“Chapter Fourteen: The Apostasy in Kirtland, 1836–38,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 169–80
“Chapter Fourteen,” Church History in the Fulness of Times, 169–80
On 6 July 1838 a mile-long wagon train moved slowly southward along the old Chillicothe Road in northern Ohio. Over five hundred disheartened Saints were leaving homes, businesses, and a beautiful temple to embark on an arduous three-month journey to join the Prophet and the Saints in northern Missouri. One of the Saints recalled, “We turned the key and locked the door of our homes, leaving our property and all we possessed in the hands of enemies and strangers, never receiving a cent for anything we owned.”1
It had only been two years since the Kirtland Temple dedication, and the Saints had enjoyed a great spiritual outpouring and had looked forward to a bright future. What crushed these hopes and forced the Saints to leave Kirtland?
The gathering of new converts to the Kirtland area continued unabated following the dedication of the temple in March of 1836. Most of these Saints were hard-working, committed people, but, as Benjamin F. Johnson observed, most were of the “poorer class.”2 Unfortunately some of them arrived hoping to be cared for by the funds of the Church or the generosity of the members. The increasing number of Mormons living in poverty alarmed the old-time citizens of Kirtland, who banded together as early as 1835 and warned the poor to leave the city. Acknowledging the problem, the Prophet Joseph Smith advised the branches not to send penniless families to Kirtland. “The Saints have neglected the necessary preparation beforehand; … the rich have generally stayed back and withheld their money, while the poor have gone first and without money. Under these circumstances what could be expected but the appalling scene that now presents itself?”3 Part of what contributed to the appalling scene was the many small and poorly-constructed homes that Church members built haphazardly along the Chagrin River and immediately south of the temple.
Regardless of these problems, a spirit of optimism began to fill Kirtland after the temple dedication, as ambitious Church members attempted to correct the impoverished conditions. The rapid influx of Saints into Kirtland, however, accelerated the demand for property, homes, and goods. Warren Cowdery observed in the Messenger and Advocate that “the noise and bustle of teams with lumber, brick, stone, lime or merchandise, were heard from the early dawn of morning till the grey twilight of evening. … The starting up, as if by magic, of buildings in every direction around us, [was] evincive to us of buoyant hope, lively anticipation, and a firm confidence that our days of pinching adversity had passed by, that the set time of the Lord to favor Zion had come.”4
Even though the Saints’ fortunes began to increase, the Church was still substantially in debt. Capital, such as gold and silver, remained in short supply. Furthermore, funds were needed to purchase property for settling the Saints in Kirtland and in northern Missouri. Church leaders sought anxiously for ways to relieve the debt and increase the amount of usable money.
In July of 1836 Brother William Burgess arrived in Kirtland and told Joseph Smith that he knew where a large sum of money was hidden in the cellar of a house in Salem, Massachusetts. He claimed to be the only person living who knew of the treasure and the location of the house. Salem was a prosperous seaport with a world trade, so it was plausible that treasure would be located there. Hunting for buried treasure, especially that left by Spanish pirates, was still widespread among Americans in that area. Persuaded by Burgess, the Prophet, with Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, and Oliver Cowdery, left Kirtland in late July for New York City. After arriving there they spent four days consulting with creditors about their debts. Oliver Cowdery also inquired about printing notes for a prospective Church-sponsored bank. From New York the party sailed to Boston and from there they traveled by rail to Salem to meet Burgess and to find out more about some money hidden in that city.
This was not Joseph Smith’s first visit to Salem. When he was seven years old he had gone there with his Uncle Jesse to recover from a serious leg operation. Even with the help of Burgess, the brethren searched in vain for the house with the supposed treasure. Burgess soon departed, explaining that Salem had changed so much since he was last there that he could not find the house. The brethren persisted in looking, however. They eventually rented a dwelling matching Burgess’s description, but they did not find any money.5
In a revelation given in Salem on 6 August 1836, the Lord said, “I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies” (D&C 111:1). The Lord also told the brethren that in Salem he had “much treasure … and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion” (v. 2). Five years later in Philadelphia, Hyrum Smith gave elders Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester a copy of the revelation and asked them to go to Salem to fulfill it.6 At first Elder Snow was reluctant because he was anxious to return home, but he prayed for guidance and received the assurance that he should go. Benjamin Winchester also went but only remained a short time. Although progress was slow at first, in 1842 Elder Snow organized a branch in Salem with 120 members. After spending over a year there he left in February 1843. Thus Erastus Snow fulfilled the promise that “many people” would be gathered out of the city.7
The number of banks8 in the United States had nearly doubled during the 1830s as the demand for credit and money increased. Banks provided loans, paper currency, a medium of exchange, and a safe depository for money. In Kirtland, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders pursued the idea of establishing a bank. With legal assistance, an article of agreement was drafted to incorporate a bank in Kirtland, which would be called the Kirtland Safety Society. In November 1836, Orson Hyde went to the capital of Ohio with a petition to the legislature requesting that they approve the proposal to incorporate the bank. At the same time, Oliver Cowdery went to Philadelphia to purchase plates for printing currency. He succeeded, but Orson returned from Columbus with discouraging news. The timing of the request was bad, and the legislature, after listening to the petition, refused to grant a charter for the requested bank. “Hard-money” Democrats, who opposed an expansion of banks in Ohio, had gained control of the legislature and were turning down nearly all requests for new banks.
