I was enthralled with the surroundings as I hurried to catch up with the members of our tour group who were slowly walking up the steep, rocky path that led toward the top of the Mount of Olives. As we arrived and located a suitable spot near the top for our Sabbath day service, my heart was full of rejoicing and gratitude for the opportunity to stand on this sacred site. It was here where Jesus wept because of the wickedness of the inhabitants and the forthcoming fate of Jerusalem. Here was also where Jesus foretold the temple’s destruction and warned the Twelve about the calamities and forthcoming times of tribulation as they sat at his feet to be taught.
My thoughts turned to the first faithful, courageous Mormon missionary who had left his young wife, tiny children, and friends in poverty to fulfill a mission call to this faraway land. What kind of man was Orson Hyde, and why was he called “The Olive Branch of Israel”? Why had he embraced the Mormon faith and joined a people who had been so sorely persecuted and evilly ridiculed? Let me share with you some of the exciting information I discovered about this great missionary.
Born on January 8, 1805, in Oxford, Connecticut, Orson was the tenth child in a family of eleven born to Nathan and Sally Thorpe Hyde. At seven Orson was left homeless; then his mother died shortly after giving birth to her 11th child, and his father drowned in 1817. Homeless and orphaned, Orson was placed in the care of Nathan Wheeler of Derby, Connecticut, with whom he lived until he was 18. He was apparently happy, but as he matured, a yearning for education made him restless. However, before he could leave the Wheelers to seek an education, Mr. Wheeler’s business failed and the family moved from Connecticut to the cheap, fertile land of Kirtland, Ohio. Orson was 14 years old and walked the entire 600 miles with clothing and food in a knapsack slung over his back. The trip was exhausting but good experience for many similar adventures yet to come.
After four years on the Wheeler farm in Kirtland, Orson decided to strike out on his own. Three years later, after working at a variety of jobs, he returned to find the Kirtland vicinity filled with religious revivalism. At age 22 he attended a Methodist camp meeting and was converted and later was appointed a Methodist class leader. During this time Orson learned from newspaper reports “that a ‘Golden Bible’ had been dug out of a rock in the State of New York.” These reports, treating the subject lightly, concerned Orson little, and he referred to the whole account as a hoax.
As Orson continued his search for deeper religious truths, the persuasive voice of Sidney Rigdon soon convinced him to join the Campbellite movement. The new sect’s belief in baptism by immersion for the remission of sins struck a responsive chord in the mind of young Hyde. At Sidney Rigdon’s invitation, Orson moved to Mentor, Ohio, to live with the Rigdon family, where he entered the Burton Academy and was ordained an elder in the Campbellite church. In the fall of 1829 he accompanied Sidney Rigdon on a mission throughout Ohio.
Orson’s beliefs in Campbellism were challenged in 1830 by a group of unusual young men who visited Kirtland. Among these were Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, Jr., and Parley P. Pratt. Their message concerned the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Orson received the peculiar doctrine with mixed emotions. He resolved to read the famed “Golden Bible” (Book of Mormon), and after having read a portion of it, preached against it several times. After one such occasion, however, his opinions began to change. He recorded, “For the first time, I thought that the ‘Mormon’ bible might be the truth of heaven; and fully resolved before leaving the house, that I would never preach against it any more until I knew more about it, being pretty strongly convicted in my own mind that I was doing wrong.”1
As he reexamined the message of the Mormon elders, the rebuke of the Spirit caused Orson much unhappiness and deep remorse. The Prophet Joseph Smith was living in Kirtland, and Orson, eager to know the unusual man of whom he had heard so much, frequently attended meetings, public and private, at which the Prophet spoke about the new religion. He attended meetings at which he “heard the arguments pro and con, but was careful to say nothing.” In his autobiography he wrote:
“I marked carefully the spirit that attended the opposition, also the spirit that attended the Mormons and their friends, and after about three months of careful praying and investigation, reflection and meditation, I came to the conclusion that the Mormons had more light and a better spirit than their opponents.”2
Orson was baptized in the Chagrin River by his friend Elder Sidney Rigdon (who had converted to Mormonism), and was then confirmed and ordained an elder by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon on the banks of the river. During the month of November, Orson enthusiastically accepted a call to serve a mission with the Prophet Joseph Smith’s older brother Hyrum. Soon after returning, he was called to serve a second mission to the eastern states, with the Prophet’s younger brother Samuel as his companion. They proselyted without purse or scrip, relying on the hospitality of those contacted for their food and lodging. Orson’s most painful experience on this mission was the refusal of his brother Asahel and sister Laura to accept the gospel. In his missionary journal Orson described their parting: “Left brother Asahel with hearts full of grief; united with him in prayer before we left. We shed many tears over each other.” He never saw his brother and sister again.
