The Latter-day Saints at Kirtland, Ohio, experienced rich spiritual blessings in the late 1830s and during the same period underwent a severe test of faith. Dedication of the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836, brought to them an endowment of spiritual power promised five years earlier when they had migrated from New York. But even as they sacrificed to build this first House of the Lord in the last dispensation, serious difficulties were threatening the unity of the Church, both in Ohio and in the second gathering place in northern Missouri.
Kirtland had been designated by revelation in 1831 as a temporary headquarters for five years (D&C 38:32; D&C 64:21) and many members willingly accepted the challenge to help retain a Mormon presence there. In Kirtland, as in Jackson County, Missouri the Saints purchased land in areas already sparsely settled by other American frontier farmers and townspeople. In the Kirtland area, the Saints owned their own dry goods stores, an inn, several mills, and shops for industrious craftsmen. In this way, they contributed to the overall development of the community.
But older residents feared that a rapid influx of Mormon settlers would upset the balance of the Kirtland economy. Residents also began to question ordinary political activities of Latter-day Saints. Several Mormons won elective offices, but rumors circulated that the Mormons were anti-American and planned to establish a secret, autocratic government. No doubt these fears stemmed from Latter-day Saint beliefs about the eventual creation of a millennial government. Because of their involvement in public affairs, the Saints in Kirtland participated in local discussions of a new location for the Geauga County seat, the local temperance movement, and other issues.
In addition to their concern for political and social questions Church members led Kirtland in their concern for education. In the “Olive Leaf” revelation (see D&C 88) recorded in December 1832, the Lord instructed the First Presidency to build a temple. Unlike later LDS temples, this building would serve several religious and educational purposes. In an upper floor would be schools to train prospective missionaries and to encourage the pursuit of secular knowledge.
Religion classes for the School of the Prophets (or School of the Elders, as it was sometimes called) began early in 1833, before completion of the temple, and continued intermittently for several years. The Prophet Joseph Smith and others prepared a series of “Lectures on Faith” as a basic text for the elders. These doctrinal discussions were published with the Doctrine and Covenants from 1835 until 1920. The school’s secular department, called the Kirtland School, offered courses in arithmetic, grammar, geography, and other basic subjects. In 1835 a special class in Hebrew was taught by Joshua Seixas of Hudson, Ohio. After dedication of the temple in the fall of 1837, a Kirtland High School assumed the general education curriculum begun by the Kirtland School.
The temple had other functions besides education. To the worthy Saints it brought fulfillment of the Lord’s promise that they would be “endowed with power from on high.” (D&C 38:32.) The “Olive Leaf” revelation explained further that this special building would serve as a “house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.” (D&C 88:119.)
Plans for the temple were set forth by revelation to the First Presidency, with Frederick G. Williams acting as draftsman. Though resembling a large New England meetinghouse in general outlines, the Kirtland Temple had several unusual features setting it apart as a Latter-day Saint building. For example, skilled craftsmen built handsomely carved pulpits at both ends of the assembly room—four tiers of pulpits for the Melchizedek Priesthood at the west end and four for the Aaronic Priesthood at the east. This 16.76 by 19.8 meter room could be divided into four sections with veils or curtains lowered by hidden ropes and pulleys.
The cornerstone for the new temple was Paid July 23, 1833, and work began soon, with members joining together to assist. It demanded sacrifice and financial commitment from everyone: workers laboring in the sandstone quarry; stonemasons, carpenters, joiners, glaziers, and painters who worked at the site; women who spun wool and wove clothing for the workers; and others who contributed to pay the estimated $60,000 cost of construction. As the sacred building neared completion, families donated glassware, china, etc., to be crushed and worked into the plaster to give the temple a gleaming appearance.
