“We Will Prove Them,” chapter 37 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 37: “We Will Prove Them”
On January 5, 1842, Joseph opened a store in Nauvoo and cheerfully greeted his many customers. “I love to wait upon the Saints and be a servant to all,” he told a friend in a letter, “hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.”1
The doctrine of exaltation weighed heavily on Joseph’s mind.2 In February, he turned his attention back to the Egyptian scrolls he had purchased in Kirtland and the unfinished translation of Abraham’s writings.3 The new scripture taught that God had sent His children to earth to test their faithfulness and willingness to obey His commandments.
“We will prove them herewith,” the Savior had declared before the creation of the earth, “to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them.” Those who were obedient to His commandments would be exalted to greater glory. Those who chose not to obey God lost these eternal blessings.4
Joseph wanted to help the Saints learn these truths so they could progress toward exaltation and enter into God’s presence. In Kirtland, the endowment of power had fortified many men for the rigors of the mission field. But God had promised to bestow a greater spiritual endowment in the Nauvoo temple. By revealing additional ordinances and knowledge to faithful men and women of the church, the Lord would make them kings and queens, priests and priestesses, as John the Revelator had prophesied in the New Testament.5
Joseph urged the Twelve and other trusted friends to be obedient to the Lord as he prepared them to receive this endowment of divine power. He also taught the principle of plural marriage to a few more Saints and testified of its divine origin. The previous summer, less than a week after the apostles returning from England arrived in Nauvoo, he had taught the principle to a few of them and instructed them to obey it as a commandment of the Lord.6 While plural marriage was not necessary for exaltation or the greater endowment of power, obedience to the Lord and a willingness to dedicate one’s life to Him were.
Like Joseph, the apostles at first resisted the new principle. Brigham felt such agony over the decision to marry another wife that he longed for an early grave. Heber Kimball, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff wanted to delay obedience as long as possible.7
Following the Lord’s command, Joseph had also been sealed to other women since his marriage to Louisa Beaman. When teaching a woman about plural marriage, he would instruct her to seek her own spiritual confirmation that being sealed to him was right. Not every woman accepted his invitation, but several did.8
In Nauvoo, some Saints entered plural marriages for time and eternity, which meant their sealing would last through this life and the next. Like monogamous marriages, these marriages could involve sexual relations and having children. Other plural marriages were for eternity only, and the participants understood that their sealing would take effect in the next life.9
In some cases, a woman who was married for time to a disaffected Saint, or to a man who was not a member of the church, or even to a church member in good standing, could be sealed for eternity to another man. After the sealing ceremony, the woman continued to live with her current husband while anticipating the blessings of an eternal marriage and exaltation in the life to come.10
Early in 1842, Joseph proposed such a sealing to Mary Lightner, whose husband, Adam, was not a member of the church. During their discussion, Joseph told Mary that the Lord had commanded them to be sealed together for the next life.11
“If God told you that,” Mary asked, “why does He not tell me?”
“Pray earnestly,” Joseph replied, “for the angel said to me you should have a witness.”12
Joseph’s invitation unsettled Mary. In teaching her about plural marriage, Joseph had described the everlasting blessings of the eternal marriage covenant.13 When Mary had married Adam, they had made promises to each other for this life only. Now she understood that she could not make eternal covenants with him unless he first agreed to be baptized by proper authority.14
Mary spoke to Adam about baptism, pleading with him to join the church. Adam told her that he respected Joseph but he did not believe in the restored gospel and would not be baptized.15
Longing for the blessings of eternal marriage, yet knowing she could not receive them with Adam, Mary wondered what to do. Doubts flooded her mind. Finally, she prayed that the Lord would send an angel to confirm to her that Joseph’s invitation was right.16
One night, while she was staying with her aunt, Mary saw a light appear in her room. Sitting up in bed, she was startled to see an angel, dressed in white, standing beside her. The angel’s face was bright and beautiful, with eyes that pierced her like lightning.
Frightened, Mary threw the covers over her head, and the angel departed.
The following Sunday, Joseph asked Mary if she had received an answer.
“I have not had a witness, but I have seen something I have never seen before,” Mary admitted. “I saw an angel and I was almost frightened to death. I did not speak.”
“That was an angel of the living God,” Joseph said. “If you are faithful you shall see greater things than that.”17
Mary continued to pray. She had seen an angel, which strengthened her faith in Joseph’s words. And she received other spiritual witnesses over the coming days that she could not deny or ignore. Adam would still be her husband in this life, but she wanted to ensure that she received all the blessings available to her in the life to come.18
She soon accepted Joseph’s invitation, and Brigham Young sealed them together for the next life.19
Under Joseph’s direction, John Taylor and Wilford Woodruff began publishing the prophet’s translation of the book of Abraham in the March 1842 issues of the Times and Seasons. As the Saints read the record, they were thrilled to discover new truths about the creation of the world, the purpose of life, and the eternal destiny of God’s children. They learned that Abraham had possessed a Urim and Thummim and had spoken with the Lord face-to-face. They read that the earth and everything in it had been organized from existing materials to bring about the exaltation of the Father’s spirit children.20
Amid the excitement over the publication of the book of Abraham and the soul-expanding doctrine it taught, the Saints continued making sacrifices to build up their new city and construct the temple.
