When the first missionaries stopped at Mentor, Ohio, in October 1830, they found a field “white already to harvest.” Sidney Rigdon was prepared for the gospel and led many of his Campbellite flock into the waters of baptism. And in Kirtland, a few miles away, the Lord had prepared many others for the message of the Restoration. Early missionary work was so successful that Kirtland quickly became a focus for Church activity, a place of testing and refining for the Saints.
The missionaries—Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and Ziba Peterson—were headed west to preach the gospel to the Indians, a mission commanded by Doctrine and Covenants 28, given the month before. During their few weeks’ stopover in Ohio, they confirmed and clarified the stories circulating about Joseph Smith and the gold plates. And the powerful testimony they bore led to the baptism of a number of Kirtland residents.
The Rollins children, Mary Elizabeth, 10, and James Henry, 12, had moved to Kirtland with their widowed mother to be near their mother’s sister, the wife of Algernon Sidney Gilbert who owned a mercantile business with Newel K. Whitney. Both Mary Elizabeth and her mother were baptized within a month of the missionaries’ visit, but Henry held back, “as I did not thoroughly understand it.”1
Some time later, Mary Elizabeth saw her first Book of Mormon, one sent from Joseph Smith to Brother Isaac Morley, presiding elder in Kirtland, who had also been converted by the four missionaries. Before a meeting at Brother Morley’s house that night, Mary Elizabeth asked to see it. As she looked at it, she writes, “I felt such a desire to read it, that I could not refrain from asking him to let me take it home and read it, while he attended meeting.” She begged “so earnestly” that he gave it to her on condition that she have it back before breakfast the next morning. She and her aunt and uncle Gilbert stayed up very late reading it, and she was up again at daybreak.
True to her promise, she returned it before Brother Morley’s breakfast. He commented, “I guess you did not read much in it.” She showed him how far, recited the first verse to him, and gave him an outline of the story of Nephi. Surprised, he capitulated: “Child, take this book home and finish it, I can wait.”
She was close to the last chapter when Joseph and Emma Smith moved to Kirtland. When the Prophet saw the Book of Mormon in the Rollins’ home, he identified it as the one he had sent to Brother Morley and wanted to see the girl who had acquired it in such an impressive manner. “When he saw me,” she remembers, “he looked at me so earnestly, I felt almost afraid. After a moment or two he came and put his hands on my head and gave me a great blessing, the first I ever received, and made me a present of the book, and said he would give Brother Morley another.”2
Henry, her brother, had been reading it in his own odd moments at night, lying “on the floor on my back with my head to the fire.” The converts the missionaries had left behind them were enthusiastic but inexperienced, and the errors of excess that came into the Church confused and frightened young Henry. “I pleaded with the Lord to show me if this spirit … was His Spirit” and in answer he received a dream or vision of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum. He saw them “standing side by side through a wall which seemingly was transparent and was the color of amber,” enveloped in a light which “penetrated me from head to foot.” They conducted him through a doorway in the wall and then he saw indescribable beauties, future events, and a “liquid billow of fire” that consumed the world’s corruption.
Even though Henry did not understand the meaning of all he had seen, the Prophet Joseph recognized it. When he came to Kirtland in February 1831, three months after this vision, he said, on meeting the boy, “‘Well, the Lord has shown him great things.’” Young Henry was baptized the next year in Missouri.3
The word of the missionaries’ visit quickly spread to the communities surrounding Kirtland. John Murdock was living in neighboring Cayuga County when he heard of the four elders from New York preaching in Kirtland.
Ever since his rather unhappy childhood, John Murdock had turned to his Heavenly Father for consolation, constantly supplicating his protection “when in trouble, or when out by night, and to pass through the woods, or any lonely place.” He once dreamed of being with friends in a room where a throne with a light “resembling a burning candle” appeared. He tried to show it to his friends, but only he could see it. A later vision of the Judgment motivated him to go to a local church for baptism, though he was not satisfied with their teachings. A little later he joined the Baptist church because of their Biblical method of baptism.
“I kept searching the Scriptures and looking to find a people that lived according to them, but could not find such a people.” When he heard of the Campbellite conversions among the Baptists in Mentor, he sat down again with the scriptures and painstakingly puzzled his way through the meaning of being “born of the water and of the Spirit,” a doctrine he later heard preached in exactly the same terms by his brother-in-law, Thomas Clapp, a new convert to Campbellism.
