“Build Up a City,” chapter 34 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 34: “Build Up a City”
In late April 1839, days after reuniting with the Saints, Joseph rode north to inspect land that church leaders wanted to buy in and around Commerce, a town fifty miles from Quincy. For the first time in more than six months, the prophet was traveling without armed guards or the threat of violence looming over him. He was finally among friends, in a state where people welcomed the Saints and seemed to respect their beliefs.
While in jail, Joseph had written to a man who was selling land around Commerce, expressing interest in settling the church there. “If there is not anyone who feels particular interest in making the purchase,” Joseph had told him, “we will purchase it of you.”1
After the fall of Far West, however, many Saints questioned the wisdom of gathering to a single area. Edward Partridge wondered if the best way to avoid conflict and provide for the poor was to gather in small communities scattered throughout the country.2 But Joseph knew the Lord had not revoked His commandment for the Saints to gather.
Arriving in Commerce, he saw a marshy floodplain that rose gently to a wooded bluff overlooking a wide bend in the Mississippi River. A few homes dotted the area. Across the river in Iowa Territory, near a town called Montrose, stood some abandoned army barracks on more land available for purchase.
Joseph believed the Saints could build thriving stakes of Zion in this area. The land was not the choicest he had ever seen, but the Mississippi River was navigable all the way to the ocean, making Commerce a good place for gathering the Saints from abroad and establishing commercial enterprises. The area was also sparsely settled.
Still, gathering the Saints there would be risky. If the church grew, as Joseph hoped it would, their neighbors might become alarmed and turn against them, as people had in Missouri.
Joseph prayed. “Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?”
“Build up a city,” the Lord replied, “and call my Saints to this place.”3
That spring, Wilford and Phebe Woodruff moved into the barracks in Montrose. Among their new neighbors were Brigham and Mary Ann Young and Orson and Sarah Pratt. After they settled their families, the three apostles planned to leave on their mission for Britain with the rest of the quorum.4
Thousands of Saints soon moved to the new gathering place, pitching tents or living in wagons as they went to work building homes, acquiring food and clothes, and clearing farmland on both sides of the river.5
As the new settlement grew, the Twelve met often with Joseph, who preached with new vigor as he prepared them for their mission.6 The prophet taught that God did not reveal anything to him that He would not also make known to the Twelve. “Even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to,” Joseph declared.7
He instructed them in the first principles of the gospel, the Resurrection and the Judgment, and the building of Zion. Remembering the betrayal of former apostles, he also urged them to be faithful. “See to it that you do not betray heaven,” he said, “that you do not betray Jesus Christ, that you do not betray your brethren, and that you do not betray the revelations of God.”8
Around this time, Orson Hyde expressed a desire to return to the Quorum of the Twelve, ashamed that he had denounced Joseph in Missouri and abandoned the Saints. Fearing Orson would betray them again when the next difficulty came along, Sidney Rigdon was reluctant to restore his apostleship. Joseph, however, welcomed him back and restored his place among the Twelve.9 In July, Parley Pratt escaped from prison in Missouri and was also reunited with the apostles.10
By then swarms of mosquitos had risen from the marshlands to feast on the new settlers, and many Saints came down with deadly malarial fevers and bone-rattling chills. Most of the Twelve were soon too sick to leave for Britain.11
On the morning of Monday, July 22, Wilford heard Joseph’s voice outside his home: “Brother Woodruff, follow me.”
Wilford stepped outside and saw Joseph standing with a group of men. All morning they had been moving from house to house, tent to tent, taking the sick by the hand and healing them. After blessing the Saints in Commerce, they had taken a ferry across the river to heal the Saints in Montrose.12
Wilford walked with them across the village square to the home of his friend Elijah Fordham. Elijah’s eyes were sunken and his skin ashen. His wife, Anna, was weeping as she prepared his burial clothes.13
Joseph approached Elijah and took his hand. “Brother Fordham,” he asked, “have you not faith to be healed?”
“I am afraid it is too late,” he said.
“Do you not believe that Jesus is the Christ?”
“I do, Brother Joseph.”
“Elijah,” the prophet declared, “I command you, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, to arise and be made whole.”