Events surrounding the dedication of the temple in March 1836 were a spiritual high point in the history of the Church at Kirtland. In preparation for the dedication, Joseph Smith introduced ordinances of washing of feet and anointing with oil to priesthood leaders. This was in keeping with the Lord’s commandment to them to “prepare yourselves, and sanctify yourselves; yea, purify your hearts, and cleanse your hands and your feet before me; that I may make you clean … from the blood of this wicked generation.” (D&C 88:74–75.) These were preliminary ordinances to the full endowment introduced by the Prophet several years later in Nauvoo.
So many wanted to attend the formal dedication services on March 27 that the dedicatory prayer, given by revelation, was repeated several times so all could hear. At the meetings, William W. Phelp’s new hymn, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning,” was sung for the first time. That night, in a priesthood assembly, the temple was filled with sounds like wind, and several of those in attendance spoke in tongues. Witnesses outside reported hearing the rushing sounds and saw a shaft of light on the temple steeple. Members likened their experiences to the spiritual outpourings of the Day of Pentecost.
A fitting climax to several days of similar experiences came on Sunday, April 3. At the afternoon meeting, after partaking of the sacrament, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery dropped the curtains that surrounded the west pulpits. With the privacy this afforded, they knelt in silent prayer, after which a vision was opened to them and they “saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit.” (D&C 110:2.) The Savior accepted the temple and promised other blessings. Then three more visions were shown to Joseph and Oliver. Moses delivered to them keys of the gathering of Israel; Elias confirmed upon them “the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham”; and Elijah gave them keys “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to the fathers.” (D&C 110:12, 15.)
The experiences of that day and of the week of dedication would be remembered by the Saints long after they had abandoned Kirtland and after the temple had fallen into other hands. After a long period of disuse, the temple was acquired and is now maintained as a meeting center by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its headquarters in Independence, Missouri.
The difficulties which caused Joseph Smith to leave Kirtland were somewhat different than the mob action that sent the Missouri saints fleeing from Jackson County, first to Clay County in 1833 and then into other northern Missouri counties. Political and religious pressures existed in both Missouri and Ohio, but the strains at Kirtland centered principally around Joseph Smith’s involvement in a needed banking venture and in the threats made by bitter apostates.
It was a period of rapid economic growth for Kirtland and Ohio. Money and credit were scarce on the American frontier. Population, business opportunities, and land prices were all increasing rapidly, and LDS businessmen saw the need for a bank to print and circulate notes as an aid to paying debts and further stimulating an inflationary economy. On November 2, 1836, Joseph Smith and others organized the Kirtland Safety Society Bank and applied for a state charter. During the previous eight years more than 400 new banks had been established in the United States for similar purposes. But the Kirtland application arrived in Columbus, the capital of Ohio, just after anti-banking forces won control, and government officials refused to issue any new bank charters. The Mormon applicants then decided to create a joint stock company to issue notes and take in money. They called it the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company and overprinted that name on the bank notes already prepared.
When Kirtland notes began circulating in January 1837, backed by a limited amount of gold, they were accepted at face value. Residents used them to purchase goods and pay old debts. But before the month had ended, the bank had to stop redeeming its notes in gold coin. The demand for gold was greater than available supplies. When other banks in the area learned that the paper money was redeemable only in land they refused to accept the Kirtland notes. These difficulties for the company were multiplied when the United States entered an economic panic which forced hundreds of banks to close.
Joseph Smith resigned as cashier of the Kirtland Anti-Banking Company early in the summer of 1837, several months before the firm closed its doors permanently. Like a number of others, the Prophet was left deeply in debt by the company’s failure. He had invested in land and had purchased merchandise for his store on credit, but could not easily sell his assets to get money to pay his debts.
Some of his associates failed to separate Joseph Smith’s role as prophet and businessman. He was struggling like others to earn a living, and closure of the business was not related to his integrity as a religious leader. Yet some in Kirtland became bitter and attempted to replace him as president of the Church. A faction turned against him as a prophet. Their apostasy led to threats against his life and against the lives of his supporters. Brigham Young and others publicly defended Joseph Smith and then joined the Prophet in fleeing from Kirtland to escape assassination or harassment.
