“Incline Them to Gather,” chapter 36 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 36: “Incline Them to Gather”
In the spring of 1841, Mary Ann Davis took a final look at her husband’s face before the lid closed on his coffin and his friends carried his remains to a quiet corner of a churchyard cemetery in Tirley, England. John Davis had been in his prime, only twenty-five years old, when he died. As Mary watched the men bear his coffin away, she felt suddenly alone, standing in her black mourning dress in a village where she was now the only Latter-day Saint.
John had died because of his beliefs. He and Mary had met at a meeting of Saints a year earlier, not long after Wilford Woodruff had baptized hundreds of the United Brethren in nearby Herefordshire. Neither she nor John had worshipped with the United Brethren, but the restored gospel had spread quickly through the area, attracting the notice of many people.1
Mary and John had opened their home to missionaries hoping to establish a congregation in the area. The British mission had grown larger and larger, and after just four years, there were more than six thousand Saints in England and Scotland.2 Even in London, where street preachers from many churches competed fiercely for souls, the missionaries had established a branch of around forty Saints, led by a young American elder named Lorenzo Snow.3
Opposition remained strong throughout the country, though. Cheap pamphlets littered the streets in most cities, proclaiming every kind of religious idea.4 Some were reprints of tracts from the United States warning readers against the Latter-day Saints.5
Hoping to correct false reports, Parley Pratt had begun writing his own pamphlets and editing a monthly newspaper, the Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star, which printed news from the Saints in Nauvoo and throughout Britain. Brigham Young also arranged to have a hymnal and the Book of Mormon printed for the British Saints.6
In Tirley, Mary and John had faced hostility as soon as missionaries began preaching in their home. Rough men often broke up meetings and ran the missionaries off. Things only grew worse until one day, the men had knocked John to the floor and kicked him mercilessly. He had never recovered. A short time later, he took a bad fall and began coughing up blood. The missionaries tried to visit the couple, but hostile neighbors kept them away. Confined to bed, John grew weaker until he died.
After the funeral, Mary decided to join the gathering to Nauvoo. Several apostles, including Brigham Young and Heber Kimball, had recently announced that they were returning home that spring, taking with them a large company of British Saints. Mary planned to leave for North America soon after with a smaller company of Saints.
Since she was the only member of her family in the church, Mary visited her parents and siblings to say goodbye. She expected her father to protest, but he simply asked her when she would be leaving and on what ship.
On the day Mary set out for the port town of Bristol, she was sick with grief. Passing the church where she and John had been married a few months earlier, she thought about everything that had happened to her since.
Now a twenty-four-year-old widow, she was going alone to a new land, casting her lot with the people of God.7
Back in Nauvoo, newspaper editor Thomas Sharp took a seat beside Joseph Smith on a raised platform and looked out over a crowd of several thousand Saints. It was April 6, 1841, the eleventh anniversary of the church and the first day of a general conference. A brass band played over the chatter of the congregation. In a few moments, the Saints would commemorate the important day by laying the cornerstones of a new temple.
Thomas did not belong to their church, but Nauvoo’s mayor, John Bennett, had invited him to spend the day with the Saints.8 It was not hard to guess why. As a newspaper editor, Thomas could make or break a reputation with a handful of words, and he had been brought to Nauvoo as a potential ally.
Like the Saints, Thomas was new to the region. Not yet twenty-three years old, he had come west the previous year to practice law and had settled in the city of Warsaw, about a day’s journey south of Nauvoo. Within months of his arrival, he had become the editor of the only newspaper in the county not owned by the Saints, and he had gained a reputation for his forceful writing.9
He was indifferent to the Saints’ teachings and only mildly impressed by their devotion to their faith.10 But he had to admit that today’s events were striking.
The day had begun with deafening volleys of cannon fire followed by a parade of the city militia, called the Nauvoo Legion, which was made up of 650 men. Joseph Smith and John Bennett, dressed in the crisp blue coats and golden epaulets of military officers, had marched the Legion through town and up the bluff to the freshly dug foundation of the temple. Out of respect, the Saints had placed Thomas near the head of the procession, not far from Joseph and his militia aides.11
Sidney Rigdon began the cornerstone ceremony with a stirring hour-long speech about the Saints’ recent tribulations and their efforts to build temples. Following the speech, Joseph stood and directed workers to lower the massive stone at the southeast corner of the foundation.
