“O God, Where Art Thou?,” chapter 33 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 33: “O God, Where Art Thou?”
The days dragged on for the prisoners in the Liberty jail. During their first months in prison, they often received visits from family and friends who brought kind words, clothing, and food. But by the end of winter, the number of letters and friendly visitors to the prison had dropped sharply as the Saints fled to Illinois, leaving the prisoners feeling even more isolated.1
In January 1839 they had tried to appeal their case before a county judge, but only Sidney Rigdon, who was gravely ill, was released on bail. The rest—Joseph, Hyrum, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin—returned to their dungeon to await trial in the spring.2
Life in prison wore Joseph down. Hecklers would peek through the barred windows to gawk or shout obscenities at him. He and the other prisoners often had nothing but a little cornbread to eat. The straw they had used for bedding since December was now matted and provided no comfort. When they lit a fire to try to warm themselves, the dungeon filled with smoke and choked them.3
With their day in court rapidly approaching, each man knew he stood a good chance of being convicted by a biased jury and executed. More than once they tried to break out, but their guards caught them every time.4
Since receiving his divine call, Joseph had pressed forward in the face of opposition, striving to obey the Lord and gather the Saints. And yet, as much as the church had flourished over the years, it seemed to now be on the verge of collapse.
Mobs had driven the Saints out of Zion in Jackson County. Internal dissent had divided the church in Kirtland and left the temple in the hands of creditors. And now, after a terrible war with their neighbors, the Saints were scattered along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, disheartened and homeless.
If only the people of Missouri had left them alone, Joseph thought, there would have been nothing but peace and quiet in the state. The Saints were good people who loved God. They did not deserve to be dragged from their homes, beaten, and left to die.5
The injustice angered Joseph. In the Old Testament, the Lord often rescued His people from danger, vanquishing their enemies with the strength of His arm. But now, when the Saints had been threatened with extermination, He had not intervened.
Why did a loving Heavenly Father allow so many innocent men, women, and children to suffer while those who drove them from their homes, stole their lands, and committed unspeakable violence against them went free and unpunished? How could He let His faithful servants wallow in a hellish prison, far from their loved ones? What purpose did it serve to abandon the Saints at the very time they needed Him the most?
“O God, where art thou?” Joseph cried out. “How long shall thy hand be stayed?”6
While Joseph wrestled with the Lord, the apostles in Quincy had an important—and potentially life-threatening—decision to make. The previous year, the Lord had commanded them to meet at the Far West temple site on April 26, 1839, where they were to continue laying the foundation of the temple and then leave for another mission to England. With the appointed date a little over a month away, Brigham Young insisted that the apostles return to Far West and fulfill the Lord’s commandment to the letter.
Several church leaders in Quincy believed it was no longer necessary for the apostles to obey the revelation and thought it was foolish to return to a place where mobs had sworn to kill the Saints. Surely, they reasoned, the Lord would not expect them to risk their lives traveling hundreds of miles into enemy territory and back when they were needed so badly in Illinois.7
Besides, their quorum was in disarray. Thomas Marsh and Orson Hyde were in apostasy, Parley Pratt was in prison, and Heber Kimball and John Page were still in Missouri. The most recently called apostles, Wilford Woodruff, Willard Richards, and Joseph’s cousin George A. Smith, had not even been ordained yet, and Willard was preaching the gospel in England.8
But Brigham felt that it was within their power to meet in Far West as the Lord commanded, and that they should try to carry it out.
He wanted the apostles in Quincy to be united in their decision. To make the journey, they would have to leave their families at a time when the future of the church was uncertain. If the apostles were captured or killed, their wives and children would have to face the coming trials alone.
Knowing what was at stake, Orson Pratt, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and George A. Smith agreed to do whatever was required to follow the Lord’s command.
“The Lord God has spoken,” Brigham said after they made their decision. “It is our duty to obey and leave the event in His hands.”9
Back in the Liberty jail, concern for the Saints and the wrongs committed against them consumed Joseph’s mind. On the evening of March 19, he received letters from Emma, his brother Don Carlos, and Bishop Partridge.10 The letters cheered him and the other prisoners a little, but he could not forget that he was trapped in a filthy dungeon while the Saints were scattered and needed help.
