It begins in the first section of the Doctrine and Covenants and resounds throughout: a voice of warning to all people. Those who will not hear the voice of the Apostles and prophets will be cut off.
The metaphor is that of pruning, the removal of dead wood from the living, fruitful tree. When one considers the difference between a withered branch and a fruitful bough, the comparison is apt. Those receiving the restored gospel must make a choice: to hear or not to hear the voice of his servants; to live as a part of the tree or be cast off to wither alone. As this warning unfolds in the revelations, an interesting counterpoint develops in the lives of those little-known Saints who were there to receive first the words of the Lord. Many heard and continued, and bore fruit; many did not, and were cut off. There is much instruction in their choices.
I first became interested in the lives of the relatively unknown people of the Doctrine and Covenants when I found that my fourth great-grandfather, Lyman Sherman, was among them. Lyman, having felt impressed to learn his duty, approached the Prophet Joseph Smith in 1835, asking for instruction. In response, Joseph Smith received section 108 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a short but valuable lesson to those who would serve. Sherman later became one of the presidents of the Seventy, and he died during the Missouri persecutions, before receiving word of his call to the Apostleship.1 This connection of my family to the history of the revelations led me to study other such figures in the book.
The lives of some 129 people referred to in the Doctrine and Covenants are fascinating, both for their human interest and for the way they illustrate the importance of heeding the voice of the prophets.
For example, six sections of the Doctrine and Covenants contain instruction addressed to Thomas B. Marsh, the first President of the Quorum of the Twelve. Marsh was told to be a “physician to the church” (D&C 31:10) and was given the prominent responsibility of leading the Twelve in their mission to preach to all the world. He endured much for the Church, but in the end was unable to subordinate his pride, and in the jarrings and contentions of the day, he forsook the Church.
In contrast stands his junior in the quorum, Brigham Young, who on several occasions counseled his impatient president to hear the words of the Prophet. On one occasion he told Marsh, who was distressed about the position and prominence of the Twelve, “If we are faithful, we shall see the day … that we will have all the power we shall know how to wield before God.”2 Marsh recalled another occasion, after he had complained about the decisions of Joseph Smith, when Brigham Young counseled him with these words:” ‘Are you the leader of the Church, Brother Thomas?’ I answered, ‘No.’ ‘Well,then,’ said he, ‘Why do you not let that alone.’”3
Thomas Marsh did not let things alone. In the adjustments and testing that took place as each stone of the priesthood edifice was set in its proper place, he chose to stop hearing the word of the Lord and lost his place in the kingdom. Conversely, Brigham Young never faltered and became the great builder of the kingdom and proclaimer of the gospel that Marsh had wished so fervently to be.
The pain and loss of being cut off from the kingdom are expressed well in Marsh’s own words as he pled to be received back into Church fellowship many years after his apostasy. “I know what I have done a mission was laid upon me & I have never filled it and now it is too late but it is filled by another, I see, the Lord could get along very well without me and He has lost nothing by my falling out of the ranks; but O what have I lost?”4 (Here and elsewhere, original spelling, capitalization, and punctuation have been preserved.)
Marsh eventually did regain his membership, but not his lost opportunities.
There are other stories of those who, for pride, chose to stray rather than stay. Simonds Ryder, mentioned in section 52 [D&C 52], joined the Church soon after its organization. Shortly thereafter, he apostatized and eventually led the mob that wrenched Joseph Smith and Sydney Rigdon from their homes in winter for a brutal beating and tarring.5 His excuse for leaving the Church was the misspelling of his name in Church documents; he questioned the authenticity of inspired materials with typographical errors.6
Joseph Wakefield, mentioned in sections 50 and 52, [D&C 50; D&C 52] found a like excuse for turning a deaf ear to the Prophet. He observed Joseph Smith playing with children soon after working on the translation of the Bible and concluded such was not the behavior of a prophet.7 Like Ryder, he was cut off, and his name has faded.
