Church History
5 Bowed Down to the Grave

“Bowed Down to the Grave,” chapter 5 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 5: “Bowed Down to the Grave”

Chapter 5

Bowed Down to the Grave

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In the summer of 1847, Jane Manning James traveled west with her husband, Isaac, and two sons, Sylvester and Silas, in a large caravan of about 1,500 Saints. Apostles Parley Pratt and John Taylor led the caravan with the help of several captains who oversaw companies of about 150 to 200 Saints. Parley and John had organized the caravan in late spring after deciding to modify the Quorum of the Twelve’s original migration plan.

The caravan had left Winter Quarters in mid-June, about two months after the advance company’s departure.1 Though only in her twenties, Jane was used to long overland journeys. After being denied passage on a canal boat in 1843, likely because of the color of their skin, she and a small group of black Latter-day Saints had walked almost eight hundred miles from western New York to Nauvoo. Later, Jane and Isaac had walked across the muddy prairies of Iowa with the Camp of Israel. For most of that time, Jane had been pregnant with her son Silas, who was born along the trail.2

Overland travel was rarely exciting. Days were long and tiring. The landscape of the plains was generally dull, unless an unusual rock formation or a buffalo herd came into view. Once, while traveling along the bank of the North Platte River, Jane’s company was startled when a herd of buffalo charged at them. The company drew their wagons and cattle together while some men shouted and cracked whips at the stampede. Just before trampling the company, the herd divided down the middle, with some buffalo moving to the right while others moved to the left. In the end no one was harmed.3

Jane, Isaac, and their children were the only black Saints in their company of almost 190 people. Yet there were some other black Saints living in wards and branches throughout the Church. Elijah Able, a seventy who had served a mission to New York and Canada, attended a midwestern branch with his wife, Mary Ann. Another man, Walker Lewis, whom Brigham Young had described as “one of the best elders” in the Church, attended a branch on the East Coast with his family.4

Many Church members opposed slavery, and Joseph Smith had run for United States president on a platform that included a plan to end the institution. The Church’s missionary efforts, however, had led to the baptisms of some slaveholders and some slaves. Among the enslaved Saints were three members of the advance company—Green Flake, Hark Lay, and Oscar Crosby.5

In 1833, the Lord had declared that it was “not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.” But after the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, partly because some of them opposed slavery and showed sympathy for free blacks, Church leaders had cautioned missionaries against stirring up tension between enslaved people and slaveholders. Slavery was one of the most intensely debated issues in the United States at the time, and for many years it had divided churches as well as the country.6

Having lived all her life in the northern United States, where slavery was illegal, Jane had never been enslaved. She had worked in the homes of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and knew that white Saints generally accepted black people into the fold.7 Like other groups of Christians at this time, however, many white Saints wrongly viewed black people as inferior, believing that black skin was the result of God’s curse on the biblical figures Cain and Ham.8 Some had even begun to teach the false idea that black skin was evidence of a person’s unrighteous actions in the premortal life.9

Brigham Young shared some of these views, but before leaving Winter Quarters, he had also told a mixed-race Saint that all people were alike unto God. “Of one blood has God made all flesh,” he had said. “We don’t care about the color.”10

Establishing Zion beyond the Rocky Mountains granted the Saints an opportunity to create a new society where Jane, her family, and others like them could be welcomed as fellow citizens as well as Saints.11 But prejudices ran deep, and change seemed unlikely in the near future.

On August 26, Wilford Woodruff rode his horse through rows of corn and potatoes to the foothills overlooking the Salt Lake Valley. From there he could see the beginning of a great settlement. In a month’s time, he and the advance company had begun building a sturdy fort, planted acres of crops, and drawn up plans for the new gathering place. At the center of the settlement, on the spot where Brigham had thrust his cane into the earth, was a square patch of ground they now called the “temple block.”12

Wilford’s first days in the valley had been full of wonder. A herd of antelope grazed on the west side of the valley. Flocks of mountain goats played in the hills. Wilford and the other pioneers had discovered sulfurous hot springs near Ensign Peak. At the Great Salt Lake, the men had floated and rolled like logs on the warm, briny water, trying in vain to sink beneath its surface.13

Four days after arriving in the valley, Wilford had been riding alone several miles from camp when he saw twenty American Indians on a ridge ahead of him. In coming west, the Saints knew they would encounter Native peoples along the trail and in the Great Basin. Yet they had expected to find the Salt Lake Valley largely unoccupied. In reality, the Shoshones, the Utes, and a few other tribes often came to the valley to hunt and gather food.