The brethren were disappointed, but they decided to create a private joint-stock company to be called the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. Since other unchartered or unauthorized banks were organized in Ohio, they assumed that individuals had a legal right to organize a private company that engaged in banking activities. Many people in the Western Reserve, members of the Church and nonmembers alike, initially supported the formation of the society with Joseph Smith as its treasurer and Sidney Rigdon as secretary. The Kirtland Safety Society opened for business on 2 January 1837.
Serious problems soon arose to undermine the success of the bank. A lot of the other banks refused to accept the Safety Society’s notes as legal tender, and the anti-Mormon newspapers branded the currency as worthless. Furthermore, the society’s capital was primarily in the form of land; it did not possess much specie (hard currency, such as gold and silver) for satisfying any large demands for redemption of its paper currency. Enemies of the Church obtained enough notes to initiate a run on the bank, forcing the society to suspend payment in specie to its customers a few weeks after the first notes were issued. Lack of a charter also hindered the company’s credibility. As a result, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were charged with violating the banking statutes of Ohio and brought to trial.
In the spring of 1837 the Saints’ economic problems were compounded by a panic (later known as the Panic of 1837) that spread west from New York into other parts of the nation. By May there was a general suspension of payment in specie by all banks in Ohio. Money was scarce during the panic, and many creditors were unable to extend credit or postpone dates when debts were due. Joseph Smith did all he could to persuade investors to invest more funds to sustain the bank, but he finally turned its operation over to others. This failed to solve the problem, however, because of inept management and rumors that some of them were embezzling the society’s funds.
A growing spirit of speculation in Kirtland also added to the Church’s economic problems. With the availability of supposed money, which they borrowed from the bank, many people went into debt to purchase land for resale at a substantial profit. Warren Cowdery observed in the Messenger and Advocate that not a few members were “guilty of wild speculation and visionary dreams of wealth and worldly grandeur, as if gold and silver were their gods, and houses, farms and merchandize their only bliss or their passport to it.”9 In the fall of 1836, Heber C. Kimball returned from a mission and was amazed at the results of such speculation. He wrote, “When we left Kirtland a city lot was worth about $150; but on our return, to our astonishment, the same lot was said to be worth from $500 to $1000, according to location; and some men, who, when I left, could hardly get food to eat, I found on my return to be men of supposed great wealth; in fact everything in the place seemed to be moving in great prosperity, and all seemed determined to become rich.”10
As the Kirtland Safety Society overextended itself, it was finally forced to close its doors in November 1837. The two hundred individuals who invested in the bank lost nearly everything they had invested. Joseph Smith’s losses from the failure of the company were greater than anyone else’s. While seeking to achieve success with the bank and, at the same time, to purchase land in Kirtland and goods for his store, he accumulated debts amounting to approximately one hundred thousand dollars. Although he had assets in land and goods that were of greater value in some respects than his debts, he was unable to immediately transform these assets into a form that could be used to pay his creditors. The Prophet endured seventeen lawsuits during 1837 in Geauga County for debts involving claims of more than thirty thousand dollars. Unfortunately, few people correctly understood the causes of their economic difficulties. Many Saints spoke against the Prophet and accused him of being responsible for all of their problems.
Many members of the Church apostatized during this dark period of economic distress. Eliza R. Snow observed that, following the temple dedication in 1836, a number of members of the Church felt that “prosperity was dawning upon them … , and many who had been humble and faithful … were getting haughty in their spirits, and lifted up in the pride of their hearts. As the Saints drank in the love and spirit of the world, the Spirit of the Lord withdrew from their hearts, and they were filled with pride and hatred toward those who maintained their integrity.”11
Wilford Woodruff also remembered that the members were warned by their leaders that unless they humbled themselves and repented of their pride, a scourge awaited them as in the days of the ancient Nephites.12 The Kirtland paper, the Messenger and Advocate, reported that some unscrupulous brethren were taking advantage of newcomers to the community by describing unusual investment opportunities to them, taking their money, and then deserting them.13
Backbiting against Joseph Smith was common during the spring and summer of 1837 in Kirtland, particularly when he was away on business or on missions. Some men who held positions of trust in the Church rejected his leadership and declared that he was no longer a true prophet. When Elder Parley P. Pratt returned from a Canadian mission the apostasy was well under way. He was temporarily caught up in these difficulties and left a candid account of his involvement.
