In 1837 and 1838, the Prophet Joseph Smith and other leaders led the Church through a difficult season. As a result of economic distress, greed, faultfinding, and persecutions, 10 to 15 percent of the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, and northern Missouri apostatized, including some prominent Church leaders. Faithful Saints in Ohio began moving to join those in northern Missouri. This lesson can help students understand and learn from historical events and give them insights into the revelations received during this period.
Suggestions for Teaching
Apostasy and the city of Far West
During a period of apostasy and persecution, faithful Saints move to northern Missouri
Before class, write the following question on the board: Do difficulties and trials help strengthen our faith or cause us to lose faith? You may also want to draw a map on the board showing the location of Kirtland, Ohio, and other settlements in northern Missouri.
Begin class by inviting students to respond to the question on the board. After students have shared their insights, explain that in 1837 and 1838, a period of trials led many of the Saints to face this very question. Explain that in this lesson, students will learn about these difficult events and how the Saints responded to them. Invite students to ponder how our reaction to trials can either strengthen or weaken our faith in Jesus Christ.
You might also explain to students that this lesson can help them understand the historical setting of the revelations they will study in Doctrine and Covenants 113–123.
Point to Missouri on the map. Explain that when the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, in 1833, the citizens of neighboring Clay County welcomed many of them and gave them relief, anticipating that the Saints would stay only temporarily. However, after the Saints had lived there for almost three years, these citizens began pressuring them to leave the county.
Point to Kirtland, Ohio, on the map. Explain that in 1837, the year after the Kirtland Temple was dedicated, the Saints experienced trials that tested their faith. A number of Saints apostatized and left the Church, including some prominent Church leaders.
Divide the class into two groups. Provide a copy of one of the following historical summaries for each group. (If you have a large class, you may want to divide students into four or six groups and give each group a copy of one of the summaries. This will allow more students to participate in the discussion.) Invite each group to read the summary together and discuss the questions at the end of the summary. Assign one person in each group to lead the discussion and help the group write a principle to share with the class later.
Historical Summary 1—Apostasy in Kirtland
In 1837, the Saints in Kirtland, Ohio, experienced some financial problems. To help the Saints be more self-sufficient in their finances, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders established a company similar to a bank and called it the Kirtland Safety Society. Because of a widespread economic depression during this time, many banks failed throughout the nation. The Kirtland Safety Society also failed in the fall of 1837. Two hundred investors in the bank lost almost everything, with Joseph Smith sustaining the greatest losses. Even though the Kirtland Safety Society was not funded by the Church, some of the Saints considered it a Church bank or the Prophet’s bank and blamed Joseph Smith for their financial problems. Some even began calling him a fallen prophet. But despite the bank’s failure, many others who lost money continued in the faith and stayed true to the Prophet. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 171–73.)
A spirit of apostasy and faultfinding spread among many of the Saints. Brigham Young described an occasion when some of the Church leaders and Saints met to renounce Joseph Smith and appoint a new prophet:
“Several of the Twelve, the witnesses to the Book of Mormon, and others of the Authorities of the Church, held a council in the upper room of the Temple. The question before them was to ascertain how the Prophet Joseph could be deposed, and David Whitmer appointed President of the Church. … I rose up, and in a plain and forcible manner told them that Joseph was a Prophet, and I knew it, and that they might rail and slander him as much as they pleased, they could not destroy the appointment of the Prophet of God, they could only destroy their own authority, cut the thread that bound them to the Prophet and to God and sink themselves to hell” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1801–1844, ed. Elden Jay Watson , 15–16).
By June 1838, approximately 200 or 300 apostates had left the Church, including four Apostles, the Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, and a member of the First Presidency (see Church History in the Fulness of Times, 177). However, most of the Saints responded to this period of testing with faith, much like Brigham Young did. They were strengthened by the Lord, and they remained true to their testimonies. Several of those who left the Church during this period of apostasy later returned and requested that they be reunited again with the Lord’s Church. Among them were Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, Luke Johnson, and Frederick G. Williams.
In the midst of these struggles in Kirtland, a few apostates sought to kill Joseph Smith. Warned by the Spirit, he and Sidney Rigdon left during the night on January 12, 1838. Their enemies pursued them for days, but the Lord protected them. They arrived with their families in Far West, Missouri, on March 14, 1838.
Discuss the following questions as a group:
What principles can we learn from these historical events?
What would you have done to remain faithful to the Prophet during this time of faultfinding?
When has enduring a trial with faith strengthened your faith in the Savior?
In what ways has following the prophet been a spiritual protection for you?
Historical Summary 2—Northern Missouri Leadership
In the summer of 1836, when citizens of Clay County, Missouri, were pressuring the Saints to find a more permanent home, John Whitmer and William W. Phelps, the two counselors in the Missouri stake presidency, used Church money to purchase land in a place known as Far West in northern Missouri. However, when they offered parcels of land to incoming Saints, they sold the land for a small profit, which they kept for themselves. Upset by this and other offenses, the high council in Missouri removed the stake presidency from office.
