150-Year Drama: A Personal View of Our History


150-Year Drama:

The soil that Peter Whitmer and his sons cultivated in 1830 is still farmed and is still productive. The immediate area remains essentially rural, the roads narrow, the houses scattered. The old home of the Whitmer family has been authentically restored—the walls, floors, and roof structure formed of logs from buildings that were erected in the area prior to 1830. Archaelogical research, locating the old stone footings, determined the precise location and size—twenty feet by thirty feet. It contained two rooms on the main floor, with two more in the loft above. A substantial rock fireplace provided warmth against the bitter New York winters. All of this has been recreated in a most careful manner to restore what was previously there.

The log house is part of a three-building complex. Directly opposite is the newer farmhouse, constructed years later, more commodious and ornate, its Doric columns affording a look of dignity. Between the two homes is an impressively beautiful new meetinghouse, architecturally faithful to the 1830 period, its gleaming white wood siding and mullioned windows giving the flavor of colonial New England, and its gold dome speaking of the Greek Revival architecture followed in western New York, as seen in the old courthouse in nearby Canandaigua.

The building houses a small and quiet chapel, the woodwork of which represents the very best of the millwright’s art. Two wings lead off from the chapel, the one housing classrooms, the other a visitors center. This has been provided to accommodate those who will come by the many thousands from over the earth, to stand where Joseph stood that historic April 6, 1830, when the Church was organized.

Now a century and a half after the day of organization, one can in imagination return to that historic Tuesday which had been designated by revelation as the day to organize anew the church of Jesus Christ.

Peter Whitmer, Sr., had offered the use of his home for the organization meeting just as he had proffered its use a year earlier to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery for the work of translating the sacred record which became the Book of Mormon.

Now, on the appointed day of April 6 there gathered a substantial number at the Whitmer farm. Some had previously been baptized; some had not. One can envision the horses tied to the fence, their saddles draped over the rails, and the wagons and buggies parked about the yard, with the harnesses thrown on the seats. Those who had gathered from far and near expected to be there for some hours. This was an occasion they had looked forward to with much expectancy. At least thirty men and women, and perhaps as many as sixty, crowded into the small house. The proceedings were simple. Joseph Smith, then twenty-four years of age, called the meeting to order and designated five of his associates to join with him as the actual incorporators to meet the legal requirement in forming a religious society.

Those present knelt in solemn prayer. Joseph then asked if they were willing to accept him and Oliver as their teachers and spiritual advisers. All assented to this, thereby instituting operation of the principle of common consent, which has, subsequently been followed in the naming of all Church officers. Following this, Joseph ordained Oliver an elder, and Oliver in turn ordained Joseph. The sacrament of the Lord’s supper was administered, the prayers used in this ordinance having been given through revelation (see D&C 20:75–79).

Joseph and Oliver then laid their hands upon the heads of those who had been baptized, confirming them members of the Church and bestowing upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost. Next, some of the men were ordained to various offices in the priesthood. Through revelation received on this occasion, Joseph was designated “a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ” (D&C 21:1). Speaking in this capacity of authority, he instructed those present on how to build up the Church, and exhorted “them to be faithfull in all things,” declaring that “this is the work of God” (Joseph Knight, Sr., “Manuscript of the early History of Joseph Smith finding of plates, &c. &c.,” Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, p. 7). Following the meeting, others were baptized, including Joseph’s father and mother, and his friend Martin Harris.

Thus, under those simple circumstances, was established in these latter days the Church of Jesus Christ, “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone,” fitting the description written by the Apostle Paul centuries earlier (Eph. 2:20).

This day of organization was, in effect, a day of commencement, the graduation for Joseph from ten years of remarkable schooling. It had begun with the incomparable vision in the grove in the spring of 1820, when the Father and the Son appeared to the fourteen-year-old boy. It had continued with the tutoring from Moroni, with both warnings and instructions given on multiple occasions. Then there was the translation of the ancient record, and the inspiration, the knowledge, the revelation that came from that experience. There was the bestowal of divine authority, the ancient priesthood again conferred upon men by those who were its rightful possessors—John the Baptist in the case of the Aaronic Priesthood, and Peter, James, and John in the case of the Melchizedek. There were revelations, a number of them, in which the voice of God was heard again, and the channel of communication opened between man and the Creator. All of these were preliminary to that historic April 6.

