Joseph Smith Documents from February 1838 through August 1839

In March 1839, while writing to the Latter-day Saints from a in , Joseph Smith expressed anguish and frustration over his imprisonment and the expulsion of his people from the land they called . As he reflected on these afflictions, his prose broke into prayer: “O God where art thou and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place how long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye yea thy pure eye behold from the etearnal heavens the [w]rongs of thy people and of thy servants and thine ear be penetrated with their cyes [cries].” The letter containing this prayer, like many documents produced in the surrounding months, opens to view one of the most difficult periods in the Mormon prophet’s personal life and for the Latter-day Saints generally. The sixth volume in the Documents series of The Joseph Smith Papers covers the period from February 1838 to August 1839. During these nineteen months, Joseph Smith moved from , Ohio, to , Missouri; established new communities in and , Missouri; and was involved in the armed conflict between the Latter-day Saints and other Missourians. Further, he was arrested and imprisoned based on charges of treason and other crimes; escaped custody and fled to , Illinois; and helped establish new settlements of Saints at , Illinois, and at , Iowa Territory.
The Mormon experience in illuminates the broader culture of antebellum . During the early nineteenth century, the United States saw a general increase in the number and intensity of violent conflicts between differing cultural, racial, and political groups. The Latter-day Saints had typically been viewed by other Missourians as outsiders—they came mostly from the North, whereas most Missourians came from the South. Their conflict can be seen in part as a representation of the cultural divide between North and South that was widening in the mid-nineteenth century. This divide would harden into a political struggle over the expansion of slavery into the West, with Missouri the westernmost state at the time, and would eventually culminate in a civil war. The conflict between the Saints and other Missourians took place in the far reaches of the state. Western Missouri had weak legal institutions that easily gave way to vigilantism and violence. The experience of the Saints thus highlights the young nation’s regional dynamics. The experience also reveals the problems of democracy and the blurry line between the rule of law and the rule of the people when it came to emerging groups on the margins of society. Of course, the difference between the Latter-day Saints and their Missouri neighbors was not only cultural but also religious. The Mormon experience in Missouri therefore also sheds light on the tenuous status of unpopular religious minorities in early America.
During February 1838, Joseph Smith was traveling from to , where he planned to relocate his family. Smith had intended to move to for several years. In July 1831, little more than a year after organizing the Church of Christ, he dictated a revelation designating Missouri as the “land of Zion.” The revelation further designated , in , as the “centre place” of Zion, at which to build “the .” Church members soon began migrating to Independence and other parts of the county. The earlier non-Mormon settlers in the area became increasingly suspicious of the growing population of Mormons and forcibly drove them from the county in 1833. Most of the displaced Saints took refuge on the other side of the , in . Meanwhile, Joseph Smith and church members in Kirtland—which by then had been designated as a “” of Zion—continued building up the community of Saints living there. While the Kirtland Saints were busy building a and developing the community, the growing population of Mormons in Clay County was becoming a concern to non-Mormons. By summer 1836, non-Mormon residents demanded that the Mormons leave Clay County. At the close of 1836, the Missouri legislature created , northeast of Clay County, as a place for the Saints to settle. Thereafter, many Missourians believed the Saints were obligated to confine their settlement to that location.
The Saints moved from to and established the town of as their central settlement. and , who were ’s counselors in the Zion , used money borrowed from Saints in Kentucky and Tennessee to help buy more land in the vicinity of Far West to begin an aggressive plan of development. Some church leaders in strongly believed that Phelps and Whitmer were circumventing the church’s system of decision making and were profiteering from land sales. As a result, in early 1837, apostles and , the Zion , and the Zion pressured Phelps and John Whitmer into transferring the Far West property to .
At this time, the church in was also embroiled in financial issues and leadership concerns. As the population of Latter-day Saints in had continued to grow, Joseph Smith and other church leaders had conceived expansive plans for the community, including a bank to help provide capital for development. This bank, called the , was organized in November 1836. Though church leaders were unable to obtain a bank charter from the Ohio legislature—or much in the way of capital—they nevertheless opened their financial institution in January 1837. The safety society struggled to acquire funding and support, with some economic competitors in the area actively opposing the bank. In May a nationwide financial panic caused wide-scale bank failures. The Kirtland banking venture succumbed, as did several other local Mormon enterprises, and unpaid debts brought on a tide of litigation against Joseph Smith and other Ohio Saints. These events contributed to the discontent with Joseph Smith that had been growing since winter 1836–1837. Even some of Smith’s closest associates now joined the ranks of the disillusioned.