The departing Church leaders traveled in the cold of winter to Missouri. They arrived in the early spring of 1838 at Far West, where members came to their assistance with animals and money. That summer many of the loyal members remaining in Kirtland decided to join the Saints in Missouri. Under the direction of the seventies, a group of more than 500 people known as the Kirtland Camp traveled by wagon over rough frontier roads to Far West and then became settlers at Adam-ondi-Ahman.
Difficulties at home did not prevent the Church from growing elsewhere. In various parts of the eastern United States, missionary work prospered, and conversions in Canada led to the expansion of the work across the Atlantic. In April 1836 Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Council of the Twelve was sent to Canada where he preached in the Toronto area. There he met John Taylor, a Methodist preacher who was looking for the restoration of the original church of Christ. After three weeks of investigation, the future third president of the Church, John Taylor and his wife were baptized, and within two years he was called as one of the Twelve.
Among the new members in Canada were many with relatives and friends in England. They wrote letters explaining their conversion and became anxious to bear their testimonies personally to their friends. The groundwork was already being laid for the spread of the gospel. Several months before Joseph Smith had fled from Kirtland, he had called Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Willard Richards, and four Canadian converts to open the British mission. They arrived at the port of Liverpool, England on July 20, 1837.
These missionaries contacted friends and relatives and then began to work generally among the people of England. After nine months of preaching—in churches whenever they could, in rented halls, or door to door—they counted nearly two thousand converts. Most of the elders returned home that spring,. leaving Canadian Joseph Fielding to preside over the mission, with Willard Richards (not yet an apostle) and William Clayton, a British convert, as counselors.
If Joseph Smith expected to find peace among the Saints in northern Missouri he was to be sadly disappointed. For there, as in Kirtland, disagreement and misunderstanding stirred controversy. In the spring of 1838 various charges of disloyalty against the stake presidency (David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and John Whitmer) were sustained by a general council appointed to investigate. These Church leaders were released from office and replaced by Thomas B. Marsh, with Brigham Young and David W. Patten as counselors. About the same time Church courts excommunicated Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, two of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and Lyman E. Johnson of the Twelve Apostles. These men had shown sympathy for the Kirtland dissenters and were publicly criticizing Joseph Smith.
During the summer of 1838 Missourians repeated old charges against the Saints and some were threatening violence against their homes and persons. The Prophet’s own decision was to stand up against the threats and, if necessary, to resist. Sidney Rigdon elaborated upon the decision in an oration on July 4, 1838, the American Independence Day. “We will bear it no more,” he declared, “our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity … And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; … We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people; but shall stand for our own until death. We claim our own rights, and are willing that all others shall enjoy theirs.” (BYU Studies 14 [Summer 1974]: 527.)
Residents of Missouri interpreted the vivid rhetoric of this speech as evidence of Mormon “treason.” The result was violence in what came to be known as the “Mormon War of 1838.” The difficulties began on election day at Gallatin, in Daviess County, when a drunken citizen picked a fight with one of the Saints who had gone to the polls to vote against an anti-Mormon candidate. Exaggerated reports of the fight reached Far West. Joseph Smith and others armed themselves and formed bands to ride to the aid of their brethren. They learned from Lyman Wight at Adam-ondi-Ahman that injuries were minor, so they assumed the matter was settled. But soon warrants against Joseph Smith and Lyman Wight charged them with insurrection. They were arrested and ordered to stand trial.
Rumors now circulated on both sides, and false reports of a Mormon uprising reached Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. He ordered the state militia to organize for action. The Latter-day Saints enlisted in the Caldwell County militia for self-defense. When mobs in Carroll County harassed the Saints at DeWitt, Joseph Smith advised members to leave the county. This decision encouraged mob action elsewhere. Night-riding mobs burned homes and haystacks near Adam-Ondi-Ahman, and state militia officers instructed Lyman Wight to organize a Mormon militia for protection.
On October 24 a company of Caldwell County militia under Captain Samuel Bogart took three Mormons prisoner and warned others to leave the state. Captain David W. Patten, a member of the Twelve, took a small detachment of the Mormon militia and marched on Bogart’s camp at Crooked River to rescue the prisoners. These two companies of militia fought a hand-to-hand battle in which Patten and three other men were killed.