The words seemed to shake the house. Elijah rose from his bed, his face flush with color. He dressed, asked for something to eat, and followed Joseph outside to help minister to many others.14
Later that evening, Phebe Woodruff was astonished when she visited Elijah and Anna. Only a few hours earlier, Anna had all but given up on her husband. Now Elijah said he felt strong enough to work in his garden. Phebe had no doubt his recovery was the work of God.15
Joseph’s efforts to bless and heal the sick did not end the spread of disease in Commerce and Montrose, and some Saints perished. As more people died, eighteen-year-old Zina Huntington worried that her mother would succumb to the illness as well.
Zina cared for her mother daily, leaning on her father and brothers for support, but soon the entire family was sick. Joseph checked on them from time to time, seeing what he could do to help the family or make Zina’s mother more comfortable.
One day, Zina’s mother called for her. “My time has come to die,” she said weakly. “I am not afraid.” She testified to Zina of the Resurrection. “I shall come forth triumphant when the Savior comes with the just to meet the Saints on the earth.”
When her mother died, Zina was overcome with grief. Knowing the family’s suffering, Joseph continued to attend to them.16
During one of Joseph’s visits, Zina asked him, “Will I know my mother as my mother when I get over on the other side?”
“More than that,” he said, “you will meet and become acquainted with your eternal Mother, the wife of your Father in Heaven.”
“Have I then a Mother in Heaven?” Zina asked.
“You assuredly have,” said Joseph. “How could a Father claim His title unless there were also a Mother to share that parenthood?”17
In early August, Wilford departed for England with John Taylor, the first of the apostles to leave on the new mission. At the time, Phebe was expecting another baby, and John’s wife, Leonora, and their three children were sick with fevers.18
Parley and Orson Pratt were the next apostles to depart, even though Orson and Sarah were still mourning for their daughter, Lydia, who had died just eleven days before. Mary Ann Pratt, Parley’s wife, was joining the apostles on the mission, and she set out with them. George A. Smith, the youngest apostle, was still sick when he began his mission, postponing marriage to his fiancée, Bathsheba Bigler.19
Mary Ann Young said goodbye to Brigham in the middle of September. He was sick again, but he was determined to do what was required of him. Mary Ann was ill herself and had little money to support their five children while Brigham was away, but she wanted him to do his duty.
“Go and fill your mission, and the Lord will bless you,” she said. “I will do the best I can for myself and the children.”20
A few days after Brigham left, Mary Ann learned that he had made it only as far as the Kimball house, on the other side of the Mississippi, before collapsing from exhaustion. She immediately crossed the river to care for him until he was strong enough to leave.21
At the Kimballs’, Mary Ann found Vilate sick in bed with two of her boys, leaving no one but their four-year-old son to carry heavy water jugs from the well. Heber was too sick to stand up, but he was committed to leaving with Brigham the following day.
Mary Ann tended to Brigham until a wagon arrived in the morning. As Heber stood to go, he looked distraught. He embraced Vilate, who lay in bed shaking with fever, then said goodbye to his children and climbed unsteadily into the wagon.
Brigham tried in vain to look healthy when he said goodbye to Mary Ann and his sister Fanny, who urged him to stay until he was well again.
“I never felt better in my life,” he said.
“You lie,” said Fanny.
Brigham climbed with effort into the wagon and took a seat beside Heber. As the wagon rolled down the hill, Heber felt terrible about leaving his family when they were so sick. He turned to the wagon driver and told him to stop. “This is pretty tough,” he said to Brigham. “Let’s rise up and give them a cheer.”
Back at the house, a noise from outside startled Vilate out of bed. Staggering to the door, she joined Mary Ann and Fanny, who were looking at something a short distance away. Vilate looked too, and a smile spread across her face.
It was Brigham and Heber, standing in the back of the wagon and leaning on each other for support. “Hurrah! Hurrah!” the men cried, waving their hats in the air. “Hurrah for Israel!”
“Goodbye!” the women called out. “God bless you!”22
While the apostles were leaving for Britain, Saints in Illinois and Iowa composed statements detailing their harsh treatment in Missouri, as Joseph had instructed them to do when he was in jail. By the fall, church leaders had collected hundreds of these accounts and prepared a formal petition. In total, the Saints asked for more than two million dollars to compensate for lost homes, land, livestock, and other property. Joseph planned to deliver these claims personally to the president of the United States and to Congress.