“There were also envyings, lyings, strifes and divisions, which caused much trouble and sorrow. By such spirits I was also accused, misrepresented and abused. And at one time, I also was overcome by the same spirit in a great measure, and it seemed as if the very powers of darkness which war against the Saints were let loose upon me. But the Lord knew my faith, my zeal, my integrity of purpose, and he gave me the victory.
“I went to brother Joseph Smith in tears, and, with a broken heart and contrite spirit, confessed wherein I had erred in spirit, murmured, or done or said amiss. He frankly forgave me, prayed for me and blessed me. Thus, by experience, I learned more fully to discern and to contrast the two spirits, and to resist the one and cleave to the other.”14
On several occasions stalwarts such as Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball defended the Prophet in various meetings, even though they were endangered. In February 1837 several elders called a meeting in the temple for all those who considered Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet. They intended to appoint David Whitmer as the new Church leader. Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and other faithful members attended the meeting. After listening to the arguments against the Prophet, Brigham arose and testified, “Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased; they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God, and sink themselves to hell.”15 In the Kirtland Temple on 19 February the Prophet spoke for several hours with the power of God. The complainers were silenced and the Saints were strengthened in their support of the Lord’s chosen servant.16
During this period of grave crisis, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that “something new must be done for the salvation of His Church.”17 On Sunday, 4 June 1837, the Prophet approached Heber C. Kimball in the temple and whispered to him, “Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me: ‘Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.’” Heber was overwhelmed by his call to England because he lacked education and refinement. He prayed almost daily in an upper room of the temple for protection and power that he might fulfill an honorable mission. His family was near poverty, yet he was determined to serve. He said, “I felt that the cause of truth, the Gospel of Christ, outweighed every other consideration.”18
Heber C. Kimball wanted his close friend and fellow Apostle Brigham Young to be his companion, but the Prophet needed Brigham to help with matters in troubled Kirtland. While Heber was being set apart for his mission, Orson Hyde walked into the room. Upon hearing what was happening, Orson was moved to repent, for he had been among the leaders of the Church caught up in the spirit of speculation and criticism of Joseph Smith. He acknowledged his faults, asked forgiveness, and offered to accompany Heber on his mission. The Prophet accepted his repentance and also set him apart to go to England.19 Five others were also set apart to assist the two Apostles: Willard Richards, a Church member of only six months; Joseph Fielding, a native of Bedfordshire, England, who had emigrated to Canada in 1832; and three other Canadians, John Goodson, Isaac Russell, and John Snider, who all had relatives and friends in England they corresponded with. These last four had been converted to the gospel at the same time as John Taylor—during Parley P. Pratt’s mission to Canada the year before.
Joseph Fielding’s brother James, an Independent (formerly Methodist) minister in Preston, England, wrote to his brother in Canada and invited him to come and preach his new religion in his chapel. So, upon arriving in Britain the missionaries went to Preston, thirty miles north of the port city of Liverpool, to preach to James’s congregation. Some people in that congregation had exercised such great faith and prayer that they had seen these American missionaries in dreams before their arrival in England. Beginning 23 July the brethren preached before three overflow crowds in Reverend Fielding’s church, the Vauxhall Chapel. As soon as several parishioners requested baptism, however, Reverend Fielding denied the brethren the use of his chapel any longer. He later lamented, “Kimball bored the holes, Goodson drove the nails, and Hyde clinched them.”20
Undaunted, the elders soon gained audiences in private houses that had been licensed for preaching and on street corners. Aware of the poverty and illiteracy of most of their listeners, the missionaries spoke on the level of their audience, acted as common men, wore no distinguishing garb, and did not teach for hire. They quickly extended the hand of fellowship and brotherhood, making all the people feel equal before God. The obvious sincerity of the missionaries was a dramatic contrast to the lordly attitude of the English clerics of the day. Soon many people applied for baptism.
On the morning of 30 July, the day the first baptisms were to be performed, the missionaries were attacked by Satan and his hosts. Elder Russell came to Elder Kimball, seeking relief from the torment of evil spirits. As Elders Hyde and Kimball laid their hands on him to bless him, Elder Kimball was knocked senseless to the floor by an invisible power. As he regained consciousness, he saw his brethren praying for him.