Joseph Smith upheld the council’s action, and William W. Phelps was offended. In November 1838, Brother Phelps signed an affidavit against the Prophet. This affidavit contributed to Joseph Smith and others being arrested and thrown into Liberty Jail for the winter. Brother Phelps was excommunicated from the Church shortly thereafter.
In jail, Joseph Smith and those with him suffered immensely, not only from the brutal conditions of their imprisonment but also from reports of the Saints being driven from their homes and abused in many ways. The Missouri mobs, unchecked by the governor, destroyed property and lives, including the massacre of 17 people at a mill owned by a man named Jacob Haun.
William W. Phelps suffered spiritually for his actions, and he wrote Joseph Smith a letter asking for forgiveness a year later. The Prophet wrote back:
“It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior. …
“However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. …
“Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. …
“‘Come on dear brother, since the war is past,
“‘For friends at first, are friends again at last’” (in History of the Church, 4:163, 164).
Discuss the following questions as a group:
Why is it difficult to forgive a friend who has betrayed you and caused you to suffer?
What principles can we learn from Joseph Smith’s example?
What other lessons can we learn from this experience?
After groups have had time to read and discuss the historical summaries, invite them to recount to the class the history they have learned and the principles they have identified. As they teach, ask them to write the principles on the board. These principles might include the following: As we choose to respond to trials with faith rather than doubt, our testimonies can be strengthened; as we support the prophet and follow his counsel, we receive spiritual security that binds us to God (see historical summary 1). As we forgive others, the Lord can heal our relationships (see historical summary 2).
As students identify principles, ask follow-up questions to help them understand and feel the importance of these truths. These questions might include the following:
Why is this principle important for us to remember?
How would you explain this truth to a friend?
When have you experienced or seen an example of this principle?
To help students apply the truths they have learned, ask them to select one or two of the principles the groups have identified. Then invite them to write a response to the following question in their class notebooks or scripture study journals:
What will I do differently because of the principle or principles I learned today?
Events leading to the Saints’ expulsion from northern Missouri
Ask students to raise their hands if they have ever seen a member of the Church make a choice that caused another person to have a negative impression of the Church. (Do not ask them to share their experiences.) You may also want to ask students to consider how their own actions have influenced others’ impressions of the Church.
Why is it important for us to think about how our actions or words reflect on the Church?
Explain that in 1838 the actions and words of some Church members added to the negative feelings some citizens of Missouri had toward Latter-day Saints. Provide students with copies of the following historical summary, and invite a student to read it aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for things that some of the Saints said or did that hurt the Church and its members. Consider inviting the student to pause after each paragraph. At each pause, ask students the following question:
What did a few of the Saints say or do that caused negative reactions to the Church?
In 1837 and 1838, some disaffected and excommunicated members of the Church living among the Saints in Far West began to bring lawsuits against the Church and its leaders and to harass the Church. Some of the Saints began to grow impatient with these dissenters. In June 1838, Sidney Rigdon spoke heatedly in what has become known as the “Salt Sermon.” He referenced Matthew 5:13 and said that if the salt loses its savor, it is good for nothing and should be cast out, implying that those who had left the Church should be cast out from among the Saints. Additionally, 84 Church members signed a document ordering the apostates to leave the county. Two weeks later, on July 4, Sidney Rigdon gave a speech in which he promised that the Saints would defend themselves even if it came to a “war of extermination.” Though both of these speeches seemed to contradict the Lord’s instruction to “sue for peace” (D&C 105:38), both speeches were published and caused great alarm among non–Latter-day Saints. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times, 191–92.)
On August 6, 1838, as a group of Saints tried to vote in Gallatin, Missouri, they were pushed aside by a group of Missourians, and one local man hit one of the Saints. The Saints fought back, and a number of men were injured on both sides. This incident led to additional conflicts and threats and increased the misunderstanding between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in Missouri.
During this time, a convert named Sampson Avard administered secret oaths to those who would join him in forming a band of marauders called the Danites. Avard instructed them to rob and plunder the Missourians, saying that this would help build up the kingdom of God. Avard convinced his followers that his directions were coming from the First Presidency. The truth was later discovered, and Avard was excommunicated. Avard’s actions caused significant damage to the image of the Church and helped lead to the Prophet’s imprisonment in Liberty Jail.
In October 1838, a battle between some members of the Church and Missouri militiamen left a few men dead on each side. Exaggerated reports of the battle reached Governor Lilburn W. Boggs, governor of the state of Missouri, who then issued what has become known as the extermination order: “The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public good” (quoted in History of the Church, 3:175). Soon, the city of Far West was surrounded by a militia that outnumbered the Saints’ forces five to one. Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were imprisoned in Liberty Jail, where they remained all winter. The rest of the Saints were forced to leave the state.
Why might it be important for us to recognize that some of the persecution the Saints suffered resulted from Church members’ actions?
