“We Proclaim Ourselves Free,” chapter 27 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 27: “We Proclaim Ourselves Free”
In the middle of June 1838, Wilford Woodruff stood on his parents’ doorstep, once more determined to share the restored gospel of Jesus Christ with them. After starting a branch in the Fox Islands, he had returned to the mainland to visit Phebe, who would soon give birth to their first child. He then spent time preaching in Boston, New York, and other cities along the coast. His parents’ house was his last stop before returning north.1
Wilford wanted nothing more than to see his family embrace the truth. His father, Aphek, had spent a lifetime seeking truth to no avail. His sister Eunice also longed for more light in her life.2 But as Wilford talked with them about the church over several days, he sensed that something was keeping them from accepting its teachings.
“These are days of great suspense,” Wilford noted.3 His time at home was running out. If he stayed with his parents much longer, he would miss the baby being born.
Wilford prayed harder for his family, but they became even less eager to accept baptism. “The devil fell upon the whole household with great wrath and temptations,” he confided in his journal.4
On July 1, he preached one more time to his family, declaring the words of Christ as fervently as he could. At last his words reached their hearts, and their concerns faded away. They felt the Spirit of God and knew that Wilford had spoken the truth. They were ready to act.
Wilford led his family immediately to a canal near their house. At the water’s edge, they sang a hymn and Wilford said a prayer. He then waded into the water and baptized his father, his stepmother, and his sister, along with an aunt, a cousin, and a family friend.
When he raised the last person from the water, Wilford climbed out of the canal, rejoicing. “Forget this not,” he told himself. “Regard it as the mercy of thy God.”
With their hair and clothes dripping, the family returned to the house. Wilford placed his hands on their heads, one by one, and confirmed them members of the church.5
Two days later, he said goodbye to his parents and hurried back to Maine, hoping he would arrive in time to welcome his first child into the world.6
That spring and summer, Saints gathered to Missouri in droves. John Page, a missionary who had experienced enormous success in Canada, set out for Zion at the head of a large company of converts from the Toronto area.7 In Kirtland, the Quorum of the Seventy labored to prepare poor families to travel to Missouri together. By sharing resources and assisting each other along the way, they hoped to arrive safely in the promised land.8
The Saints in Far West held a parade on July 4 to celebrate the nation’s independence day and to lay the cornerstones of the new temple. Leading the parade were Joseph Smith Sr. and a small military unit. Behind them came the First Presidency and other church leaders, including the temple architect. A unit of cavalry proudly brought up the rear.9
As he marched with the Saints, Sidney Rigdon could see their unity. Over the last few weeks, though, the church had disciplined more dissenters. Shortly after Oliver Cowdery’s hearing, the high council had excommunicated David Whitmer and Lyman Johnson.10 Not long after that, the bishop’s council had rebuked William McLellin for losing confidence in the First Presidency and indulging in lustful desires.11
William had since left the church and moved away from Far West, but Oliver, David, and other dissenters had remained in the area. In June, Sidney had condemned these men publicly. Echoing language from the Sermon on the Mount, he compared them to salt that had lost its savor, good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden underfoot. Afterward, Joseph expressed his support for the rebuke, although he urged the Saints to obey the law as they dealt with dissent.12
Sidney’s sermon had emboldened some Saints who had banded together a week earlier to defend the church against dissenters.13 These men went by several names, but they were best known as the Danites, after the tribe of Dan in the Old Testament. Joseph did not organize the group, yet he likely sanctioned some of their actions.14
In their eagerness to defend the church, the Danites vowed to protect the Saints’ rights against what they saw as threats from inside and outside the church. Many of them had seen how dissent had unraveled the community in Kirtland, placed Joseph and others at risk of mob attacks, and endangered the ideals of Zion. Together they pledged to protect the community at Far West against any similar threat.
Around the time of Sidney’s public condemnation of the dissenters, the Danites had warned Oliver, David, and others to leave Caldwell County or face dire consequences. Within days, the men fled the area for good.15
As the Fourth of July parade arrived at the town square, the Saints raised the American flag to the top of a tall pole and circled around the excavated temple site. From the edges of the groundwork, they watched the workers carefully set the cornerstones in place. Sidney then climbed a nearby stand to address the congregation.16
Following the American tradition of giving fiery, emotional speeches on Independence Day, Sidney spoke forcefully to the Saints about freedom, the persecution they had endured, and the important role of temples in their spiritual education. At the end of the speech, he warned the enemies of the church to leave the Saints alone.
