“A Mission to Canada,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“A Mission to Canada,” Revelations in Context
In the fall of 1833, a 54-year-old Church member named Freeman Nickerson rode into Kirtland, Ohio, with a wagon and sought out Joseph Smith. Nickerson and his wife, Huldah, of Perrysburg, New York, had been baptized a few months earlier. Nickerson asked the Prophet to travel with him to Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada, to preach the gospel to two of his sons, Moses and Eleazer Freeman. Mount Pleasant was a small village about 100 miles west of Buffalo, New York, in the area between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.1
Moses Nickerson later recalled that he had provided the impetus for his father’s request: “In the month of June , while on a visit to my parents’ home [I] heard for the first time what was then known as Mormonism; was favorably inclined towards the doctrine preached, and requested my parents to have some of the elders visit us in Canada. … In the month of September of this year 1833, my father and mother visited Kirtland, Ohio, the head quarters of these people, and induced Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon to accompany them to Canada.”2
In September 1833, Joseph Smith was living in Kirtland with his wife, Emma, and two young children—Julia, age 2; and Joseph III, just shy of his first birthday. They had previously lost four young children to death.3 The Prophet, 27 years of age, had preached the gospel message on many earlier journeys but had not until this time served a more formal proselytizing mission.
At least two concerns were occupying the Prophet’s attentions at this time that could have made it difficult for him to leave his home and family for an extended period. On August 9, 1833, he learned that the Church’s efforts to build the city of Zion in Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, had been dealt a severe blow. A mob had compelled Church members to agree to leave Jackson County by spring 1834. Joseph corresponded directly with the suffering Missouri Saints: “Brethren if I were with you I should take an active part in your sufferings & although nature shrinks yet my spirit would not let me forsake you unto death God helping me Oh be of good cheer for our redemption draweth near Oh God save my Brethren in Zion.”4
Meanwhile, Joseph was also dealing with a threat closer to home. A former Church member named Doctor Philastus Hurlbut, after being excommunicated in June 1833 for immoral conduct, began an aggressive campaign to discredit Joseph and the Church. His approach included stirring up persecution locally, traveling broadly to gather statements critical of Joseph, and threatening Joseph’s life.5 The Prophet’s surviving papers from this period reflect severe anxiety about Hurlbut’s activities. In an August 1833 letter to members in Missouri, he reported that Hurlbut was “lieing in a wonderful manner and the peapl are running after him and giveing him mony to brake down mormanism which much endangers our lives.”6 In a journal entry a few months later, the Prophet stated that Hurlbut had “saught the distruction of the sainst in this place and more particularly myself and family.”7 The situation was menacing and the outcome uncertain.
Notwithstanding these concerns, Joseph accepted Nickerson’s invitation to preach the gospel to his relatives in Canada, and Sidney Rigdon agreed to accompany them. Joseph’s journal noted matter-of-factly on October 4: “Makeing preperation to go East with Freeman Nickerson.” And on October 5: “This day started on a Journy to the East.”8 The one-month mission through northwestern Pennsylvania and southwestern New York and into what is known today as lower Ontario, Canada, would cover some 500 miles round-trip and include stops in at least 10 towns, with preaching engagements in many of them. The Prophet brought his pocket-size journal with him, and he and Sidney took turns making brief entries in it to chronicle their travels and their preaching.9
By October 12, the small party had crossed the northwestern tip of Pennsylvania into New York and reached the Freeman and Huldah Nickerson home in Perrysburg. Joseph Smith wrote that he felt “very well” in his mind but that he had “much anxiety” about his family,10 probably in part because of the opposition Hurlbut had stirred up in Kirtland. That anxiety may have led Joseph and Sidney to pray for comfort. A revelation that day (now Doctrine and Covenants 100) declared, “Verily thus saith the Lord unto you my friends Sidney & Joseph your families are well; they are in mine hands, and I will do with them as seemeth me good; for in me there is all power.”11 The Prophet’s concern apparently did not completely abate—the next day he asked the Lord to “bless [his] family and preserve them”12—but he clearly found comfort in these words, as evidenced by the journal entry he recorded when he arrived back home in Kirtland on November 4 at the conclusion of the mission: “Found my family all well according to the promise of the Lord. for which blessings I feel to thank his holy name; Amen.”13
The October 12 revelation addressed two other matters. Noting that “I the Lord have suffired you to come unto this place for thus it was expedient in me for the salvation of souls,” the Lord promised Joseph and Sidney that “an effectual door shall be opened in the regeons round about in this eastern land.” If the missionaries would “lift up” their voices with “solemnity of heart in the spirit of meekness” and declare the words God put into their hearts, the “holy Ghost [would] be shed forth in bearing record unto all things whatsoever” they said. The revelation also gave Joseph and Sidney assurance that Zion would “be redeemed altho she is chasened for a little season.”14
On October 18, the group arrived at their destination in the tiny village of Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada. Sidney Rigdon provided details in Joseph Smith’s journal: “Arived at [Eleazer] Freeman Nickerson’s in upper Canada having after we came into Canada passed through a very fine country and well cultivated and had many peculiar feelings in relation to both the country and people we were kindly received.”15
Joseph and Sidney spent the following week and a half preaching in Mount Pleasant and several surrounding villages to large and attentive congregations. The Prophet’s journal seems to reflect the urgency and enthusiasm associated with their busy itinerary. On October 24, after Joseph and Sidney held a meeting in Mount Pleasant, Eleazer Freeman Nickerson “declared his full beleif in the truth of the work.” He was, the journal records, “with his wife who is also convinced to be baptised on Sunday great excitement prevailes in every place where we have been.” On that Sunday, October 27, twelve individuals were baptized. Two more were baptized the following day. Among those baptized were Eleazer Freeman Nickerson, his wife Eliza, and Moses Nickerson.
