“Like Coals of Living Fire,” chapter 22 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846–1893 (2020)
Chapter 22: “Like Coals of Living Fire”
Evening was settling over Washington, DC, on June 5, 1863, when T. B. H. Stenhouse met with President Abraham Lincoln. A thirty-nine-year-old editor from Scotland, Stenhouse was a highly respected Latter-day Saint on both sides of the Atlantic.
As a young man, he had served missions in England, Italy, and Switzerland. Later, he led missionaries in the eastern United States and wrote articles for the widely read New York Herald and the Deseret News. He and his wife, Fanny, were well loved among the Saints in Salt Lake City and were often introduced when distinguished visitors came to the valley.1
In meeting Lincoln, Stenhouse wanted to gauge the president’s openness to letting the Saints govern themselves. Few people in Utah expected Lincoln to enforce the new antibigamy law. To convict a Church member of bigamy, prosecutors would have to prove that a plural marriage had taken place—an almost impossible task when marriages occurred privately in the Endowment House and public officials had no access to its records. Furthermore, prosecutors in Utah were unlikely to convict someone of bigamy as long as Church members sat on juries.2
Yet many Saints were angry about the men Lincoln had appointed to govern them in Utah. Alfred Cumming, the person who replaced Brigham Young as governor in 1858, had resigned in 1861 as a friend to the Saints. The governor Lincoln selected to replace him, John Dawson, quickly fell out of favor with the Saints when he tried to crush the 1862 statehood petition.3 Lincoln’s next appointment, Stephen Harding, was a native of Palmyra, New York, who had been acquainted with Joseph Smith in his youth. Despite this connection, Harding quickly offended the Saints when he tried to strengthen the antibigamy law by proposing laws to keep Church members off of juries.4
The president listened to Stenhouse. He joked about not remembering Governor Harding’s name and expressed hope that the officials he sent to Utah would behave themselves better.
Still, the American Civil War had entered its third bloody year, leaving Lincoln’s face creased and careworn. Trying to turn the tide of the war, he had recently issued a proclamation freeing slaves in all Southern states and allowing blacks to join the United States Army. But the Southern army had just defeated federal forces in a large, costly battle sixty miles southwest of Washington, leaving him with bigger issues to deal with than disputes between the Saints and government officials.5
“In my younger days,” Lincoln told Stenhouse, “I was plowing a piece of newly cleared land, and by and by I came to a big log. I could not plow over it, for it was too high, and it was so heavy I could not move it out of the way, and so wet I could not burn it. I stood and looked at it and studied it and finally concluded to plow around it.”6
“You go back,” the president continued, “and tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.”7
Not long after, Lincoln fired Governor Harding and appointed a more moderate politician to take his place.8
The following January, thirty-three-year-old Alma Smith received a letter from the island of Lanai. The brief, urgent letter was signed by six Hawaiian Church members. Among them was Solomona, an elder who had been set apart as a leader of the Church on Lanai when Alma and all other Utah missionaries left Hawaii in 1858.9
Alma read the letter, carefully translating the Hawaiian words into English. “The matter that we wish to write to you about,” it read, “is concerning our prophet living here, Walter M. Gibson. Is it true that he is our leader?”10
It was no surprise that Walter Gibson was on Lanai. But the word “prophet” was alarming. The First Presidency had sent the well-known adventurer on an ambitious mission to Japan and other nations in Asia and the Pacific Ocean in 1861. A short time later, he had notified them that he and his daughter, Talula, had settled with the Saints on Lanai.11
Since then, Walter had kept Brigham Young informed on the promising growth of the mission and the Lanai settlement. One Hawaiian newspaper report from 1862, reprinted in the Deseret News, had nothing but praise for Walter’s work among the Saints in Hawaii.12 Still, why were the Saints there calling him their prophet? Walter was a missionary, nothing more.
Alma kept reading. The letter told of Walter rejecting Brigham Young’s authority and establishing his own form of priesthood on the island. “He has ordained a quorum of twelve apostles, also a quorum of seventies, a number of bishops and high priests,” Solomona and the other Saints wrote. “The certificates of ordinations could only be obtained by the payment of money, and if the money was not paid, the candidate was not ordained.”13
Walter’s management of Church lands was also troubling. Using donations from the Hawaiian Saints, he had purchased land in his name and now claimed it for himself. “Gibson says this land is not for the Church, nor have the brethren any right or title to it,” the Hawaiian Saints reported. “It belongs to him alone.”
