Church History
20 Handwriting on the Wall

“Handwriting on the Wall,” chapter 20 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)

Chapter 20: “Handwriting on the Wall”

Chapter 20

Handwriting on the Wall

mule-drawn cart heading down mountain pass

In the summer of 1858, around the time the army passed through Salt Lake City, a schoolteacher named Karl Maeser received a flattering offer from the family of John Tyler, a former president of the United States. For months Karl had been teaching music lessons to the children of John and Julia Tyler at a spacious plantation in the southern United States. A German immigrant, Karl had impressed the Tylers with his good education, gentlemanly manners, and subtle humor. Now they wanted to pay him a salary to live near them and continue teaching their children.1

The offer was almost too generous to refuse. A financial crisis had crippled the economy shortly after Karl and his wife, Anna, arrived from Germany. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs in cities across the United States, Canada, and Europe. For a time, Karl and Anna had struggled to find work and put food on the table. Teaching the Tyler children gave the Maesers and their three-year-old son, Reinhard, some financial stability.2

But Karl did not intend to accept the Tylers’ offer. He had once told Julia Tyler that all he needed to be happy was a little house and a garden for his family. What he had not told her was that he and Anna were Latter-day Saints who had come to the United States to gather to Zion. One reason Karl had sought work in the South, aside from providing for his family, was to make enough money to migrate west.3

Karl had first learned about the Church while living in Germany. After reading a book hostile to the Church and its message, he contacted the leaders of the European mission. Apostle Franklin Richards and a missionary named William Budge soon came to Germany and taught his family the gospel. Karl and Anna accepted it quickly.

Since joining the Church was illegal in Germany, Franklin had baptized the schoolteacher at night. When Karl came out of the water, he had lifted his hands to the sky and prayed, “Father, if what I have done just now is pleasing unto Thee, give me a testimony, and whatever Thou shouldst require of my hands I shall do.”4

Karl did not know English at the time, so he and Franklin had talked through an interpreter. But as they walked back to the city, Karl and Franklin suddenly began to understand each other, as if both were speaking the same language. This manifestation of the gift of tongues was the witness Karl had sought, and he intended to remain true to his word, regardless of the cost.5

Now, three years later, he was still striving to keep the promise he had made at his baptism. Determined to go to Zion, Karl turned down the Tylers’ offer and moved his family to Philadelphia, a large city in the northeastern states, where he was soon called to preside over a small branch of the Church.6

Before the recent crisis in Utah, such branches had played a vital role in supporting missionary work and emigration, defending the Church against critics, and lobbying the government on the Church’s behalf. But after Brigham Young summoned missionaries home and urged eastern Saints to come west, many of the eastern branches lacked enough members or funds to carry on these activities.7

Being a Latter-day Saint could be challenging in the East. The Church’s reputation in the region had plummeted over the last decade. Many people continued to believe the Saints were rebellious and unpatriotic. A Church leader received a death threat in New York City, and some Saints were tarred and feathered for their beliefs. Others kept their membership in the Church quiet to avoid further persecution.8

In Philadelphia, Anna earned money as a seamstress and housekeeper while Karl ministered to branch members, attended regional Church conferences, and helped plan the next emigration season. They did what they could to strengthen their small branch.9 But for the Church to prosper there and throughout the world, the Saints needed to oppose the false ideas and misunderstandings about them that abounded.

And they needed more missionaries to return to the field and continue the work of salvation.

In early September 1858, George Q. Cannon was publishing the Deseret News in a central Utah town called Fillmore. The newspaper was normally headquartered in Salt Lake City, but when the Saints moved south earlier that year, George and his family had packed up the heavy printing equipment and hauled it about 150 miles to Fillmore.10

Now that it was safe to return to Salt Lake City, George decided to bring the printing operation back north. On September 9, he and his younger brother David loaded the printing equipment into wagons and headed back to the city with George’s growing family. George and Elizabeth now had a one-year-old son, John, and another baby on the way. George had also married a second wife, Sarah Jane Jenne, and she too was expecting.

Four days after leaving Fillmore, the Cannons stopped to rest in a town about seventy miles from Salt Lake City. While George was unhitching his teams, a man in a mule-drawn carriage rode up beside him. He was a messenger from Brigham Young and had been searching for George since the night before. He said that Brigham had expected George to be in the city already. The Church was sending missionaries out again, and a company of elders was waiting to leave with George on his mission to the eastern United States.