By this time, Nauvoo had more than a thousand log cabins, with many frame houses and solid brick homes completed or in the works.21 To better organize the city, Joseph had divided it into four units called wards and appointed bishops to preside over them. Each ward was expected to assist with temple building by sending laborers to work on the Lord’s house every tenth day.22
Margaret Cook, an unmarried woman who supported herself as a seamstress in Nauvoo, watched as work on the temple progressed. She had been working for Sarah Kimball, one of the earliest converts to the church, who had married a successful merchant who was not a Latter-day Saint.
As Margaret worked, she and Sarah sometimes talked about efforts to build the temple. The walls were still only a few feet high, but already craftsmen had built a temporary space in the temple’s basement and installed a large font for baptisms for the dead. The font was an oval pool of expertly shaped pine boards sitting on the backs of twelve hand-carved oxen and finished with fine moldings. Once the font was dedicated, the Saints had begun performing baptisms for the dead again.23
Eager to contribute to the temple herself, Margaret noticed that many workers lacked adequate shoes, trousers, and shirts. She suggested to Sarah that they work together to provide new shirts for the workers. Sarah said she could supply the materials for the shirts if Margaret did the sewing. They could also enlist the help of other women in Nauvoo and organize a society to direct the work.24
A short time later, Sarah invited about a dozen women to her home to discuss the new society. They asked Eliza Snow, who was known for her writing talents, to draft a constitution. Eliza went to work immediately on the document and showed it to the prophet when she finished.
Joseph said it was the best constitution of its kind. “But this is not what you want,” he said. “Tell the sisters their offering is accepted of the Lord and He has something better for them.” He asked the society to meet with him in a few days at his store.
The following Thursday, March 17, 1842, Emma Smith climbed the steps to the large room above Joseph’s store. Nineteen other women, including Margaret Cook, Sarah Kimball, and Eliza Snow, had come to organize the new society. Joseph was also there with Willard Richards, who had begun working as Joseph’s scribe after returning from England, and John Taylor.27
The youngest woman in attendance was fifteen-year-old Sophia Marks. The oldest, Sarah Cleveland, was fifty-four. Most of the women were about Emma’s age. Aside from Leonora Taylor, who was born in England, the women were all from the eastern United States and had come west with the Saints. A few of them, like Sarah Kimball and Sarah Cleveland, were well-off, while others owned little more than the dresses they wore.
The women knew each other well. Philinda Merrick and Desdemona Fullmer had survived the massacre at Hawn’s Mill. Athalia Robinson and Nancy Rigdon were sisters. Emma Smith and Bathsheba Smith were cousins by marriage, as were Eliza Snow and Sophia Packard. Both Sarah Cleveland and Ann Whitney had helped Emma at difficult times in her life, taking her and her family into their homes when they had nowhere else to go. Elvira Cowles boarded in Emma’s home and helped care for her children.28
Emma liked the idea of starting a society for women in Nauvoo. Lately, Joseph and other men in town had entered into a centuries-old fraternal society called Freemasonry, after longtime Masons like Hyrum Smith and John Bennett had helped to organize a Masonic lodge in the city. But the women in Nauvoo would have a different kind of society.29
After everyone sang “The Spirit of God” and John Taylor offered a prayer, Joseph stood and explained that the new society was to encourage women to seek out and care for the needy, offer righteous correction to those in error, and strengthen the community. He then invited the women to choose a president, who would select two counselors, just as in priesthood quorums. For the first time, women would have official authority and responsibilities in the church.30
Emma’s friend Ann Whitney nominated her to be president, and the women in the room unanimously agreed. Emma then appointed Sarah Cleveland and Ann to be her counselors.
Joseph read the revelation he had received for Emma in 1830 and noted that she had been ordained or set apart at that time to expound scriptures and teach the women of the church. The Lord had called her an “elect lady,” Joseph explained, because she was chosen to preside.
John Taylor then ordained Sarah and Ann as counselors to Emma and confirmed Emma in her new calling, blessing her with the strength she needed. After offering additional instructions, Joseph turned the meeting over to her, and John proposed that they decide on a name for the society.
Emma’s counselors recommended that they call it the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, but John suggested the Nauvoo Female Benevolent Society instead, echoing the names of other women’s societies across the country.31
Emma said she preferred “relief” over “benevolent,” but Eliza Snow suggested that “relief” implied an extraordinary response to a great calamity. Wasn’t their society going to focus more on the problems of everyday life?