A full century and a half have passed since that historic day. In ancient Israel, each fifty years was marked as a year of jubilee, a time for remembering, a time for gratitude, a time for generosity, a time to look about and assess the present and to look ahead and plan the future. For The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980 is a triple-jubilee year in which to look back with appreciation for all of those who have gone before us and made possible the miracle of the present, to look at our situation today with a spirit of accomplishment marked by humility, and to resolve to continue with enthusiasm and strong conviction the building of the mighty work which God himself restored in this the dispensation of the fulness of times.

Ours is an incomparable inheritance. What a terrible price has been paid for what we have today. There was much suffering even before 1830. There were the snide remarks, the cutting jeers, the vicious threats against the boy who declared that he had seen a vision both transcendent and wonderful. There was the crude laughter over “Joe Smith’s gold Bible,” with attempts to steal the sacred record. There was the heartbreaking loss of the 116 manuscript pages of the initial translation, the difficulty in finding a printer, the attempt of enemies to plagiarize the writing with a distorted version, the loss of the family home and farm through the knavish actions of a supposed friend. These and more were among the troubles of Joseph, the boy and the young man, through the years of his preparation.

And then followed the troubles that came like legions after the Church was organized. It was a long journey from the land of Cumorah to the valley of the Great Salt Lake as it was traveled in those early days, moving from place to place a cause and a kingdom and a people. Each location at first appeared as an oasis and subsequently became a place of despair. Repeatedly they arrived to search for peace, built for a season, and then were forced to leave, the objects of intolerance and persecution.

Kirtland, on the level land south of Lake Erie, was their first bright hope. Here they built their temple. This was a house of revelation, a spiritual refuge. But the peace of Kirtland was violated with tar and feathers, economic disaster, and blighted hopes. Missouri was next, rich with promise concerning a center stake of Zion. This was in fact to be Zion. That hope was blasted with rifle fire, the burning of homes, the cry of the night-riding mobs, death at Haun’s Mill and Crooked River, the evil expulsion order, the painful march to the bottomlands of the Mississippi and over the river to a temporary asylum at Quincy. Left behind the fleeing exiles was their prophet with a few associates in the jail at Liberty. There they spent the lonely, miserable months of the winter of 1838–39. It was here that Joseph cried out, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1). Among the words of response came this remarkable prophecy: “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;

“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.

“And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors” (D&C 122:1–3).

There followed the miracle of Nauvoo, the City of Joseph. Here was the zenith of the prophet’s mortal career—and the fast decline from that high point. The swamps were drained, a city planned, reaching from the water of the river up to the hill where the temple was built. The homes were of brick, sturdy and well planned. Sounds of industry were to be heard—sounds of hammer on anvil, of stone shaped by the masons’ tools, of saw and lathe and plane. Beauty rose from that swampland, beauty and order and the society of Illinois’ finest city. But there also rose a miasma of jealousy and hate and disloyalty. There were the Laws, the Higbees, the Bennetts, and others of their kind; and over in Missouri, Governor Boggs grew angry in his frustration over attempts to get at the Saints and more particularly their leader. Likewise politicians, concerned over the Mormon vote, did their part. Small problems became mountains of conflict. Joseph knew a storm was coming. Prophetically he said one day in Montrose that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction, that they would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, and that there they would become a mighty people.

He never saw that day, except through the eyes of prophecy. June 27, 1844, was the hour of his tragedy. A mob, their faces blackened that sultry afternoon, took his life and that of his brother Hyrum. That night was the darkest of all the nights through which the Saints had lived in the city on the river. The forces of evil had finally claimed their prize. The Prophet was dead.

John Taylor, who had been with him at Carthage, summed up his work: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. … He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people” (D&C 135:3).

Meanwhile the message of the restored gospel had been carried throughout the eastern states and Canada, and across the Atlantic to Britain. Notwithstanding the serious problems at home, converts came in ever-increasing numbers. Their strength was needed for the ordeals that lay ahead.