This was an important preparation for his conversion to Mormonism. When “four men … arrived at Kirtland,” his first response to the report was “that it was an insinuation of the Devil. But I was immediately checked in my feelings, and I made no more harsh expressions respecting them.”
He rode the twenty miles to Kirtland to meet “those four men from New York,” resolving that the conclusive test for him would be “whether the Spirit would attend their ministration of the ordinances.” It was certainly a fair test. When he arrived, they were leaving for a baptism and wished to go unaccompanied, so he did not press to join them. When they returned to the house, he was in bed, but “the spirit of the Lord rested on me, witnessing to me of the truth of the work.” When he went downstairs to talk with them, they promised him that they would talk to him the next day. As “they appeared very tender in their feelings,” he went back to bed again, “secretly rejoicing.” The next morning he talked to a half dozen of the men who had been baptized and confirmed and “found their testimony agreed … that their was a manifestation of the spirit attended the ministration of the ordinance of laying on hands.”
At ten o’clock that morning, he asked for baptism, and received his own witness as Parley P. Pratt performed the ordinance. “I came out of the water rejoicing and singing praises to God, and the lamb. … This was the third time that I had been immersed, but I never before felt the authority of the ordinance, but I felt it this time and felt as though my sins were forgiven.” When he was confirmed by Oliver Cowdery and ordained an elder, “it was truly a time of the outpouring of the spirit. I know the spirit rested on me as it never did before and others said they saw the Lord, and had visions.”4
He returned home and began preaching the gospel so energetically that “about seventy souls were added to the church” in four months. Among the first five converts was his wife, Julia. Requests flocked in from investigators so thickly that “I quit other business.” He and his household consolidated with another Mormon family so that he could give “my full time to the ministry.” That was during the winter of 1830–31. In April, his wife died six hours after giving birth to twins, a boy named Joseph and a girl named Julia, whom the Prophet and Emma took as consolation for their own recently deceased child. Only Julia survived. Little Joseph, recuperating from measles, suffered exposure when a mob burst into the house and dragged out the Prophet to tar and feather him.
The loss of his wife and child did not buckle John Murdock’s knees. In the following month, he was ordained a high priest by Joseph Smith and within two weeks was on a mission to Michigan.5 He later became an important colonizer in Utah.
Some of Kirtland’s converts came into the Church long after that first missionary visit. And many were attracted to the Church more by the daily example of the Saints than by active proselyting work.
Gilbert Belnap, for example, went to Kirtland mostly out of “curiosity and being of a roving disposition.” The temple intrigued him and work was easy to find, so he lingered in Kirtland for the next few months. In the course of that winter, he reported, “I formed the acquaintance of several families called Mormons. By close observation I satisfied myself that they lived their religion better and enjoyed more of the Spirit of God than any other people that I had ever been acquainted with. I strove to make myself acquainted with their principles of religion. After a diligent investigation for nearly two years I satisfied myself with regard to the truthfulness of Mormonism and determined at some future time to obey its principles.”6
His unwillingness to be baptized puzzled even himself. Part of his argument was that he was too young to give up his innocent yet worldly amusements, even though the “sublimity and grandeur in the contemplation of the work of God … would at times completely overshadow me and cast into momentary forgetfulness the many vain amusements with which I had long been associated.” He found himself defending the Church to his family and, after a serious accident in 1841, covenanted to be baptized if his health were restored. It was, but still he hesitated, even though “there was a secret monitor within my breast that would frequently warn me that delays were dangerous.”
Finally, it came to a crisis. On one side were “pride, pleasure, the speech of people, my accumulating interest, the frowns of … relatives, and the apalling stigma attached to the word Mormon.” But on the other side were “relief and peace and the gentle whisperings of the spirit of God.” He decided on a day for his baptism, woke often that night from dreams of preaching the gospel to different nations, and on Sunday, 11 September 1842, “yielded obedience.” The next month he was called on a mission to New York and ultimately, in 1844, joined the Saints in Nauvoo where he met Joseph Smith for the first time.
“While standing before his penetrating gaze, he seemed to read the very recess of my heart. A thousand thoughts passed through my mind. I had been permitted by the great author of my being to behold with my natural eyes a Prophet of the living God when millions had died without that privilege. And to grasp his hand in mine was a privilege and blessing that in early days I did not expect to enjoy. I seemed to be trans figured before him. I gazed with wonder at his person and listened with delight to the sound of his voice. … Though in after years I may become a castaway the impression made upon my mind at this introduction can never be erased.”7
Gilbert Belnap never became a “castaway.” When the Saints moved West, he came with them, became marshall of the city of Ogden, and was one of those who faithfully attempted to colonize the Salmon River Mission.
