“Move On to the West,” chapter 25 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 25: “Move On to the West”
When Jennetta Richards made a short trip to Preston, England, in August 1837, her friends Ann and Thomas Walmesley had much to say about a group of missionaries from America.
Ann had been sick for years, slowly wasting away until she was little more than skin and bones. When Heber Kimball preached to her, he promised that she would be healed if she had faith, repented, and entered the waters of baptism. Ann was baptized into the new church soon after, along with eight others, and her health began to improve steadily.
Many of the people who were baptized had belonged to the congregation of James Fielding. Although Reverend Fielding had allowed the missionaries to preach in his church, he refused baptism himself and had come to resent the loss of his parishioners.1
Jennetta was intrigued by the message of the American missionaries. She lived in a small rural village called Walkerfold, fifteen miles from Preston’s smokestacks and crowded streets. Her own father was a Christian minister in the village, so she had grown up with the word of God in her home.
Now, only weeks away from her twentieth birthday, she was curious to learn more of God’s truth. When she visited the Walmesleys, she met Heber and was struck by what he said about angels, an ancient record written on gold plates, and a living prophet who received revelations from God, like prophets of old.
Heber invited Jennetta to hear him preach that evening. She went and listened and wanted to hear more. The following day, she heard him preach again and knew his words were true.
The next morning, Jennetta asked Heber to baptize her. He and Orson Hyde followed her to the banks of the River Ribble, and Heber immersed her in the water. They then confirmed her at the river’s edge.
Jennetta wanted to stay in Preston with the other Saints after her baptism, but she needed to return to her parents in Walkerfold. She was eager to share her new faith with them, yet she was unsure how her father would respond to her decision to join with the Saints.
“The Lord will soften the heart of thy father,” Heber told her. “I will yet have the privilege of preaching in his chapel.”
Hoping he was right, Jennetta asked Heber to pray for her.2
Joseph traveled that same summer to Canada to visit the Saints in Toronto. In his absence, Joseph Sr. spoke at a Sunday meeting in the Kirtland temple about the floundering Safety Society. He defended his son’s character and condemned the actions of the dissenters, who were sitting at the other end of the room.
As the patriarch addressed the Saints, Warren Parrish stood and demanded to speak. Joseph Sr. told him not to interrupt, but Warren bounded across the room and forced his way onto the stand. He seized Joseph Sr. and tried to pull him away from the pulpit. The patriarch cried out for Oliver Cowdery, who served as the local justice of the peace, but Oliver did nothing to help his old friend.
Seeing his father in danger, William Smith sprang to his feet, threw his arms around Warren, and dragged him off the stand. John Boynton lunged forward, unsheathing a sword. He pointed the blade at William’s chest and threatened to run his fellow apostle through if he took another step. Other dissenters drew knives and pistols from their pockets and surrounded William.
The temple erupted in chaos. People scrambled for doorways or escaped out nearby windows. Constables burst into the room, pushed through the fleeing crowd, and grappled with the armed men.3
When Joseph returned to Kirtland a few weeks later and learned what had happened, he convened an emergency conference of the Saints and called for a sustaining vote of each leader in the church.4 The Saints sustained him and the First Presidency but rejected John Boynton, Luke Johnson, and Lyman Johnson as members of the Quorum of the Twelve.5
The vote of confidence was assuring, though Joseph knew Kirtland’s problems were far from over. As the only stake in the church, Kirtland was supposed to provide a gathering place for the Saints. But the town was struggling economically and spiritually—and the dissenters were turning vulnerable church members against him. For many people, Kirtland had ceased to be a place of peace and spiritual strength.
Recently, through a vision, the Lord had urged Joseph to create new stakes of Zion and enlarge the borders of the church. Joseph and Sidney now believed it was time to go to Missouri, inspect the new settlement at Far West, and establish other stakes as gathering places for the Saints.6
Joseph needed to visit Missouri for other reasons as well. He worried that the apostasy in Kirtland had carried over to church leaders in Zion. When they founded Far West, John Whitmer and William Phelps had not counseled with the bishopric or high council, as directed by revelation. They had also bought land with donated money in their own names and sold it for personal profit.
