“A Mission to the Lamanites,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“A Mission to the Lamanites,” Revelations in Context
In a revelation given before the Book of Mormon was completely translated, the Lord said that the plates were preserved “that the Lamanites might come to the knowledge of their Fathers & that they may know the Promises of the Lord that they may believe the Gospel & rely upon the merits of Jesus Christ.”1 As the principal scribe of the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery knew that the book was written primarily “to the Laminates,” who were “a remnant of the house of Israel.”2 It was appropriate, then, that in September 1830, six months after the Book of Mormon was published, Oliver Cowdery was the first person instructed by revelation to “go unto the Lamanites & Preach my Gospel unto them.”3
Other early converts also expressed “a great desire” respecting “the remnants of the house of Joseph—the Lamanites residing in the west, knowing that the purposes of God were great to that people.”4 In response to those desires, Joseph Smith received another revelation, in which Peter Whitmer Jr. was called to accompany his brother-in-law Oliver Cowdery. The Lord directed him to “open thy mouth to declare my Gospel” and to “give heed unto the words & advice of thy Brother” who had been given power “to build my Church among thy Brethren the Laminates.”5
The following month, October 1830, Parley P. Pratt and Ziba Peterson were also called to go “into the wilderness among the Lamanites.” To aid them in this challenging assignment, the Lord promised that He would “go with them and be in their midst.”6
Because of the Indian Removal Act passed in May 1830, the new territory for relocating American Indians was to be in present-day Kansas and Oklahoma. Thus, these missionaries to the Lamanites planned to go west from Independence, Missouri, into Indian Territory.
Prior to leaving on this mission, Oliver Cowdery signed a covenant to walk humbly before God and to do “this glorious work according as he shall direct me by the Holy Ghost.”7 His three companions likewise signed a covenant that they would assist Oliver Cowdery “faithfully in this thing.”8 When they departed, they carried with them numerous copies of the Book of Mormon to distribute among their listeners.
In his autobiography, Parley P. Pratt wrote that, while still in New York, the four missionaries called on “an Indian [Seneca] nation at or near Buffalo; and spent part of a day with them, instructing them in the knowledge of the record of their forefathers.”9 In retrospect, the greatest impact of their mission occurred partway through their travels. Pratt tells how they continued on their journey until they stopped in Mentor, Ohio, to call on Sidney Rigdon, Pratt’s “former friend and instructor, in the Reformed Baptists Society.”10 They presented him with a copy of the Book of Mormon, which he promised to read, and then taught the restored gospel in many homes in the area. The consequence of this was that “at length Mr. Rigdon and many others … came forward and were baptized by us, and received the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands.”11 Pratt tells how “the news of the discovery of the Book of Mormon and the marvellous events connected with it” created a general “interest and excitement … in Kirtland, and in all the region round about. The people thronged us night and day, insomuch that we had no time for rest and retirement. Meetings were convened in different neighborhoods, and multitudes came together soliciting our attendance. … In two or three weeks from our arrival in the neighborhood with the news, we had baptized one hundred and twenty-seven souls.”12 Among those they introduced to the gospel there were Isaac Morley, John Murdock, Lyman Wight, and Edward Partridge.
This unanticipated success in Kirtland had enormous consequences for the future of the Church. Kirtland soon became an important early gathering place for Church members and would later be the site of the Church’s first temple. The group of Kirtland converts also yielded many early Church leaders. Conspicuous among these, of course, was Rigdon himself, who would later serve as a counselor to Joseph Smith. One new convert from the Kirtland area, Frederick G. Williams, joined the four missionaries on their journey.
While their primary purpose was to preach to the native tribes, Cowdery and his fellow missionaries continued to teach others they met along the way. Among these early encounters was a meeting with the Shaker community at North Union, Ohio. A second encounter with Shakers occurred at Union Village several miles north of Cincinnati. In each case, the missionaries left copies of the Book of Mormon with the Shakers, though this approach apparently met with little success: Richard McNemar, a resident of Union Village, read one of those books and noted, “Whatever benefit the Indians may derive from this book of Mormon, certain it is we can derive none.”13
Their travel in late December and through the month of January was difficult because of what has been called “the winter of the deep snow.” Parley P. Pratt described how the missionaries had to halt for a few days in Illinois on account of extended storms “during which the snow fell in some places near three feet deep.” With their original plans frustrated by ice in the river, they renewed their journey on foot, traveling, as Pratt wrote, “for three hundred miles through vast prairies and through trackless wilds of snow—no beaten road; houses few and far between; and the bleak northwest wind always blowing in our faces with a keenness which would almost take the skin off the face. … After much fatigue and some suffering we all arrived in Independence, in the county of Jackson, on the extreme western frontiers of Missouri, and of the United States.”14
Once the group arrived in Independence, Peter Whitmer Jr. and Ziba Peterson remained to earn money while Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, and Frederick G. Williams went over into Indian Territory. They first preached to the Shawnees and then to the Delawares. Speaking through an interpreter, Oliver Cowdery shared the essential message of the Book of Mormon. Part of his message, as recorded by Parley P. Pratt, was that “the Lord commanded Mormon and Moroni, their last wise men and prophets, to hide the Book in the earth, that it might be preserved in safety, and be found and made known in the latter day to the pale faces who should possess the land; that they might again make it known to the red man; in order to restore them to the knowledge of the will of the Great Spirit and to His favor.”15
The Delaware Indians were receptive, and the chief requested that the missionaries return in the spring when “you shall read to us and teach us more concerning the Book of our fathers and the will of the Great Spirit.”16 However, because of an order by a federal agent, the missionaries were expelled from Indian Territory. Seeking unsuccessfully to get authorization from William Clark, the superintendent of Indian affairs in the area, the missionaries were no longer able to proselytize in Indian Territory.17
Although the Lamanite mission thus ended, it helped chart the course the fledgling Church would follow during the coming decade. The missionaries had established the Church in the Kirtland area, and they prepared the way for Joseph Smith to go to Ohio in early 1831 and then call for the Saints in the east to move there as well. Later in 1831, Joseph himself traveled to Jackson County, where he identified the location of the New Jerusalem and, on August 3, 1831, near the Independence courthouse, laid a cornerstone for the temple.18