In the following months, Smith took action to reconfirm his authority as the head of the church. He began by reorganizing the church’s leadership in and in fall 1837. In September, Smith convened a conference in Kirtland at which the church voted to accept or reject the current leaders. Those who attended voted to sustain the , with Joseph Smith as church president; and as counselors; and , , , and as assistant counselors. The members voted against three apostles and four members of the Kirtland high council, all of whom had been involved in the dissent against Smith’s leadership. A week later, the three apostles publicly confessed their errors and were consequently allowed to retain their office.
Following the conference, Joseph Smith conveyed the minutes in a letter to the church in . In the letter, he also stated that and were in transgression and that if they did not humble themselves they would lose their standing in the church. A revelation that Smith dictated the same day, which may have been enclosed with the letter to the church in Zion, stated that and had also transgressed against the Lord and would be removed from office if they did not repent.
Later in September, Joseph Smith and other church leaders in traveled to to resolve issues and to convene a reorganization conference similar to the one just held in Kirtland. During the Far West conference, held in November, the members of the Zion church presidency were retained after they confessed their faults. Also during the conference, was appointed to replace in the First Presidency. Satisfied that leadership problems had been resolved, Joseph Smith and other church leaders visiting from Kirtland returned home. When Smith arrived in Kirtland in December, he found that dissent there had grown dramatically in his absence. As the year was coming to an end and Smith turned thirty-two years old, the Latter-day Saint community that he had been building up for seven years in Kirtland was crumbling around him.
On 12 January 1838, as Joseph Smith faced threats of physical violence and further litigation, he dictated a revelation directing the First Presidency to move to as soon as possible, with the faithful Saints to follow. Smith and fled that night and were soon joined by their families. Over the next two months, they traveled the approximately eight hundred miles to . Other Saints left for Missouri during the spring, summer, and autumn. While Joseph Smith was en route to Far West, his supporters there were working to root out dissent that persisted among local church leadership. In February 1838, senior apostle and the Zion high council convened a general meeting of the church in which members of the high council accused and of mismanaging church money. The assembly voted to remove both men, as well as , who had sided with his counselors. In their place, the high council appointed Marsh and as pro tempore presidents. Toward the beginning of the next month, Marsh and Patten presided over a church trial in which former counselors Phelps and Whitmer were excommunicated.
Joseph Smith arrived in in mid-March, determined that the Saints there would pursue their goals without the harassment he had experienced in and without the persecution the Saints had suffered in and counties. In a conference held in early April 1838, the Saints in sustained the pro tempore Zion presidency, with as president and and as assistant presidents, in addition to appointing other new officers. After this further reorganization, Smith and other church leaders turned their attention back to prominent dissenters, excommunicating and in mid-April.
With the church reorganized and the most prominent dissenters cut off, Joseph Smith and the Zion high council focused on developing as the gathering place for the church. In late April, they passed resolutions to construct new church buildings and to reestablish the church press and newspaper. On 26 April, Joseph Smith dictated a revelation directing the Saints to continue gathering to , to develop Far West, and to begin building a in the town on 4 July 1838. This revelation marked a change in the church’s plans in Missouri. During the Mormon sojourn in , no revelations had instructed the Saints to establish a city of gathering or to construct a temple. Similarly, the plan for Far West up until this time had been merely to develop it as a temporary settlement while the Saints waited to return to the “centre place” of Zion at , Jackson County. In contrast, the 26 April revelation commanded them to engage in “building up” Far West as a city of Zion with a temple.