Gilbert was not the only Kirtland resident impressed by the Christian conduct of his Mormon neighbors.
Ebenezer Robinson came to Kirtland in 1835 looking for work. A printer, he was employed in the Times and Seasons office and, in the course of his career, also helped publish the Doctrine and Covenants, an edition of the Book of Mormon, and the hymnal. For a time he was business partner with Don Carlos Smith, the Prophet’s brother. He felt no particular attraction to Mormonism and went to Kirtland, as he explains with his characteristic editorial “we,” because “we considered ‘Mormon money as good as anybody’s money.’”
He had a chance to observe Mormonism from the inside, boarding his first two months with Oliver Cowdery, the second two months with Frederick G. Williams, and the third two months with Joseph Smith. “We found them all very pious, good Christian people,” he observed. “It was not long … until we became satisfied we were with a people who not only taught, but more perfectly practiced the gospel lessons, than any people we had ever before known, and we began earnestly to look into the matter.”
He took great pleasure in being with the members for “in that day all seemed to love one another, and take a deep interest in each other’s welfare.” However, none of them ever “made any attempt to proselyting us” except for Joseph Smith’s invitation one night when they were walking after dinner: “‘When you are baptized I want to baptize you.’” When Ebenezer finally felt the “peaceful spirit” testifying to him of the truthfulness of the Church, Joseph Smith knew without being told that he wanted to be baptized and interrupted a council meeting to do it. “As we arose from the water,” remembers Ebenezer, “it seemed that everything we had on left us, and we came up a new creature. … Our heart was full to overflowing, and we felt that we had been born again in very deed, both of water and of the spirit.”
The newness of his heart was proved shortly afterwards when a foreman in the printing office accused him wrongly of gossip and, angered, struck at him. Warned by a premonition, Ebenezer dodged the most severe part of the blow, then turned “and smiled at him. We did not feel one particle of anger. He turned and walked the other way.” Just before sundown, the foreman came back, begged a word with him, and asked his forgiveness with tears, saying “that when he struck us and we turned and smiled at him, it whipped him the most severely he ever was whipped in his life.”8
Kirtland was not really a home for the Saints in the way that Nauvoo and Salt Lake City were later to be. It became the “gathering place” in February 1831 when the Prophet arrived there; but in August he was in Missouri for a short period, helping to lay the foundations of the “center place of Zion.” For many Saints, Kirtland was a place to rest on their way to Missouri, where they would struggle with the opposition that would eventually expell them from three counties.
One who “rested” for a time in Kirtland was Ira Ames who had heard the gospel message in Vermont. He already had a mild reputation for eccentricity in his Vermont community by insisting that he be baptized by immersion when he joined the Methodist Church in 1829 even though the minister, reluctant to “wet his feet,” tried to persuade him that it wasn’t necessary.
In August 1830, he received a letter from his mother near Norwich, New York, announcing that she, his two sisters, and his brother-in-law, Jared Carter (soon to become one of the Church’s great missionaries) had all been baptized. “When reading over my mother’s letter” he recalls, “it ran through me like lightning. It roused every feeling of my mind. The effect was powerful.” When Ira’s wife, Charity, and her sister (both of whom were Jared Carter’s sisters) mocked him, he took the letter to his room and prayed over it. “Something seemed to bear upon my mind, like a clear calmness that the work was true.”
Yet when he saw his newly converted brother-in-law coming for a visit, Ira was seized by a spirit of opposition so intense that he forbade Jared to mention Mormonism. Then he wondered “why I felt such a strange feeling of opposition all of a sudden, when I had, before, been so anxious to hear.” Three days later, Jared baptized and confirmed him. As Ira, dripping, walked back to the house, “a bright light burst on my mind. Many passages of Scripture came most plain and clear to my mind; I understood the work of these last days. I was full of intelligence and light and had a full evidence of the truth of Mormonism.”
Charity had her own conversion experience. Her husband’s baptism had made her so bitter that finally she snatched up her baby and left the house, vowing never to return. But the first person she met was a minister who sneered so mockingly against the Church that she instantly returned home, having seen, said Ira, “the difference [between] my spirit and that preachers.” Ira chronicles his other crises of faith—the “agony” of doubt that beset him until he sought the Lord for confirmation, and the conference where Orson Pratt, among others, “unfolded new principle after new principle, glory after glory, until my Soul was fed with fatness and I wept many tears of joy.”