George was confused. What mission to the East? Within half an hour, he and Elizabeth packed a small suitcase and rushed off to Salt Lake City with John while David followed soon after with Sarah Jane and the printing equipment. George arrived in the city the next morning at five o’clock and went to Brigham’s office immediately after breakfast. Brigham greeted him and asked, “Are you ready?”

“I am,” George said.

Brigham turned to one of the men beside him. “I told you it would be so,” he said. A clerk then handed George instructions for his mission.11

Once again, the Utah territorial legislature was petitioning the United States Congress for statehood and the right to elect or appoint all local government officials. Knowing another statehood petition would fail if public opinion about the Church remained low, Brigham wanted George to go on a special mission to preside over the eastern Saints, publish positive newspaper articles about the Church, and improve its reputation throughout the country.12

George felt the weight of the mission immediately. He had to leave the following day, hardly giving him time to settle his family in the valley. Yet he believed the Lord would provide a way to carry out His will. George’s experiences in Hawaii and California had prepared him for a mission of this size and responsibility. And he knew his siblings and other relatives, including his aunt and uncle Leonora and John Taylor, would be able to help his wives and children.

Brigham blessed George and set him apart as a missionary. George then blessed Elizabeth and John and committed them and Sarah Jane, who was still traveling north, to the care of the Lord. The next afternoon he and a small group of missionaries headed east across the Rocky Mountains.13

Meanwhile, in Sanpete Valley’s Fort Ephraim, Augusta Dorius Stevens finally had most of her family near her. Her sisters-in-law Elen and Karen had followed her father, Nicolai, to Fort Ephraim when the Saints moved south. Augusta’s older brothers Carl and Johan had come a short time later, after being released from guard duty in Salt Lake City. Her younger sister Rebekke also lived in town. Only their mother, Ane Sophie, was still in Denmark and not a member of the Church.14

Since marrying Henry Stevens four years earlier, Augusta had run the household and taken care of Henry’s ailing first wife, Mary Ann, whom she loved dearly.15 At age nineteen, Augusta also became the first president of the Fort Ephraim Female Relief Society. Along with attending to the sick and suffering, she and her Relief Society sisters wove cloth, made quilts, provided food and shelter for the needy, and cared for orphans. When someone in town passed away, they washed and dressed the dead, made burial clothes, comforted mourners, and preserved the body before the funeral with ice from the San Pitch River.16

Shortly before the Dorius family was reunited, Augusta gave birth to a boy named Jason, who died during an epidemic before he was a year old. Despite her grief, Augusta had found a home and certainly comfort within the large community of Scandinavian Saints in Sanpete Valley, who drew on shared customs, traditions, and languages to endure the trials of their new home. While on their missions, her brothers had taught and baptized many of these Saints, which no doubt strengthened her bonds with them.

When Carl and Johan arrived at Fort Ephraim in 1858, they tried their hand at farming, but grasshoppers destroyed their crops. More experienced settlers like Augusta and Henry had suffered similar challenges while farming in Sanpete Valley. The first Saints who came to the area had faced several years of devastating frosts and insect infestations. To survive, they lived together in two forts, worked a common field, and shared irrigation water. When a good crop finally came in, they filled their granaries and stored other food.17

In the summer of 1859, Augusta’s life changed when Brigham Young called several Sanpete families to settle near the old Spring Town settlement, where Augusta had lived briefly when she first came to the valley. Augusta and Henry moved there a short time later. Men surveyed a townsite and 640 acres for farming. The farmland was then surveyed into 5- and 10-acre lots and divided among the families. Soon houses, cabins, and a log meetinghouse graced the new settlement. With so many Danes living in the area, residents nicknamed it Little Denmark.18

After settling in Spring Town, Henry began building a gristmill. While cutting and hauling timber in the mountains that winter, he caught a terrible cold and soon developed a nagging cough. The cough turned into asthma, making it hard for Henry to work. There were no doctors in town, so Augusta tried every remedy she could find to ease Henry’s breathing. Nothing helped.19

About a year after Augusta and Henry moved to Spring Town, the First Presidency called Augusta’s brothers Johan and Carl back to Scandinavia on missions. Since neither brother had means for travel, the Saints in Fort Ephraim and Spring Town provided them with a wagon, a horse, and a mule.20

In the summer of 1860, a few months after the Dorius brothers started on their missions, George Q. Cannon was called home from his mission to the East.21 Over the past two years, he and the Saints’ longtime ally Thomas Kane had published several positive articles about the Church in newspapers and lobbied on behalf of the Church. Working closely with Karl Maeser and other Church leaders, George had also strengthened the Saints in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other eastern branches.22

But public opinion remained staunchly against the Church. A new political party, the Republicans, had recently formed to put an end to slavery and polygamy, denouncing these practices as the “twin relics of barbarism.”23 Republicans linked the two practices because they wrongly assumed that women were coerced into plural marriage with no way to escape. Of the two issues, however, slavery was causing a greater rift in the nation, leading many people, including George, to predict a national calamity.