“This principal cornerstone, in representation of the First Presidency, is now duly laid in honor of the great God,” he announced, “that the Saints may have a place to worship God, and the Son of Man have where to lay His head.”12
After the sacred celebration, Joseph invited Thomas and other honored guests to his home for a turkey dinner. He wanted them to know they were welcome in Nauvoo. If they did not share his faith, he hoped they would at least accept his hospitality.13
Joseph was pleased to learn that Thomas printed a favorable account of the cornerstone ceremony in his newspaper the next day. For the first time since the organization of the church, it seemed the Saints had the sympathies of their neighbors, government support, and friends in important places.14
As much as Joseph welcomed a time of goodwill and peace in Nauvoo, however, he knew the Lord expected him to obey all His commandments, even if doing so tried the faith of the Saints. And no commandment would be a greater trial than plural marriage.15
Joseph understood through revelation that marriage and family were central to God’s plan. The Lord had sent Elijah the prophet to the Kirtland temple to restore priesthood keys that sealed generations together like links in a chain. Under the Lord’s direction, Joseph had begun to teach more Saints that husbands and wives could be sealed together for time and eternity, becoming heirs to the blessings of Abraham and fulfilling God’s eternal plan for His children.16
The prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon taught that no man should have “save it be one wife,” unless God commanded otherwise.17 As the story of Abraham and Sarah showed, God sometimes commanded faithful followers to participate in plural marriage as a way to extend these blessings to more individuals and raise a covenant people to the Lord. Despite the trials it brought, Abraham’s marriage to his plural wife Hagar had brought forth a great nation. Plural marriage would likewise try the Saints who practiced it, yet the Lord promised to exalt them for their obedience and sacrifice.18
The years following Joseph’s departure from Kirtland had been turbulent, and he had not introduced the Saints to plural marriage then. But the situation was different in Nauvoo, where the Saints had finally found a measure of safety and stability.
Joseph also had confidence in the United States Constitution, which protected the free exercise of religion. Earlier that year, the Nauvoo City Council had affirmed this right when it passed an ordinance declaring that all religious groups were permitted to worship freely in Nauvoo. The law extended to Christians and non-Christians alike. Even though no one in Nauvoo followed Islam, the ordinance even specifically protected Muslims, who sometimes practiced polygamy.19 Although politicians had disappointed him in the nation’s capital, Joseph believed in and trusted the founding principles of the American republic to protect his right to live according to God’s will.20
Still, he knew the practice of plural marriage would shock people, and he remained reluctant to teach it openly. While other religious and utopian communities often embraced different forms of marriage, the Saints had always preached monogamy. Most Saints—like most Americans—associated polygamy with societies they considered less civilized than their own.
Joseph himself left no record of his own views on plural marriage or his struggle to obey the commandment. Emma too disclosed nothing about how early she learned of the practice or what impact it had on her marriage. The writings of others close to them, however, make clear that it was a source of anguish for both of them.
Yet Joseph felt an urgency to teach it to the Saints, despite the risks and his own reservations. If he introduced the principle privately to faithful men and women, he could build strong support for it, preparing for the time when it could be taught openly. To accept plural marriage, people would have to overcome their prejudices, reconsider social customs, and exercise great faith to obey God when He commanded something so foreign to their traditions.21
Around the fall of 1840, Joseph had begun speaking with twenty-five-year-old Louisa Beaman about the practice. Louisa’s family had been among the first to believe in the Book of Mormon and embrace the restored gospel. After her parents died, she had moved in with her older sister Mary and her sister’s husband, Bates Noble, a veteran of the Camp of Israel.22
Bates was present during Joseph’s discussions with Louisa about plural marriage.23 “In revealing this to you, I have placed my life in your hands,” Joseph told him. “Do not in an evil hour betray me to my enemies.”24
Sometime later, Joseph proposed marriage to Louisa. She left no record of how she reacted to the offer, or when or why she accepted it. But on the evening of April 5, 1841, the day before general conference, Joseph met Louisa and Bates for the ceremony. Authorized by Joseph, Bates sealed the two together, repeating back the words of the ordinance as Joseph spoke them to him.25
That summer, the Saints rejoiced when John Bennett was appointed to an important position in the county court system. But others in the county were outraged, fearful of the Saints’ growing political power. They saw John’s appointment as an attempt by rival politicians to win the Saints’ votes.26
Thomas Sharp, who was a member of the rival party, openly questioned John’s qualifications for the position, his reputation, and the sincerity of his recent baptism. In a newspaper editorial, he urged citizens to oppose the appointment.27
Thomas also exaggerated reports of dissatisfaction among the hundreds of British Saints gathering to the area. “It is said that many have determined to leave,” he reported, “and that letters have been sent to England, warning their friends, who had designed to emigrate, of the sad state of things in the City of the Church.” At the heart of their discontent, he claimed, was a lack of faith in the prophet’s mission.28
Livid after reading the editorial, Joseph dictated a letter and sent it to Thomas, canceling his subscription:
Sir—You will discontinue my paper—its contents are calculated to pollute me, and to patronize the filthy sheet—that tissue of lies—that sink of iniquity—is disgraceful to any moral man.
Yours, with utter contempt,
P.S. Please publish the above in your contemptible paper.29
Irritated by the letter, Thomas printed it in the next issue alongside sarcastic commentary about Joseph’s prophetic call. Some people had accused Thomas of using his newspaper to flatter the Saints.30 He now wanted his readers to know that he saw the Saints as a growing political threat to the rights of other citizens in the county.
