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Spencer: In late November 1830, Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge left Kirtland, Ohio, in a horse-drawn conveyance, likely a wagon. Destined for Fayette, New York, they were intent on meeting the prophet Joseph Smith.
Rigdon had been a member of the church for less than a month when he departed Kirtland, but Partridge was not yet a member. He was interested in the teachings of the Latter-day Saint missionaries but had refrained from baptism, determined to meet Joseph Smith himself before he made a decision about the church.
It is unclear what expectations Rigdon and Partridge carried with them as they set out to meet Joseph Smith, but their time in Fayette, New York, resulted in a flurry of revelations that changed the lives of all three men, that led Joseph Smith to move to Ohio, and that opened a new chapter in the young church's history. Those revelations are at the heart of this episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 2: “Go to the Ohio”
Spencer: The story of Sidney Rigdon and Edward Partridge meeting Joseph Smith goes something like this. Rigdon and Partridge first arrived in Manchester, New York, only to be told by the Smith family that Joseph and Emma Smith were no longer living there, but instead lived twenty-five miles southeast in Fayette. So Rigdon and Partridge journeyed onward.
When Rigdon and Partridge arrived in Fayette, they discovered a church meeting already in progress. They listened with the congregation. At the meeting’s end, Edward Partridge was ready to be baptized. When he told Joseph Smith of this desire, Joseph replied, “You have traveled a long way, I think you had better take some rest and refreshment and tomorrow morning be baptized.”
Mark: Edward Partridge is baptized there in New York.
Spencer: That’s Mark Staker, a curator with the Historic Sites division of the Church History Department.
Mark: Joseph is living in a cooper shop in Kingdom, a little community just on the edge of Waterloo, in New York at that time. They have no place to live. They’re looking to get themselves established somewhere.
Spencer: Despite the uncertainty of Joseph and Emma Smith’s living conditions in the winter of 1830, Joseph continued the work of building up and leading the church. On December 9, Smith dictated a revelation for Partridge, calling him to preach the gospel as a missionary. That revelation is in the Doctrine and Covenants today as section 36. Partridge soon departed on his mission.
As for Sidney Rigdon, he stayed in Fayette a little longer and began to assist Joseph Smith with a new project—an inspired translation of the Holy Bible. We will discuss the history of that project in greater detail in a later episode. But during their work on that project in December 1830, a revelation inspired Joseph to move away from New York.
The revelation Joseph dictated began like this: “Behold, I say unto you that it is not expedient in me that ye should translate any more until ye shall go to the Ohio, and this because of the enemy and for your sakes.”
A subsequent revelation on January 2, 1831 expanded on the commandment to move to Ohio, stating, “that ye might escape the power of the enemy, and be gathered unto me a righteous people, without spot and blameless— Wherefore, for this cause I gave unto you the commandment that ye should go to the Ohio; and there I will give unto you my law; and there you shall be endowed with power from on high.”
The direction of the revelation was simple: “Go to the Ohio.” The promise of the revelation was grand: in Ohio, God promised to give the Saints His law and to endow them with power from on high.
But the revelation also talked about gathering and preserving the Latter-day Saints. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers Project, explains.
Elizabeth: The other side of the story is that persecution in New York is becoming very intense against Joseph. He’s being pulled in for these libelous court cases; there’s just a lot of opposition, and New York is not an area where the church can flourish anymore. And so, knowing that Kirtland is this area that had a lot of converts, a lot of interest, and it’s also an area that is able to accommodate large growth and a large settlement of Saints, I think both instructed by the Lord, and it makes a lot of sense for Joseph to move.
Spencer: So in late January 1831, Joseph and Emma Smith loaded up their meager possessions and set out for Ohio. The weather was cold and Emma was pregnant with twins. The roads westward were unreliable and, as it turns out, it was a particularly dangerous time to make the trip. Mark Staker explains.
Mark: Remember I said that it’s not easy to get out in a wagon, the roads are really terrible, and not only that, but the snow is incredibly deep, where it’s been an unusually cold winter, and it created a lot of problems. People mentioned finding dead people along the trail who’ve camped under their wagons trying to keep warm, so it’s really terrible circumstances, but the Lord commanded them and so they go.
Spencer: Joseph’s parents and siblings would eventually move to Ohio as well. But they were not the only Latter-day Saints to make the trek from New York to the Kirtland area. Many of their fellow church members made the move as well. In fact, an entire branch of the church moved to Ohio from Colesville, New York. I asked Elizabeth Kuehn if we knew the precise number of church members who moved to Ohio at this time.