Although both men had admitted their error, Joseph and other church leaders suspected that they were still being dishonest in their management of land in Missouri.7
Joseph also worried about the influence of members of his own First Presidency who were preparing to move to Far West. Frederick Williams had clashed with him over the management of the Kirtland Safety Society, and it had hurt their friendship.8 Oliver, meanwhile, had become uncomfortable with Joseph taking a more active role in local economics and politics. Both he and David Whitmer, the president of the church in Missouri, felt that Joseph was exerting too much influence over temporal matters in his role as prophet.9
While these men were not in league with Warren Parrish or the other dissenters, their loyalty to Joseph had waned over the last eight months, and he worried about them causing problems in Zion.
Before leaving Kirtland, Joseph asked his brother Hyrum and Thomas Marsh to go to Far West ahead of him to warn the faithful Saints about the growing rift between him and these men.10 Hyrum accepted the mission, though it meant leaving his wife, Jerusha, when she was just weeks away from delivering their sixth child.11
Oliver’s falling out with the prophet went beyond disagreements over how to lead the church. Since learning about plural marriage during his inspired translation of the Bible, Joseph had known that God sometimes commanded His people to practice the principle. Joseph had not acted on this knowledge immediately, but a few years later an angel of the Lord had commanded him to marry an additional wife.12
After receiving the commandment, Joseph struggled to overcome his natural aversion to the idea. He could foresee trials coming from plural marriage, and he wanted to turn from it. But the angel urged him to proceed, instructing him to share the revelation only with people whose integrity was unwavering. The angel also charged Joseph to keep it private until the Lord saw fit to make the practice public through His chosen servants.13
During the years Joseph lived in Kirtland, a young woman named Fanny Alger worked in the Smith home. Joseph knew her family well and trusted them. Her parents were faithful Saints who had joined the church in its first year. Her uncle, Levi Hancock, had marched in the Camp of Israel.14
Following the Lord’s command, Joseph proposed marriage to Fanny with the help of Levi and the approval of her parents.15 Fanny accepted Joseph’s teachings and his proposal, and her uncle performed the ceremony.16
Since the time had not come to teach plural marriage in the church, Joseph and Fanny kept their marriage private, as the angel had instructed.17 But rumors spread among some people in Kirtland.18 By the fall of 1836, Fanny had moved away.19
Oliver was deeply critical of Joseph’s relationship with Fanny, although how much he knew about it is unclear.20 What Emma knew about the marriage is also uncertain. In time, Fanny married another man and lived apart from the main body of the Saints. Later in life, she received a letter from her brother asking about her plural marriage to Joseph.
“That is all a matter of our own,” Fanny wrote back, “and I have nothing to communicate.”21
In the fall of 1837, as Joseph and Sidney left for Far West, Wilford Woodruff was living as a missionary among fishermen and whalers on the Fox Islands in the northern Atlantic Ocean.22 He and his companion, Jonathan Hale, had arrived on one of the weather-beaten islands in the final weeks of August. Neither of them knew much about the place, which was covered in shaggy evergreen trees, but they wanted to help fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy that the Lord’s people would gather from the islands of the sea.23
Before the two men left Kirtland, some of the dissenters had tried to discourage Jonathan from going to the Fox Islands, predicting that he would not baptize anyone there. He did not want to prove them right.24
Wilford and Jonathan had already been working together for several months. After leaving Kirtland, they had tried to share the gospel with Wilford’s family in the state of Connecticut, but only his uncle, aunt, and cousin were baptized.25 Phebe Woodruff had joined them soon after, and they had journeyed up the coast to her parents’ home in Maine, where she was now staying while they continued their mission.26
One of Wilford and Jonathan’s first contacts on the islands was a minister named Gideon Newton. Wilford and Jonathan shared a meal with his family and gave him a Book of Mormon. Afterward, the missionaries went to his church and Wilford preached from the New Testament.27
Over the next few days, Wilford and Jonathan preached daily, often in schoolhouses. They found the people on the islands to be intelligent, hardworking, and kind. Gideon and his family attended most of their meetings. The minister studied the Book of Mormon and felt the Spirit testify of its truth. But he did not know if he could accept it—especially if it meant giving up his congregation.28
One morning, after more than a week on the islands, Wilford preached a sermon to a large congregation at Gideon’s church. The sermon’s warm reception worried the minister, who confronted the missionaries later that day. He told them that he had read quite enough of the Book of Mormon and could not accept it. He planned to use what influence he had on the islands to put a stop to their preaching.
