“‘I Quit Other Business’: Early Missionaries,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“‘I Quit Other Business’: Early Missionaries,” Revelations in Context
John Murdock began preaching the gospel immediately after his baptism in November 1830, one of the scores of converts taught by Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer Jr. when they stopped in the Kirtland, Ohio, area during the Church’s first organized missionary effort.1 “Being thronged with inquiries, I quit other business,” Murdock recorded, “and gave my full time to the ministry.” Within four months, he was responsible for adding “about seventy souls” to the Church.2 By April 1834, when he joined Zion’s Camp, Murdock had been gone from home almost continuously for three years, preaching the gospel.
In January 1831, Jared Carter, a 29-year-old tanner in Chenango, New York, set off on a business trip, expecting to be gone for several weeks. Along the way, he heard of the Book of Mormon. It caused him “much astonishment,” but he read it and prayed earnestly that the Lord would “show [him] the truth of the book.” Immediately, he became convinced that it was a revelation of God. “It had such an influence on my mind,” he later wrote, “that I had no mind to persue my business. … I found I was completely unqualified for any business until I should go and assist the Church of Christ.”3 Three months later, Carter moved his family to the Kirtland area.4 Feeling as though “it was [his] indispensable duty to preach the gospel,” he departed in September of that year on the first of several missions to the eastern United States that would occupy him almost continuously for the next three years.5
Jared Carter and John Murdock were not unique. As other men embraced the new message of the Restoration, they accepted the call to preach as their “indispensable duty.” The missionary mandate originated in revelation as a “calling and commandment”: “Every man which will embrace it with singleness of heart may be ordained and sent forth,” the Lord declared.6
Just as revelation called for missionary work, missionary work led to further revelation. The Doctrine and Covenants shows how the Lord built on what early Church members already knew about missionary work to give His Church an increasingly distinctive missionary system over time.
In the early 19th century, unprecedented spiritual fervor swept the English-speaking world, diffused through numerous churches and religious movements. Especially on the American frontier, missionaries of various stripes were a common sight. Unnumbered preachers, seekers, evangelists, and lay ministers labored relentlessly to bring their gospel message to the people.7 The Methodists—a sect to which many early Latter-day Saints belonged at one time—were especially prolific, building their success on an extensive system of itinerant preaching.8 Many other believers, whether on their own initiative or representing a group, set out with little but a burning desire to proclaim the gospel as they understood it.
Most of these multitudinous preachers followed a New Testament pattern, traveling “without purse, and scrip,”9 seeking food and shelter along with listening ears. Many offered baptism; some simply preached the necessity of spiritual reform or religious restoration. Their messages were biblical and urgent, sometimes welcome and sometimes not. For local people, a preaching meeting was an occasion for entertainment and socializing, regardless of how interested they were in the message. If sparks could fly between the visiting messenger and the local minister, that was all the more exciting.
Latter-day Saints knew these patterns well and adopted or adapted many of them. But they knew they had something more to offer: new revelation, new scripture, and divinely restored authority. That burning testimony prompted scores of men such as Jared Carter and John Murdock to “quit other business” and devote their time to the ministry, converting scores of others who, in turn, helped spread the word.