The revelation ended by stating that Joseph Smith would be guided to designate new locations for Mormon settlement. Much of the best land in was already occupied, and hundreds of Saints were expected to gather to from the stake and from the various branches of the church in the and in . In mid-May 1838, Smith and others left for , just north of Caldwell County, to select and survey lands in anticipation of future church growth. It was during this time that Smith identified a bluff rising above the as , which he had previously taught was the place where Adam blessed his posterity after being driven from the Garden of Eden. Smith spent much of May and June in Daviess County surveying and creating a city plat and supervising the construction of new homes. By the end of June, Adam-ondi-Ahman was sufficiently populated and developed to organize a stake there. During this period, church leaders were also directing Mormon migration to the small town of , situated at the confluence of the Grand River and the in .
As the church established settlements in and counties, tensions continued to escalate between church members in and prominent excommunicants who remained in . In mid-June, during a brief return to Far West, Smith attended a church meeting in which delivered a scathing sermon accusing the dissenters of stealing and other crimes. Around the same time, more than eighty Latter-day Saint men signed a letter directed to , the former members of the Zion presidency, and former apostle , warning them to leave Caldwell County or suffer “a more fatal calamity.” Within a few days, the warned men had either fled the county or reconciled with church leaders. At about this time, several Mormon men organized as a private militia known as the —later called the Danites—to defend the church from any remaining internal and external opposition. The intent of the organization was to support the members of the First Presidency and their policies, as well as to defend the church against any future aggression.
On 4 July 1838, thousands of Saints and others attended a church-sponsored Independence Day celebration in , with Joseph Smith presiding. In an oration during the event, venerated ’s revolutionary forefathers and the country’s heritage of civil and religious liberty. He affirmed the loyalty of the Saints to the United States and claimed the Saints had the same rights as other American citizens. At the conclusion of the oration, Rigdon declared that if the Saints faced further mob violence, they would not only defend but also avenge themselves. The printed version of the discourse circulated broadly throughout northwestern , and Joseph Smith encouraged church members to obtain their own copies.
Four days later, on 8 July, Joseph Smith dictated five revelations focused on building up the church. One revelation provided directions for reorganizing the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and for planning a proselytizing mission the apostles were to begin the following spring, sailing “over the great waters” to . Other revelations established a program for gathering and administering donations. Through the remainder of the summer, Joseph Smith was engaged in directing the further settlement of , , and . By the end of the summer, Far West had over one hundred homes and several mills and shops, with hundreds of farms in the surrounding countryside.
The growing population of Latter-day Saints, especially outside of , eventually led to conflict with other Missourians. Violence between the Mormons and non-Mormons of northwestern broke out in , Daviess County, on an election day in early August 1838. When , a candidate for the state legislature, persuaded a crowd of men at the polls to prevent the Saints from voting, one of the men attempted to strike one of the Saints, and a fight between the two groups quickly ensued. When a report of the affray reached , with exaggerated claims that church members had been killed, Joseph Smith accompanied a large body of and other armed men from Caldwell County to to investigate and seek assurance from local magistrates that the civil rights of the Saints would be protected. Joined by Mormon men from Daviess County, who were led by Danite officer , the group visited , a justice of the peace living near . The previous year, Black had participated in an effort to pressure the small number of Saints then living in Daviess to leave the county. However, now feeling threatened by the Saints at his house, he promised to uphold their rights in Daviess County.
Soon thereafter, , , and their friends claimed that Black had been attacked, and they filed charges against Smith and . Black and his friends apparently recognized that whereas and residents were able to compel the Saints to leave those counties because the Saints were a minority, the small number of non-Mormons in could not expel the rapidly increasing population of Saints without help from residents of other counties. The men used the alleged attack as the pretext for soliciting aid from other counties to drive the Saints out. After Wight reportedly resisted arrest and Smith sought a change of venue, Black and his associates claimed that the two Mormon leaders were evading the law. Black and his friends called for volunteers from surrounding counties to meet in Daviess County in early September to take Smith and Wight by force if necessary. The pair attempted to defuse the situation by arranging to appear before a judge, but they were unable to forestall the vigilantism that was already in motion. Men from the northwestern counties soon gathered in Daviess and began terrorizing Saints living in outlying areas of the county. In mid-September, the state militia intervened, disbanding the vigilantes and sending them home. The rule of law was restored in Daviess County.