Gideon went to the church to preach his own sermon, leaving Wilford and Jonathan in doubt about their future success on the island. But when Gideon arrived at his church, he found it empty. No one had come to hear him preach.29
That night, Wilford and Jonathan stayed in the home of a sea captain named Justus Eames and his wife, Betsy. The Eameses took interest in the missionaries’ message, and after one Sunday meeting, Wilford invited them to be baptized. To his joy, they accepted.30
Turning to Jonathan, Wilford recalled how the Kirtland dissenters had predicted their failure on the islands. “Go and baptize him,” Wilford said, pointing to Justus, “and prove those men false prophets.”31
Going about his work in Far West, Hyrum waited for his brother’s arrival, hoping every day that Joseph would bring word from Jerusha. Hyrum and Thomas had found Far West thriving. The Saints had surveyed wide streets and spacious city blocks for houses and gardens. Children laughed and played in the streets, dodging the horses, wagons, and carts that rumbled past them. The town had houses and cabins, a hotel, and several shops and stores, including a bishop’s storehouse. At the center of town was a site for a temple.32
Joseph and Sidney rode into Far West in early November, but they had no news for Hyrum. When they left Kirtland a few weeks earlier, Jerusha had not yet given birth.33
Joseph quickly convened a conference in Far West to discuss ways to expand the settlement for future growth. He and Sidney could see that the area had room for the Saints to gather and grow without crowding neighbors and risking more violence. At the conference, Joseph announced their plans for expansion and postponed further work on the new temple until the Lord revealed His will concerning the building.
The prophet also called for a vote of the Saints in Far West to sustain church leaders. This time, Frederick Williams was removed from his office in the First Presidency, and Sidney Rigdon nominated Hyrum to fill the vacancy. The Saints approved the nomination.34
A few days later, Hyrum received the long-awaited news in a letter from Kirtland. But it was written by his brother Samuel, not Jerusha. “Dear Brother Hyrum,” it began, “this evening I sit down to write to you to perform a duty, knowing that every reasonable man wants to know exactly the state of his family.”
Hyrum’s eyes moved back and forth across the page. Jerusha had delivered a healthy baby girl, but the labor had left her weak. The Smith family tried to nurse her back to health, but she had passed away after a few days.35
Hyrum and Joseph immediately began preparing to return to Kirtland. Before departing, Joseph met privately with Thomas and Oliver.36 They talked about Oliver’s objections to Joseph’s marriage to Fanny Alger, but their differences remained unresolved.37 Finally, Joseph extended his hand to Oliver and said he wanted to drop any disagreement that had come between them. Oliver shook his hand, and they parted ways.38
Joseph, Sidney, and Hyrum arrived back in Kirtland a few weeks later. In the homes of relatives, Hyrum found his five children still mourning the sudden loss of their mother, who lay buried in a cemetery beside the temple. With his new responsibilities in the First Presidency, Hyrum had no idea how he would care for them on his own.39
Joseph encouraged his brother to marry again and recommended Mary Fielding.40 She was kind, well educated, and committed to the church. She would be an excellent companion for Hyrum and a caring mother for his children.