Though early Latter-day Saint missionaries drew in part on the practices of other churches, several revelations provided the foundation for their missionary efforts in the early 1830s. The revelation sometimes called the “law of the Church” (Doctrine and Covenants 42) addressed the “elders of [the] church” and established basic procedures.10 “Ye shall go forth in the power of my Spirit, preaching my gospel, two by two, in my name, lifting up your voices as with the sound of a trump, declaring my word like unto angels of God,” the Lord commanded.11
The elders were to declare repentance and baptize and thus “build up [the Lord’s] church in every region.” They were to teach “the principles of [the] gospel” from the Bible and the Book of Mormon and follow the “covenants and church articles” (that is, the guidelines found in Doctrine and Covenants 20). Most importantly, they were to teach “as … directed by the Spirit”: the Lord taught, “If ye receive not the Spirit ye shall not teach.”12 Another revelation to the “elders of [the] church,” Doctrine and Covenants 43, reiterated the command: “Lift up your voices and spare not.” The elders were to be “taught from on high,” and they were to deliver an urgent message of warning: “Prepare yourselves for the great day of the Lord.”13 In the fall of 1832, an important revelation on priesthood, now Doctrine and Covenants 84, gave more extensive instructions for missionaries—setting forth the New Testament pattern they were to follow, expounding on the messages they were to deliver, and assuring them of God’s power and protection.14
The June 1831 conference of the Church, held at Kirtland, yielded a dramatic opportunity for many elders to apply revealed patterns. Twenty-eight men, in addition to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, were commanded by revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 52) to make their way, “two by two,” to Missouri. The next conference of the Church would be held there, and the specific location for the city of Zion would be made known.15 John Murdock was assigned to travel with Hyrum Smith by way of Detroit.16
This call came at a time of great sorrow for Murdock. Just five weeks earlier, his wife, Julia, had died shortly after giving birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Emma Smith had given birth to a set of twins on the same day, but the babies had not survived. Joseph Smith asked Murdock to let him and Emma raise the motherless newborns.17 But that poignant decision still left Murdock with three small children to raise—two boys and one girl, six years old and younger—in the midst of his pressing commitment to missionary work. When the call to Missouri came, he arranged for other Church members to care for his children and departed, likely without realizing that he would not return for almost a year.
That year was one of extreme hardship for Murdock. He traveled through territory that was essentially a wilderness. One day, he recorded, they “waded through Mudy creek waist deep in mud 2 inches of water on the top of the mud and snakes in the water 4 Rods acrost it and prickly vines runing in the mud which cut our legs.” When the men finally got out of the creek, they had to travel half a mile before they found enough water to wash the mud off their feet and legs so they could attend to their wounds.18 Crossing the Mississippi, Murdock “got [his] feet wet” and soon became very sick. Murdock was still ill when he and his companions met up with Joseph Smith in Jackson County; he suffered for the remainder of his mission, and his bad health delayed his return to Kirtland.19 Nonetheless, he recorded that he did much preaching and baptizing.
Murdock and his fellow missionaries also experienced plenty of rejection and human opposition. Once Murdock spent “half of the day trying to get up a meeting” in Detroit but “could find nobody willing to hear.” One man, Murdock wrote, “turned me out of his door for preaching Repentance to him.”20 He also noted several instances of unfriendly ministers who challenged the elders to debate, sometimes angrily.
When he returned to his children in June 1832, Murdock found that all was not well. The family caring for his eldest son had left the Church and demanded payment for keeping the boy, the family keeping his other son had moved to Missouri, and the family caring for his daughter “would keep her no longer” and also demanded payment. His “little daughter Julia,” one of the twins, was thriving in the care of Emma and Joseph, but not her brother. “My little son Joseph was dead,” Murdock recorded. “When the Prophet was halled out of bed by the mob in Hyrum, the child having the mezles lay in bed with him.” Though targeting the prophet, the mob had harmed the baby. “At the time they stripped the cloth off the child he took cold and died. They are in the Lord’s hands,” Murdock added, referring to the members of the mob.21
Murdock was home for two months, “confirming and strengthening the church and regaining [his] health,” before departing again to fulfill the call received by revelation in August 1832 to “go into the eastern countries” and proclaim the gospel.22 But first, the Lord instructed Murdock to see that his children were “provided for, and sent up kindly unto the bishop of Zion.”23 This time it would be two years before Murdock and his children were reunited. Sadly, just after his arrival in Missouri, Murdock received word that his six-year-old daughter, Phebe, had come down with cholera. “I had seen all my children in good health,” he recorded, “but the destroyer commenced his work.” John cared for his little girl for several days, but she died on July 6.24 Within a few months, he left on yet another mission, this time bound for Ohio.
