“Word and Will of the Lord,” chapter 3 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 3: “Word and Will of the Lord”
Wilford and Phebe Woodruff arrived at the Missouri River with their children in early July 1846. Unable to persuade his sister and brother-in-law to follow the apostles instead of James Strang, Wilford had left Nauvoo soon after the temple dedication with his parents and other Saints.
Their arrival in camp coincided with the departure of William Hendricks and the other army recruits. Named the Mormon Battalion, they numbered more than five hundred men. The battalion employed twenty women as laundresses. Other women also accompanied their husbands on the march, and some brought along their children. In total, more than thirty women traveled with the battalion.1
Wilford was at first suspicious of the government’s effort to recruit Latter-day Saint men. But he soon changed his mind, especially after Thomas Kane visited the camp. Though Thomas was only mildly curious about the restored gospel, he had been instrumental in persuading the government to assist the Church. He cared deeply about fighting injustice, and he was genuinely eager to help the Saints in their dire circumstances.
Thomas impressed the apostles immediately. “From the information we received from him,” Wilford noted in his journal, “we were convinced that God had begun to move upon the heart of the president and others in this nation.”2
Three days before the battalion marched off, Brigham Young spoke to its officers. He counseled them to keep their bodies clean, to be chaste, and to wear their temple garments if they had received the endowment. He told them to behave honorably toward the Mexicans and not to dispute with them. “Treat prisoners with the greatest civility,” he said, “and never take life, if it can be avoided.”
Brigham assured the men that they would have no fighting to do, however. He urged them to perform their duties without murmuring, pray daily, and take their scriptures.3
After the battalion departed, Brigham turned again to the next stage of the Saints’ journey. Cooperating with the United States had allowed him to secure permission to establish a winter camp on Indian lands west of the Missouri River. He now planned to winter the Saints at a place called Grand Island, two hundred miles west, and from there send the advance company over the Rocky Mountains.4
As the apostles counseled together, Wilford spoke of other important Church matters that needed their immediate attention. Reuben Hedlock, the man he had appointed to preside over the British mission, had alienated many British Saints by squandering funds they had consecrated for emigration. Wilford foresaw problems within the mission, including the loss of many new converts, until Reuben was released and replaced by more responsible leadership.5
The quorum also knew that impoverished Saints were still in Nauvoo at the mercy of mobs and false prophets. If the apostles did not do more to help these Saints, as they had promised to do in the temple at the October conference, then the quorum would be breaking a solemn covenant with the Saints and the Lord.6
Acting decisively, the quorum resolved to send three of the apostles in camp—Parley Pratt, Orson Hyde, and John Taylor—to England to lead the British mission. They then sent wagons, teams, and supplies back to Nauvoo to evacuate the poor.7
As the quorum sent men and provisions east, Brigham realized his plan to push farther west that year was no longer possible, especially since the battalion had reduced the number of able-bodied men in camp. Thomas Kane recommended building their winter camp at the Missouri River, and Brigham ultimately agreed.8
On August 9, 1846, the apostles announced that the Saints would spend the winter in a temporary settlement just west of the river. Brigham wanted to go over the Rocky Mountains and build a temple as soon as possible. But before then, he would gather the Saints together and look after the poor.9
Around this time, fog enveloped the Brooklyn as it sailed into San Francisco Bay, six weary months after leaving New York Harbor. Standing on the ship’s deck, Sam Brannan peered through the haze and glimpsed a rugged shoreline. Just inside the bay, he saw a crumbling Mexican fort. Flapping in the breeze above it was the American flag.10
Sam had feared something like this would happen. The flag was a sure sign the United States had seized San Francisco from Mexico. He had learned about the war with Mexico when the Brooklyn anchored at the Hawaiian Islands. There the commander of an American warship said the Saints would be expected to assist the U.S. military in capturing California from the Mexicans. The news angered the Saints, who had not traveled west to fight for a nation that had rejected them.11
As they sailed farther into the bay, Sam could see trees along the sandy shoreline and a few wandering animals. In the distance, tucked between some hills, lay Yerba Buena, an old Spanish town.