As proof, Thomas reprinted a proclamation Joseph had recently published that called on Saints everywhere to gather and build up Nauvoo. “If his will is to be their law,” Thomas warned his readers, “what may—nay, what will—become of your dearest rights and most valued privileges?”31
As Thomas grew more critical, Joseph worried that he would turn others in the county against the Saints.32 With the temple’s cornerstones in place and British immigrants coming by the shipload, so much was at stake. The Saints could not lose Nauvoo as they had lost Independence and Far West.
Sailing vessels large and small crowded the busy docks of Bristol Harbor in southwest England.33 Stepping aboard the ship that would take her to North America, Mary Ann Davis found her bed clean and saw no signs of fleas. She and the other passengers were allowed to keep only one trunk beside their beds while the rest of their belongings were stowed in the ship’s hold.
Mary remained in Bristol a week as the ship was being outfitted. For privacy, she and the other passengers hung curtains between their beds, partitioning the large room into tiny compartments. They also explored Bristol’s narrow streets, taking in the sights and smells of the city.
Mary expected her parents to arrive any day to see her off. Why else would her father want to know the name of her ship and point of departure?
But her parents never came. Instead, lawyers—hired by her father to compel her not to leave—began visiting the ship daily, asking about a young widow with dark eyes and a black dress. Disappointed, but determined to gather to Zion, Mary packed away her mourning clothes and started dressing like the other young women on board.
The ship soon set sail for Canada. When it landed two months later, Mary and her company traveled south by steamship, train, and canal boat until they arrived at a harbor near Kirtland. Eager to be among the Saints, Mary and her friends made their way to the town, where they found William Phelps leading a small branch of the church.34
Kirtland was a shadow of what it had once been. On Sundays, William held meetings in the temple, often sitting alone in the pulpits. From her place in the congregation, Mary thought the temple looked forsaken.
Some weeks later, another company of British Saints arrived in Kirtland. One member of the company, Peter Maughan, planned to push on, taking a steamship across the Great Lakes to Chicago and then traveling overland to Nauvoo. Eager to finish their journey, Mary and several other Saints joined him and his six young children.35
On the way to Nauvoo, Mary and Peter became better acquainted. He was a widower who had worked in the lead mines of northwest England. His wife, Ruth, had died in childbirth shortly before the family planned to emigrate. Peter had considered staying in England, but Brigham Young had convinced him to come to Nauvoo.36
When Mary arrived in Nauvoo, she searched the city for friends from England. Making her way through the streets, she saw a man preaching atop a barrel and stopped to listen. The preacher was a cheerful man, and his plainspoken sermon captivated the small crowd. Now and then, he would lean forward and place his hands on the shoulders of a tall man in front of him, as if he were leaning on a desk.
Mary knew at once that he was Joseph Smith. After five months of traveling, she was finally standing among the Saints in the presence of the prophet of God.37
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Orson Hyde was overcome with emotion as he gazed for the first time on Jerusalem. The ancient city sat atop a hill bordered by valleys and surrounded by thick walls. As he approached the western gate of the city, weary from his travels, Orson caught glimpses of its walls and the towers looming behind them.38
Orson had hoped to enter Jerusalem with John Page, but John had gone home before leaving the United States. Setting off alone, Orson had traveled through England and across Europe, passing through some of the continent’s great cities. He then headed southeast to Constantinople and caught a steamship to the coastal city of Jaffa, where he arranged to travel to Jerusalem with a company of English gentlemen and their heavily armed servants.
Over the next few days, Orson navigated Jerusalem’s dusty, uneven streets and met with the city’s religious and civic leaders. About ten thousand people, mostly Arabic speakers, lived in Jerusalem. The city was in a dilapidated state, with parts of it reduced to rubble after centuries of conflict and neglect.
Even so, as Orson visited places he had read about in the Bible, he was in awe of the city and its sacred history. When he saw people doing the everyday tasks described in the Savior’s parables, he imagined himself transported back to the time of Jesus. In Gethsemane, he plucked a twig from an olive tree and contemplated the Atonement.39
On October 24, 1841, Orson rose before dawn and hiked down a slope near where Jesus had walked the night before His Crucifixion. Climbing the Mount of Olives, Orson looked back across the valley at Jerusalem and saw the spectacular Dome of the Rock, rising near the site where the temple had stood in the Savior’s time.40
Knowing the Lord had promised that some of Abraham’s posterity would be gathered to Jerusalem before the Second Coming, the apostle sat down and wrote out a prayer, asking God to lead the scattered remnants to their promised land.41
“Incline them to gather in upon this land according to thy word,” Orson prayed. “Let them come like clouds and like doves to their windows.”
When he finished his prayer, Orson made a pile of stones at the site and walked back across the valley to pile more stones on Mount Zion as a simple monument to the completion of his mission. He then began the long journey home.42