Joseph Smith was the only prophet of this dispensation to labor as a full-time missionary while presiding over the Church. During the first years after the Restoration, as the infant Church began its amazing growth, Joseph undertook preaching missions on various occasions.
One small treasure in the archives of the Church Historical Department is a worn leather journal, 14 pages of which tell of Joseph’s missionary trip into Canada in late 1833. * Joseph’s entries in the journal appear almost daily; half are in his own handwriting and the others he dictated. This is the earliest diary account we have of any mission of the Prophet. Prodded by “Father” Freeman Nickerson, a convert from western New York, Joseph, along with Sidney Rigdon, his first counselor, set out to preach to Brother Nickerson’s relatives and others along a 250-mile crescent stretching north and east from Kirtland, around Lake Erie, and west into Canada.
Let us follow the Prophet’s four-week journey by examining the entries in his private diary.
With team and conveyance provided by Brother Nickerson the three started eastward from Kirtland on October 5. The next day at Springfield, Ohio, they attended a meeting of the Saints, where, as Joseph recorded, “Brother Sidney spoke to the people, etc., and in the evening held a meeting at Brother [John] Reed’s. Had a great congregation, paid good attention. Oh God, seal our testimony to their hearts. Amen.”
Journeying along the shores of Lake Erie they visited with various Church members, holding similar meetings. One week from Kirtland the missionaries stopped at Brother Nickerson’s home in Catteraugus County, New York. Here the Prophet noted: “I feel very well in my mind. The Lord is with us, but have much anxiety about my family.” Did Joseph, like most missionaries, feel here a tinge of homesickness? Evidently so, for that night he received a revelation (D&C 100) wherein the Lord assured him and Sidney that their families were well and in his care, adding that there were many people in the region of their mission awaiting their testimonies. “Continue your journey and let your hearts rejoice” were their instructions.
On Sunday, October 13, a large congregation listened to Elder Rigdon preach, followed by the Prophet. “I bear record to the people,” Joseph wrote. “The Lord gave His spirit in marvelous manner for which I am thankful to the God of Abraham. Lord bless my family and preserve them.” When starting for Canada the next day, Joseph recorded a quick plea: “Lord, be with us on our journey. Amen.” He tells of one disappointment on October 15 when a meeting scheduled for a Presbyterian meetinghouse was canceled because the man who kept the keys refused to open the door. From there the missionaries turned westward, arriving three days later at the home of Eleazer F. Nickerson, the second son of Freeman Nickerson, at Mount Pleasant, Upper Canada.
The following Sunday they preached to an attentive congregation in the morning and a large gathering that evening, which “gave good heed to the things which were spoken. What may be the result we cannot tell but the prospect is flattering.” During a Tuesday evening meeting, while it was “snowing vehemently,” the missionaries were verbally attacked and then denied the right to speak by a Wesleyan Methodist. This caused Joseph to write: “We find that conviction is resting on the minds of some. We hope that great good may yet be done in Canada, which O Lord grant for thy name’s sake.”
During that week the missionaries’ preaching brought success. On Wednesday they interviewed a Mr. Wilkeson, who was a leader in the Mount Pleasant Methodist group. “He could not stand our words,” the diary reads. “Whether he will receive the truth the Lord only knows. He seemed honest.” Thursday, a wet day, their preaching at Weathersford drew only a small congregation. But at Mount Pleasant that evening a fine meeting developed: “One man, [Eleazer] Nickerson declared his full belief in the truth of the work. Is with his wife who is also convinced to be baptized on Sunday. Great excitement prevails in every place where we have been. The result we leave in the hand of God.”
But their excitement about the pending baptisms diminished somewhat during a negative Friday discussion with a Mr. Patrick, which caused Joseph to lament: “People very superstitious. Oh God, establish thy word among this people.” But later that evening, before an attentive audience, “the Spirit gave utterance” to the Latter-day Saint preachers.
As anticipated, October 26 was a successful Sabbath and the highlight of the proselyting venture. Joseph and Sidney first preached to a large congregation at the Nickersons’, then took 12 converts into the waters of baptism, including Brother Nickerson’s two adult sons, Moses and Eleazer. That evening they “held a meeting for confirmation. We broke bread, laid on hands for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Had a good meeting, the Spirit was given in great power to some and the rest had great peace. May God carry on his work in this place till all shall know him. Amen.”
Because others at the Sunday meetings felt deeply impressed, another service was held Monday morning. Here two more souls were baptized and then confirmed at the water’s edge. At candlelight, to provide a leader for this new cluster of converts, the missionaries ordained Eleazer Nickerson an elder. “Had a good meeting,” Joseph noted. “One of the sisters got the gift of tongues which made the Saints rejoice. May God increase the gifts among them for his Son’s sake.”
The mission was accomplished and affairs at Kirtland needed their attention after a month’s absence. The missionaries spent the next five autumn days on the road. Upon reaching Kirtland, Joseph added a final comment to the missionary journal: “Found my family all well according to the promise of the Lord, for which blessing I feel to thank his holy name. Amen.”
In his own words Joseph Smith not only provides details regarding a successful mission but also conveys his strong conviction about the truthfulness of his work. His hopes, worries, concerns for loved ones, disappointments, and successes all revolved around the Lord. Deep and genuine dependence upon Him in his daily affairs characterized this little-mentioned mission of the Prophet.
Joseph Smith, Diary 1832 to 1834, pp. 5–18, holograph, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. In this article, spellings and punctuation have been changed to agree with modern grammatical practices. Also, punctuation has been added in some quotations in order to make their meanings clear. There are some minor discrepancies between this account of the Canada mission and that recorded later in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church, vol. 1, pp. 416–23. In each case we have adhered to the diary account.