“No man who loves liberty and free and liberal institutions can witness these things without feeling that the glory of our nation is rapidly fading away,” George wrote in a letter to Brigham Young. “The destruction of the government of the United States is inevitable. It will be merely a question of time.”24

During his mission, George also received a letter from Brigham about a recent decision of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. In a meeting in October 1859, Brigham had proposed calling a new apostle to replace Parley Pratt. He asked the Twelve for recommendations. “Any man who will be faithful will have intelligence enough to magnify his calling,” Brigham told the Twelve.

“I would like to know on what principle men are to be selected,” said Orson Pratt, Parley’s younger brother.

“If a man was suggested to me of good natural judgment, possessing no higher qualifications than faithfulness and humility enough to seek the Lord for all his knowledge and who would trust in Him for his strength,” Brigham replied, “I would prefer him to the learned and talented.”

“If the Lord should designate a boy twelve years old, he is the person we would all be willing to sustain,” Orson said. “But if left to my own judgment to choose, I would select a man of experience who was tried in many places, faithful, and diligent, and a man of talent who could defend the Church in any position in which he might be placed.”

Brigham listened as the apostles recommended several men for the position. “I nominate George Q. Cannon for one of the Twelve,” he then said. “He is modest, but I don’t think he will let modesty smother his obligations to do his duty.”25

George’s call was announced at the spring general conference, while George was preparing to return home. He received the appointment with a sense of his own weakness and unworthiness. “I trembled with fear and dread,” the thirty-three-year-old wrote Brigham soon after learning of the call, “and joy to think of the goodness and favor of the Lord and the love and confidence of my brethren.”26

As he traveled home a few months later, George hurried ahead of several wagon companies and two handcart companies, which he had organized with Saints from the eastern branches, Europe, and South Africa.27

Mindful of the handcart tragedy of 1856, George wisely sent the last handcart company ahead of several wagon trains. “I have endeavored to take all possible steps to avoid any mishap,” he informed Brigham, “and sincerely trust that with the blessing of the Lord they will all reach their destinations in safety.”28

Among the Saints traveling west with George that season was Church patriarch John Smith. John had come east in late 1859 to try once more to help his sister Lovina and her family gather to Utah. While they waited for the emigration season to begin, he and Lovina visited their Smith relatives in Nauvoo, including their aunt Emma and her children.29

Emma led a quiet life in Nauvoo. She still lived in the Nauvoo Mansion and owned former Church property, which Joseph had given her before his death in 1844. He had deeded the land to her in good faith, but some of his creditors later demanded this property be sold to pay them back, believing he had cheated them. They failed to prove their accusations. The matter was settled in 1852 when a federal judge decreed that all the land Joseph had held as trustee for the Church in excess of ten acres could be sold to pay his debts. As Joseph’s widow, Emma was awarded one-sixth of the proceeds of the sale, which she used to buy back some of the land to support her family.30

John and Lovina found their relatives well but divided in matters of religion. Their cousin Julia had married a Catholic and converted to her husband’s religion. Joseph and Emma’s four sons, however, still considered themselves Latter-day Saints, although they rejected some of the principles their father had taught in Nauvoo, particularly plural marriage.31

This was no surprise to John. Although Emma knew that her husband had privately taught and practiced plural marriage, her son Joseph Smith III believed that Brigham Young had introduced the principle to the Saints after the prophet Joseph’s death. When John’s family had evacuated Nauvoo in 1848, John had tried to convince Joseph III to come west with him and continue the work of their fathers. Joseph III had flatly refused.

