“The Faith and Fall of Thomas Marsh,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“The Faith and Fall of Thomas Marsh,” Revelations in Context
Few stories from Church history have been used as a cautionary tale as often as that of Thomas B. Marsh. The first to serve as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Marsh left the Church in 1838 and later repented, returning to full fellowship in 1857. His importance in the early Church is evidenced by his being the sole recipient of two revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and having been specifically instructed in four others.1
Marsh “ran away” from home at age 14 and supported himself with various jobs in Vermont and New York until his early 20s. After he married, he settled in Boston and found work in a type foundry for several years. He studied the Bible and religious sects, but he felt impressed that “a new church would arise, which would have the truth in its purity.”2
In 1829, Marsh “believed the Spirit of God dictated me to make a journey west.” With a friend, he traveled to western New York and stayed for three months. At one point, a woman asked if he had “heard of the Golden Book found by a youth named Joseph Smith.” Marsh “became very anxious to know concerning the matter” and visited Palmyra. He found Martin Harris at E. B. Grandin’s printing office, where the first 16 pages of the Book of Mormon had just come off the press. Because Joseph Smith was in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Harris took Marsh to Oliver Cowdery, “who gave me all the information concerning the book I desired.”
“Highly pleased” with all he learned, Marsh returned home to Boston and shared his new knowledge with his wife, who also believed it to be from God. “From this time for about one year I corresponded with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, jun., and prepared myself to move west,”3 Marsh wrote.
“Learning by letter that the Church of Jesus Christ had been organized on the 6th day of April, 1830,” he continued, “I moved to Palmyra, Ontario co., in September following, and landed at the house of Joseph Smith, sen., with my whole family. During this month I was baptized by David Whitmer, in Cayuga lake, and in a few days I was ordained an Elder by Oliver Cowdery with six Elders, at Father Whitmer’s house.”4
Later that same month, the second conference of the Church was held in Fayette, New York. During the proceedings, Joseph Smith received revelations for four individuals, including one for Thomas Marsh, now Doctrine and Covenants 31.5
The revelation is rich in content—some wording is similar to other early revelations, and some promises and instructions are personal for Marsh and his family. Marsh was told that he and his family, “yea thy little ones,” would be blessed. At that time, he had three sons, the oldest being nine years old. Marsh was called to serve as a missionary and was told that his sins were forgiven. He was counseled to be patient, to revile not, to pray always, and to give heed to the Comforter.
The revelation contains an intriguing promise: “Behold I say unto you that thou shalt be a P[h]ysician unto the Church but not unto the World for they will not receive thee.”6 What does the title mean? Was he recognized as a medical doctor, to aid members with medical needs, or was the meaning perhaps more religious in nature, as one called to spiritually minister or heal? There are only two mentions of Marsh helping members with physical ailments,7 and he had no special medical training. The term “physician of the soul” is as old as Socrates, and other churches have used the terms “doctor to the church” or “doctor of the church” for hundreds of years. The latter part of the verse, “but not unto the world, for they will not receive you,” adds to the ambiguity.
There is every indication that for several years Thomas Marsh humbly followed the counsel he received. He was ordained a high priest in 1831 and served missions in 1831 and 1832. He moved his family to “Zion” (Jackson County, Missouri) in 1832, settled on the Big Blue River, and served as branch president of the Big Blue branch. Along with other members of the Church, he was forced out of Jackson County in 1833 and moved to Lafayette County for the winter and then on to Clay County. He was called to the high council in Missouri in 1834 and named, with others, to receive an endowment of spiritual power in the house of the Lord in Kirtland, Ohio, which was then under construction.8
“Agreeable to revelation,” Marsh left for Kirtland in January 1835, preached along the way, and arrived in April.9 Unbeknownst to him during his travels, he had been called to the newly organized Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in February.10 Shortly after his arrival in Kirtland, he was ordained to the Quorum.11 By seniority and revelation, he was named president of the quorum, even though he was still a relatively young man of about 35 years.12
The next month, Marsh and other members of the Twelve left on a mission to the eastern states, returning in September. That fall and winter, he attended the Elders’ School and Hebrew school in Kirtland and participated in spiritual preparations for the endowment of power anticipated with the dedication of the house of the Lord in Kirtland. Marsh attended the dedication on March 27, 1836, as well as the solemn assembly three days later. The following month he began a trek back to his family in Missouri, preaching as he traveled. From July through September, he visited branches of the Church in Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee.