The Saints urged Alma to show their letter to Brigham Young. “We are greatly surprised at this foreigner,” they wrote. “We greatly distrust him.”14
Alma took the letter to Brigham, who read it to the Quorum of the Twelve on January 17, 1864. The apostles agreed that they had to take immediate action. Walter had set himself up as a prophet, swindled land from the Church, and oppressed the Hawaiian Saints.
“I want two of the Twelve to take several of the young brethren who have been over there before,” Brigham said, “and go to the islands and set the churches in order.”15
He selected apostles Ezra Benson and Lorenzo Snow to lead the mission. He then asked Alma Smith and two other former missionaries to Hawaii, Joseph F. Smith and William Cluff, to go and assist them.16
“Do what is necessary,” he instructed.17
On the morning of March 31, 1864, a schooner carrying the two apostles and three missionaries dropped anchor in the outer harbor of Lahaina, Maui, in the Hawaiian Islands. While Joseph F. Smith remained on deck with the group’s luggage, a small boat was lowered into the water, and Ezra Benson, Lorenzo Snow, William Cluff, Alma Smith, and the ship’s captain climbed aboard and began making their way to shore.
In the distance, closer to the beach, tall waves swelled dangerously high over the reef. Having traveled in and out of the harbor many times as a missionary, William Cluff worried that the water was too rough for the boat. But the captain assured him that there was nothing to fear if they stayed their course.
Moments later, a massive wave struck the boat, lifting its back end out of the water. The boat sped rapidly toward the reef, where it caught another wave that raised its back end so high that the oars no longer touched the water. When the wave broke, the boat swung around and capsized, plunging the men into the churning swells.18
For a moment, there was no sign of the passengers. Then William, Ezra, and Alma surfaced, gasping for air, and swam to the overturned boat. The men looked around for Lorenzo and the captain, but they were nowhere in sight.
Some Hawaiians saw the accident from the shore and immediately came to the rescue. As some rescuers fished William, Ezra, and Alma out of the water, others dove in to search for the two missing men. The divers quickly found the captain lying on the ocean floor, but there was still no sign of Lorenzo.
Suddenly, William spotted a Hawaiian man swimming toward their boat, dragging Lorenzo’s body behind him. They swung the boat around, and William and Alma pulled the apostle out of the water and placed him facedown across their knees. His body was cold and stiff. He was not breathing.
When they reached shore, William and Alma carried Lorenzo up the beach, stretched him across the side of a barrel, and rolled him back and forth until water poured from his mouth. They then rubbed his arms and chest with a strong-smelling oil and rolled him across the barrel once more to make sure all the water was out of him. Lorenzo still showed no sign of life.
“We have done all that can be done,” said a man from shore who assisted them. “It is impossible to save your friend.”
Neither William nor Alma was willing to believe that God had brought Lorenzo all the way to Hawaii just to let him die. As a little boy, Alma himself had almost died when a mob attacked his family at Hawn’s Mill, Missouri. The mob had killed his father and brother and shot him in the hip, obliterating the joint. He nearly bled to death in the smoke-filled blacksmith shop where he was wounded, but his mother had called on God for help, and the Spirit showed her how to heal his wound.19
Acting on faith, William and Alma tried once more to revive Lorenzo. A thought crossed William’s mind to place his mouth over Lorenzo’s and blow as hard as he could into the apostle’s lungs. He blew in and out, again and again, until he heard a faint rattle in Lorenzo’s throat. The noise encouraged him, and he blew again until the rattle turned into a groan.
“What is the matter?” Lorenzo whispered at last.
“You have been drowned,” William said. He asked the apostle if he recognized him.
“Yes, Brother William, I knew you would not forsake me,” he said. “Are you brethren all safe?”