The Brooklyn docked in the harbor, and the Saints disembarked later that afternoon. They pitched tents in the hills outside of Yerba Buena or found shelter in abandoned homes and an old military barracks nearby. Using materials they had brought from New York, the Saints set up mills and a printing shop. A few of them also found work among the town’s settlers.12
Although disappointed that the California coast now belonged to the United States, Sam was determined to establish the kingdom of God there. He sent a group of men to a valley several days’ journey east of the bay to found a settlement called New Hope. There they built a sawmill and a cabin, then cleared the land and sowed acres of wheat and other crops.
Sam wanted to take some men east to find Brigham and lead the rest of the Saints to California as soon as the snow melted off the mountains the following year. Enamored by the healthy climate, fertile soil, and good harbor, he believed the Lord’s people could not ask for a better gathering place.13
That summer, Louisa Pratt and her daughters camped at the Mount Pisgah way station on the Iowa trail. The place was beautiful, but the water was tepid and foul tasting. Sickness soon overran the settlement, and many Saints died. Louisa’s family escaped in early August in good health, but they felt awful about leaving so many sick friends behind.
Louisa’s company camped a short time later beside a mosquito-infested creek, and soon she and others were running fevers. The company stopped to rest and then pushed on to the Missouri River, where a long line of wagons waited to be ferried across. When it was finally Louisa’s turn, something frightened the cattle, causing great confusion on the ferry and aggravating Louisa’s illness.
On the other side of the river, Louisa’s fever soared, robbing her of sleep. Around midnight, her groans awoke the ferryman’s wife, who found her in terrible condition. The woman quickly directed Louisa’s daughters to make a separate bed for themselves so their mother could get some rest. She then gave Louisa warm coffee and some food to revive her.14
The next day, the company rolled into the Saints’ new settlement, Winter Quarters, the largest of several settlements of Saints along the Missouri River. About twenty-five hundred people lived in Winter Quarters on land shared by the Omahas and other local Indian tribes.15 Most of the Saints occupied cabins made from logs or sod, but some lived in tents, wagons, or cave-like dwellings called dugouts.16
The women of Winter Quarters immediately surrounded Louisa, anxious to help her. They gave her brandy and sugar as medicine, which at first made her feel better. But soon her fever worsened, and she began to shake violently. Afraid she was dying, she cried to the Lord for mercy.17
Some of the women who attended to Louisa anointed her with oil, laid their hands on her, and blessed her by the power of their faith. In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith had taught the Relief Society that healing was a gift of the Spirit, a sign that followed all believers in Christ.18 The blessing comforted Louisa, giving her strength to endure her sickness, and she soon hired a nurse to care for her until her fever broke.
She also paid a man five dollars to build her a cabin of sod and willow brush. The cabin had only a blanket for a door, but it was well lit and large enough for her to sit in a rocking chair beside her fireplace while she recovered her strength.19
At Winter Quarters, the Saints plowed and planted fields, built mills beside a nearby stream, and established stores and shops. The settlement was laid out in city blocks similar to the Lord’s pattern for the city of Zion, as revealed to Joseph Smith in 1833. North of town, Brigham, Heber Kimball, and Willard Richards built homes close to a small council house where the Quorum of the Twelve and the newly called Winter Quarters high council met. Near the center of town was a public square for preaching and other community meetings.20
The trek through Iowa had worn down many Saints, and keeping their families fed, clothed, and sheltered continued to sap their strength.21 Also, flies and mosquitoes from the muddy riverbank often swarmed the new settlement, and malarial aches and chills harassed Saints for days and weeks at a time.22
During these trials, most Saints obeyed the commandments. But some stole, cheated, criticized the apostles’ leadership, and refused to pay tithing. Brigham had little patience for this behavior. “Men get led away by degrees,” he declared, “until the devil gets possession of their tabernacle and they are led captive at the will of the devil.”23
To encourage righteousness, Brigham admonished the Saints to work together, keep covenants, and avoid sin. “We cannot be sanctified all at once,” he said, “but have to be tried and placed in all kinds of shapes and proven to the utmost to see whether we will serve the Lord unto the end.”24
He also organized them into small wards, appointed bishops, and instructed the high council to uphold a firm code of conduct. Some Saints also gathered into special adoptive families. At this time, Saints were not sealed to their deceased parents if their parents had not joined the Church in this life. Before leaving Nauvoo, Brigham had therefore encouraged around two hundred Saints to be sealed, or spiritually adopted, as sons and daughters into the families of Church leaders who were friends or mentors in the gospel.