The first wagons rolled out in early February 1846. Later that month the river froze and the wagons were able to cross on the ice. But the same bitter weather that brought this boon, also brought immense suffering to those who were leaving comfortable homes. There were no roads the way the Saints traveled, and as the ice melted, mud, deep and embracing, took its place. What a picture they were, these thousands of wagons strung along a thin line that reached from dying Nauvoo on the Mississippi to Council Bluffs coming alive on the Missouri, all across what is now the state of Iowa. There were births and deaths, each fraught with pain. On the west side of the Missouri a temporary city was built. It was called Winter Quarters. To those of lesser faith it might more fittingly have been named Despair. Nauvoo was irretrievably behind the exiles; to them it was the City of No Return. Their objective in the Rocky Mountains seemed so everlastingly far away, even beyond the length of life itself for many. They died and were buried in the little cemetery above the river—men, women, and children, the victims of exposure and cholera and black canker. Others traveling from the British Isles died at sea, or after coming up the river from New Orleans and getting as far as St. Louis, became victims to the dread disease that struck frequently, suddenly, and with finality.

But they sang a song in the strange land through which they moved—“Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; But with joy wend your way.” Its words spoke of courage, struggle, and death, but concluded always with the promise, “All is well! all is well!” (Hymns, no. 13).

Another blow fell with the recruitment of the Mormon Battalion with five hundred of its badly needed strong young men, but they went with a promise, and without them the Saints began moving west the following spring. They broke their own trail, killing rattlesnakes by the cord, fording and ferrying the streams and rivers, pausing on the Sabbath to worship their God. They had left Winter Quarters when the warm spring sun melted the ice and grass began to green. They arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in the scorching heat of summer when grass turned brown and withered from the absence of moisture.

But water from the mountain streams was turned onto the parched land, and for the first time plows broke the desert soil. The years that followed were years of struggle and expansion as they labored to make the desert blossom and to build Zion in the valleys. They requested no help from government, but unitedly worked to grub the sagebrush, to build canals, to lay out roads, and to erect temples and tabernacles, theaters and meetinghouses, schools and public buildings, as well as snug and comfortable homes. While doing all of this they expanded the work of carrying the gospel of salvation to the people of the earth, across their own America and Canada, over the sea to the British Isles and Europe, to the ancient lands of Asia and the South Pacific, and later to Mexico and Central and South America.

This is the great drama, with its own peculiar elements of tragedy and triumph, of a century and a half of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is unique. It is heroic. It is tremendous. Notwithstanding the pressures of unrelenting persecution, the falsehood and vicious innuendo of public speakers and public press, the struggles against poverty and the harshness of nature, the Church and its people never took a step backwards. There were pauses when it reeled from the blows of hate brought against it, but each year saw its membership grow in numbers and in strength. The predictions of its enemies evaporated without fulfillment. It outlived all of the prophets of doom who spoke against it.

I drafted the words of this article while flying from Salt Lake City to Washington, D.C., with a telegram of invitation from the White House to attend a breakfast with the President of the United States and members of his cabinet, participating with a group of others from across the nation in a briefing to discuss critical issues presently facing the United States, I had been designated by President Spencer W. Kimball to represent him on this occasion.

Flying 600 miles an hour at 39,000 feet above sea level, I looked at the earth beneath me. I saw where my brethren and sisters of earlier generations broke the road along the Elkhorn and the Platte. I envisioned their wagons drawn in circles at night after traveling only fifteen or twenty miles in a long day. In my mind’s eye I witnessed them nursing their sick and burying their dead. I heard the cries of widows and orphaned children, the sobs of unspeakable loneliness as shallow graves were dug by those who never again would visit those hallowed places. My journey completed, I entered the White House the next morning and sat among some of the wise of this nation, and reflected on the time when Joseph Smith also came to Washington, riding horseback much of the way and taking the cheapest lodging he could find, all that he could afford. He had come to make a plea for help from President James Buchanan, only to be rebuffed and to return empty-handed to his people.

