Doctrine and Covenants 31: Thomas B. Marsh—Promises and Warnings

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Student Study Guide, (2005), 42–43


Doctrine and Covenants 31was received at about the same time as section 30 ( the introduction toD&C 30). The Lord’s counsel to Thomas B. Marsh illustrates how well He knows His children. As you read the promises and warnings to Thomas Marsh, keep in mind that he would become the first President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles when that quorum was organized. He later failed to support and sustain the Prophet Joseph Smith and eventually left the Church in anger because of a problem caused when he failed to correct his wife.

Understanding the Scriptures

Doctrine and Covenants 31

Sickle(v. 5)A curved knife for harvesting grain 
Laden with sheaves(v. 5)Loaded with bundles of grain (successful in missionary work) 
Hire(v. 5)Pay 
Revile(v. 9)To scold with contempt 

Doctrine and Covenants 31:4–5—“The Field Which Is White Already to Be Burned”

The Lord frequently uses the symbolism of the harvest when talking about missionary work (John 4:35–36;D&C 4:4). When grain, such as wheat, is ripe the heads turn white, indicating that they are ready to harvest. In those days, the stalks of grain were cut with a sickle and bound together in bundles, called sheaves. After the grain was cut, the field was often burned to remove the remaining stalks, called stubble.

All of this is a metaphor for the work missionaries do. They harvest those people who are willing to hear the gospel and be obedient in preparation for the burning that will cleanse the earth at the Savior’s Second Coming.

Doctrine and Covenants 31:9–13—The Cost of Failing to Follow Counsel, or How Well God Knows His Children

Thomas B. Marsh was one of the most capable leaders in the early days of the Restoration. He served several missions, was called to be an Apostle when the Quorum of the Twelve was first organized in 1835, and became its first president. But then a family problem arose and his failure to follow the Lord’s counsel to “be patient,” “revile not,” “govern your house in meekness,” “pray always,” and “be faithful unto the end” (vv. 9, 12–13) led to his apostasy. Elder George A. Smith, who was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1839, described what happened when President Marsh was living in Far West, Missouri:

“The wife of Thomas B. Marsh, who was then President of the Twelve Apostles, and sister Harris [the wife of George Harris] concluded they would exchange milk, in order to make a little larger cheese than they otherwise could. To be sure to have justice done, it was agreed that they should not save the strippings [the richest part of the milk], but that the milk and strippings should all go together. Small matters to talk about here, to be sure, two women’s exchanging milk to make cheese.

“Mrs. Harris, it appeared, was faithful to the agreement and carried to Mrs. Marsh the milk and strippings, but Mrs. Marsh, wishing to make some extra good cheese, saved a pint of strippings from each cow and sent Mrs. Harris the milk without the strippings.

“Finally it leaked out that Mrs. Marsh had saved strippings, and it became a matter to be settled by the Teachers. They began to examine the matter, and it was proved that Mrs. Marsh had saved the strippings, and consequently had wronged Mrs. Harris out of that amount.

“An appeal was taken from the Teacher to the Bishop, and a regular Church trial was had. President Marsh did not consider that the Bishop had done him and his lady justice, for they decided that the strippings were wrongfully saved, and that the woman had violated her covenant.

“Marsh immediately took an appeal to the High Council, who investigated the question with much patience, and I assure you they were a grave body. Marsh being extremely anxious to maintain the character of his wife, as he was the President of the Twelve Apostles, and a great man in Israel, made a desperate defence, but the High Council finally confirmed the Bishop’s decision.

“Marsh, not being satisfied, took an appeal to the First Presidency of the Church, and Joseph and his Counsellors had to sit upon the case, and they approved the decision of the High Council.

“This little affair, you will observe, kicked up a considerable breeze, and Thomas B. Marsh then declared that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.

“The then President of the Twelve Apostles, the man who should have been the first to do justice and cause reparation to be made for wrong, committed by any member of his family, took that position, and what next? He went before a magistrate and swore that the ‘Mormons’ were hostile towards the State of Missouri.

“That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an exterminating order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs” (inJournal of Discourses,3:283–84).

President Gordon B. Hinckley repeated this story in a general conference and then commented: “The man who should have settled this little quarrel, but who, rather, pursued it, troubling the officers of the Church, right up to the Presidency, literally went through hell for it. He lost his standing in the Church. He lost his testimony of the gospel. For nineteen years he walked in poverty and darkness and bitterness, experiencing illness, and loneliness. He grew old before his time. Finally, like the prodigal son in the parable of the Savior (Luke 15:11–32), he recognized his foolishness and painfully made his way to this valley, and asked Brigham Young to forgive him and permit his rebaptism into the Church. He had been the first President of the Council of the Twelve, loved, respected, and honored in the days of Kirtland, and the early days of Far West. Now he asked only that he might be ordained a deacon and become a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1984, 111; orEnsign,May 1984, 83).

After his return to the Church, Brother Marsh spoke about his apostasy:

“I have frequently wanted to know how my apostacy began, and I have come to the conclusion that I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart.

“The next question is, ‘How and when did you lose the Spirit?’ I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, and I thought I saw a beam in brother Joseph’s eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam” (inJournal of Discourses,5:206–7).

Studying the Scriptures

Do activity A or B as you studyDoctrine and Covenants 31.

Activity A iconPrepare a Talk

From what you learn inDoctrine and Covenants 31and the “Understanding the Scriptures” section, write an outline for a talk about following counsel from the Lord that you could give in a sacrament meeting.

Activity B iconGive a Family Home Evening Lesson

From what you learn inDoctrine and Covenants 31and the “Understanding the Scriptures” section, give a family home evening lesson about the lessons we can learn from section 31 and the life of Thomas B. Marsh.