Not long after his ordination under the hands of Peter, James, and John, it was made known to Joseph Smith that the Church of Jesus Christ should again be set up in the earth. This event formally occurred the following spring in the home of Peter Whitmer in Fayette Township, Seneca County, New York.
On Tuesday, April 6, 1830, six men gathered in the Whitmer home. There were others present, but these six participated in the actual organization proceedings. Their names were Joseph Smith, Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Peter Whitmer, Jr., Samuel H. Smith, and David Whitmer. They were all young men, their average age being twenty-four. All had been baptized previously.
The meeting was opened with “solemn prayer.” After that Joseph asked those present if they were willing to accept him and Oliver Cowdery as their spiritual leaders. All agreed. Then Joseph ordained Oliver to the office of elder in the priesthood, and Oliver in turn ordained Joseph. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was administered, and then Joseph and Oliver laid their hands on the heads of the others present and confirmed them members of the Church and bestowed upon them the gift of the Holy Ghost. Next, some of the brethren were ordained to different priesthood offices.
While the meeting was in session, Joseph received a revelation in which he was designated “a seer, … a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” 1 Since that time he has been referred to by the Church as “the Prophet.” The Church was also instructed at this time to keep a record of all of its proceedings, a practice since carefully adhered to.
The Name of the Church
The new organization was designated by revelation as “The Church of Jesus Christ,” to which the phrase “of Latter-day Saints” was later added. This is worthy of note. The Church was not named for Joseph Smith or for any other man. Nor was it named for any peculiarity of government or function, as has been the case with many religious societies. It was the Church of Jesus Christ restored to earth in “the latter day,” and it was so designated.
Another matter of interest is the manner in which the officers of the Church were selected. Joseph Smith had been divinely chosen to lead the work, but his position as leader was subject to the consent of the members. Ever since that first meeting in 1830, the members of the Church have convened periodically to “sustain” or vote on those chosen to direct the affairs of the Church. No man presides without the consent of the membership.
A meeting was called for the following Sunday, and on this occasion Oliver Cowdery delivered the first public discourse in the newly founded Church. Six more individuals were baptized at the close of this meeting, and a week later seven more were added to the rolls. When the first general conference was held the following June, the membership totaled twenty-seven souls, and at the close of the conference eleven more were baptized in Seneca Lake.
In this same month, the first missionary activity was begun. Samuel H. Smith, the twenty-two-year-old brother of the Prophet, filled his knapsack with copies of the Book of Mormon and set off on a journey through neighboring towns to acquaint people with the recently published scripture. After walking twenty-five miles the first day, he approached the proprietor of an inn for a night’s lodging. When the innkeeper learned of Samuel’s mission, he ordered him out. The young elder slept out of doors that night.
The next day he called at the home of a Methodist minister, the Rev. John P. Greene, who was preparing to leave on a tour of his circuit. The minister was not interested in reading the book himself, but indicated that he would take the volume and keep a subscription list of any who cared to purchase a copy. Samuel returned home feeling that his efforts had been fruitless; it was unlikely that a Methodist minister would urge his flock to purchase the Book of Mormon.
But a strange thing happened. Mrs. Greene picked up the volume and became greatly interested in it. She urged her husband to read it, and both later joined the Church. This same copy fell into the hands of Brigham Young of Mendon, New York. This was his first contact with the Church. Some two years later, after careful study and investigation, he was baptized.
The book, as it was circulated by Samuel Smith and others who followed him, had a similar effect on many other future leaders of the Church. Parley P. Pratt, a Campbellite minister, chanced to read a borrowed copy and soon forsook his old ministry to join the ranks of the newly organized Church. He took the volume to his brother Orson, later renowned as a scientist and mathematician, who soon thereafter threw all of his energy into promoting the new cause. Willard Richards, a Massachusetts physician, remarked after reading one page of the volume, “Either God or the devil has had a hand in that book, for man never wrote it!” 2 He read it through twice in ten days and joined the cause.
And so the influence of the volume increased. From it, the members of the Church received the nickname—and it is only a nickname—by which they have since been popularly known—Mormons. However, in their emphasis on this scripture of the Western Hemisphere, they have not diminished their advocacy of the Bible, which they regard as the word of God. These companion volumes stand hand in hand as two witnesses of the reality and divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.
More often than not the work was bitterly denounced in that day of religious bigotry. Shortly after the organization of the Church, Joseph Smith was arrested while conducting a meeting in Colesville, New York. He was charged with being “a disorderly person, setting the country in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon.” The testimony introduced was as ridiculous as the charge, but no sooner was he acquitted by the judge than he was arrested on another warrant of the same nature and dragged off to another town to stand trial, again to be acquitted. Thus began the persecution that was to harass him to his death.