Elizabeth: We don’t have great numbers for that, but it seems to be about two hundred. That’s kind of the scholarly estimates, that it was about two hundred New York Saints that initially came with Joseph and Emma.
Spencer: While later migrations of the Saints would occur in much larger numbers, this was still a sizeable migration, and it moved the church’s headquarters and largest number of members from New York to Ohio.
But this moment is also notable because of the change that occurred within Sidney Rigdon. He had accepted the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as preached by Latter-day Saint missionaries prior to traveling to Fayette to meet Joseph Smith. But his time with the prophet in late 1830 and early 1831 deepened his conversion. His time with Joseph Smith, his work on the Bible translation project, and his witnessing of Joseph Smith dictating revelation that conveyed the mind and will of God, it all cemented Rigdon’s commitment to building up the church. And the church in its young state needed a person like Rigdon.
In my conversation with Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department, he reflected on the significance of Sidney Rigdon’s conversion to the early history of the church.
Matt: Sidney is such an interesting figure in the early church because no one has the preaching background of Sidney Rigdon. So oftentimes in those early years when Joseph needs someone to preach publicly, if it’s a prominent Fourth of July sermon, he’s going to turn to Sidney Rigdon because Sidney is just an amazing preacher. And people lived in an oral culture back then more than we live in an oral culture. I mean if there’s a sacrament meeting talk and it’s gone past twelve minutes, our minds are wandering and we’re fidgeting in our seats. We just live in a different culture.
People could listen to Sidney Rigdon preach for an hour, for an hour and a half. This is what they did, and he had that capacity to hold people’s attention and also this capacity as an older established man to embrace what he felt the Spirit was telling him, which is really incredible. And so very quickly, he’s going to become so instrumental to Joseph Smith and really a tutor, a mentor to Joseph Smith. If you think about it, Joseph Smith has never led anything. Sidney Rigdon has. Sidney is organized. He’s led congregations. He knows how to work with people in a way that Joseph in his mid-twenties just doesn’t understand yet. He needs that mentoring, that teaching that someone like Sidney Rigdon can share with him.
Spencer: But Rigdon was not the only one whose meeting with Joseph Smith would prove vital to the early leadership of the church. When Joseph drove his sleigh into Kirtland, Ohio, one day in February 1831, he met another man who, like Rigdon, would play a key role in building up the Church of Christ.
Spencer: Newel and Elizabeth Whitney were residents of Kirtland and ran a prominent store there. They were interested in religion and were members of Sidney Rigdon’s congregation. They were particularly interested in receiving the gifts of the Spirit that they read about in the New Testament and frequently prayed for them. As Elizabeth recalled years later, one night while praying she and her husband saw a vision. In that vision, they saw a cloud resting over their house and a voice from heaven declaring, “Prepare to receive the word of the Lord, for it is coming.” Not many days later the first Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Kirtland and Elizabeth believed what they preached. Newel was more reluctant to accept the missionary’s message than his wife was, but he eventually joined her in participating in the new church.
But after the missionaries left Kirtland, this large group of new converts were disorganized and often debated among themselves on matters of doctrine and modes of worship. So Elizabeth and Newel Whitney continued to pray for divine direction. One day in February 1831, the direction they had so earnestly prayed for walked into their store.
Elizabeth: The story goes, it’s February of 1831. Joseph jumps from the sleigh he was riding in, strides into the store full of confidence, and is able to identify Newel K. Whitney by sight, and apparently leads with the quote, “Newel K. Whitney, thou art the man. You have prayed me here, now, what do you want of me?”
And Whitney has no idea who this man is and asks for some clarification. And Joseph explains that he saw him in vision, praying for him, and he introduces him and his wife and his family to the gospel. And they’re quick to convert and become just ardent supporters and very close friends of the Smith family.
Spencer: The arrival of Joseph and Emma Smith in Kirtland was an answer to the Whitneys’ prayers. And the Whitneys were immediately supportive of the Smiths. They invited Joseph and Emma to live with them until they could get more permanently settled in the area. The Whitneys gave up their bedroom for the Smiths and, as Mark Staker explains, the timing of their hospitality was crucial.
Mark: They’re giving up their bedroom for Joseph and Emma. Emma was also pregnant with twins, well along with her pregnancy at that time. So, they’re all upstairs—a great sacrifice, real dedication on their part—allowing the Smiths to come in and trying to take care of them.