“If you mean by this that I must support spiritual wifery and the other institutions which have been instituted since their deaths,” Joseph III had responded, “I most assuredly shall be your most inveterate adversary.”32

For many years, Joseph III had shown little interest in leading a church. But on April 6, 1860, after John and Lovina’s visit, Joseph III and Emma had attended a conference of a “New Organization” of Saints who had rejected the leadership of Brigham Young and remained in the Midwest. During that meeting, Joseph III had accepted leadership over the New Organization and distanced himself from the Saints in Utah by condemning plural marriage.33

A few months later, John started west with Lovina and her family. Traveling in their company were Karl and Anna Maeser. Unaccustomed to life on the rugged trail, the young schoolteacher did his best to drive an ox team, but he eventually hired a driver to do the work for him. Whooping cough plagued the children in the company for part of the journey, but the trail was uneventful much of the time.34

On August 17, about 160 miles from Salt Lake City, Lovina’s fourteen-year-old son, Hyrum Walker, accidentally shot himself in the arm. Hoping to save his nephew’s life, if not his arm, John quickly put another man in charge of the company, placed Hyrum in a mule cart, and rushed him and Lovina ahead to the valley.

The mule cart arrived in Salt Lake City nine days later, and a doctor was able to mend Hyrum’s arm. With his nephew safe, John returned to his company and led them into the city on September 1.35

On November 4, 1860, Wilford Woodruff welcomed a man named Walter Gibson back to Salt Lake City. Walter was a world traveler and adventurer. As a young man, he had traveled to Mexico and South America, sailed the oceans, and escaped a Dutch prison on the island of Java.36

According to Walter, he had heard a voice in prison prompting him to establish a powerful kingdom in the Pacific. For years he had searched for a people to help him in this mission, but he could never find the right group until he heard about the Latter-day Saints. In May 1859, he had written to Brigham Young and proposed a plan to gather the Church to the Pacific Islands. He traveled to Salt Lake City with his three children a short time later and joined the Church in January 1860.37

Wilford had befriended Walter that winter, often attending lectures he gave on his travels or meeting him at social gatherings.38 Brigham had no interest in Walter’s proposal for a new gathering place, but he had recognized potential in the new convert.39 Walter seemed knowledgeable, well-spoken, and eager to serve in the Church. In April 1860, the First Presidency had called him on a short mission to the East, which Walter had enthusiastically accepted.40

Now, six months later, Walter had returned to Utah with exciting news. While in New York City, he had told a visiting Japanese official about the Saints and received an invitation to come to Japan. Believing he could forge a good relationship with the Japanese, Walter wanted to accept the invitation and prepare the way for missionary work in that land. From there, he believed, the restored gospel could spread to Siam and other nations in the region.

“I shall be governed, as I have been instructed, entirely by the Spirit of God,” he told the Saints at a meeting on November 18. “I feel I shall be at home with all the nations of the children of the human family.”41

The prospect of sending Walter to Asia excited Wilford. “The Lord opened the door before him in a marvelous manner,” he noted in his journal.42

Brigham agreed. “Brother Gibson is going to leave us now to go on a mission,” he told the Saints at the meeting. “As far as I can learn, he came here because the Lord led him here.”43

The following day, Heber Kimball and Brigham placed their hands on Walter’s head. “Inasmuch as thou will let thine eye be single to the glory of God, and call upon His name, and seek His wisdom, and seek to be humble and meek before the Lord, and let thine eye be for the good and welfare of the children of man,” Heber declared, “thou shall be blessed mightily, and thou shall gather up the house of Israel and bring many to repentance and baptize and confirm upon them the Holy Ghost.”44

Walter and his daughter, Talula, started for the Pacific two days later.45

One month after Walter’s departure, South Carolina, a state in the southern United States, withdrew from the nation, fearing the recent election of Abraham Lincoln to the U.S. presidency would alter the economic and political balance of power in the country and lead to the end of slavery. Wilford Woodruff immediately recognized the alarming event as a fulfillment of a revelation Joseph Smith had received twenty-eight years earlier. On Christmas Day 1832, the Lord had warned the prophet that a rebellion would soon begin in South Carolina and end in the death and misery of many people.46

“With the sword and by bloodshed the inhabitants of the earth shall mourn,” the Lord had declared, “and with famine, and plague, and earthquake, and the thunder of heaven, and the fierce and vivid lightning also, shall the inhabitants of the earth be made to feel the wrath, and indignation, and chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made a full end of all nations.”47

“We may prepare ourselves for an awful time in the United States,” Wilford wrote in his journal on January 1, 1861. “The handwriting has been seen upon the wall, and our nation is doomed to destruction.”48