On the evening of October 28, the missionaries held their last meeting with their little flock in Mount Pleasant. In the Prophet’s journal the next morning, Sidney Rigdon recorded: “Held meeting last evening Ordained br E[leazer] F[reeman] Nickerson to the office of Elder had a good meeting one of the sisters got the gift of toungues which made the saints rejoice may God increse the gifts among them for his sons sake this morning we bend our course for home may the Lord prosper our journey Amen.”16 Joseph and Sidney returned by crossing Lake Erie and arrived in Kirtland on November 4.17
Two weeks later, Joseph Smith sent a letter to Moses Nickerson to inform him of his safe return and to convey his feelings for the fledgling branch in Mount Pleasant. “I shall expect a communication from you on the reception of this, and hope you will give me information concerning the brethren, their health, faith, &c.,” Joseph wrote. He continued: “I can truely say, that with much fervency I have called upon the Lord in behalf of our brethren in Canada. And when I call to mind with what rediness they received the word of truth by the ministry of bro. Sidney and myself, I am truely under great obligation to humble myself in thankfulness before him.”
Joseph then pleaded with Nickerson to remain faithful to his new convictions: “You remember the testimony which I bore in the name of the Lord Jesus, concerning the great work which he has brought forth in the last days. You know my manner of communication, how that in weakness and simpleness I declared to you what the Lord had brought forth by the ministering of his holy angels to me, for this generation. I pray that the Lord may enable you to treasure these things up in your mind; for I know that his Spirit will bear testimony to all who seek diligently after knowledge from him. I hope you will search the scriptures, to see whether these things are not also consistant with those things that the ancient prophets and apostles have written.”18
The Mount Pleasant congregation continued to grow after Joseph and Sidney’s departure. By December 1833, there were reportedly 34 members there.19 The congregation may have reached as many as 50 within the next few years.20 Eventually, most of the believers there either emigrated to join the Saints in the United States or drifted away from the Church.21
Freeman Nickerson, the man who had traveled to Kirtland to ask the Prophet to preach to his sons, participated in the Zion’s Camp expedition in 1834 (two sons, Uriel and Levi, accompanied him), gathered with the Saints in Nauvoo, and died in early 1847 in Iowa Territory on the westward migration.22
Moses Nickerson and Eleazer Freeman Nickerson joined with the Saints in the western United States for a time in the late 1830s, but both returned to Canada in the early 1840s. Eleazer, who died in 1862, appears to have continued to consider himself a Latter-day Saint.23 Moses affiliated with two other denominations prior to his death in 1871.24 In a poignant memoir written late in his life, he expressed admiration for Joseph Smith, whom he had encountered when visiting Nauvoo in the early 1840s: “I here found Joseph Smith living in a tent, having given up his house as a hospital for the sick! He was doing all he could to alleviate their sufferings.”25
Joseph Smith’s mission to Canada opened “an effectual door” for the preaching of the gospel and the saving of souls in more ways than one. In 1836, Apostle Parley P. Pratt traveled to Upper Canada to preach the gospel there. On his journey, Pratt was accompanied by his brother Orson and by Eleazer Freeman Nickerson. In Hamilton, Upper Canada, Parley P. Pratt became acquainted with Moses Nickerson. Moses provided Pratt a letter of introduction to a religious seeker from Toronto named John Taylor.26