“Brother Snow,” said William, “we are all safe.”20
The following Sunday, Joseph F. Smith joined his companions as they traveled to the Church settlement on Lanai. When they arrived, some Hawaiian Saints recognized the former missionaries and welcomed them back with expressions of love.21
Walter met the apostles and missionaries at the gate of his large thatched house. He was not expecting them, and his gaze was anxious and inquiring. He shook hands with them coldly and introduced them to his daughter, Talula, who was in her twenties. He then ushered them into his house and served a large breakfast of sweet potatoes, boiled goat, and other foods. The whole time his manner was distant and formal.22
After breakfast, Walter took the men to his Sabbath meeting with the Hawaiian Saints. An elaborately dressed “supreme bishop” rang a bell to assemble the congregation together. As the Saints filed in, fifteen or twenty young men wearing wreaths of flowers and green leaves sat down on a bench at the head of the meetinghouse. Seventeen boys and seventeen girls, each dressed in a uniform, then took seats near a table where the bishop sat with men Walter had set apart as apostles.
When Walter entered the room, the congregation stood and bowed reverently as he passed them and sat down at the head of the table. After the opening prayer, he rose and acknowledged the five visitors from Utah. “I do not know what they have come for,” he said, “but they will perhaps tell us.”
“This I will say,” he added. “I have come here among you, bought you land, and here I will remain immovably, and in this I will not yield!”23
Over the next two days, the apostles met privately with Walter. His misdeeds, they learned, went well beyond selling priesthood ordinations.24 It was almost too strange to believe.
When Walter came to Lanai, he saw an opportunity to begin the vast Pacific empire he had long dreamed of establishing.25 He persuaded the Hawaiian Saints to donate their livestock and personal property to him so that he could purchase land on the island.26 Inspiring the Saints with his dream of empire, he organized a militia on the island and trained its members to invade other islands. He also sent missionaries to Samoa and other Polynesian islands to prepare those lands for his rule.
The people soon began treating him like a king. No one entered his house to speak with him except on hands and knees. To inspire awe, he designated a hollowed-out boulder near his house to be the cornerstone of a temple. He placed a Book of Mormon and other documents in the rock, covered it with brush, and warned the Saints that they would be smitten if they went near it.
When the apostles and missionaries finished their investigation, Ezra Benson and Lorenzo Snow called all the Saints together to address Walter’s future as a leader. With Joseph acting as translator, Ezra condemned Walter’s seizure of Church lands and abuses of priesthood authority.
“It is our duty to disfellowship him,” Ezra declared, “and if he does not veer his boat into the channel and repent, we shall have to cut him off from the Church.”27
Walter whispered something to Talula, and she quickly fetched a stack of papers ornately decorated with seals and ribbons. “Gentlemen, here is my authority,” he said, pointing to three signatures at the bottom of one page. “You will not fail to recognize the names of Brigham Young and his two counselors here.”
Lorenzo read the document. It was a simple missionary license to preach the gospel to the islands of the sea. “This document does not appoint you to preside over the Hawaiian mission,” Lorenzo said. “You have assumed that authority.”28
“I have seen President Young,” Walter said. “He laid his hands on me and blessed me. And God Almighty poured out mightily His Spirit upon me, before I saw him, when I lay in that prison, and revealed to me that I had a great and mighty work to do.”
Walter spoke quickly, fervently pleading with the Hawaiians in the room. “I am your patriarch,” he said. “These men have come to take your land and send your earnings away. Is this love? Who loves you? Is it not I? Then who are my children and my friends? Let them stand up!”
Joseph F. Smith watched the congregation. Walter’s words had moved them, and almost everyone stood up. Sadness filled Joseph’s heart and cast a dark shadow over his hopes for the settlement.29
Walter was oddly kind to the five men after the meeting. When they decided to leave the island the following evening, he offered them horses to ride to the beach and the use of his personal boat and a crew to take them back to Maui. He also presented Ezra Benson with a nice walking stick and $9.75—all the money in his pocket. He adamantly refused to surrender his preaching license, however, or the land that he had swindled from the Saints.30
After leaving Lanai, Ezra Benson and Lorenzo Snow returned to Utah, leaving Joseph F. Smith to preside over the Hawaiian mission. Since the missionaries could not legally recover the land Walter had taken from the Saints on Lanai, they decided to rekindle faith on the other islands. Joseph assigned Alma Smith to labor on Maui and the Big Island of Hawaii while he labored on Oahu and William Cluff on Kauai.31
Some Saints regretted their earlier support of Walter. Jonathan Napela, who had helped George Q. Cannon translate the Book of Mormon, had served as the president of Walter’s twelve apostles for the last two years. But he felt deceived when he realized that Walter had never had the authority to ordain him to that office.32
Napela began meeting with Saints on Maui. Most of them were disillusioned with Walter. He had sold off most of their meetinghouses and forbidden them from worshipping together, preaching the gospel, reading the scriptures, and praying as families. As a result, they were spiritually weak and discouraged over everything Walter had taken from them.33
Alma too spent much of his time crisscrossing Maui’s rocky, mountainous terrain to visit the scattered Saints. By the start of summer, he could tell that Walter’s influence was waning. More Saints were leaving Lanai, often coming to Maui with little else but the clothes on their backs. Yet their time with Walter had tried their faith, and few Church members were keeping their baptismal covenants when they returned.