What can we learn from these events about how our own actions and words can influence others? (As students respond, emphasize the following principle: Our actions and words can influence how others view the Church of Jesus Christ. You may want to ask students to read Alma 39:11.)
Invite a few students to share experiences they have had when they have seen another person’s words or actions influence someone else to have a positive view of the Church.
Conclude by referring again to the question you wrote on the board before class. Invite students to share what they have learned today about how our response to challenges and trials can either strengthen or weaken our faith. Share your testimony of the power of remaining faithful to the gospel during times of difficulty.
Commentary and Background Information
Descriptions of the period of apostasy in Kirtland
During 1837 a dark spirit afflicted some members of the Church in Kirtland, Ohio:
“At this time the spirit of speculation in lands and property of all kinds, which was so prevalent throughout the whole nation, was taking deep root in the Church. As the fruits of this spirit, evil surmisings, fault-finding, disunion, dissension, and apostasy followed in quick succession, and it seemed as though all the powers of earth and hell were combining their influence in an especial manner to overthrow the Church at once, and make a final end” (History of the Church, 2:487).
Eliza R. Snow, who was living in Kirtland at this time and later served as the second president of the Relief Society, described this period in Kirtland:
“Many who had been humble and faithful to the performance of every duty—ready to go and come at every call of the Priesthood, were getting haughty in their spirits, and lifted up in the pride of their hearts. As the Saints drank in the love and spirit of the world, the Spirit of the Lord withdrew from their hearts, and they were filled with pride and hatred toward those who maintained their integrity” (Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow , 20).
Brigham Young described the climate in the Church during 1837 and his efforts to defend the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“At this time the spirit of speculation, disaffection and apostasy imbibed by many of the Twelve, and which ran through all the Quorums of the Church, prevailed so extensively that it was difficult for any to see clearly the path to pursue.
“… This was a crisis when earth and hell seemed leagued to overthrow the Prophet and Church of God. The knees of many of the strongest men in the Church faltered.
“During this siege of darkness I stood close by Joseph, and, with all the wisdom and power God bestowed upon me, put forth my utmost energies to sustain the servant of God and unite the quorums of the church” (Manuscript History of Brigham Young 1801–1844, ed. Elden Jay Watson , 15, 16–17).
Factors contributing to the financial troubles in Kirtland
In 1837, greed took hold of the hearts of some Church members and even some prominent Church leaders in Kirtland. Gold and silver money was scarce. People used paper money from a number of banks in the area. To help the Saints be more financially self-sufficient, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders established a bank-like company called the Kirtland Safety Society. Many Saints bought stock in the new bank. Within a few months of the company opening its doors, a financial crisis, later called the panic of 1837, began in New York City and swept westward, resulting in the failure of hundreds of banks, including the Kirtland Safety Society.
Other factors contributed to the instability of the Kirtland Safety Society. Many other banks refused to accept the Safety Society’s notes as legal tender, and the anti-Mormon newspapers branded the currency as worthless. Furthermore, the society’s capital was primarily in the form of land; it did not possess much hard currency, such as gold and silver, for satisfying any large demands for redemption of its paper currency. Enemies of the Church obtained enough notes to initiate a run on the bank, forcing the society to suspend payment in gold and silver to its customers only a few weeks after the first notes were issued. As a result, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were charged with violating the banking statutes of Ohio and brought to trial. Joseph and Sidney were each fined $1,000.
Joseph Smith did all he could to persuade investors to give more funds to sustain the bank, but he finally turned its operation over to others. However, this failed to solve the problem. Inexperienced and dishonest managers further destabilized the bank. Warren Parrish, the bank’s cashier and Joseph’s personal scribe, stole over 20,000 dollars.
A growing spirit of speculation in Kirtland also added to the Church’s economic problems. With the availability of supposed money, which they borrowed from the bank, many people went into debt to purchase land for resale at a substantial profit.
By the fall of 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society had to close its doors. Hundreds of individuals lost almost everything they had invested, with Joseph Smith sustaining the greatest losses. Because the Safety Society was considered by many to be a Church bank or the Prophet’s bank, some of the Saints blamed Joseph Smith for their financial problems and even began calling him a fallen prophet. Others who also lost money continued in the faith and stayed true to the Prophet. (See Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 171–73.)
Supplemental Teaching Idea
Video presentations—“If They Harden Not Their Hearts” and “Required to Forgive”
In addition to the students’ presentations about the historical summaries in the lesson, you may want to show the two videos mentioned below. Both videos are available on Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Visual Resource DVDs and on LDS.org.
Before or after the presentation by group 1 (“Apostasy in Kirtland”), you could show a segment from “If They Harden Not Their Hearts” (time codes 0:00 to 4:05). Invite students to watch for what happened in the hearts of some people in Kirtland during the time depicted in the video.
Before or after the presentation by group 2 (“Northern Missouri Leadership”), you could show “Required to Forgive.”