Spencer: Within days, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation that made it clear he was going to stay in Ohio for a while. That revelation, now canonized as section 41 of the Doctrine and Covenants, stated, “And again, it is meet that my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., should have a house built, in which to live and translate.” Isaac and Lucy Morley would arrange for that house to be built on their farm, and Joseph and Emma Smith would move there in March 1831. It was the following month that Emma delivered twins. Both twins died shortly after birth. However, a few days later the Smiths adopted twins Julia and Joseph Murdock, whose mother had died in childbirth. It was a time of complex emotions for Joseph and Emma Smith, a time of grief and a time of celebration.
Beyond his family responsibilities, Joseph was busy in the weeks immediately following his arrival in Kirtland. In February and March 1831, he received a flurry of revelations. Most of these revelations sought to put the rapidly growing church in order. For example, a February 1831 revelation, now section 43 of the Doctrine and Covenants, clarified that Joseph Smith, as a prophet, was the only one appointed to receive revelation for the church. This was an important point of clarification for the young church. While Joseph and other church leaders encouraged men and women to seek the will of God—to seek revelation for themselves—some church members were declaring that they had received revelation for the entire church.
March was another month filled with revelation, several of which pertained to establishing order and processes. For example, one of those March revelations instructed elders on how to conduct worship services. Another appointed John Whitmer to serve as the church’s historian. Then there was a revelation directing church leaders and members alike on how to manage the migration of hundreds of people to Kirtland so that the fledgling community could better accommodate this influx in its population. Those revelations are now sections 46, 47, and 48 of the Doctrine and Covenants, respectively.
Yet one revelation was of particular interest to Joseph Smith and his fellow Saints. It was a revelation that became known simply as “The Law.” You will recall that the revelations directing Joseph Smith and the Saints to “go to the Ohio” promised that, once there, God would give unto them His law and that the Saints would be “endowed with power from on high.”
Well, the revelation known as “The Law” came to Joseph Smith in stages on February 9 and 23, 1831. The revelation represented a major step in the directing church members on how to live more righteously, how to preach the gospel, and on how to build up the church. For example, the first passage of the revelation commanded the elders of the church to go out into the world, two by two, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, inviting others to repent and be baptized. The revelation clarified that priesthood ordination was required for all who served such missions at that time and exhorted them to preach by the power of the Holy Ghost. “The Law” then expounded a long list of commandments, including many that were well known as part of the Ten Commandments found in the Old Testament.
Then, the revelation turned to the establishment of a new economic system intended on helping the Saints care for the poor and the needy and, ultimately, to help the Latter-day Saints to live in harmony, having all things in common and no poor among them. That spiritual and economic plan became known as the Law of Consecration, and we’ll talk a little more about it in a later episode.
Finally, the first stage of the revelation concluded with a promise that if the Saints were obedient to the commandments of God, then God would reveal the location where the city of New Jerusalem, a city prophesied of in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, would be built and that their faith and obedience would result in salvation.
The second stage of the revelation came on February 23 and warned the Saints against committing adultery and instructed church leaders on how to handle discipline of church members guilty of fornication.
This was a monumental revelation. On February 22, Joseph Smith wrote to his friend Martin Harris, who was still living in Palmyra, New York, and urged him to move to Kirtland as soon as he could. In that letter, he added: “We have received the laws of the Kingdom since we came here and the Disciples in these parts have received them gladly.” Some members eagerly made handwritten copies of the revelation, not wanting to wait for its publication to share it with others.
So, as promised, Joseph Smith received “The Law” by revelation in February 1831. What about the promised endowment of power? That would come in phases over the following months and years.
Spencer: Even as Joseph Smith was anxiously engaged in receiving revelations that helped establish order in the church, he continued a massive scriptural undertaking—a translation of the Holy Bible. This was not a translation in the literal sense; Joseph was not translating the words of the Bible from one language to another. Instead, he was expanding passages of the Bible and making corrections to the text by revelation.
We know this project started while Joseph Smith was still living in New York. But precisely when and under what circumstances did it begin?
Mark: We know that this happened in June of 1830, but it kind of comes out of the blue. We’re not really sure what the exact circumstances for that are.
Spencer: That’s Mark Ashurst-McGee, a historian and the Senior Review Editor of The Joseph Smith Papers.
