Zion’s Camp Not a Failure, Says Managing Historian of the Joseph Smith Papers

Contributed By Marianne Holman Prescott, Church News staff writer

  • 11 July 2016

19th-century engraving of Zion’s Camp, Missouri. Engraver unknown.  Image courtesy of the Church History Library.

Article Highlights

  • Although the original goals of Zion’s Camp were not achieved, many important lessons were learned.
  • The expedition became a proving ground for future leaders.
  • The Saints saw the hand of God protect and reprove them.

“Members of Zion’s Camp could comfort the Saints and highlight that even if the outcome was not what was expected or desired, it did not mean that God was not with them.” —Matthew C. Godfrey, managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers

For years, Church members and historians have had a complicated relationship with the Camp of Israel expedition, said Matthew C. Godfrey, managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, during a lecture on June 23.

“On the face, the expedition appears to have failed in its goals—that of redeeming Zion, or helping the Saints regain their Jackson County lands,” he said. “Therefore, Church members have often looked for ways to depict the expedition as a success.”

Held in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square, the special lecture put on by the Church History Department brought members of the community together to learn more about Zion’s Camp—a piece of history included in the most recent volume of the Joseph Smith Papers Project released in May.

“[The edition] consists of documents from April 1834 through September of 1835, so it covers the Zion’s Camp expedition,” Brother Godfrey said. “And so as we did research on different documents that we have, … we came across several interesting insights into Zion’s Camp.”

What began as a contingent of men, women, and children leaving Kirtland, Ohio, on May 18, 1834, with the purpose of regaining lost lands in Missouri has now become an important part of Church history.

“The lands may not have been obtained, some say, but it was a proving ground for future leaders,” Brother Godfrey said. “The group may have been disbanded without ever entering Jackson County, others state, but the entire expedition gave Joseph Smith an opportunity to showcase his leadership skills to individuals who had never met him before or who had only a casual acquaintance with him.”

The most commonly cited Zion’s Camp experience is a statement by Brigham Young reported in the Journal of Discourses, when he said the expedition had accomplished “just what we went for”—the accumulation of knowledge.

“Nearly all participants in the expedition who recalled their experiences later in life provided examples of divine intervention throughout the journey—that God was protecting them, sustaining them, and chastising them,” Brother Godfrey said. “In doing so, … the expedition provided an example of when God fought their battles and did not leave them at the mercy of their enemies, just as he had done in Old Testament times.”


In February of 1834, Joseph Smith received the revelation to recruit up to 500 men to help Church members who had been expelled from Jackson County in the fall of 1833.

“The group would march to Missouri, contact Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin, and request that he call out the state militia to escort Church members back to their Jackson County lands,” Brother Godfrey said.

Afterward, members of the Camp of Israel—whose name paralleled the name given to the children of Israel in Exodus 14:19—would remain in Jackson County as a protective force so that mobs could not drive the Saints from their land again.

“One of the difficulties historians face in researching the Camp of Israel is that there are few extant contemporary records of the journey,” Brother Godfrey said.

Recognizing most participants in the camp did not keep journals or if they did the records did not survive, Brother Godfrey spoke of the “reminiscences”—accounts from the memories of participants years after the camp happened—historians used in their research. A few contemporary sources appear in Documents, Volume 4, of the Joseph Smith Papers, giving insight to what happened during the Camp of Israel.

Brother Godfrey said one of the overarching themes of the camp was that of divine intervention, that God protected participants and intervened in the camp.

“According to participants, the Lord intervened in the camp in five major ways, not all of which were positive,” Brother Godfrey said.

Brother Godfrey spoke of those five ways—recruitment and funding, providing food and water, chastisement, healing the sick, and protection—and how participants of the camp came to understand how the hand of the Lord was in their lives.

Recruitment and funding

“Participants in the Camps of Israel saw the Lord’s hand in the expedition from the very beginning—even when Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were trying to find volunteers for the camp,” taught Brother Godfrey.

Although there were only around 100 initial recruits, Joseph Smith saw the hand of the Lord in inspiring those who did respond. Many recruits said they believed God urged them to volunteer and offer their own money.

Providing food and water

At times, the camp did not have enough provisions for participants. One account says, despite the lack of food and water, “By the blessing of the Lord we all ate till we were satisfied.”

“In addition to the Lord inspiring individuals to volunteer for and donate to the expedition, participants believed that He at times miraculously provided food and water,” said Brother Godfrey.


“Not all divine interventions in the Camp of Israel were positive,” said Brother Godfrey.

Sharing experiences of times when disunity or a rebellious spirit brought chastisement from the Lord to the camp, Brother Godfrey told stories of cholera outbreaks and sick horses—both byproducts of poor behavior of members of the camp.

Healing the sick

Even Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum experienced cholera while on the expedition. They were some of the many who prayed to God for deliverance and were healed.


“Perhaps the most frequent way that members of the Camp of Israel recalled seeing the Lord’s hand was in their protection from enemies,” said Brother Godfrey. “Some who left on the expedition, including Heber C. Kimball, believed that they would not survive the journey because of enemy attacks.”

In all their expedition, the group was never attacked, notwithstanding the apparent prevalence of spies and enemies throughout the journey, Brother Godfrey taught.

Accounts say the Lord’s protection was constant and provided miracles along the trail. In one instance, the group of 170 men in Zion’s Camp appeared to enemies to be around 500 in number; on another occasion, angels assisted in slowing the speed of a wagon after it got out of control. Storms and floods seemed to work in the group’s favor, coming right as enemies were planning to attack.

For many, the Camp of Israel was where they learned that God will intervene in their own lives when necessary. It also taught them to see the Lord’s hand so that they could be sure that God really was in control of the Church and its affairs.

“Members of Zion’s Camp could comfort the Saints and highlight that even if the outcome was not what was expected or desired, it did not mean that God was not with them.”

In a letter to his wife Emma in June 1834 Joseph Smith said about the expedition, “We believe the hand of the Lord is in it.”