Early in 1834 they left their prosperous business and their devoted friends and family—including the prospect of being his wealthy uncle’s heir—and gathered with the Saints at Kirtland where Ira worked on the temple, slept rolled in a blanket on the Prophet’s floor at night to guard against the depredations of the mob, kept the temple books in order, was assigned to receive tithing and donations, and was chorister at the temple dedication.
Later, he and his family suffered through the trials of Missouri and, he records, bore a “plain and faithful testimony” to Orson Hyde, then faltering in the faith, that “he [Orson] knew this work was true. And he knew that he had often preached powerfully under the influence of the Holy Ghost which he had received thro the administration of the Priesthood. He knew this, and now if he continued in his apostasy he would lose that Spirit entirely.”9 Whatever the discouragement either of them suffered, it was temporary and they lived to serve many additional years in the Church.
A detailed glimpse of daily life of Kirtland comes to us from Caroline Barnes Crosby, who had joined the Church in Massachusetts in 1835, two months after marrying Jonathan Crosby, already a member. For their first anniversary, they left their home to gather with the Saints at Kirtland. She remembers that Jonathon was almost immediately “ordained to the office of an elder and chosen into the second quorum of seventies.” For her, the consequences were the realization that he “would undoubtedly be required to travel and preach the Gospel, to the nations of the earth. I realized in some degree the immense responsibility of the office and besought the Lord for grace and wisdom to be given him that he might be able to magnify this high and holy calling.”
She does not say how she faced for herself the prospect of much time spent without him, not only in the future but in the present. We do know that she sang in the choir, which met several times a week, and spent many evenings with Thankful Pratt, the wife of Parley P. Pratt, since “the brethren attended meetings almost every evening which left us together considerably. When they all left us she would look about her and say, ‘well it is you and I again, Sister Crosby.’”10
Thankful may have served as a good example for young Caroline of how to sustain her husband. About six years earlier, in August 1830, Parley had felt impelled to leave their thriving farm near Kirtland, where he was well acquainted with Sidney Rigdon and his Campbellite teachings, and to go to New York. When they got as far as Rochester, he told Thankful that the Spirit had “plainly manifest” that he must leave the boat and send her on alone to Buffalo. Already, in those three years, Thankful had learned to trust those manifestations, and she quietly let her husband strike off into the countryside where he met “an old Baptist deacon” who told him about “a very strange book”—the Book of Mormon. Ultimately, Parley went to Palmyra, hunting for Joseph Smith. A night’s conversation with Hyrum told him why he had felt compelled to leave the boat. Thankful joined the Church herself in New York; Parley went on his first mission to the Lamanites via his old home in Ohio; and they were reunited in Kirtland some nineteen months later.11
Caroline also talks about the family feasts which accompanied the giving of patriarchal blessings which “cheered and rejoiced our hearts exceedingly,” her delight when they finally rented a home by themselves (“I felt like a child with a new set of toys”)—although they gave it up to some friends in greater need in that crowded city a few months later—her interest in the mummies and the records of Abraham, their gardening, and the difficult birth of their first child. She was so ill for nine months that she could not leave home, and when Joseph Smith, Sr., came to administer to her, he brought the first reports of dissension and apostasy, but promised to “shut the door and keep the devil out.”
That year—1836—was a hard one. Several times, the Crosbys “ate the last we had and knew not where the next meal was coming from,” but cheerfully divided everything they had and gratefully received the same kindness back. Jonathan was working on the Prophet’s home, but frequently the financial crisis prevented the Prophet, like other employers, from paying his workmen. Once all of them quit except Jonathan, and after several days, Sister Emma came by and asked him about his provisions. He confessed the family plight and she promptly brought him “a nice ham, 20 lbs.” and instructions to go get a sack to take home as much flour as he could. Caroline remembers, “Accordingly he came home rejoicing, considering it a perfect God send. It was a beautiful white flour, and the ham was very sweet and [we] thought nothing ever tasted half as good.”
Kirtland was the second period of the Church’s organization, a crowded span that saw extremes of spirituality and apostasy, of settlement and uprooting. In many ways it mirrored what was to come, and those who were tested during that period were stronger to meet the challenges of Missouri and Nauvoo.