Mark: If we kind of take a step back and look at a little bit bigger context, I think we can get some traction there, and I would go all the way back to the Book of Mormon. In the beginning of the Book of Mormon, Nephi has his vision of the future, and he sees that the gentile nations crossed the great waters and come to the promised land. And he says that they have with them a book, which is like the record of the Jews, and this is almost always interpreted as Europeans coming to America with the Bible. And he says, it’s like the record of the Jews, but it’s different in that it has many plain and precious things removed, and the missing parts are causing people to stumble.
And so you have a few instances of this phrase, plain and precious parts that are missing from the Bible. And you also have this explicitly contrasted with the Book of Mormon itself containing the fullness of the gospel. And then I think there’s a connection there with the Joseph Smith Translation, because a couple of the revelations to Joseph Smith about the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, in these revelations, the voice of the Lord talks about the fullness of my scriptures, the fullness, similar to the fullness of the gospel in the Book of Mormon. So I think that as early as the Book of Mormon, you have this idea that there’s some things missing from the Bible and that the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible is restoring some of these missing parts.
Spencer: One of those missing parts Mark referenced is the first chapter of what Joseph Smith identified as the Book of Moses, what appears as a preface to the book of Genesis in the Old Testament. In that preface we read about Moses speaking with God face to face and seeing an expansive vision of God’s creations and of the history of the earth and humankind.
I asked Mark what records we have of Joseph Smith describing his translation of the Bible to others.
Mark: There’s not a lot of description from Joseph Smith about this project. So you have Joseph Smith mentioning it on occasion in letters in other places. He refers to it as the “new translation.” Some of the most insightful things we have in terms of understanding that project come from revelations during the time of the Joseph Smith Translation, where the Lord refers to it as “the fullness of my scriptures.” So this idea that it’s restoring some things into the scriptures that ought to be there, to make them full. Whereas before, there have been plain and precious parts that were missing. And then you also have in Joseph Smith’s history, a reference to the Joseph Smith Translation as a branch of my calling. So this is a significant undertaking for Joseph Smith that he saw as part of his prophetic mission.
Spencer: What do we know about how Joseph Smith went about this work? What do we know about his revelatory translation process?
Mark: In terms of Joseph Smith’s mind and the actual method of translation, we really don’t have anything explicit from Joseph Smith himself and little to nothing from others. I think the best evidence of what’s going on is actually to be found in the text itself, and what you see is a range of different activities. So, on the one end, you have these really significant doctrinal revisions and even massive expansions of passages in the Bible. The greatest example of this by far is the Enoch expansion. You have a few verses on Enoch in the book of Genesis early on and Joseph Smith reveals hundreds of words of information about Enoch and his people in their city and their translation that are far beyond what we find in the Bible itself. That’s one end of the spectrum.
All the way over on the other end of the spectrum, you have teeny, tiny changes, and you even have changes—I’m talking about changes like changing “that” to “which” or changing “that” or “which” to “who” when it’s referring to a person, or changing a word like “between” to “betwixt.” And you even have changes where it’s not even a change of one word to another, it’s a change of one word from archaic spelling to a more modern spelling. Of course, that might be just the results of what the scribe hears and writes down. But I’m talking about hundreds of very small changes like this, and they are a different category than the expansions you get like in the book of what’s now the Book of Moses or in Joseph Smith–Matthew. And then you have kind of a whole range in between there. And it just seems to me that if you read the large expansions and things like Moses, chapter 1, it’s clear that these are meant to be taken as revelation. And you have some notes to that effect in the early chapters of Genesis, where the Joseph Smith Translation manuscripts actually say, “This is revelation.”
Spencer: Joseph Smith eventually completed his translation of the Bible in Kirtland but never published it in full during his lifetime. Emma Smith and her son, Joseph Smith III, would publish the translation of the Bible decades after Joseph’s death.
However, portions of the project were printed in church publications and on broadsides while Joseph Smith was still alive, including the Book of Moses.
Today, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints read portions of what became known as the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in the Pearl of Great Price and in the footnotes of the King James Version of the Bible that is published by the church.
Yet Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible matters to the story of Kirtland beyond its partial publication in that place. As Joseph Smith worked through a revelatory process with ancient text—with scripture—he received revelation for the church in those moments. Revelation begat revelation, and his work with the words of ancient prophets inspired action to help members of the church to better connect with heaven. One such revelation concerned priesthood ordination.