Exaggerated reports of this confrontation reached Governor Boggs. He was told that the Saints were burning towns, driving established settlers from their homes and undermining civil authority through the activities of a group known as the “Danites”—a band of avengers. Joseph Smith was charged with being the prime instigator but had nothing to do with it and exposed the participants when he became aware of it. Ignoring the Latter-day Saint viewpoint of matters, Boggs issued an order on October 27 instructing General John B. Clark of the state militia, “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public good. Their outrages are beyond all description.” (History of the Church 3:175.)
This infamous “Order of Extermination” brought predictable results. On October 30 more than two hundred men of the state militia participated in a brutal massacre at a small settlement of thirty Mormon families near the mill of Jacob Haun in Caldwell County. The settlers had made a peace treaty with militia leaders only two days earlier, but the soldiers attacked the settlement and killed 17 of the Saints, including men and boys who had fled to a blacksmith shop for protection.
The following day at Far West Church leaders met to hear four demands from General Samuel Lucas: Mormon property was to be confiscated to pay for damages, Church leaders were to surrender for trial and punishment, the balance of the Saints were to be disarmed, and they were to leave the state under militia protection. Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Parley P. Pratt, George W. Robinson, Hyrum Smith, and Amasa Lyman were taken prisoner while the militia plundered Far West. A court-martial quickly sentenced the prisoners to be shot the following morning, and General Lucas ordered General Alexander Doniphan to carry out the order. Doniphan, who had served as an attorney for the Saints previously, responded with a memo: “It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o’clock, and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.” Doniphan’s fearless response prevented the execution. (CHC 1:482.)
Calm settled on Missouri during November and December of 1838, but the Saints knew that they would eventually be required to leave their homes. With Joseph Smith and his counselors in prison, Brigham Young, now senior member of the Council of the Twelve, began preparations for the exodus. By January a committee was actively organizing for the trek, and in February Brigham Young fled from Far West for his own safety. The mass evacuation then began in earnest and by late April nearly all the Saints had left Missouri. Many found refuge across the Mississippi River in western Illinois, at Quincy. Others fled to St. Louis, Missouri, and to other nearby locations.
During this trying time for the Latter-day Saints, their prophet and those arrested with him languished in jail. From Independence, Missouri the prisoners had been transferred to Richmond, Missouri, to await trial on charges of treason. A civil trial presided over by Judge Austin A. King began on November 13. Sampson Avard (an apostate to the Church) and other witnesses accused the Prophet of directing “Danite” activities. Favorable witnesses were arrested and jailed to prevent them from appearing. The judge finally bound the prisoners over for further trial. Several of them were confined in Richmond. Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were sent to the jail at Liberty, in Clay County.
Liberty Jail, a small, 6.7 meter building of heavy stone walls lined with logs, was the Prophet’s home for five months. The Prophet’s letters from this dismal site surprisingly reflected optimism. With time to pray and meditate, he put into writing some profound revelations and observations. Extracts from these sections now appear in the Doctrine and Covenants as sections 121, 122, and 123. In April the prisoners at Liberty were moved to Gallatin, in Daviess County. Then, during a second transfer to Columbia, these men were allowed to escape by the sheriff and guards. The weary prisoners walked and rode to Illinois, where on April 22 they rejoined their families and the Saints. The prisoners at Richmond were also transferred to Columbia and escaped their captors on July 4.
The exodus from Missouri marked the end of an important period in the history of the Church. The years in Ohio and Missouri were marked by the building of a temple, new revelations of doctrine, the expansion of missionary work, and the designation of the Center Place for Zion. These years were marred by financial tragedy, bitter persecution and apostasy, and the expulsion of the Saints from Missouri. But as 1839 began, so did a new period in Church history, a time of renewed vitality and growth as the Saints founded a new gathering place at Nauvoo, Illinois.