It was still quite dark at four o’clock in the morning when reveille sounded from a battered French horn, sending a tired army to prayer and then to preparing for the long day’s march. Like most armies, they were ready for battle. But this was no ordinary army. This was Zion’s Camp.
The Zion’s Camp journey began in May 1834 with about 100 men. As they marched, new recruits joined them. By the middle of June, the group numbered 207 men, 11 women, 11 children, and 25 baggage wagons. The oldest member of the army was Samuel Baker, who was 79; the youngest member was sixteen-year-old George A. Smith, a cousin to the Prophet Joseph.
Originally the Lord had asked for 500 men to march to Missouri to help Church members regain lands that mobs had driven them from. But He also said that if 500 couldn’t be found, fewer would do—but no fewer than 100. The Lord promised, “Mine angels shall go up before you, and also my presence” (D&C 103:20).
The march was one thousand miles (1600 k) long, and the discomfort of the summer storms, heat, and humidity was intensified by the fact that there was not enough food. George A. Smith remembered being so tired, hungry, and sleepy that while he walked, he dreamed of a beautiful, shaded stream of water with a loaf of bread and a bottle of milk laid out on a cloth by the side of it.
Most of the men bore the burden of the march in faith, but some complained and caused contentions. Sylvester Smith—no relation to the Prophet—complained that Joseph’s watchdog kept him awake at night.
On May 17th, Joseph Smith asked the men to humble themselves and be peacefully united. He told them that if they didn’t, they would meet with misfortunes before they left that place.
The following morning the men woke up to find that nearly every horse was either sick or lame. Once more the Prophet told the men that if they would humble themselves and repent of their discord, the horses would be healed. Most of the men did, and by noon all but one of the horses were healthy again. That one horse, Sylvester Smith’s, died.
The lesson was short-lived, however, for soon the complaining and contention began again. Joseph warned the men that the Lord had revealed that a scourge would come upon the camp in consequence of the rebellious spirits among them. He prophesied that many would die like sheep with the rot. He also again promised that if they would repent and humble themselves before the Lord, the scourge might be turned away.
After they reached Clay County, Missouri, news arrived that a mob of nearly four hundred men were preparing to destroy them. When Joseph heard the news, he knelt beneath the clear blue summer sky and prayed for divine protection.
Not far off, gunfire sounded. The men of Zion’s Camp wanted to fight, but Joseph counseled them to wait and see what God would do.
Suddenly a small black cloud appeared in the west. It moved eastward, growing bigger as it moved, until it filled the heavens with darkness. The first ferryboat of mobbers had crossed the Missouri River south of Zion’s Camp and was returning for another load, when a violent burst of wind hit the boat. Rain poured and the wind soared so hard that the members of Zion’s Camp ran from their tents and found shelter in an old Baptist meetinghouse nearby. Safely inside, Joseph told them that God was in that storm.
The horizon filled with the snaking of lightning bolts—not one after another, but atop and beside each other so that the sky was continually lit, and the thunder roared without stopping. Large hailstones broke branches from trees and destroyed crops. Torrents of rain soaked the mobbers’ ammunition and made it useless. The sights and sounds of the storm frightened the mobbers’ horses away, leaving the mobbers to find their way home, wet, horseless, and frightened.
The next morning, Fishing River, which had been only ankle deep, was more than forty feet (12.2 m) deep. One of the mobbers told Joseph Smith that he knew that God was protecting the Mormons.
Despite the miracles, many members of the camp were still disgruntled. Why, after one thousand miles (1600 k) and forty-five days of marching, had the Lord commanded the army not to fight? Joseph explained that like Abraham of old, it had been a test of obedience for the men.
But for some, this was a test they could not endure. Their testimonies crumbled, and in anger they left the Church. Joseph pleaded with the men to remain faithful, and he reminded them of the prophesied scourge that would befall them if they refused to humble themselves.
His words fell on many deaf ears. Two days later Zion’s Camp was struck with the dreaded disease cholera. About midnight on June 24, moans and cries pierced the darkness. Men on guard duty fell to the ground, guns still in their hands. Violent attacks of vomiting and cramps turned strong men into writhing victims. Before it ended, sixty-eight people were stricken and fourteen members of the camp died.
As the first few men were taken sick, Joseph tried to give them a blessing, but he was immediately struck with the disease himself. From this painful experience, he learned that when God decrees destruction upon any people, men must not try to stop it.
Slowly Zion’s Camp began to disband. Some stayed in Missouri. Some went on missions. Most returned to their homes and shared the things they had learned with their friends and families.
We, too, can learn from the experiences of Zion’s Camp the importance of obedience, being tested, and overcoming trials. Although a few men failed the test of Zion’s Camp, many were made stronger and more faithful by it. It prepared them for future leadership positions in which their faith and strength would be needed. When the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the first Quorum of the Seventy were organized in 1835, nine of the twelve Apostles and all seventy-one members of the Quorum of the Seventy had served in Zion’s Camp. One of the faithful, Brigham Young, said that he wouldn’t have exchanged the knowledge he got during the march for all of Geauga County, Ohio.
Sometimes it’s hard for us to understand the ways of God. But if we simply trust instead of murmuring, all things will work for our good and for God’s purposes, just as they did for Zion’s Camp. Zion’s Camp was no ordinary army. It will be remembered not for battles fought but for lessons learned.
(Historical information for this article is from the Institute manual Church History in the Fulness of Times, pages 140–152.)
Hark, listen to the trumpeters!
They sound for volunteers.
On Zion’s bright and flowery mount
Behold the officers.
Their horses white, their armor bright,
With courage bold they stand,
Enlisting soldiers for their King
To march to Zion’s land.
It sets my heart all in a flame
A soldier brave to be;
I will enlist, gird on my arms,
And fight for liberty.
We want no cowards in our bands
Who will our colors fly.
We call for valiant-hearted men
Who’re not afraid to die.
To see our armies on parade,
How martial they appear!
All armed and dressed in uniform
They look like men of war.
They follow their great General,
The great Eternal Lamb;
His garments stained in his own blood,
King Jesus is his name.
The trumpets sound, the armies shout,
They drive the host of hell,
How dreadful is our God, our King,
The great Emmanuel!
Sinners, enlist with Jesus Christ,
Th’ eternal Son of God,
And march with us to Zion’s land,
Beyond the swelling flood.