“Our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity,” he asserted. “The man or the set of men who attempts it does it at the expense of their lives.”
The Saints would not be the aggressors, he assured his audience, but they would defend their rights. “That mob that comes on us to disturb us,” he cried out, “it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us.”
No more would the Saints abandon their homes or crops. No more would they bear their persecution meekly. “We this day then proclaim ourselves free,” Sidney declared, “with a purpose and a determination that never can be broken! No, never!!”17
“Hosanna!” the Saints cheered. “Hosanna!”18
As the Saints rallied in Far West, a missionary named Elijah Able was preaching in eastern Canada, hundreds of miles away. One night he had a troubling dream. He saw Eunice Franklin, a woman he had baptized in New York, racked with doubts about the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith. Her uncertainty robbed her of sleep. She could not eat. She felt deceived.19
Elijah set out for New York immediately. He had met Eunice and her husband, Charles, that spring while preaching in their town.20 The sermon Elijah had preached to them was rough and uneven. As a black man born in poverty, he had found few opportunities for schooling.
But like other missionaries, he had been ordained to the Melchizedek Priesthood, participated in ordinances in the Kirtland temple, and received the endowment of power.21 What he lacked in education he made up for in faith and in the power of the Spirit.
His sermon had thrilled Eunice, but Charles stood up afterward and tried to argue with him. Elijah approached Charles, placed his hand on his shoulder, and said, “Tomorrow I will come and see you and have a little chat.”
The next day Elijah had visited the Franklin house and taught them about Joseph Smith, but Charles remained unconvinced.
“Is it a sign that you require for to make you believe?” Elijah had asked.
“Yes,” said Charles.
“You shall have what you asked,” Elijah told him, “but it will make your heart ache.”
When Elijah had returned a short time later, he learned that Charles had suffered many sorrows before he finally prayed for forgiveness. By then, both he and Eunice were ready to join the church, and Elijah baptized them.22
Eunice had been certain of her faith at the time. What had happened to her since?
One Sunday morning a short time later, Eunice was surprised to find Elijah standing at her doorstep. She had been storing up things to say when she saw him again. She wanted to tell him that the Book of Mormon was a work of fiction and Joseph Smith was a false prophet. But when she saw Elijah at her door, she instead invited him inside.
“Sister,” Elijah said after some conversation, “you have not been tempted as long as the Savior was after He was baptized. He was tempted one way and you in another.” He told Eunice and Charles that he was preaching that afternoon at a nearby schoolhouse. He asked them to tell their neighbors, then said goodbye.
Eunice did not want to go to the meeting, but that afternoon she turned to her husband and said, “I will go and see the coming out of it.”
When she sat down in the schoolhouse, Eunice was once again moved by Elijah’s words. He preached on a verse from the New Testament. “Beloved,” it read, “think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you.”23 Elijah’s voice and the message of the restored gospel opened Eunice’s heart to the Spirit. The certainty she had once felt flooded back. She knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and the Book of Mormon was true.
Elijah promised Eunice he would return in two weeks. But after he left, Eunice saw handbills in town falsely claiming that Elijah had murdered a woman and five children. The notices offered a reward for his capture.
“Now what do you think of your Mormon elder?” some of her neighbors asked. They swore Elijah would be arrested before he had another chance to preach in their town.
Eunice did not believe Elijah had murdered anyone. “He will come and fill his appointment,” she said, “and God will protect him.”24
She suspected opponents of the church had fabricated the story. It was not uncommon for white people to spread lies about black people, even in places where slavery was illegal. Strict laws and customs restricted interactions between blacks and whites, and sometimes people found cruel ways to enforce them.25
As promised, Elijah returned after two weeks to preach another sermon. The schoolhouse was crowded. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see him be arrested—or worse.
Elijah took a seat. After a few moments, he stood and said, “My friends, I am advertised for murdering a woman and five children, and a great reward is offered for my person. Now here I am.”
Eunice looked around the room. No one stirred.
“If anyone has anything to do with me, now is your time,” Elijah continued. “But after I commence my services, don’t you dare to lay your hands on me.”
Elijah paused, waiting for a response. The congregation watched him in startled silence. Another moment passed, then he sang a hymn, said a prayer, and delivered a powerful sermon.
