands of dollars in the collapse of the Safety Society, far more than anyone else.51 And, unlike many others, he had not abandoned the institution when it began to fail.
Gazing out across the congregation, Joseph defended himself against his critics, speaking in the name of the Lord.
As Wilford listened, he could see that the power and Spirit of God rested over Joseph. He also felt it descend on Sidney and others as they took the stand and testified of Joseph’s integrity.52 But before the meeting closed, Warren stood up and denounced Joseph in front of the congregation.
Wilford’s heart sank as he listened to the tirade. “Oh, Warren, Warren,” he grieved.53