Cautiously turning his horse around, Wilford started back to camp at a slow trot. One of the Indians galloped after him, and when only a hundred yards separated them, Wilford halted his horse, turned to face the rider, and tried to communicate with improvised sign language. The man was friendly, and Wilford learned that he was a Ute who wanted peace and commerce with the Saints. Since then, the Saints had made additional contact with Indians, including the Shoshones from the north.14

Now, with cold weather only weeks away, Wilford, Brigham, Heber Kimball, and some other members of the advance company planned to return to their families in Winter Quarters and bring them west in the spring. “I wish to God we had not got to return,” Heber had said. “This is a paradise to me. It’s one of the most lovely places I ever beheld.”15

Not everyone agreed with him about the valley. Despite its streams and grassy fields, the new settlement was drier and more desolate than any place the Saints had ever gathered. From the moment he arrived, Sam Brannan had pleaded with Brigham to continue on to the green fields and fertile soil of the California coast.16

“I am going to stop right here,” Brigham had told Sam. “I am going to build a city here. I am going to build a temple here.” He knew the Lord wanted the Saints to settle in the Salt Lake Valley, far from other western U.S. settlements, where he was sure other emigrants would soon take up residence. Brigham appointed Sam to serve as president over the Church in California, however, and sent him back to San Francisco Bay with a letter for the Saints.17

“If you choose to tarry where you are, you are at liberty to do so,” Brigham noted in his letter. Yet he invited them to join the Saints in the mountains. “We wish to make this a stronghold, a rallying point, a more immediate gathering place than any other,” he told them. California, on the other hand, was to be a way station for Saints headed to the valley.18

For his part, Wilford had never seen a better site for a city than the Salt Lake Valley, and he was eager for more Saints to arrive. He and the Twelve had spent all winter planning an orderly migration—one that provided a way for all Saints, regardless of position or wealth, to make it to the valley. The time had now come for the plan to unfold for the benefit of Zion.19

When Addison Pratt left Tahiti in March 1847, he had hoped to find his family in California with the rest of the Saints. Yet having received no word from them—or anyone in the Church—in the last year, he did not know if they would actually be there. “To reflect that I am now on my way to them is a pleasant thought,” he wrote in his journal. “But the next thought that arises is: Where are they? Or where am I to find them?”20

Addison arrived at San Francisco Bay in June. There he found the Brooklyn Saints awaiting the return of Sam Brannan and the arrival of the main body of the Church. Believing Louisa and their children were on their way to the coast, Addison volunteered to go to the Saints’ settlement, New Hope, with four other men to harvest the Church’s wheat.

The group left a short time later in a boat. New Hope lay more than a hundred miles inland on a tributary of the San Joaquin River. For days, the men sailed along low marshy country with tall bulrushes by the riverbanks. Nearer the settlement, the ground hardened, and they traveled the rest of the way on foot over grassy prairies.

The site for New Hope was beautiful, but a nearby river had flooded a short time before, washing out some of the Saints’ wheat and leaving behind pools of stagnant water. At night, as Addison lay down to sleep, swarms of mosquitoes besieged the settlement. Addison and the others tried to beat them away or smoke them out, but with no success. And to make matters worse, coyotes and owls howled and hooted until daybreak, robbing the tired settlers of peace and quiet.21

The wheat harvest started the next morning. But Addison’s sleepless night caught up with him by noon, and he napped beneath the shade of a tree. This became an everyday routine as mosquitoes and the din of wild animals kept him awake night after night. When the harvest was over, Addison was happy to go.

“Had it not have been for the mosquitoes,” he wrote in his journal, “I should have enjoyed myself well there.”22

Back at San Francisco Bay, Addison began preparing a home for his family. By then, some members of the Mormon Battalion had arrived in California and received an honorable release. Sam Brannan also returned to the bay, still convinced that Brigham was foolish to settle in the Salt Lake Valley. “When he has fairly tried it,” he told some battalion veterans, “he will find that I was right and he was wrong.”

Sam delivered Brigham’s letter to the Saints in California, however, and many of those who had sailed on the Brooklyn or marched with the Mormon Battalion decided to emigrate to the Salt Lake Valley in the spring. Sam also had a letter for Addison from Louisa. She was still in Winter Quarters, but she too planned to come to the valley in the spring and settle with the body of the Saints.

Addison’s plans changed immediately. Come spring, he would head east with the departing Saints and meet up with his family.23

Brigham Young was still feeling sick in late August when he and the return company left the Salt Lake Valley for their trip back to Winter Quarters. Over the next three days, the small company traveled rapidly through dusty canyons and over steep Rocky Mountain passes.24 When they arrived on the other side, Brigham was glad to learn that Parley Pratt and John Taylor’s large caravan of Saints was only a few hundred miles away.

Brigham’s joy vanished a short time later, however, when he learned that the caravan was four hundred wagons larger than he had anticipated. The Twelve had spent all winter organizing Saints into companies according to the revealed will of the Lord. Now it appeared that Parley and John had disregarded that revelation and acted of their own accord.25

A few days later, Brigham and the return company met up with the caravan. Parley was in one of the lead companies, so Brigham quickly called a council with Church leaders to ask him why he and John had disobeyed the quorum’s instructions.26

“If I’ve done anything wrong, I am willing to right it,” Parley told the council. But he insisted that he and John had acted within their authority as apostles. Hundreds of Saints had died that year in Winter Quarters and other settlements along the Missouri River. And many families had been desperate to leave the area before another deadly season set in. Since some Saints in the companies the Twelve had organized were not yet prepared to leave, he and John had chosen to form new companies to accommodate those who were ready.27