Almon Babbitt, mentioned in section 124 [D&C 124], was a Church leader prominent in the Nauvoo period, serving as a stake president and as Church legal counsel. But Babbitt, for all his prominence and talent, could not steer a steady path. In all, he was in and out of Church fellowship numerous times in his life.8
Others, like William W. Phelps, recipient of section 55 [D&C 55], left the Church and the Prophet but then returned to obediently renew their contributions to the kingdom. After Phelps had contributed to the Missouri proceedings that nearly cost the Prophet his life, his moving reconciliation with Joseph Smith is an example of the power of repentance and forgiveness—a reminder to those who stray. The remorseful Phelps asked forgiveness of the Prophet and reunion with the Saints. Joseph frankly and generously extended both.9
But at least as numerous as the stories of those who faltered are the stories of the quiet heroes who did not. Though not mentioned by name in the Doctrine and Covenants, Polly Knight, mother of the family who so faithfully stood by the Prophet, became the first Latter-day Saint laid to rest in Zion, and earned her place in Doctrine and Covenants history. Traveling to settle in Missouri, she became so ill that her son, Newel, was dispatched from the river boat to buy lumber for her coffin. Despite her illness, she insisted on completing the journey, and died soon after reaching the gathering place.
After burying his wife in Missouri, Joseph Knight recorded the following: “She was Burried in the woods a spot Chosen out By our selves. I was along By where she was Buried a few Days after and I found the hogs had Began to root where she was Buried. I Being verry unwell But I took my ax the nex Day and went and Bilt a pen round it. It was the Last I done for her.”10 Her faithful sacrifice bears the Lord’s benediction. Soon after her death, the Lord told Joseph Smith, “Those that die shall rest from all their labors, and their works shall follow them; and they shall receive a crown in the mansions of my Father, which I have prepared for them.” (D&C 59:1–2.)
Others also distinguished themselves by quiet faithfulness. John Murdock, recipient of section 99, was told “to proclaim mine everlasting gospel. … And after a few years, if thou desirest of me, thou mayest go up … unto the goodly land, to possess thine inheritance.” (D&C 99:1, 7.) He served six missions for the Church before resting. The depth of his sacrifice is made clear by the fact that he laid a wife to rest in each of the early gathering places of the Saints: Kirtland, Ohio; Missouri; and Illinois.11 Such are his and their legacies of faith and perseverance.
The Prophet’s younger brother, Samuel, mentioned in eight sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, became the third martyr of Carthage, dying a month after the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. His death arose in part from complications rising from his courageous ride to Carthage, before a pursuing mob, to rescue his brothers. Arriving too late to help, he accompanied their bodies back to Nauvoo, then joined them in death soon after.12
Other unsung heroes have place in the history of the Doctrine and Covenants, having quietly heeded the Prophet of the Lord. Dimmick Huntington faithfully and often painfully served the Prophet in physical labors, eliciting Joseph’s deep gratitude.13 Dimmick’s father, William, once changed beds with the Prophet and was cruelly beaten by a mob, angry at being tricked.14
Another moving story of loyalty is that of Stephen Markham, who appears in the Prophet’s later life at nearly every occasion of peril. When Joseph was imprisoned in Missouri, Stephen Markham brought the Smith family safely to Illinois.15 When Joseph was illegally detained and abused by two Missouri constables, it was Stephen Markham who defied them, shamed them into humane behavior, and helped prevent the Prophet’s abduction to Missouri.16 At Carthage, it was Markham who offered to trade clothes and help the Prophet escape.17 On the day of the martyrdom, Markham was returning to the jail with medicine for Willard Richards when the conspiring guards challenged him, attacked him, and finally had to force him away at bayonet point to keep him from returning to the Prophet. Prodded onto his horse, he was poked so many times that his boots filled with blood.18 Joseph Smith’s last journal entry records a prophecy spoken to Stephen Markham that “if I and Hyrum were ever taken again, we should be massacred.”19 The measure of Markham’s love is his brave effort to prevent that prophecy’s fulfillment.
Like the seeds of the sower in the parable, the words of the Lord and his prophet fell on the hearts of men. Like the soils of the parable, some hearts received them and some did not. Such is the instruction we gain from the lives of these figures in our history. We, too, choose whether we will hear or not. We can mirror the faithfulness of John Murdock or the unsteadiness of Almon Babbitt. We can match the patient humility of Brigham Young or the pride of Thomas Marsh. We can take offense at small things, like Simonds Ryder and Joseph Wakefield, or we can rise above them and serve with loyalty like Samuel Smith, Polly Knight, the Huntingtons, and Stephen Markham. And if we stray, we can choose repentance as did William Phelps.
If we hear and obey, our fruit will continue as has that of the faithful of the past; if we hear not, then we shall be cut off to wither, without root. But we must choose, and much depends on our choice, for ours is the opportunity to be part of the fruitful tree of the kingdom.