Joseph considered President Martin Van Buren to be a high-minded statesman—someone who would champion the rights of citizens. Joseph hoped that the president and other lawmakers in Washington, DC, would read about the Saints’ suffering and agree to recompense them for the land and property they had lost in Missouri.23
On November 29, 1839, after traveling nearly a thousand miles from his home in Illinois, Joseph arrived at the front door of the presidential mansion in Washington. Beside him were his friend and legal adviser, Elias Higbee, and John Reynolds, a congressman from Illinois.24
A porter greeted them at the door and motioned them inside. The mansion had recently been redecorated, and Joseph and Elias were awed by the elegance of its rooms, which contrasted sharply with the Saints’ ramshackle dwellings in the West.
Their guide led them upstairs to a room where President Van Buren was speaking with visitors. As they waited outside the door, with the petition and several letters of introduction in hand, Joseph asked Congressman Reynolds to introduce him simply as a “Latter-day Saint.” The congressman seemed surprised and amused by the request, but he agreed to do as Joseph wished. Though not eager to assist the Saints, Congressman Reynolds knew their large numbers could influence politics in Illinois.25
Joseph had not expected to meet the president with such a small delegation. When he left Illinois in October, his plan had been to let Sidney Rigdon take the lead in these meetings. But Sidney was too sick to travel and had stopped along the way.26
At last the president’s parlor doors opened, and the three men entered the room. Like Joseph, Martin Van Buren was the son of a New York farmer, but he was a much older man, short and squat, with a light complexion and a shock of white hair framing most of his face.
As promised, Congressman Reynolds introduced Joseph as a Latter-day Saint. The president smiled at the unusual title and shook the prophet’s hand.27
After greeting the president, Joseph handed him the letters of introduction and waited. Van Buren read them and frowned. “Help you?” he said dismissively. “How can I help you?”28
Joseph did not know what to say.29 He had not expected the president to dismiss them so quickly. He and Elias urged the president to at least read about the Saints’ suffering before deciding to reject their pleas.
“I can do nothing for you, gentlemen,” the president insisted. “If I were for you, I should go against the whole state of Missouri, and that state would go against me in the next election.”30
Disappointed, Joseph and Elias left the mansion and delivered their petition to Congress, knowing it would be weeks before legislators could review and discuss it.31
While they waited, Joseph decided to visit the eastern branches of the church. He would also preach in Washington and in the surrounding towns and cities.32
Wilford Woodruff and John Taylor arrived in Liverpool, England, on January 11, 1840. It was Wilford’s first trip to England, but John was back among family and friends. After retrieving their luggage, they went to the home of John’s brother-in-law George Cannon. George and his wife, Ann, were surprised to see them and invited them to dinner.
The Cannons had five children. Their oldest, George, was a bright thirteen-year-old who enjoyed reading. After dinner, Wilford and John gave the family a Book of Mormon and A Voice of Warning, a book-length missionary tract Parley Pratt had published in New York City a few years earlier. John taught the family the first principles of the gospel and invited them to read the books.33
The Cannons agreed to store the missionaries’ luggage while Wilford and John caught a train to Preston to meet with Joseph Fielding and Willard Richards.34 Both Joseph and Willard had married British Saints since Heber Kimball and Orson Hyde left the mission a year earlier. As Heber had predicted, Willard had married Jennetta Richards.
Following the meeting in Preston, John returned to Liverpool while Wilford made his way southeast to the industrial Staffordshire region, where he quickly established a branch. One evening, while meeting with the Saints there, Wilford felt the Spirit rest upon him. “This is the last meeting that you will hold with this people for many days,” the Lord told him.
The message astonished Wilford. The work in Staffordshire had only just begun, and he had many preaching appointments in the area. But the next morning he prayed for more guidance, and the Spirit inspired him to go farther south, where many souls were waiting for God’s word.
He left the next day with William Benbow, one of the Staffordshire Saints, and traveled south to the farm of John and Jane Benbow, William’s brother and sister-in-law.35 John and Jane rented a spacious white brick home on a prospering three-hundred-acre farm. When Wilford and William arrived, they stayed up with the Benbows until two o’clock in the morning talking about the Restoration.
The couple had made a good life for themselves, but they were spiritually unfulfilled. Recently, they had joined others in breaking away from their church to look for the true gospel of Jesus Christ. Calling themselves the United Brethren, the group had built chapels at Gadfield Elm, several miles south of the Benbow farm, and at other sites. They chose preachers from among their own number and asked God for further light.36
As John and Jane listened to Wilford that evening, they believed they had finally found the fullness of the gospel. The next day, Wilford preached a sermon in the Benbows’ home to a large group of neighbors, and he soon baptized John and Jane in a nearby pond.