“Our companies were perfectly organized,” Brigham countered, “and if they could not get through, we were responsible to them.” The Word and Will of the Lord had clearly directed each company to “bear an equal proportion” of the poor and the families of the men serving in the Mormon Battalion. Yet Parley and John had left many of these people behind.28

Brigham also disagreed that two apostles could overturn the decision of the quorum. “If the Quorum of the Twelve do a thing, it is not in the power of two of them to rip it up,” he said. “When we got the machine moving, it was not your business to stick your hands among the cogs to stop the wheel.”29

“I’ve done the best I could,” Parley said. “You say I could have done better, and if I am to take blame in it, and say I’ve done wrong—I’ve done wrong. I am guilty of an error and am sorry for it.”

“I forgive you,” Brigham replied. “And if I don’t do right,” he added, “I want every man so to live in the sunshine of glory to correct me when I’m wrong. I feel bowed down to the grave with the burden of this great people.”30

Brigham’s weariness was evident in his face and gaunt frame. “I look upon myself as a weak, poor little man. I was called by the providence of God to preside,” he said. “I want you to go right into the celestial kingdom with me.”

“I want to know if the brethren are satisfied with me,” Parley said.

“God bless you forever and ever,” Brigham said. “Don’t think any more about it.”31

Drusilla Hendricks and her family were camped farther down the wagon train when Brigham and his group arrived. While most of the families of Mormon Battalion members were still in Winter Quarters, the Hendrickses and some others had gathered enough resources to join those going west. More than a year had passed since Drusilla watched her son William march away with the battalion, and she was anxious to reunite with him in the valley—or sooner.32

Already Drusilla’s company had encountered returning battalion soldiers along the trail. The faces of many Saints, anxious to see their loved ones, brightened hopefully when they saw the troops. Sadly, William was not among them.

They saw more battalion soldiers a month later. These men captivated the Saints with descriptions of the Great Basin and let them taste salt they had brought with them from the Great Salt Lake. But William was not with this group either.33

Over the next several weeks, Drusilla and her family labored over mountain trails, crossed rivers and streams, climbed steep hills, and navigated canyons. Their hands, hair, and faces became caked with dust and grime. Their clothes, already threadbare and tattered from the long journey, offered little protection from the sun, rain, and dirt. When they reached the valley in early October, some in their company were too ill or exhausted to celebrate.34

More than a week passed after Drusilla and her family arrived in the valley, and still they had no news about William. After the battalion arrived at the California coast, some veterans had stayed behind to work and earn money while others headed east to the Salt Lake Valley or Winter Quarters. For all Drusilla knew, William could be anywhere between the Pacific Ocean and the Missouri River.35

With winter approaching, Drusilla and her family had almost no warm clothing, little food, and no way to build a house. Their situation looked bleak, but she trusted in God that all would work out. One night, Drusilla dreamed of the temple the Saints would build in the valley, as Wilford Woodruff had a few months earlier. Joseph Smith stood on top of it, looking exactly as he had in life. Drusilla called her husband and children to her and said, “There is Joseph.” The prophet spoke with them, and two doves flew down to the family.

Waking from the dream, Drusilla believed the doves represented the Spirit of the Lord, a sign of divine approval of the decisions she and her family had made. She believed that their sacrifices had not gone unnoticed.

Later that day, a group of footsore battalion veterans arrived in the valley. This time, William was among them.36

While the Hendricks family was reuniting in the Salt Lake Valley, the men of Brigham’s return company were still venturing east on the trail. They had been traveling rapidly and were now exhausted and running low on food. Their horses were growing weaker and starting to give out. In the mornings, some animals needed help getting to their feet.37

Amid these difficulties, Brigham remained unsettled about his meeting with Parley.38 Although he had forgiven his fellow apostle and told him to forget the matter, their disagreement revealed a need for clarification—and possibly changes—in how the Church was currently led and organized.

In Joseph’s day, a First Presidency had presided over the Church. After the prophet’s death, however, the First Presidency had been dissolved, leaving the Twelve to preside in its place. According to revelation, the Twelve Apostles formed a quorum equal in authority to the First Presidency. Yet they also had a sacred duty to serve as a traveling council and take the gospel to the world.39 As a quorum, could they adequately fulfill this mandate while still shouldering the duties of the First Presidency?

Brigham had occasionally considered reorganizing the First Presidency, yet he had never thought the time was right. Since leaving the Salt Lake Valley, questions about the future of Church leadership had loomed over him.40 He pondered the matter quietly on the road to Winter Quarters, and more and more he felt the Spirit urging him to act.

One day, while resting beside a river, he turned to Wilford Woodruff and asked if the Church should call members of the Twelve to form a new First Presidency.

Wilford thought it over. Altering the Quorum of the Twelve—a quorum established by revelation—was a serious matter.

“It would require a revelation to change the order of that quorum,” Wilford observed. “Whatever the Lord inspires you to do in this matter, I am with you.”41