These adoption sealings were performed through an ordinance in the temple. Adoptive parents often offered temporal and emotional support, while adoptive sons and daughters, some of whom had no other family in the Church, often responded with faithfulness and devotion.25
Some of the challenges at Winter Quarters and other temporary settlements were impossible to avoid. By the time cold weather set in, over nine thousand Saints lived in the area, including thirty-five hundred who lived in Winter Quarters. Accidents, sickness, and death plagued every settlement. Malaria, tuberculosis, scurvy, and other illnesses claimed about one person in ten. About half of the deceased were infants and children.26
Wilford Woodruff’s family suffered along with the others. In October, while Wilford cut timber, a falling tree struck him and broke some of his ribs. Soon after, his little son Joseph caught a severe cold. Wilford and Phebe attended to the boy constantly, but nothing they did helped, and soon they buried his body in the settlement’s newly plotted cemetery.
Some weeks after Joseph’s death, Phebe delivered a baby prematurely, and the child died two days later. One evening, Wilford came home and found Phebe distraught, looking at a portrait of herself holding Joseph. Losing the children pained them both, and Wilford longed for when the Saints would find a home, live in peace, and enjoy the blessings and safety of Zion.
“I pray my Heavenly Father to lengthen out my days,” he wrote in his journal, “to behold the house of God stand upon the tops of the mountains and to see the standard of liberty reared up as an ensign to the nations.”27
Amid the suffering in Winter Quarters, Brigham received word that a mob of about a thousand men had attacked the small community of Saints still in Nauvoo. About two hundred Saints fought back, but they were defeated in battle after a few days. City leaders negotiated for a peaceful evacuation of the Saints, many of whom were poor and sick. But as the Saints left the city, the mob harassed them and ransacked their homes and wagons. A mob seized the temple, desecrated its interior, and mocked the Saints as they fled to camps on the other side of the river.28
When Brigham learned about the desperation of the refugees, he dispatched a letter to Church leaders, reminding them of the covenant they had made in Nauvoo to help the poor and assist every Saint who wanted to come west.
“The poor brethren and sisters, widows and orphans, sick and destitute, are now lying on the west bank of the Mississippi,” he declared. “Now is the time for labor. Let the fire of the covenant, which you made in the house of the Lord, burn in your hearts, like flame unquenchable.”29
Though they had sent twenty relief wagons to Nauvoo two weeks earlier and had little food and few supplies to spare, the Saints at Winter Quarters and neighboring settlements sent additional wagons, ox teams, food, and other supplies back to Nauvoo. Newel Whitney, the presiding bishop of the Church, also purchased flour for the impoverished Saints.30
When relief parties found the refugees, many of the Saints there were feverish, ill-equipped for cold weather, and desperately hungry. On October 9, as they prepared to make the journey to the Missouri River, the Saints watched as a flock of quail filled the sky and landed on and around their wagons. Men and boys scrambled after the birds, catching them with their hands. Many recalled how God had also sent Moses and the children of Israel quail in their time of need.
“This morning we had a direct manifestation of the mercy and goodness of God,” wrote Thomas Bullock, a Church clerk, in his journal. “The brethren and sisters praised God and glorified His name that what was showered down upon the children of Israel in the wilderness is manifested unto us in our persecution.”