In the coming weeks, Wilford baptized more than one hundred and fifty members of the United Brethren, including forty-six lay ministers. With more people asking to be baptized, he wrote Willard Richards for help.37
“I am called to baptize four or five times a day!” he exclaimed. “I cannot do the work alone!”38
On February 5, sixty-seven-year-old Matthew Davis heard that Joseph Smith, the “Mormon” prophet, was preaching that evening in Washington. Matthew was a correspondent for a popular newspaper in New York City. Knowing his wife, Mary, was curious about the Latter-day Saints, he was eager to hear the prophet speak and to report his teachings back to her.
At the sermon, Matthew discovered that Joseph was a plainly dressed farmer with a strong build, handsome face, and dignified bearing. His preaching revealed that he was not formally educated, but Matthew could tell he was strong-minded and knowledgeable. The prophet seemed sincere, with no trace of levity or fanaticism in his voice.
“I will state to you our beliefs, so far as time will permit,” Joseph began his sermon. He testified of God and His attributes. “He reigns over all things in heaven and on earth,” he declared. “He foreordained the fall of man, but all-merciful as He is, He foreordained at the same time a plan of redemption for all mankind.”
“I believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ,” he continued, “and that He died for the sins of all men, who in Adam had fallen.” He stated that all people were born pure and undefiled and that all children who died at an early age would go to heaven, because they did not know good from evil and were incapable of sinning.
Matthew listened, impressed by what he heard. Joseph taught that God was eternal, without beginning or end, as was the soul of every man and woman. Matthew noted that the prophet said very little about rewards or punishments in the next life except that he believed that God’s punishment would have a beginning and an end.
After two hours, the prophet closed his sermon with his testimony of the Book of Mormon. He declared that he was not the author of the book but that he had received it from God, direct from heaven.
Reflecting on the sermon, Matthew realized that he had heard nothing that evening that would harm society. “There was much in his precepts, if they were followed,” Matthew told his wife the next day in a letter, “that would soften the asperities of man towards man, and that would tend to make him a more rational being.”
Matthew had no intention of accepting the prophet’s teachings, but he appreciated his message of peace. “There was no violence, no fury, no denunciation,” he wrote. “His religion appears to be the religion of meekness, lowliness, and mild persuasion.”
“I have changed my opinion of the Mormons,” he concluded.39
As Joseph waited for Congress to review the Saints’ petition, he grew weary of being away from his family. “My dear Emma, my heart is entwined around you and those little ones,” he wrote that winter. “Tell all the children that I love them and will come home as soon as I can.”40
When Joseph married Emma, he had believed that their union would end at death.41 But the Lord had since revealed to him that marriages and families could endure beyond the grave through the power of the priesthood.42 Recently, while visiting church branches in the eastern states with Parley Pratt, Joseph had told him that righteous Saints could cultivate family relationships forever, allowing them to grow and increase in affection. No matter how much distance separated faithful families on earth, they could trust in the promise that one day they would be united in the world to come.43
While waiting in Washington, Joseph also grew tired of hearing politicians make grand speeches full of lofty language and empty promises. “There is such an itching disposition to display their oratory on the most trivial occasions and so much etiquette, bowing and scraping, twisting and turning to make a display of their witticism,” he told his brother Hyrum in a letter. “It seems to us rather a display of folly and show more than substance and gravity.”44
After an unsuccessful meeting with John C. Calhoun, one of the most influential senators in the nation, Joseph realized that he was wasting his time in Washington and decided to go home. Everyone spoke of liberty and justice, but no one seemed willing to hold the people of Missouri accountable for their treatment of the Saints.45
After the prophet returned to Illinois, Elias Higbee continued to seek compensation for the Saints’ losses. In March, the Senate reviewed the Saints’ petition and allowed delegates from Missouri to defend the actions of their state. After considering the case, the legislators decided to do nothing. They acknowledged the Saints’ distress but believed Congress had no power to interfere with the actions of a state government. Only Missouri could compensate the Saints for their losses.46
“Our business is at last ended here,” Elias wrote Joseph in disappointment. “I have done all I could in this matter.”47