Some of the vigilantes, however, regrouped and traveled to Carroll County to attack the Saints living at . In early October 1838, after the Saints refused demands to leave, vigilantes surrounded De Witt and began attacking the Saints. Again, the state militia was sent to keep the peace, but this time the militia was unsuccessful. So many soldiers in the militia sympathized with the vigilantes that their commanding officer removed them from De Witt to prevent them from joining the attack against the Saints. Outnumbered, the Saints at De Witt soon surrendered, and Joseph Smith helped them relocate to . Emboldened, the vigilantes returned to and rallied their forces with the intent to drive the Saints from that county. The state militia’s failure to defend the Saints at De Witt demonstrated to the Saints that they could not rely on the rule of law. When church leaders in Far West learned that the vigilantes were regrouping in Daviess County, the Saints mobilized for self-defense. Rather than waiting to be attacked, they launched preemptive strikes, targeting houses and property in vigilante havens. Soon, vigilantes on both sides were burning buildings and plundering. By the end of October 1838, the Mormon forces had prevailed and most of the other citizens had fled Daviess County.
This conflict, however, led to hostilities along the borders of . In , bordering Caldwell County to the south, a company of militiamen received orders to patrol the boundary between the counties. The men were directed to prevent Mormon forces in Caldwell County from invading Ray County, citing as precedent the recent Latter-day Saint raids in . The Ray County company crossed over into Caldwell County, where the soldiers harassed small communities of Saints living along the border and then captured three Mormon men, at least two of whom were scouts who had been following the company’s movements. mobilized a company of Saints from Caldwell County to rescue the three men. The rescue party crossed over the border of Caldwell County and engaged the company of Ray County militia at , routing them and liberating the scouts. One Ray County soldier and three Caldwell County soldiers, including Patten, were killed. A few days later, over two hundred vigilantes from , Daviess, and other counties targeted the small Mormon settlement at ’s on the eastern boundary of Caldwell County, where about thirty Mormon families had gathered. The attack was apparently a retaliatory response to the Saints’ recent military operations in Daviess County. The vigilantes struck on 30 October, brutally killing ten men and boys—some of whom were unarmed—and fatally wounding seven others.
In the final days of October, governor also took action against the Saints, responding to exaggerated reports of Mormon depredations in and counties—especially rumors that the Saints had killed most of the company of Ray County militia at . Boggs ordered an overwhelming contingent of state militia to restore peace in the northwestern counties by subduing the rumored Mormon insurgency. In a letter to one of his generals, Boggs stated that the Saints were now to be considered enemies of Missouri who should be “exterminated or driven from the state.” Boggs explicitly ordered the general and his men to “operate against the Mormons.” On 30 October, approximately eighteen hundred troops laid siege to . In early November, Missouri’s “Mormon War” concluded with the surrender of Far West, the arrest and imprisonment of Joseph Smith and several other Latter-day Saints, confiscation of the Saints’ weapons and property, and the Saints’ agreement to leave Missouri.
Joseph Smith was held in state custody for almost six months, from 31 October 1838 to 16 April 1839. In a November 1838 preliminary hearing in , Ray County, the judge found probable cause that Smith and other church members were guilty of treason and other crimes. In December, Smith and a few other Saints were committed to the in to await a trial in the spring. Through the winter of 1838–1839, Smith and his fellow prisoners wrote several letters to family members and to the church generally, offering words of counsel and support.
Meanwhile, the Latter-day Saints began their forced departure from . A large-scale evacuation started in February 1839. Approximately eight to ten thousand Saints, including the families of the prisoners, trudged eastward across the state, most seeking refuge in . Many were poorly provisioned and suffered considerably from cold, hunger, and illness during the journey of nearly two hundred miles. Many found refuge in the town of , just across the from Missouri.
Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners continued their correspondence with family and church leaders who had temporarily resettled in . In March 1839, Smith dictated two general epistles to church members. In the letters, he reflected on the suffering of the Saints and on the deeper significance of persecution. Parts of the epistles were presented in the voice of Deity, providing revelatory counsel and comfort to the prisoners as well as to the Mormon refugees in . The prisoners also produced several legal documents petitioning for habeas corpus hearings and a change of venue. In addition to pursuing these legal avenues for liberty, the prisoners attempted to escape on two occasions but were unsuccessful. Through this time of great difficulty, Smith was able to stay abreast of the circumstances of the church and provide leadership, even from within the walls of a jail.