“Every man, woman, and child had quails to eat for their dinner,” Thomas wrote.31
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away on the Anaa atoll in the Pacific Ocean, an Aaronic Priesthood holder named Tamanehune addressed a conference of more than eight hundred Latter-day Saints. “A letter should be sent to the Church in America,” he proposed, “requesting them to send out here immediately from five to one hundred elders.” Ariipaea, a member of the Church and a local village leader, seconded the proposal, and the South Pacific Saints raised their hands in assent.32
Presiding at the conference, Addison Pratt agreed wholeheartedly with Tamanehune. Over the last three years, Addison and Benjamin Grouard had baptized more than a thousand people. But in that time they had received only one letter from any of the Twelve, and it had given no instructions for returning home.33
In the six months since that letter had arrived, the two missionaries had heard nothing else from family, friends, or Church leaders. Whenever a newspaper came to the island, they scoured its pages for news about the Saints. One paper they read claimed that half the Saints in Nauvoo had been slaughtered while the rest had been forced to flee to California.34
Anxious to learn the fate of Louisa and his daughters, Addison decided to return to the United States. “To know the truth, even if it is bad,” he told himself, “is better than to remain in doubt and anxiety.”35
Addison’s friends Nabota and Telii, the husband and wife who had served with him on Anaa, decided to return to Tubuai, where Telii was beloved as a spiritual teacher among her fellow women of the Church. Benjamin planned to remain on the islands to lead the mission.36
When the Pacific Saints learned of Addison’s coming departure, they urged him to return quickly and bring more missionaries with him. Since Addison already planned to return to the islands with Louisa and his daughters, provided they were still alive, he readily agreed.37
A ship arrived at the island a month later, and Addison sailed with Nabota and Telii for Papeete, Tahiti, where he hoped to catch a ship to Hawaii and then California. When they arrived in Tahiti, he learned to his dismay that a package of letters from Louisa, Brigham Young, and the Brooklyn Saints had just been forwarded from the island to Anaa.
“I thought that I had got case-hardened to disappointments,” he lamented in his journal, “but this made impressions on my mind that I had heretofore been a stranger to.”38
As colder weather settled over Winter Quarters, Brigham prayed often to know how to prepare the Church for the journey beyond the Rocky Mountains. After almost a year on the trail, he had learned that organizing and equipping the Saints for the road ahead was vital to their success. Yet setback after setback had also shown him how important it was to rely on the Lord and follow His direction. As in the days of Joseph, only the Lord could direct His Church.
Soon after the start of a new year, Brigham felt the Lord open his mind to new light and knowledge. In a meeting with the high council and the Twelve on January 14, 1847, he began recording a revelation from the Lord to the Saints. Before Brigham went to bed, the Lord gave him further instructions for the coming journey. Taking out the unfinished revelation, Brigham continued recording the Lord’s directions for the Saints.39
The next day, Brigham presented the revelation to the Twelve. Called the “Word and Will of the Lord,” it emphasized the need to organize the Saints into companies under the leadership of the apostles. In the revelation, the Lord commanded the Saints to provide for their own needs as well as work together on their journey, looking after widows, orphans, and the families of Mormon Battalion members.
“Let every man use all his influence and property to remove this people to the place where the Lord shall locate a stake of Zion,” the revelation directed. “If ye do this with a pure heart, in all faithfulness, ye shall be blessed.”40
The Lord also commanded His people to repent and humble themselves, treat each other kindly, and cease drunkenness and evil-speaking. His words were presented as a covenant, directing the Saints to “walk in all the ordinances,” keeping the promises made in the Nauvoo temple.41
“I am the Lord your God, even the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob,” He declared. “I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; and my arm is stretched out in the last days.”
Like the ancient Israelites, the Saints were to praise the Lord and call on His name in times of distress. They were to sing and dance with a prayer of thanksgiving in their hearts. They were not to fear the future but to trust in Him and bear their afflictions.