Hyrum proposed to Mary a short time later. At thirty-six, she had received more than one marriage proposal in her life, but she had always declined them. Once, her mother had warned her never to marry a widower with children. If she agreed to marry Hyrum, she would instantly become a mother of six.
Many Saints were relieved to have Joseph back in Kirtland, but any hope that he could restore harmony to the church soon evaporated. Warren Parrish, Luke Johnson, and John Boynton were meeting weekly with Grandison Newell and other enemies of the church to denounce the First Presidency. Former stalwarts like Martin Harris soon joined them, and by the end of the year, the leading dissenters had organized a church of their own.43
A short time later, Vilate Kimball wrote her husband in England about the state of the church in Ohio. Knowing Heber’s love for Luke Johnson and John Boynton, who had been his fellow quorum members, Vilate hesitated to tell him the terrible news.44
“I have no doubt but it will pain your heart,” she wrote Heber. “They profess to believe the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants but in works deny them.”45
At the end of the letter, Marinda Hyde added a note to her husband, Orson. Marinda’s older brother was Luke Johnson, and the apostasy was just as heartbreaking for her. “Such times in Kirtland you never witnessed as we now have,” she wrote, “for it seems that all confidence in each other is gone.” She had to watch and pray to know for herself the right course to take through the perilous times.
“If ever I wanted to see you in my life,” she told Orson, “it is now.”46
Nothing seemed to temper the dissenters’ feelings. They claimed that Joseph and Sidney had mismanaged the Kirtland Safety Society and cheated the Saints. Warren believed that a prophet should be more godly than other people, and he used the Safety Society’s demise to show how Joseph fell short of this standard.47
After months of trying to reconcile with the leading dissenters, the Kirtland high council excommunicated them. The dissenters then seized the temple for their own church meetings and threatened to drive anyone who was still loyal to Joseph out of Kirtland.
Vilate believed the dissenters were wrong to turn away from the Saints, yet she felt sorrow for them rather than anger. “After all that I have said about this dissenting party,” she wrote Heber, “there are some of them that I love, and I have great feeling and pity for them.”48 She knew the collapse of the Safety Society had tried them spiritually and temporally. She too thought that Joseph had made mistakes while managing the institution, but she had not lost faith in the prophet.
“I have every reason to believe that Joseph has humbled himself before the Lord and repented,” she told Heber. And she trusted that the church would weather the storm.
“The Lord says, he that cannot endure chastisement but denies me cannot be sanctified,” she wrote. That might mean facing hostility in Kirtland alone while she and the children waited for Heber to return from his mission. Or if things got worse, it could mean abandoning their home and moving to Missouri.
“If we shall have to flee,” she told Heber, “I shall.”49
The Kirtland dissenters grew more bitter and aggressive as the new year dawned. Threats of mob violence hung over the church, and debt and false legal charges hounded the prophet. Soon a local sheriff, armed with an arrest warrant, began searching for him. If caught, Joseph could face a costly trial and possibly imprisonment.50
On January 12, 1838, the prophet sought the Lord’s help and received a revelation. “Let the presidency of my church take their families,” the Lord instructed, “and move on to the west as fast as the way is made plain.”
The Lord urged Joseph’s friends and their families to gather to Missouri as well. “Be at peace among yourselves, O ye inhabitants of Zion,” He declared, “or there shall be no safety for you.”51
The Smiths and Rigdons planned their escape immediately. The two men would slip out of Kirtland that night, and their families would follow a short time later in wagons.
That night, well after darkness had fallen over Kirtland, Joseph and Sidney climbed onto their horses and rode out of town.52 They traveled south until morning, covering nearly sixty miles. When their horses were spent, the men stopped to wait for their wives and children.
Neither Joseph nor Sidney expected to see Kirtland again. When their families arrived, the men joined them in their wagons and set out for Far West.53