The day after the letters arrived, Joseph began writing a pair of epistles to the Saints, unburdening his soul as he never had in writing. Dictating to a fellow prisoner, who acted as scribe, the prophet tried to shore up the Saints in their despair.
“Every species of wickedness and cruelty practiced upon us,” he assured them, “will only tend to bind our hearts together and seal them together in love.”11
Yet he could not ignore the months of persecution that had driven them to their desperate state. He railed against Governor Boggs, the militia, and those who had harmed the Saints. “Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies,” he cried out to the Lord in prayer, “and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs!”12
Joseph knew, however, that their enemies were not the only ones at fault. Some Saints, including church leaders, had tried to cover their sins, gratify their pride and ambition, and use force to compel others to obey them. They had abused their power and position among the Saints.
“We have learned by sad experience,” Joseph said under inspiration, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.”13
Righteous Saints were to act on higher principles. “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood,” the Lord declared, “only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” Those who tried to do otherwise lost the Spirit and the authority to bless the lives of others with the priesthood.14
Still, Joseph cried out in behalf of the innocent Saints. “O Lord,” he pleaded, “how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them?”15
“My son, peace be unto thy soul,” the Lord responded. “Thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.”16
The Lord assured Joseph that he was not forgotten. “If the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee,” the Lord told Joseph, “know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.”
The Savior reminded Joseph that the Saints could not suffer more than He had. He loved them and could end their pain, but He chose instead to suffer affliction with them, carrying their grief and sorrow as part of His atoning sacrifice. Such suffering filled Him with mercy, giving Him power to succor and refine all who turned to Him in their trials. He urged Joseph to hold on and promised never to forsake him.
“Thy days are known and thy years shall not be numbered less,” the Lord assured him. “Therefore, fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you for ever and ever.”17
As the Lord spoke peace to Joseph in prison, Heber Kimball and other Saints in Missouri lobbied the state supreme court tirelessly to get the prophet released. The judges seemed sympathetic to Heber’s pleas, and some even questioned the legality of Joseph’s imprisonment, but they ultimately refused to take action on the case.18
Discouraged, Heber returned to Liberty to report to Joseph. The guards would not let him into the dungeon, so he stood outside the prison window and called down to his friends. He had tried his best, he said, but it had made no difference.
“Be of good cheer,” Joseph called back, “and get all the Saints away as fast as possible.”19
Heber slipped into Far West a few days later, wary of the dangers that still lurked in the area. Aside from a handful of leaders and a few families, the city was empty. Heber’s own family had left two months earlier, and he had heard nothing from them since. As he thought about them and the prisoners and those who had suffered and died at the hands of mobs, he felt downcast and lonely. Like Joseph, he longed for the suffering to end.
As Heber thought about their miserable situation, and his failure to gain Joseph’s freedom, the Lord’s love and gratitude filled him. Steadying a piece of paper on his knee, he recorded the impressions that came to him.
“Remember that I am always with you, even to the end,” he heard the Lord say. “My Spirit shall be in your heart to teach you the peaceable things of the kingdom.”
The Lord told him not to worry about his family. “I will feed them and clothe them and make unto them friends,” He promised. “Peace shall rest upon them forever, if thou wilt be faithful and go forth and preach my gospel to the nations of the earth.”20
When Heber finished writing, his heart and mind were calm.
After the Lord spoke to him in the dark, miserable dungeon, Joseph no longer feared that God had forsaken him and the church. In letters to Edward Partridge and the Saints, he testified boldly of the latter-day work. “Hell may pour forth its rage like the burning lava of Mount Vesuvius,” he declared, “yet shall Mormonism stand.” He was sure of this.
“Truth is Mormonism,” he exclaimed. “God is the author of it. He is our shield. It is by Him we received our birth. It was by His voice that we were called to a dispensation of His gospel in the beginning of the fullness of times.”21
He urged the Saints to compile an official record of the wrongs they had suffered in Missouri so they could deliver it to the president of the United States and other government officials for review. He believed it was the Saints’ duty to seek legal reparations for their losses.