My journey epitomized for me the miraculous changes that have occurred since the days of Joseph. The little handful of people on April 6, 1830, has grown to 4 1/2 million. The provincialism of that beginning in the towns and villages of western New York has blossomed into a great cosmopolitan society established in seventy-two nations of the earth. The respect others presently have for the Church has been won over a period of many years through the integrity of our people.

Of course there are voices of dissent and still much of criticism. But these voices are like the barking of a little dog at the heels of a strong and beautiful animal. Some few pay attention to the barking, but most see above that noise to the innate strength, the solidarity, and the beauty of the creature at which its enemies shout their ineffective complaints.

Standing on the summit of a century and a half, we view with gratitude and humility what has been wrought. Prophecy has been fulfilled: “The mountain of the Lord’s house [has been] established in the top of the mountains.” Many people in many lands have said, “Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:2–3).

As we celebrate the sesquicentennial year of the Church, we assess the present and find strength. The Church flourishes in a world of secularism. It is a refuge of spirituality to ever-increasing numbers. Not in the memory of any living member has the rate of activity been so high. Increased faithfulness is evident in attendance at sacrament meetings, priesthood meetings, seminaries and institutes, and in temple attendance. Never before have there been so many missionaries, nor so many converts. Faithful and active members of the Church occupy positions of great trust in government, education, business, and the professions. Its building program is vast, yet there is difficulty in keeping up with the demands of growth. Growth, in fact, is its most serious challenge.

We are far from being a perfect society as we travel along the road to immortality and eternal life. The great work of the Church in furthering this process is to help men and women to move toward the perfection exemplified by the Savior of mankind. We are not likely to reach that goal in a day or a year or a lifetime. But as we strive in this direction, we shall become better men and women, sons and daughters of God.

Looking to the future, the challenges we see facing the Church are immense. The Lord himself has declared that this work will roll forth to fill the whole earth, in preparation for the coming of the Savior to reign as King of kings and Lord of lords. Much has been done, but much more remains to be done. All of the work of the past is but prelude to the work of the future. In lands where the gospel has been taught for a century and more, the numbers of the Saints are still relatively small. And in the earth’s most populated nations the doors are presently closed. But somehow, under the power of the Almighty, they will in his time be opened, for this gospel “shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations” before the end shall come (Matt. 24:14). There must be much more dedication, devotion, consecration. There must be a great expansion and a great acceleration.

Nor can we expect the powers of the adversary to lie dormant. Let us hope and pray that the days of burnings, drivings, and murders are forever behind us. But there will likely continue to be criticism and attacks of many kinds on the Church and its people. It will be of a more sophisticated nature than it has been in the past; and in the future, as before, we may expect much of it to come from those within the ranks of the Church—members of record while apostate in spirit. The very extent of the harassment we shall experience will stand as an evidence of the truth of this work. Else why would the adversary be so zealous to destroy it?

New challenges will arise as the work confronts new cultures. Yet there need be no fear of these. All of the people of the earth are sons and daughters of God, and there beats in the hearts of everyone something of divinity that will respond to the same teaching, no matter what the language or the land.

In days of sunshine it will become us to be humble. In times of storm we shall look to God for strength. This is his work. He will overrule for its blessing in the future as he has in the past. His Spirit will brood over the nations according to his will and wisdom, and hearts will be touched by its power.

The message of this work is the gospel of salvation. Its cause is the cause of peace. Its challenge lies in teaching eternal truths. Its victory lies in accomplishing the work of God.

This year of jubilee is a season to look back over the past with wonder and gratitude at what has been accomplished against so much opposition; a time to walk in humility with appreciation for the munificent blessings of heaven; a day to gain strength and to reaffirm objectives for the years ahead. Those years will be fruitful and wonderful if this people will remain true and faithful and work with an eye single to the glory of God.

[photos] The reconstructed Peter Whitmer cabin (above), where the Church was organized 150 years ago, stands in marked contrast to the Church Administration Building and Church Office Building (below), where the Church headquarters are presently located. (Photography by David Bradstreet and Eric W. White.)

[illustration] Painting by William Whitaker