An Illinois Reunion: A Lesson in Joseph Smith’s Tenacity

By Elizabeth A. Kuehn, Volume Editor

Those interested in the life of Joseph Smith are usually quite familiar with his incarceration in Clay County, Missouri, during the winter of 1838–1839 and the trials and soul-searching of that period. But perhaps less well-known is what came after Smith was reunited with his family and followers. After his harrowing imprisonment, one might expect him to have withdrawn from leadership and focused for a time on his own needs. Yet, demonstrating remarkable resiliency, he instead chose to focus on the needs of the Latter-day Saints, setting in motion plans that would shape the church for years to come.

On 22 April 1839, Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners arrived in Quincy, Illinois, after escaping while being transferred to Boone County, Missouri. Their reunion with family and friends came after nearly six months of separation. Latter-day Saint Dimick Huntington later claimed to have met Joseph Smith as he and his fellow prisoners landed at Quincy. Huntington described Smith dressed in old and worn clothing, unshaven, and looking pale and haggard. According to the same account, when Huntington asked Smith if he wished to see his parents, his response was, “No, it would be too great a shock, they are old and cannot bear it.” Instead, he asked Huntington to take him to his wife and children as quickly as he could. Huntington recounted: “On arriving at the house where his family was Emma knew him as he was dismounting from his horse. She met him halfway to the gate.”[1] Joseph Smith’s journal notes that he spent that day and the next “greeting and receiving visits from his brethren and friends.”[2]

Reunited at last with the family and friends he feared he would never see again in this life, Joseph Smith could have justifiably distanced himself from church leadership for a time and taken a much-deserved break to recover from his months of imprisonment. However, he instead quickly got to work. Although Smith had held the church together from jail, offering instruction and reassurance through frequent correspondence, his counsel to purchase land for the Saints had not been followed. On 24 April, two days after his arrival in Quincy, Smith chaired a meeting of church leaders and joined a newly organized committee tasked with purchasing land for the church. This committee left Quincy the next day to visit potential sites in Iowa Territory, and by 30 April members of the committee made contracts to purchase land from Isaac Galland and Hugh White. The group returned by 3 May, and over the next two days the church held a general conference in Quincy. This conference occurred less than two weeks after Joseph Smith’s return and was his first opportunity to address the entire church after months apart. According to a later reminiscence by Edward Stevenson, Smith stood in an open wagon to address the Saints and, rather than speaking, took in the assembled congregation. He remained silent for an unusually long time before, with evident emotion, finally addressing those in attendance: “To look over this Congregation of Latter Day Saints who have been driven from their homes and [are] still in good faith without homes as pilgrims in a strange land and to realize that my life has been spared to behold your faces again seemed to me so great a pleasure that the present scene was so great a sattisfaction that words seemed only a vague expression of my soul’s grattitude.”[3]

At this general conference so soon after his return, Joseph Smith and other church leaders, with the support of the assembled Saints, set in motion plans that would shape the future of the church for years to come. The conference addressed the persecution the Saints had experienced in Missouri, resolving to gather libelous reports and send a delegation to Washington DC to seek redress from the federal government. The conference then sanctioned the meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in Far West, Missouri, on 26 April 1839 and supported the apostles’ intended mission to England; the minutes of the conference note that the Saints would “do all in their power to enable them to go.”

Undaunted by his imprisonment and indignant over the mistreatment of his people, Joseph Smith arrived in Quincy and demonstrated his tenacity by resuming the work of leading the church. The plans he and other church leaders committed to in May 1839 would shape the church’s future, leading to Smith and others’ trip to Washington DC, the baptisms of thousands of British converts, and the building of new communities in Illinois and Iowa Territory, where the Saints would gather and ultimately build a second temple.

[1] Huntington, Statement, CHL.

[2] JS, Journal, 22–23 Apr. 1839.

[3] Stevenson, Autobiography, 129–130.