“My people must be tried in all things,” the Lord declared, “that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion.”42
The apostles presented the new revelation to the Saints at Winter Quarters a few days later, and many rejoiced when they heard it. “The Lord has once more remembered His servants and favored them with a revelation of His will,” one woman wrote to her husband in England. “Peace and unity reign in our midst,” she exclaimed, “and the Spirit of God is prevalent amongst us.”43
But some problems persisted in Winter Quarters. Brigham observed that a few Saints were urging friends to be spiritually adopted into their families, believing their eternal glory depended on the number of people sealed to them. Jealousy and competition rose as they argued over who would have the biggest family in heaven. The contention left Brigham wondering if any of them would make it there at all.44
In February, while speaking on the practice of spiritual adoption, Brigham admitted that he still did not know much about it. He deeply loved the dozens of Saints who had been adopted through the ordinance into his family. He nevertheless felt unschooled in this practice and wondered about what it meant.45
“I will attain to more knowledge on the subject,” he promised the Saints, “and consequently will be enabled to teach and practice more.”46
The next day, he felt sick and lay down to rest. As he slept, he dreamed that he saw Joseph Smith sitting in a chair in front of a large window. Taking Joseph’s right hand, Brigham asked his friend why he could not be with the Saints.
“It is all right,” Joseph said, rising from his chair.
“The brethren have great anxiety to understand the law of adoption or sealing principles,” Brigham said. “If you have a word of counsel for me, I should be glad to receive it.”
“Tell the people to be humble and faithful and sure to keep the Spirit of the Lord,” Joseph said. “If they will, they will find themselves just as they were organized by our Father in Heaven before they came into the world.”
Brigham awoke with Joseph’s words echoing in his mind: “Tell the people to be sure to keep the Spirit of the Lord and follow it, and it would lead them just right.”47 The counsel did not answer his questions about adoption sealings, but it reminded him to obey the Spirit so that he and the Saints could be guided to greater understanding.
For the rest of the winter, the apostles continued to seek revelation as they prepared to send wagon companies over the Rocky Mountains. Under their leadership, a small advance company would leave Winter Quarters in the spring, cross the mountains, and establish the new gathering place for the Saints. To obey the Lord’s command and fulfill prophecy, they would raise an ensign to the nations and begin work on a temple. Larger companies, made up mainly of families, would soon follow them, obeying the Word and Will of the Lord on their journey.48
Before leaving Nauvoo, the Quorum of the Twelve and the Council of Fifty had contemplated settling in the Salt Lake Valley or the Bear River Valley to the north. Both valleys were on the far side of the Rocky Mountains, and descriptions of them were promising.49 Brigham had seen in a vision the spot where the Saints would settle, but he had only a general sense of where to find it. Still, he prayed that God would direct him and the advance company to the right gathering place for the Church.50
The advance company was composed of 143 men selected by the apostles. Harriet Young, the wife of Brigham’s brother Lorenzo, asked if she and her two young sons could accompany Lorenzo on the journey. Brigham then asked his wife Clara, who was Harriet’s daughter from her first marriage, to join the company as well. Heber Kimball’s plural wife Ellen, an immigrant from Norway, also joined the company.51
Just as the advance company was preparing to leave, Parley Pratt and John Taylor returned to Winter Quarters from their mission to England. Along with Orson Hyde, who was still overseeing the Church in Britain, they had appointed new mission leaders and restored order among the Saints. Now, believing they had been away from their families for too long, Parley and John declined Brigham’s entreaties to join the rest of the quorum on the trek west. Brigham therefore left them in charge of Winter Quarters.52
On the afternoon of April 16, 1847, the advance company began their journey under cold and gloomy skies. “We mean to open up the way for the salvation of the honest in heart from all nations, or sacrifice everything in our stewardship,” the apostles declared in a farewell letter to the Saints at Winter Quarters. “In the name of Israel’s God, we mean to conquer or die trying.”53