By the following year, relationships among the Twelve Apostles had deteriorated significantly. It was a time of intensifying conflicts and dissatisfaction within the Church in Kirtland. Among the Twelve, youth and inexperience, a lack of precedence, and disagreements about their role and purpose and the bounds of their authority caused disharmony.13 These difficulties were compounded by distance and communication struggles, as some resided in Kirtland and some in Missouri, and quorum members from both places were often called to serve missions elsewhere.
Hoping to bolster quorum unity, Marsh returned to Kirtland in July, only to find that some Apostles had left for a mission to Great Britain and several others had apostatized. Seeking counsel, Marsh visited Joseph Smith, who dictated a revelation for him (now Doctrine and Covenants 112). The revelation was a source of great guidance and comfort to Marsh, as well as stern admonition. Marsh was told that “all thy sins are forgiven” and that “I, the Lord, have a great work for thee to do.” The Lord also told Marsh, “I know thy heart and have heard thy prayers. … Thou art the man whom I have chosen to hold the keys of my kingdom (as pertaining to the twelve)” and “how great is your calling.” Yet Marsh was also told there were a few things in his life “with which I, the Lord, was not well pleased.” Marsh was counseled to “be ye faithful before me,” and for he and the Twelve to “exalt not yourselves; rebel not against my servant Joseph” but to “purify your hearts” and “cleanse your hearts” in preparation for proclaiming the gospel. The revelation also included the oft-quoted promise “Be thou humble, and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand and give thee an answer to thy prayers.”14
Relationships among the Twelve improved for a season, and in July, Marsh, Joseph Smith, and others departed for a mission to Canada.15 Returning to Far West, Missouri, Marsh continued his efforts to strengthen the Church and show support for Joseph Smith.16 A heavy blow to Marsh’s family fell the following May, when his second son, James, died suddenly at the age of 14 after a short illness.17 Joseph Smith preached his funeral sermon.
Within a few months, Marsh fell prey to a spirit of apostasy, as had many others. He was among several Latter-day Saints who became disturbed by the increasingly violent relationship between Church members and their Missouri neighbors. Also contributing to his deepening dissatisfaction was the infamous “cream strippings” incident, which occurred in August or September 1838, involving Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lucinda Harris, the wife of George W. Harris. According to George A. Smith, the women had agreed to exchange milk from their cows for making cheese. But counter to their agreement, Elizabeth allegedly kept the cream strippings—the richer part of the milk that rises to the top—before sending the rest of the milk to Lucinda. According to Smith, the matter went before the teachers quorum, then the bishop, and then the high council, all of whom found Elizabeth to be at fault. Marsh, not satisfied, appealed to the First Presidency, who agreed with the earlier decisions. Further hurt by this chain of events, the already frustrated Marsh was said to have declared “that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.”18
Sometime in the fall of 1838, Marsh left Far West with his family and began actively opposing the Saints. He swore out an affidavit in October 1838 that detailed his concerns about acts of violence and destruction he believed were being planned or carried out by members of the Church against their neighbors in Caldwell and Daviess Counties. The affidavit also stated his fear that “all the Mormons who refused to take up arms, if necessary in difficulties with the citizens, should be shot or otherwise put to death” and that “no Mormon dissenter should leave Caldwell county alive.”19 Orson Hyde added his signature in support of Marsh’s statements.
Although Marsh’s affidavit was just one piece of evidence against the Saints presented to Missouri officials, George A. Smith later declared, “That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an extermination order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs.”20 Spurned by his former friend and supporter, Joseph Smith harshly characterized Marsh’s two-page affidavit as containing “all the vilest calumnies, aspersions, Lies and slanders, towards myself and the Church that his wicked heart could invent.”21
Marsh’s bitter feelings toward the Church kept him away for almost two decades. At some point in the mid-1850s, having lost his wife and suffering from health problems, Marsh determined to reunite with the Church. His regret and repentance appeared to be humble and genuine. Writing to Heber C. Kimball in Salt Lake City, Marsh lamented, “The Lord could get along very well without me and He has lost nothing by my falling out of the ranks; But O what have I lost?!” Marsh further explained that he had “met with G W. Harris and a reconsiliation has taken place with us.”22
After Marsh’s arrival in Salt Lake City in September 1857, Brigham Young allowed him to address the Saints. In a weakened voice, Marsh explained his apostasy and asked for forgiveness:
“I have frequently wanted to know how my apostacy began, and I have come to the conclusion that I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart.
“The next question is, ‘How and when did you lose the Spirit?’ I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, … I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad.”23
After Marsh spoke, Brigham Young asked for a vote receiving Thomas B. Marsh back into full fellowship as a member of the Church, and not a hand was raised in opposition.24