Spencer: Amid the flurry of revelations received by Joseph Smith in the months immediately following his move to Ohio, amid the work of situating his family in a new place, amid the sea of emotions Joseph and Emma experienced as Emma gave birth to twins who died within hours and then adopting twin newborns, amid the effort required to bring order to the rapidly growing church, amid all of this, in early June 1831, a conference of the elders of the church met at the Morley farm.
A month earlier, most of the church members who were moving from New York to gather in Ohio had arrived. The main body of the Saints was now centered in Kirtland. The meeting occurred over multiple days. The recorded minutes do not provide a lot of details on what was said but focus primarily on priesthood ordination. At that meeting, Joseph Smith and several others were ordained to what Joseph calls the “high priesthood.” Many who are present later recalled the event and described the high priesthood as the Melchizedek priesthood, but Joseph Smith and others had not yet adopted such standard language to describe priesthood in the church. They had not yet started to use words such as confer or ordain in the clear way that those words are used in the church today. In fact, this meeting occurred at a time when it seems that Joseph and others were still trying to fully grasp the role and function of priesthood in the church.
However, as this meeting occurred it is likely that a passage from the Bible translation was still fresh in Joseph’s mind as this meeting occurred. It comes from Genesis chapter 14, verses 26 through 30. The inspired version reads:
“Every one being ordained after this order & calling, should have power, by faith, to break Mountains, to divide the Seas, to dry up waters, to turn them out of their course, to put at defiance the armies of Nations, to divide the Earth, to break every band, to stand in the presence of God; to do all things according to his will, according to his command; subdue principalities & powers, & this by the will of the Son of God, which was from before the foundations of the world.”
The priesthood authority that Joseph read about in the Bible—the expanded view of that priesthood that came from his inspired translation of that ancient text—almost certainly influenced the way that he taught about priesthood at this June 1831 conference of elders. Jonathan Stapley, a historian in the Church History Department, summarized the organization of the priesthood at this time.
Jonathan: Now, at this point in the church, there’s only a few officers. There are deacons, teachers, priests, and elders. There are no presidents, no quorums yet, no councils, and Joseph Smith reveals that the high priesthood is to be revealed. And at a conference in June 1831, elders gathered together, and for the first time, elders are ordained to the high priesthood. And in doing so, there is a dramatic outpouring of spiritual events.
Spencer: Whereas a revelation just months earlier had declared that Joseph Smith was the one appointed to receive revelation for the entire church, the ordination of men to the priesthood was an act of empowerment. It provided the means whereby men, through ordination and righteous living, could exercise the power of God and could, if needed, “stand in the presence of God.”
So if one of the major themes of Joseph Smith’s work and his revelations in the weeks and months immediately following his move to Kirtland was establishing order in a rapidly growing church, then this conference shows that part of that process, part of establishing order, was sharing authority and responsibility. Joseph was leading the church, but he invited others to participate in the work of the church so that they could more fully feel the power of God in their own lives, that they could better know for themselves the mind and will of their creator.
Reminiscent accounts of this meeting describe an outpouring of the Spirit upon many who were in attendance. That outpouring that Jonathan Stapley mentioned. But others noted that some at the meeting were also overcome by evil spirits that needed to be rebuked by the recently ordained among them. Were the manifestations of the Holy Spirit and the elders rebuking evil spirits part of the endowment of power promised in the earlier revelation? Some, such as Levi Hancock, thought that it was. But others looked for something more. While they recognized that the ordinations and instructions that they witnessed at the conference were a major milestone, they looked to the future for that promised endowment.
Levi Hancock recalled that at one point in the meeting, Joseph Smith prophesied as follows: “The kingdom that Christ spoke of that was like a grain of mustard seed was now before him and some should see it put forth branches just as the [S]aviour said and some of you shall live to see it come with great glory some of you must die for the testemony [sic] of this work.”
The conference concluded with a revelation received by Joseph Smith. The bulk of the revelation pertained to mission calls. For some, this would be their first missionary service in a lifetime filled with journeys—journeys to preach the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Spencer: At that June 1831 conference of elders on the Morley farm, Joseph Smith declared a bold future for the church. Just how much he knew about that future at this time is unclear. But within a few weeks of that conference, Smith received a revelation that would illuminate that future for his fellow church members. But he did not receive that revelation in Kirtland. He received it hundreds of miles away in Jackson County, Missouri. What that revelation stated and what it meant for the future of the church is where we will pick up the story in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.