In April 1839, after spending much of the winter confined in a cold and dirty dungeon, Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners were taken to for a grand jury investigation. There they were indicted for treason and other alleged crimes but were granted a change of venue to for their trial. The prisoners escaped during the journey to Boone County, possibly with the complicity of the guards. In late April, Joseph Smith and his companions crossed the into , where they reunited with their families and with thousands of other Mormon refugees.
Joseph Smith arrived in determined to find a new place in which to gather his people and rebuild their strength. He soon held church meetings to help organize and regulate the affairs of the church and to identify locations to purchase land for the displaced Saints. By the end of April, the church acquired land approximately fifty miles upriver, at , Illinois. About this time, some of the apostles were returning to from a covert trip to . While Smith and his companions were escaping custody and fleeing to Illinois, the apostles were traveling back to Far West to fulfill the commandment in an 8 July 1838 revelation that the apostles were to depart from Far West on 26 April 1839 to begin their mission “over the great waters.” The apostles visited the in the early morning hours of that day to formally commence their mission and then headed back to Illinois, where they stayed a few months before pressing on to the Atlantic.
In early May, the church held a conference at in which the apostles’ actions in were ratified and their mission was reaffirmed. During the conference, the church also appointed a committee to collect libelous reports about the Saints and appointed to go to the nation’s capital to seek redress for the Saints’ tremendous losses of property and goods in . After this conference, Smith and others began moving from Quincy to , where they started a new settlement. Over the next few months, Smith and other church officers purchased additional land at Commerce and across the at , Iowa Territory.
The riverside land included a swampy floodplain plagued with mosquitoes. A malaria epidemic ravaged the community of Saints from July to November 1839, hampering their efforts to settle the area and resume church affairs—and delaying the apostles’ departure for . For months, the Smith home and yard served as a hospital of sorts, with Joseph and his wife nursing those stricken with disease. Joseph also fell ill but soon recovered and continued to minister to the sick. He also met frequently with the apostles to help them prepare for their mission. In June and July, he gave several discourses, instructing the apostles on the importance of unity and harmony, the order of the priesthood, discernment of false spirits, and other doctrines. In August 1839, the final month of this volume, four of the twelve apostles departed for England, and three more followed in September and October 1839.
The church projects that were established by the end of the summer carried on for several years. At a general conference of the church held at in early October 1839, Joseph Smith proposed—and the membership of the church affirmed—that Commerce was a suitable location for a stake of Zion and a gathering place for the Saints. Smith soon renamed the settlement , a Hebrew word denoting beauty. Nauvoo became the most successful city-building project Smith undertook in his life. Saints continued to gather to Nauvoo, including those who were baptized in during the apostles’ dramatically successful mission. Yet even while the Saints were successfully building up a new city, the land of Zion still occupied much of their attention. In the months and years following their expulsion from , they persistently called attention to the injustices they had suffered there and they continued their efforts to obtain federal redress for their losses. The expulsion of Joseph Smith and other church members from Missouri profoundly influenced Latter-day Saint identity throughout the rest of Smith’s lifetime and for decades afterward.
Joseph Smith produced documents sporadically between February 1838 and August 1839. There are several gaps in the documentary record, most notably during the conflict in in late 1838. During the first few months in , Smith kept a journal with the assistance of a scribe, wrote and received several letters, participated in several meetings for which minutes were kept, dictated several revelations, and produced a variety of other documents. As the conflict in neighboring counties escalated, Joseph Smith and his scribes apparently became too preoccupied to continue journal keeping and other documentary efforts. However, while languishing in the during winter 1838–1839, Smith wrote several letters and produced several other documents. In April 1839, when he reunited with the main body of the Saints in , he reengaged a scribe and resumed the documentary endeavors interrupted by the October 1838 conflict and then by his incarceration and separation from the body of the church. Despite the difficult and fluctuating circumstances of their creation, the letters, minutes, revelations, and other texts produced by Joseph Smith between early 1838 and mid-1839 provide essential documentation of these tumultuous times.
  1. 1

    Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 Mar. 1839.  

  2. 2

    See, for example, Gilje, Rioting in America, 60–86; and Brown, Strain of Violence, 95–133; see also Grimsted, American Mobbing, chaps. 3, 7.  

    Gilje, Paul A. Rioting in America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.

    Brown, Richard Maxwell. Strain of Violence: Historical Studies of American Violence and Vigilantism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975.

    Grimsted, David. American Mobbing, 1828–1861: Toward Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

  3. 3

    Revelation, 20 July 1831 [D&C 57:1–3, 14].  

  4. 4

    Revelation, 26 Apr. 1832 [D&C 82:13].  

  5. 5

    See LeSueur, “Missouri’s Failed Compromise,” 113–135.  

    LeSueur, Stephen C. “Missouri’s Failed Compromise: The Creation of Caldwell County for the Mormons.” Journal of Mormon History 31, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 113–144.

  6. 6

    See, for example, Letter from Parley P. Pratt, 23 May 1837; and Warren Parrish, Kirtland, OH, 5 Feb. 1838, Letter to the Editor, Painesville (OH) Republican, 15 Feb. 1838, [3]; see also Introduction to Part 6: 20 Apr.–14 Sept. 1837.  

    Painesville Republican. Painesville, OH. 1836–1841.

  7. 7

    Minutes, 3 Sept. 1837; Minute Book 1, 10 Sept. 1837.  

  8. 8

    Letter to John Corrill and the Church in Missouri, 4 Sept. 1837; Revelation, 4 Sept. 1837.  

  9. 9

    Minutes, 6 Nov. 1837; Minutes, 7 Nov. 1837; see also “Joseph Smith Documents from October 1835 through January 1838.”  

  10. 10

    Letter to Oliver Cowdery et al., ca. 17 June 1838.  

  11. 11

    Revelation, 8 July 1838–A [D&C 118:4–5].  

  12. 12

    Lilburn W. Boggs, Jefferson City, MO, to John B. Clark, Fayette, MO, 27 Oct. 1838, copy, Mormon War Papers, MSA.  

    Mormon War Papers, 1838–1841. MSA.

  13. 13

    Woodruff, Journal, 8 Aug. 1839; JS History, vol. C-1, 965, 967; John Taylor, Germantown, IL, to Leonora Taylor, Montrose, Iowa Territory, 19 Sept. 1839, John Taylor, Collection, CHL; Allen et al., Men with a Mission, 67–72, 77.  

    Woodruff, Wilford. Journals, 1833–1898. Wilford Woodruff, Journals and Papers, 1828–1898. CHL. MS 1352.

    Taylor, John. Collection, 1829–1894. CHL. MS 1346.

    Allen, James B., Ronald K. Esplin, and David J. Whittaker. Men with a Mission, 1837–1841: The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the British Isles. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992.

  14. 14

    Minutes, Commerce, IL, 5–7 Oct. 1839, in Times and Seasons, Dec. 1839, 1:30.  

  15. 15

    “A Proclamation, to the Saints Scattered Abroad,” Times and Seasons, 15 Jan. 1841, 2:273–274; Gibbs, Manual Hebrew and English Lexicon, 142; Seixas, Hebrew Grammar, 111; Zucker, “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew,” 48.  

    Times and Seasons. Commerce/Nauvoo, IL. Nov. 1839–Feb. 1846.

    Gibbs, Josiah W. A Manual Hebrew and English Lexicon Including Biblical Chaldee. Designed Particularly for Beginners. 2nd ed. New Haven, CT: Hezekiah Howe, 1832.

    Seixas, Joshua. Manual Hebrew Grammar for the Use of Beginners. 2nd ed., enl. and impr. Andover, MA: Gould and Newman, 1834.

    Zucker, Louis C. “Joseph Smith as a Student of Hebrew.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 3 (Summer 1968): 41–55.