“Let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power,” he counseled, “and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed.”22
A few days after Joseph sent his letters, he and his fellow prisoners left the jail to appear before a grand jury in Gallatin. Before they left, Joseph penned a letter to Emma. “I want to see little Frederick, Joseph, Julia, and Alexander,” he wrote. “Tell them Father loves them with a perfect love, and he is doing all he can to get away from the mob to come to them.”23
When the prisoners arrived in Gallatin, some of the lawyers in the room were drinking, while a crowd of men loitered outside, idly peeking through the windows. The judge on the bench had served as the attorney prosecuting the Saints in their November hearing.24
Convinced they could not get a fair hearing in Daviess County, Joseph and the other prisoners asked for a change of venue. Their request was granted, and the prisoners set out for a courthouse in another county with a sheriff and four new guards.25
The guards were lenient with the prisoners and treated them humanely as they traveled to the new venue.26 In Gallatin, Joseph had won their respect by beating the strongest of them in a good-natured wrestling match.27 Public opinion about the Saints was also shifting. Some Missourians were growing uncomfortable with the governor’s extermination order and simply wished to drop the whole matter and be rid of the prisoners.28
The day after they left Daviess County, the men stopped at a way station, and the prisoners bought whiskey for their guards. Later that night, the sheriff approached the prisoners. “I shall take a good drink of grog and go to bed,” he told them, “and you may do as you have a mind to.”
As the sheriff and three of the guards got drunk, Joseph and his friends saddled two horses with the help of the remaining guard and headed east into the night.29
Two days later, as Joseph and the other prisoners were fleeing to safety, five of the apostles started in the opposite direction, crossing the Mississippi toward Far West. Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and Orson Pratt rode in one carriage, while John Taylor and George A. Smith rode with Alpheus Cutler, who had been the temple’s master workman, in another.
They traveled quickly across the prairie, anxious to arrive in Far West on the appointed day. Along the way, they came upon apostle John Page, who was moving east with his family out of Missouri, and persuaded him to join them.30
After seven days on the road, the apostles entered Far West on the moonlit night of April 25. Grass had already grown over its deserted streets, and all was quiet. Heber Kimball, who had returned to Far West after learning of Joseph’s escape, emerged from his hiding place and welcomed them to the town.
The men passed a few hours together. Then, as sunlight stretched across the eastern horizon, they rode quietly into the town square and walked with the few Saints who remained in the city to the temple site. There they sang a hymn and Alpheus rolled a large stone to the southeast corner of the temple site, fulfilling the Lord’s commandment to recommence laying the foundation of the temple.31
Wilford took a seat on the stone as the apostles formed a circle around him. They placed their hands on his head, and Brigham ordained him to the apostleship. When he finished, George took Wilford’s place on the stone and was ordained as well.
Recognizing they had done all they could, the apostles bowed their heads and took turns praying in the morning light. When they finished, they sang “Adam-ondi-Ahman,” a hymn that looked forward to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the day when the peace of Zion would spread across Missouri’s war-torn prairie and fill the world.
Alpheus then rolled the stone back to where he found it, leaving the foundation in the Lord’s hands until the day when He would prepare a way for the Saints to return to Zion.32
The next day, the apostles rode thirty-two miles to catch up with the last families struggling to leave Missouri. They expected to depart for Great Britain soon. But first they wanted to reunite with their loved ones in Illinois and settle them in the new gathering place, wherever it might be.33
Around this time, a ferry landed at Quincy and several rough-looking passengers came ashore. One of them—a pale, thin man—wore a wide-brimmed hat and a blue jacket with an upturned collar that concealed his unshaven face. His ragged trousers were tucked into worn-out boots.34
Dimick Huntington, a former sheriff among the Saints in Far West, watched the unkempt stranger climb up the bank. Something familiar about the man’s face and the way he carried himself caught Dimick’s attention. But he could not say why until he got a better look.
“Is it you, Brother Joseph?” he exclaimed.
Joseph raised his hands to quiet his friend. “Hush!” he said cautiously. “Where is my family?”35
Since their escape, Joseph and the other prisoners had been on guard and on the run, following Missouri’s back roads to the Mississippi River and the freedom that awaited them on the other side, beyond the reach of Missouri authorities.36
Still shocked to see the prophet, Dimick explained that Emma and the children lived four miles out of town.
“Take me to my family as quick as you can,” Joseph said.
Dimick and Joseph rode to the Cleveland home, following back streets through the town to avoid being seen. When they arrived, Joseph dismounted and started for the house.
Emma appeared at the door and recognized him immediately. She broke into a run and embraced him halfway to the gate.37