“We cannot even see that the gospel has benefited them one iota, because not one of them has lived it!” Joseph complained in a report to Brigham Young. “With our examples constantly before them, and our teachings ringing in their ears, we should expect a few to do better, but it is not so.”34
Brigham counseled Joseph and the other American missionaries to come home if the Spirit prompted them. He believed the Hawaiian Saints were ultimately responsible for their own spiritual growth. “It seems to me that you will be able to leave the affairs of the mission in the hands of the Native brethren,” he wrote Joseph and the other missionaries. The Hawaiian Saints had received the gospel and priesthood many years earlier and had all the resources necessary to run the Church on their own.35
By the time Brigham’s counsel arrived in Hawaii, Joseph’s attitude toward the Hawaiian Saints had softened. “We do not feel like deserting the mission,” he wrote to Brigham. But he did want to decrease the number of American missionaries on the islands and call several Hawaiian elders to preside over the various islands in the mission.
Joseph announced the change in October and called Hawaiians to leadership positions at a mission-wide conference in Honolulu. After he spoke, Kaloa, a Hawaiian elder, testified of his determination to serve in the Church. “I was a boy when these brethren first came to the islands,” he said. “I am now a man. Let us no longer be children, but men in faith and good works.”
Napela then arose and urged the Saints to righteousness. “We were deceived and led away by Gibson’s cunning words and thereby have broken the sacred covenants we had made,” he said. “But we are now undeceived; therefore, let us renew our covenants and be faithful.”
Kanahunahupu, another Hawaiian elder, also testified. “The words that have been spoken today,” he said, “are like coals of living fire.”36
At the end of the conference, Joseph F. Smith and William Cluff announced that they would soon be returning to Utah. Brigham notified Joseph a few weeks later that he intended to call Francis Hammond, Joseph’s former mission leader in Hawaii, to replace him.37
Since losing the Lanai settlement, Joseph and the other missionaries had been looking for a new place to gather the Saints. In the summer, they had found a place on the Big Island of Hawaii that seemed promising, but the cost was more than the Hawaiian Saints could afford.
After the failure of the Lanai settlement, moreover, many Saints had become reluctant to risk more money on another gathering place. Families wanted the new settlement on their island and near their home.38
After the fall conference, however, Brigham Young authorized mission leaders to purchase land with money from the Church.39 Undecided about the tract of land on the Big Island, Joseph and William continued to look for potential gathering places to recommend to Francis as they toured the branches on Kauai and Oahu one last time.
One day on Oahu, while Joseph and William were visiting a small branch near a plantation called Laie, William went for a walk alone. The plantation was situated on six thousand acres at the base of tall, wooded mountains along the northeast shore of the island. Unlike the settlement in Lanai, Laie had good access to water.
Feeling depressed and somewhat lonely, William knelt down in a nearby thicket to pray. When he arose, still listless, he found a path that wound through grassy plots and dense brush. He followed it some distance when, to his surprise, he saw a vision of Brigham Young walking up the path.
William greeted him as if he were really there, and they sat down in the grass. Brigham commented on the beauty of the plantation, the rich soil, the green mountains, and the waves gently crashing on the beach. “This is a most delightful place,” he said at last. “Brother William, this is the place we want to secure as headquarters for this mission.”
William then found himself alone, full of wonder and amazement, confident that he had found the right gathering place for the Hawaiian Saints.40