John Murdock’s experiences illustrate the combination of individual initiative and divine mandate that spurred early Latter-day Saint missionary work. Sometimes men left their business and set out to preach on the basis of individual desire, prompting from the Spirit, or obedience to the general expectation that elders would “lift up [their] voices”; at other times they were commissioned through revelation that called them by name and specified a field of labor. Many of those revelations, such as Doctrine and Covenants 75, 79, 80, and 99, are part of the scriptures today.
Like John Murdock, Jared Carter went on missions both by formal calling and out of personal initiative. In the fall of 1831, while John Murdock was lying sick in Missouri, Carter set out with a companion on a “mission to the east,” and soon reached his hometown of Benson, Vermont. In another pattern typical of Latter-day Saint missionaries, his intention was to share his newfound faith with his “connections”—his relatives and friends.25 Arriving in Benson in late October, Jared immediately “commenced holding meetings” and exhorting the people “to pray earnestly to the Lord to know the truth of this work.” Most people made light of his message and opposed his efforts, but, Jared recorded, “those that continued to call on the name of the Lord soon became convinced that the work was true and were baptized.”26 The 27 people converted through Jared Carter’s efforts had been members of the Free Will Baptist sect to which the Carter kin belonged. Their substantial stone meetinghouse with a vaulted ceiling soon became a Latter-day Saint meeting place.27
Carter labored in the area for nearly three months. His journal records several instances of miraculous “healing manifestations” after his administration to the sick.28 This was another pattern in early Latter-day Saint missionary work. Elders testified that the gifts of the Spirit were active in the new Church and demonstrated the Lord’s promise that He would show “miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on [His] name.”29 Those gifts also benefited the elders themselves, often providing specific guidance in their work. In January—in the dead of a New England winter—Jared began traveling again, following the Spirit’s promptings regarding what direction to take. Having followed an impression to go to a certain town, Jared was surprised to meet up with his own brother, saving himself a 50-mile detour.30
Jared returned home to Ohio on the last day of February 1832, “having been gone on this mission five months and upwards.”31 A few weeks later he visited Joseph Smith “to inquire [about] the will of the Lord concerning my ministry the ensuing season.”32 The resulting revelation, Doctrine and Covenants 79, instructed him to “go again into the eastern countries, from place to place, and from city to city, in the power of the ordination wherewith he has been ordained.”33 He departed on April 25 and was gone for six months, laboring extensively in Vermont and New York with some success. The Lord has “blessed me with sheaves and with health and blessed be his name,” Carter wrote.34
Because it was men who were ordained to go forth and preach, women’s contributions to early missionary work may be less visible. But those efforts too were vital. An incident from Jared Carter’s second mission to Vermont illustrates this point. In July 1832, he recorded that he visited his brother-in-law Ira Ames, “in which time [Ames] became convinced of the truth of the Book of Mormon and was willing to be baptized.”35
But there was more to the story. Ira Ames had heard of the gospel two years earlier from his mother. In August 1830, Ames received a letter from his mother, Hannah, informing him that she and several relatives (including Jared Carter) had been baptized. Ames had already heard of the Church from other sources and felt some interest, but the letter from his mother had a powerful effect. “When reading over my Mothers letter it ran through me like lightning, it roused every feeling of my mind, the effect was powerful,” he remembered. These feelings prompted him to pray for a witness “whether the letter and the matter of it was true or false.” In response, a “clear calmness” entered his mind.36 Jared Carter’s visit almost two years later provided Ira his first opportunity to act on that testimony.
Many Latter-day Saint women likewise reached out to family members and friends, often in letters such as the one from Hannah Ames, testifying of their faith and inviting loved ones to join them. “I can say that did you know of the things of God and [could you] receive the blessings that I have from the hand of the Lord you would not think it a hardship to come here,” wrote Phebe Peck from Independence, Missouri, in August 1832, to an “Affectionate Sister.” She continued, “The Lord is revealing the misteries of the heavenly Kingdom unto his Children.”37 Rebecca Swain Williams testified to her family that she had heard the testimonies of the Smith family and “from the three witnesses them selves” concerning the Book of Mormon.38 Such testimonies surely found receptive ears on many occasions, and Jared Carter was likely not the only Church elder to harvest seeds planted by women.