The poverty, the lawsuits, and the economic pinch in Kirtland were hard to bear, but Caroline grieved most over the apostasy that racked the Church. “Many of our most intimate associates were among the apostates,” she mourned. “These were some of our nighest neighbors and friends. We had taken sweet counsel together, and walked to the house of God as friends.”12
Hepzibah Richards, the sister of Willard and Levi Richards, corroborates. The Richards were a closeknit family, and she had to come to Kirtland with them even though she was not baptized until July 1838, in Far West, only a few months before her death. In a January 1838 letter to Willard, then on a mission in England, she grimly commented, “I believe there are good people in K[irtland] but [it] is not a good place to make Mormons.”13
It was, however, a good place to test Mormons, and one of those tested was Mary Fielding, a young convert from Toronto, Canada, who had joined the church with other members of John Taylor’s congregation when Parley P. Pratt came to teach them the gospel. Her sister Mercy and her brother Joseph came to Kirtland with her in the spring of 1837. But by summer she was alone: Joseph was serving a mission in England, and Mercy had married Robert B. Thompson and was back in Canada on a mission.
Writing to her sister in September, Mary described the “terrible stir” caused by Warren Parish and the other apostates. “I have been made to tremble and quake before the Lord and to call upon Him with all my heart almost day and night as many others have done of late.” The uncertainty and fear, however, strengthened, not weakened, her. Despite the “confusion and perplexity and rageing of the devil against the work of God,” she was still able to “thank my heavenly Father for the comfort and peace of mind I now enjoy.” To her, the turmoil had “the effect of driving me nearer to the Lord and so has become a great blessing to me. I have sometimes of late been so filled with the love of God and felt such a sense of his favour as had made me rejoice abundantly indeed.”
A month later she married Hyrum Smith, recently widowed, and assumed the care of his five small children while they moved from Kirtland to Far West to Nauvoo. After his death, she came to Salt Lake Valley where their son, Joseph F., eventually presided over the Church founded by his uncle.14
Another witness to both the spirituality and apostasy in Kirtland was Benjamin Franklin Johnson, whose family clung devotedly to the Church while his four brothers and sisters died of consumption, and a crippled sister was healed through the administration of Jared Carter, the brother-in-law of Ira Ames. Benjamin himself was frail of health, which limited his activities at Kirtland. Before the temple was dedicated, all those who had worked on the temple were given separate blessings by the First Presidency in a public meeting. Benjamin, not quite eighteen years old at the time, desired such a blessing “more … than all earthly things” and “grieved” because he would not receive one.
Benjamin records that on the last day of the blessings, he stood near the door in the midst of the crowd, “and oh! how I did yearn for a blessing! And as the last blessing, apparently, was given, the Prophet earnestly looked towards the door where I was standing, and said to his brother Hyrum, ‘Go and see if there is not one more yet to be blessed.’ Brother Hyrum came to the door, and seeing me, put his hand upon my shoulder and asked me if I had not worked upon the Temple. I said, ‘No sir,’ but it seemed like passing a sentence upon my fondest hopes. He then asked if I had done nothing towards it. I then thought of a new gun I had earned and given as a donation, and of the brick I had helped to make. I said, ‘I did give often.’ ‘I thought,’ he said, ‘there was a blessing for you,’ and he almost carried me to the stand. The Prophet blessed me, with a confirmation of all his father had sealed upon me, and many more also. I felt then that the Lord had respect for my great desire. Even to be the youngest and last to be blessed seemed to me a high privilege. When the Prophet had looked towards the door, I felt as though he would call for me, though I could not see how I had merited so high a privilege. But so it was, and my joy was full.”
A year later, however, Benjamin saw the bank failure in Kirtland “smother” the “brotherly love” of many. “Brethren who had borne the highest priesthood and who had for years labored, traveled, ministered and suffered together and even placed their lives upon the same altar, now were governed by a feeling of hate and a spirit to accuse each other.” For him, recalling it after fifty years of trial and hardship, it was “the greatest sorrow, disappointment and test through which I have ever passed.”
But Benjamin came out of the furnace refined. “I felt to call mightily upon His name, that He would never leave me to follow these examples, but that He would keep me humble, even though in poverty and affliction, so only that I fail not. This prayer of my youth I have never forgotten, neither do I feel that it is forgotten by Him to whom it was made.”15 At the age of nineteen, Benjamin F. Johnson, like so many of the band of the loyal who had survived the storms of Kirtland and who would not be shaken by the bloodshed of Missouri or the martyrdom of Nauvoo, had chosen his eternal course.
Kirtland, indeed, fostered resolute travelers.
Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.