“[Heber wrote:] ‘I then arose and sat up on the bed, when a vision was opened to our minds, and we could distinctly see the evil spirits, who foamed and gnashed their teeth at us. We gazed upon them about an hour and a half. … I shall never forget the vindictive malignity depicted on their countenances as they looked me in the eye; and any attempt to paint the scene which then presented itself, or portray their malice and enmity, would be vain.’ …
“Years later, narrating the experience of that awful morning to the Prophet Joseph, Heber asked him … whether there was anything wrong with him that he should have such a manifestation.
“‘No, Brother Heber,’ he replied, ‘at that time you were nigh unto the Lord; there was only a veil between you and Him, but you could not see Him. When I heard of it, it gave me great joy, for I then knew that the work of God had taken root in that land. It was this that caused the devil to make a struggle to kill you.’
“… ‘The nearer a person approaches the Lord, a greater power will be manifested by the adversary to prevent the accomplishment of His purposes.’”21
Despite the terrors presented by Satan and his host, the baptisms in the River Ribble went on as scheduled. George D. Watt won a foot race to the river, which determined the honor of being the first to be baptized in England. These baptisms began a flood of English converts. The missionaries went on to the villages of Chatburn and Downham, approximately twenty miles northeast of Preston in the Ribble Valley. In Chatburn, Heber baptized twenty-five people the first night he preached there. During the next five days, with the assistance of his companion, Joseph Fielding, Heber baptized about one hundred and ten people and organized branches in Downham, Chatburn, Waddington, and Clitheroe.
As Heber walked the streets of Chatburn one day, children went before him “singing the songs of Zion, while their parents gazed upon the scene with delight, and poured their blessings upon our heads, and praised the God of heaven for sending us to unfold the principles of truth and the plan of salvation to them.”22 Heber explained:
“I went through the streets of that town feeling as I never before felt in my life. My hair would rise on my head as I walked through the streets, and I did not then know what was the matter with me. I pulled off my hat, and felt that I wanted to pull off my shoes, and I did not know what to think of it.
“When I returned, I mentioned the circumstance to brother Joseph, who said, ‘… some of the old Prophets travelled and dedicated that land [England], and their blessing fell upon you.’”23
Within eight months two thousand individuals had joined the Church, and twenty-six branches had been organized. Heber C. Kimball remembered that when he was set apart he was promised “that God would make me mighty in that nation in winning souls unto Him; angels should accompany me and bear me up, that my feet should never slip; that I should be mightily blessed and prove a source of salvation to thousands, not only in England but America.”24 This first mission to England set the stage for an even greater effort between the years 1839 and 1841 by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and for a continuous missionary harvest in the British Isles throughout most of the nineteenth century. The success of the British mission served as an important counterbalance to the Ohio apostasy and the Missouri persecution. The thousands of British converts who emigrated to America immensely strengthened the Church during crucial periods. By the 1850s and 1860s the majority of the families in Utah were headed by parents who had come from Great Britain.
As the British mission grew in numbers and strength, apostasy continued to weaken the Church in Kirtland. Caroline Barnes Crosby sadly noted:
“Many of our most intimate associates were among the apostates.
“… These were some of our nighest neighbors and friends. We had taken sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God as friends.”25
In August 1837, while Joseph Smith and most of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles were away on missions, Warren Parrish, a former scribe for the Prophet and an officer of the Kirtland Safety Society, and John Boynton, a member of the Twelve, led a group armed with pistols and bowie knives in an attempted takeover of the temple. In panic and terror, several people jumped out of the temple windows. The police managed to quell the disturbance and eject the men. When the Prophet returned, these men were disfellowshipped for their actions. Those who showed sincere contrition were reinstated.
In the fall, however, when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon left for Missouri, troubles flared up again. Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke Johnson, and thirty other leading citizens organized a group called the Old Standard, or the Church of Christ. They considered themselves reformers, insisting that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet who, with other Church authorities, had departed from the true faith. The group sought to overthrow the Church, take over the temple, and still teach most of the Church’s doctrines, while rejecting the Book of Mormon and discrediting Joseph Smith and the priesthood. They encountered opposition from Martin Harris, who, though in a state of apostasy himself, bore witness that the Book of Mormon was true and that those who rejected it would be damned.