A Mission to the Lamanites
The second general conference of the Church was held in September, 1830. Among matters of business was the call of Oliver Cowdery to undertake a mission “into the wilderness, through the western states, and to the Indian territory.” Peter Whitmer, Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson were later called to accompany him. This mission charted much of the future history of the Church.
In October the four men left their families and set out on foot. Near the city of Buffalo they met with members of the Catteraugus Indian tribe, to whom they told the story of the Book of Mormon, explaining that it contained a history of their forefathers. Many appeared interested, and the missionaries left copies of the book with those who could read.
Elder Parley P. Pratt, prior to his conversion, had been a lay preacher of the Church of the Disciples, founded by Alexander Campbell. He was now anxious to discuss the restored gospel with his former associates, and the missionaries therefore traveled to northern Ohio where lived a large group of Mr. Campbell’s followers. Elder Pratt particularly sought out Sidney Rigdon, one of the leading ministers of the faith.
Mr. Rigdon cordially received the missionaries, but was skeptical of the story they told. Nevertheless, he permitted them to preach to his congregation, and he agreed to read the Book of Mormon. He was baptized shortly thereafter and became an ardent worker in the cause of the Church. Elder Pratt described the situation with the statement that “faith was strong, joy was great, and persecution heavy.” 3
A Harvest of Souls
Within three weeks 127 souls had been baptized. Before the missionaries left in December, a thousand members had been added to the Church.
One of the recent converts, Dr. Frederick G. Williams, accompanied the missionaries west from Ohio. They spent several days among the Wyandot Indians who lived in the western part of the state and then continued their journey to St. Louis, walking most of the way.
Of the journey west from St. Louis, Elder Pratt writes: “We travelled on foot for three hundred miles through vast prairies and through trackless wilds of snow—no beaten road; houses few and far between; and the bleak northwest wind always blowing in our faces with a keenness which would almost take the skin off the face. We travelled for whole days, from morning till night, without a house or fire, wading in snow to the knees at every step, and the cold so intense that the snow did not melt on the south side of the houses, even in the mid-day sun, for nearly six weeks. We carried on our backs our changes of clothing, several books, and corn bread and raw pork. We often ate our frozen bread and pork by the way, when the bread would be so frozen that we could not bite or penetrate any part of it but the outside crust.” 4
Arriving at Independence, Jackson County, Missouri, the elders made preparations to visit the Indians in the adjoining frontier area. They met with the chief of the Delawares, who received them kindly and listened with great interest to the story of the Book of Mormon. However, their opportunities to preach were soon limited. Government agents, at the behest of intolerant religionists, ordered the missionaries from the Indian lands. Four of them remained in Missouri for some time, while Elder Pratt returned to New York to report their labors.
The First Move Westward
When Elder Pratt reached Kirtland, Ohio, he was surprised to find Joseph Smith there, and to learn that the New York members of the Church planned to move to Ohio in the spring. Persecution in New York had increased, and the success of the missionaries in their travels had pointed the way to the future destiny of the Church in the West.
The second annual general conference was called for June 1831, in Kirtland, Ohio. By that time, most of the New York members had moved west, and the congregation present at the conference numbered two thousand. The Church had made substantial growth since the original six members met to effect the organization on April 6, 1830.
At this conference several men were ordained to the office of high priest for the first time in the Church. Also, twenty-eight elders were called to travel to western Missouri, going in pairs and preaching as they went. The Prophet pointed out that it had been revealed to him that the Saints would there establish Zion.
These missionaries, including Joseph Smith, traveled “without purse or scrip,” preaching with power as they went, constantly adding to the numbers of the Church. They arrived in Jackson County, Missouri, about the middle of July, and were followed by the entire company of Saints from Colesville, New York, who had settled temporarily in Ohio and then moved on west as a body. At a place called Kaw Township, on a portion of the present site of Kansas City, they commenced a settlement under the direction of the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon.
The first log for the first house was laid by twelve men representing the twelve tribes of Israel. The land was dedicated for the gathering of the Saints, and those present covenanted to “receive this land … with thankful hearts” and pledged themselves “to keep the law of God” and to “see that others of [their] brethren … keep the laws of God.” 5
Thus was established the first settlement of Church members in Missouri. Later in the summer, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and other leading elders returned to Kirtland, Ohio. For the next seven years the activities of the Church were divided between these two locations a thousand miles apart—Kirtland, Ohio, near the present site of Cleveland; and Jackson County, Missouri, near the present Kansas City.
1. D&C 21:1.
2. Claire Noall, Intimate Disciple: A Portrait of Willard Richards (University of Utah Press, 1957), p. 101.
3. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt, Jr. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938), p. 48.
4. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, p. 52.
5. In B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century One, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1930), 1:255. Hereafter cited as CHC.