“We are going to do something extraordinary,” Emma insisted. “When a boat is stuck on the rapids with a multitude of Mormons on board, we shall consider that a loud call for relief. We expect extraordinary occasions and pressing calls.”
Her words settled over the room. “I shall have to concede the point,” John said. “Your arguments are so potent I cannot stand before them.”
Ever attentive to the poetry of words, Eliza recommended a slight change in the name. Instead of the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, she proposed “the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.” The women all agreed.
“Each member should be ambitious to do good,” Emma told them. Above all else, charity should motivate their society. As Paul taught in the New Testament, good works profited them nothing if charity did not abound in their hearts.32
Joseph met frequently with the Relief Society that spring. The organization grew rapidly, adding longtime Saints and newly baptized immigrants to its numbers. By its third meeting, the women hardly had space in Joseph’s store for everyone who wished to attend. Joseph wanted the Relief Society to prepare its members for the endowment of power they would receive in the temple. He taught the women that they must be a select society, standing apart from evil and operating according to the pattern of the ancient priesthood.33
Meanwhile, Joseph was concerned by reports that a few men in Nauvoo were having sexual relations outside of marriage and claiming such behavior was permissible as long as they were kept secret. The seductions, which corrupted the Lord’s teachings on chastity, were spread by men who cared nothing for the commandments. If these men continued unchecked, they could become a serious stumbling block for the Saints.
On March 31, Joseph asked Emma to read a letter to the Relief Society, advising them that church authorities never sanctioned such actions. “We want to put a stop to them,” the letter declared, “for we wish to keep the commandments of God in all things.”34
More than anything, Joseph wanted the Saints to be worthy of the blessings of exaltation. “If you wish to go where God is, you must be like God or possess the principles which God possesses,” he told the Saints that spring. “As far as we degenerate from God, we descend to the devil and lose knowledge, and without knowledge we cannot be saved.”35
He trusted the presidency of the Relief Society to lead the women of the church and to help them nurture such knowledge and righteousness in themselves.
“This society is to get instruction through the order which God has established—through the medium of those appointed to lead,” he declared. “I now turn the key to you in the name of God, and this society shall rejoice, and knowledge and intelligence shall flow down from this time.”36
On May 4, 1842, Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and Willard Richards found the upper room of Joseph’s store transformed. On the wall was a newly painted mural. Small trees and plants stood nearby, suggesting a garden setting. Another part of the room was sectioned off with a rug hung up like a curtain.37
Joseph had invited the three apostles to come to the store that morning for a special meeting. He had invited his brother Hyrum and William Law as well, both members of the First Presidency and two of his closest advisers. Also in attendance were bishops Newel Whitney and George Miller, Nauvoo’s stake president, William Marks, and church leader James Adams.38
For the rest of the afternoon, the prophet introduced an ordinance to the men. Part of it involved washings and anointings, similar to the ordinances given in the Kirtland temple and the ancient Hebrew tabernacle. The men were given a sacred undergarment that covered their bodies and reminded them of their covenants.39
The new ordinance God revealed to Joseph taught exalting truths. It drew upon scriptural accounts of the Creation and the Garden of Eden, including the new account found in the Abraham translation, to guide the men step-by-step through the plan of salvation. Like Abraham and other ancient prophets, they received knowledge that would enable them to return to the presence of God.40 Along the way, the men made covenants to live righteous, chaste lives and dedicate themselves to serving the Lord.41
Joseph called the ordinance the endowment and trusted the men not to reveal the special knowledge they learned that day. Like the endowment of power in Kirtland, the ordinance was sacred and meant for the spiritually minded. Yet it was more than an outpouring of spiritual gifts and divine power on the elders of the church. As soon as the temple was finished, both men and women would be able to receive the ordinance, strengthen their covenant relationship to God, and find greater power and protection in consecrating their lives to the kingdom of God.42
When the ceremony was finished, Joseph gave some instructions to Brigham. “This is not arranged right,” he told the apostle, “but we have done the best we could under the circumstances in which we are placed, and I wish you to take this matter in hand and organize and systematize all these ceremonies.”43
As they left the store that day, the men were in awe of the truths they had learned from the endowment. Some aspects of the ordinance reminded Heber Kimball of Masonic ceremonies. In Freemasonry meetings, men acted out an allegorical story about the architect of Solomon’s temple. Masons learned gestures and words they pledged to keep secret, all of which symbolized that they were building a solid foundation and adding light and knowledge to it by degrees.44
Yet the endowment was a priesthood ordinance meant for men and women, and it taught sacred truths not contained in Masonry, which Heber was eager for others to learn.
“We have received some precious things through the prophet on the priesthood that would cause your soul to rejoice,” Heber wrote Parley and Mary Ann Pratt in England. “I cannot give them to you on paper, for they are not to be written, so you must come and get them for yourself.”45