Before he left town, Elijah spoke with Eunice and Charles. “Sell out and go further west,” he advised them. Prejudice against the Saints was increasing in the area, and there was a branch of the church forty miles away. The Lord did not want His people to live their religion alone.
Eunice and Charles took his advice and soon gathered to the branch.26
Back in Missouri, Joseph was optimistic about the future of the church. He had Sidney’s Fourth of July speech published as a pamphlet. He wanted everyone in Missouri to know that the Saints would no longer be intimidated by mobs and dissenters.27
Yet old problems nagged at him. Much of the church’s debt was still unpaid, and many Saints had been left destitute by ongoing persecution, the national economic problems, the financial collapse in Kirtland, and the costly move to Missouri. Furthermore, the Lord had forbidden the First Presidency to borrow more money.28 The church needed funds but still had no reliable system for collecting them.29
Recently, the bishops of the church, Edward Partridge and Newel Whitney, had proposed tithing as a way to obey the law of consecration. Joseph knew the Saints should consecrate their property, but he was unsure how much of it the Lord required as a tithe.30
Joseph also worried about the Quorum of the Twelve. Two days earlier, a letter from Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde reached Far West, reporting that both apostles had arrived safely in Kirtland after their mission to England. Heber had been reunited with Vilate and their children, and they were now preparing to move to Missouri.31 Six other apostles—Thomas Marsh, David Patten, Brigham Young, Parley and Orson Pratt, and William Smith—were in Missouri or on missions, still firm in their faith. But the remaining four apostles had left the church, leaving vacancies in the quorum.32
On July 8, Joseph and other church leaders prayed about these problems and received a flood of revelation. The Lord appointed a Saint named Oliver Granger to represent the First Presidency in paying off the church’s debts. The properties the Saints had given up in Kirtland were to be sold and applied toward the debt.33
The Lord then answered Joseph’s questions about tithing. “I require all their surplus property to be put into the hands of the bishop of my church in Zion,” He declared, “for the building of mine house, and for the laying of the foundation of Zion.” After offering what they could spare, the Lord continued, the Saints were to pay a tenth of their increase from year to year.
“If my people observe not this law, to keep it holy,” the Lord declared, “it shall not be a land of Zion unto you.”34
Concerning the Twelve, the Lord commanded Thomas Marsh to remain in Far West to help with church publishing and called the other apostles to preach. “If they will do this in all lowliness of heart, in meekness and humility, and long-suffering,” the Lord promised, “I will provide for their families; and an effectual door shall be opened for them, from henceforth.”
The Lord wanted the Twelve to go abroad in the coming year. He directed the quorum to assemble at the temple site in Far West on April 26, 1839, a little less than a year away, and embark from there on another mission to England.35
Finally, the Lord named four men to fill the vacancies in the quorum. Two of the new apostles, John Taylor and John Page, were in Canada. One of the others, Willard Richards, was serving in the mission presidency in England. The fourth, Wilford Woodruff, was in Maine, only days away from becoming a father.36
Phebe Woodruff gave birth to a daughter, Sarah Emma, on July 14. Wilford was overjoyed that the baby was healthy and that his wife had made it through the delivery.37 As she recovered, Wilford passed the time doing work for Sarah, Phebe’s widowed sister. “I spent the day mowing grass,” he reported in his journal. “It being rather new business, I felt weary at night.”38
Several days later, a message from Joseph Ball, a missionary laboring in the Fox Islands, reported that dissenters in Kirtland had sent letters to Wilford’s converts there, trying to sway their faith. Most of the Saints in the Fox Islands had ignored the letters, but a few had left the church—including some Wilford wanted to bring to Missouri later that year.39
Two weeks after the birth of Sarah Emma, Wilford hurried to the Fox Islands to strengthen the Saints and help them prepare for the journey to Zion. “O my God, prosper my way,” Wilford prayed as he left Phebe’s side. “Bless my wife and the babe which Thou has given us while I am absent.”40
When he arrived on the islands a little more than a week later, a letter was waiting for him from Thomas Marsh in Missouri. “The Lord has commanded that the Twelve assemble in this place as soon as possible,” it read. “Know then, Brother Woodruff, by this that you are appointed to fill the place of one of the Twelve Apostles.” The Lord expected Wilford to come to Far West as soon as possible to prepare for a mission to England.
Wilford was not entirely surprised by the news. A few weeks before, he had received an impression that he would be called as an apostle, but he had told no one. Still, that night he lay awake, a thousand thoughts tumbling through his mind.41