“The Journey of the Colesville Branch,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“The Journey of the Colesville Branch,” Revelations in Context
Joseph Smith may have been alone when he experienced his First Vision and subsequently met with the angel Moroni, but he did not stand alone in his home. His mother, father, and siblings formed a supportive family network. He could confide in his parents. He could rely on his siblings. Joseph’s wife, Emma, bore with Joseph the demands and strains of leadership, opposition, and persecution. Other friends, such as Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David and John Whitmer, stood with Joseph as he brought forth the Book of Mormon, organized the Church, and embarked on his quest to build a Zion society.
Equally notable among those whose connections strengthened and sustained Joseph during his many trials and travails were the extended Knight family and their neighbors in Colesville, New York. Allying themselves with the young Joseph Smith, they followed him into the budding Church, defended him, and formed the nucleus of one of the first branches of the Church. The story of the Knights and the Colesville Branch testifies of the power of kinship and friendship in the Restoration of the gospel and the building up of the Lord’s kingdom.
The story of the Colesville Saints began with Joseph’s visits to the region in the mid-1820s, when he began working for Josiah Stowell of neighboring South Bainbridge, New York, in a failed treasure-seeking venture. Though that quest proved unsuccessful, it yielded Joseph Smith’s close friendship with Joseph Knight Sr. and his son Newel Knight. Later, Joseph Knight Sr. aided Joseph in his courtship of Emma Hale. He was present at the Smith homestead the night Joseph Smith, with Emma’s help, retrieved the golden plates from the Hill Cumorah, and he provided food and writing materials to Joseph Smith during the Book of Mormon translation.
Knight family members and some of their neighbors were among the first to join the Church in 1830. Later that year they became the nucleus of one of the first (if not the first) branches organized in the Church. In July 1830, Joseph was counseled in two revelations, now found in Doctrine and Covenants 24 and 26, to visit the members in Colesville, including the Knights, to devote his time to “studying the Scriptures & to preaching & to confirming the Church at Colesvill.” 1 Hyrum Smith stayed in the area in late 1830 and presided over the branch for several months. His successor was Joseph Knight Sr.’s son Newel.
When instructions were given in December 1830 and January 1831 (see Doctrine and Covenants 37 and 38) for the New York members to move to the Ohio Valley region, the Colesville Branch members made significant financial sacrifices and prepared themselves for the move west. The families associated with the Colesville Branch included, among others, the Knights, Pecks, DeMilles, Stringhams, Culvers, Slades, Badgers, Hineses, and Carters. Everyone was expected to gather in Ohio, and the poor were not to be left behind. Setting aside their former lives and homes, the branch, under Newel Knight’s leadership, began the journey to the Kirtland area in April 1831. When they arrived in May, they were advised to “remain together, and go to a neighboring town called Thompson, as a man by the name of [Leman] Copley had a considerable tract of land there which he offered to let the brethren occupy.” 2
Copley had offered his land perhaps in response to an earlier revelation (see Doctrine and Covenants 48) given to answer a key question among the Ohio Saints in early 1831: “What preperations we shall make for our Brethren from the East & when & how?” 3 The revelation answered, “Inasmuch as ye [have] lands ye shall impart to the Eastern Brethren.” 4 Copley welcomed the members of the Colesville Branch, and shortly after their arrival in Thompson they began to plant and build on his ample 759-acre farm.
On May 20, Joseph Smith received another revelation, now identified as Doctrine and Covenants 51, directing those who settled in Thompson to be among the first to practice the recently revealed principles of consecration and stewardship. Newly called Bishop Edward Partridge was to “receive the properties of this People which have covenanted with me” and “appoint unto this People their portion every man alike according to their families according to their wants & their needs.” 5 Although the revelation made it clear that Ohio would be a temporary gathering location, they were reminded that the “hour & the day is not given unto them” for their anticipated move to the future city of Zion. They were to “act upon this land as for years.” 6
However, the Colesville Branch members had precious little time to comply with the commandment to implement the law of consecration. Leman Copley’s resolve to impart of his land was put to the test in early May when he participated in a mission to his former Shaker congregation. The experience seemed to raise doubts that weakened his testimony, and shortly after his return to Thompson he broke his agreement and evicted the Saints from his property. In June 1831, their future clouded and their lives in disarray, the Knights and other members of the Colesville Branch sought counsel and guidance from Joseph Smith as to what they should do next.
Instruction came in the form of a revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 54: “Take your Journeys into the regions westward unto Missorie [sic] unto the borders of the Lamanites & after you have done Journeying Behold I say unto you seek ye a living like unto men untill I prepare a place for you & again be patient in tribulation.” 7 Newel Knight later described the situation: “We now understood that [Ohio] was not the land of our inheritance—the land of promise, for it was made known in a revelation that Missouri was the place chosen for the gathering of the church, and several were called to lead the way to that state.” 8 Banding together once again, the Colesville members prepared for their journey. They selected Newel Knight to continue to preside over them despite his previous call, by revelation, to serve a proselytizing mission (see Doctrine and Covenants 52). In a revelation now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants 56, Knight was authorized to set aside his mission call and instead travel to Missouri as the head of the Colesville Branch.
Leaving Thompson in early June 1831, sixty members of the branch reached Kaw Township in Jackson County, Missouri, on July 26 after a journey of about a thousand miles. Though Joseph Smith had arrived shortly before the Colesville Saints, they had the distinction of being the first branch of the Church to settle the land that had been dedicated as Zion on August 2, 1831, by Sidney Rigdon. Sadly, Joseph Knight Sr.’s wife, Polly, died a few days after their arrival. According to his later history, Joseph Smith “attended the funeral of sister Polly [Peck] Knight. … This was the first death in the church in this land, and I can say a worthy member sleeps in Jesus till the resurrection.” 9
That same day, Joseph received the revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 59, outlining how the Church was to observe the Lord’s day. In that revelation, the Lord included words of comfort for Polly Knight’s family and friends: “Blessed … are they who have come up unto this land with an eye single to my glory according to my Commandments for them that live shall inherit the earth and them that die shall rest from all their labours & their works shall follow them they shall receive a crown in the mansions of my Father which I have prepared for them.” 10
Joseph Smith visited his friends in the Colesville Branch in Missouri again in April 1832. On that occasion, Joseph sealed the members of the branch up to eternal life. 11 During the Jackson County mobbing of 1833, the Colesville Branch fled with many other Saints into neighboring Clay County. They settled together there for a time, even building a chapel. However, once the Church moved on to Caldwell County in 1836, the branch membership was scattered, and their time together as one of the first organized units in the Church came to an end.
The Knights and others from the former branch joined many of the Saints in escaping to Illinois in the aftermath of the Missouri Mormon War of 1838. The Knights settled in the Nauvoo area and remained faithful members of the Church and friends of Joseph Smith. After Joseph’s martyrdom in 1844, the Knight family followed the leadership of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Both Joseph Knight Sr. and his son Newel died in 1847 during the exodus from Nauvoo to the Salt Lake Valley.