As a result of this apostasy fifty leading members of the Church were excommunicated under the direction of Joseph Smith, but the problems continued to fester. Several apostates tormented the faithful members with lawsuits and threatened loss of property. Anti-Mormons added their part by boycotting, ostracizing, and denying employment to those who were true to the Prophet and the Church. Hepzibah Richards, sister to Willard Richards, wrote the following:
“For the last three months we as a people have been tempest tossed, and at times the waves have well nigh overwhelmed us. …
“A dreadful spirit reigns in the breasts of those who are opposed to this Church. They are above law and beneath whatever is laudable. Their leading object seems to be to get all the property of the Church for little or nothing, and drive them [the Saints] out of the place.”26
According to one historian, “Between November 1837 and June 1838, possibly two or three hundred Kirtland Saints withdrew from the Church, representing from 10 to 15 percent of the membership there.”27 The “great apostasy” also carried over somewhat to Missouri. In a nine-month period, the Three Witnesses, a member of the First Presidency (Frederick G. Williams), four members of the Twelve Apostles, and several members of the First Quorum of the Seventy left the Church. Because he continued to boldly defend the Prophet, Brigham Young was threatened and forced to flee on horseback to Missouri.
In January 1838, Luke Johnson, an apostate himself but still sympathetic to Joseph Smith, warned the Prophet of an assassination plot. That night Joseph and Sidney Rigdon fled westward on horseback. Their enemies followed them for two hundred miles, even stopping at the same inn for the night. The rooms were adjoining and the brethren could hear cursing and threats through the walls. Emma Smith and their children joined Joseph en route, and after a severely trying journey, they were heartily welcomed by the Missouri Saints in March 1838. Sidney Rigdon arrived a few days later, having separated from the Prophet at Dublin, Indiana.
In the same month that Joseph Smith fled from Kirtland, the lives of the members of the high council were also threatened, and most of the faithful decided to follow their leader to Missouri. Hepzibah Richards wrote of this drastic situation: “All our friends design leaving this place soon as possible. … The feeling seems to be that Kirtland must be trodden down by the wicked for a season. … Probably several hundred families will leave within a few weeks.”28 But before most of the faithful could leave Kirtland, enemies began ransacking homes of the Saints and starting fires in basements.
Early in March the seventies began planning ways to help the poorest Saints move to Missouri. One of the presidents of the quorum, James Foster, had a vision of an orderly company of about five hundred Saints traveling to Missouri and camping by the way. Under the direction of Hyrum Smith, the Presidents of the Seventy drew up a constitution for such a camp according to vision and prophecy. They formed Kirtland Camp from those willing to abide by the constitution and then designated leaders to preside over the companies in the camp. Captains were to encourage their companies to keep the commandments and observe the Word of Wisdom.
The trek was delayed for several weeks as the Saints struggled to settle their debts, sell their property, and purchase wagons, teams, and equipment. They finally left Kirtland on 6 July 1838 with over five hundred Saints, 27 tents, 59 wagons, 97 horses, 22 oxen, 69 cows, and 1 bull.29 Benjamin Johnson wrote, “All means for defraying expenses were put together, and so all were to fare alike, and did so long as they remained in camp together.”30 Even so the travelers had to pause occasionally to earn money for supplies and equipment.
The Kirtland Camp was also dogged by persecution along the trail. Many people were suspicious of the bedraggled travelers who passed through towns and cities. “As we passed along the road in the morning, molesting no one, some of the company were saluted in modern style by having eggs thrown at them by some ruffians.”31 Ridicule was sometimes combined with threats of violence. In Missouri the citizens of one community placed “artillery” in the street to prevent the camp from passing through. They were only allowed to proceed when one of the seventies soothed the citizens’ anxious feelings, and even then several of the camp’s leaders were jailed overnight.
Many forces contributed to the suffering in the Kirtland Camp. “Accidents and illness constantly afflicted the pioneers. Some persons were crushed under wagon wheels; others succumbed to disease. … They perspired by day and slept on cold and sometimes damp terrain by night. They forded streams, climbed up and down inclines, and followed rutted roads and trails, continually weakened by fatigue, a meager and changing diet, and polluted drinking water.
“In the midst of their suffering and afflictions, they turned to their Heavenly Father for help. Throughout the journey, elders administered to the sick and the injured; and diarists reported that through the power of the priesthood, many of the afflicted were instantly healed.”32
When the camp arrived at the Mississippi River in September, “they were warned that a war had erupted in western Missouri between the Saints and non-Mormons, that all Mormons would soon be driven from the state, and that if they continued their journey, they would be attacked and would suffer a similar fate.”33 Several members of the camp refused to enter Missouri as a result of these threats. But most of them pressed on, finally joining the Prophet in Far West, Missouri, on 2 October 1838. Two days later they arrived at Adam-ondi-Ahman, where they were to settle.34 They would soon discover that their problems had not been left behind in Ohio. Within weeks they would face worse persecutions in Missouri.