Orson’s great faith and natural ability were demonstrated through the numerous assignments he filled for the Church and the Prophet Joseph Smith, whom he revered and loved. Faithful, ambitious, and aggressive, Orson was called as an apostle on February 15, 1835, after which he performed successful missionary service in the United States and in Canada. While serving in Canada he was challenged to a debate by a Presbyterian priest. Reluctantly he agreed. The debate began and lasted until dinner. His record follows:
“After two hours, the forces were again drawn up in battle array. The enemy’s fire soon became less and less spirited, until, at length, under a well-directed fire from the Spirit of God—the enemy raised his hand to heaven and exclaimed, with affected contempt, ‘Abominable! I have heard enough of such stuff.’ I immediately rejoined, ‘Gentlemen and ladies, I should consider it highly dishonorable to continue to beat my antagonist after he had cried enough,’ so I waived the subject. The priest did not appear to think half so much of his scurrilous books, pamphlets and newspapers, when he was gathering them up to take away, as when he brought them upon the stand. Their virtue fled like chaff before the wind. About forty persons were baptized into the Church in that place (Scarborough) immediately after the debate.”3
After returning to Kirtland, Orson spent the winter studying Hebrew. He also served a mission to England as the companion of Heber C. Kimball. Orson and the other missionaries successfully introduced the gospel to the English people, and through their diligent, enthusiastic efforts many converts were brought into the Church, and the faith was firmly established in Great Britain.
Orson returned to America in 1838, moved his family to Far West, Missouri, and witnessed the evil, treacherous conflict between his people and the mobocrats. During the summer Orson became very ill with a fever, and at this time, he fled Far West and joined with Thomas B. Marsh, a member of the Twelve, in “denouncing the Church.” This was the blackest and most dreadful period in Orson’s life, and he lamented:
“Few men pass through life without leaving some traces which they would gladly obliterate. Happy is he whose life is free from stain and blemish. In the month of October, 1838, with me it was a day of affliction and darkness. I sinned against God and my brethren; I acted foolishly. I will not allude to any causes for so doing save one, which was, that I did not possess the light of the Holy Ghost. I lost not my standing in the Church, however; yet, not because I was worthy to retain it, but because God and his servants were merciful. … Brothers Hyrum Smith and H. C. Kimball, men of noted kindness of heart, spake to me words of encouragement and comfort in the hour of my greatest sorrow.
“I located with the Saints in Commerce. At the April Conference in 1840, I was appointed, in company with Elder John E. Page, to go on a mission to Jerusalem.”4
The members of the Church were forced to flee to Illinois, where Orson joined with them after an absence of eight months. He stood before the assembled body of the Church at a general conference in Commerce and humbly asked their forgiveness. His petition was granted, and it was voted that he was “to stand in his former office as an Apostle.”
Orson wrote a letter of introduction to Rabbi Herschel of the Hebrew Community of London, England, which explains a special call given to him by the Prophet Joseph Smith with respect to the gathering of Israel. A portion of the letter states:
“About nine years ago, a young man with whom I had a short acqaintance, and one, too, in whom dwelt much wisdom and knowledge, in whose bosom the Almighty had deposited many secrets, laid his hand upon my head and pronounced these remarkable words—‘In due time thou shalt go to Jerusalem, the land of thy fathers, and be a watchman unto the house of Israel; and by thy hands shall the Most High do a great work, which shall prepare the way and greatly facilitate the gathering together of that people:’”5
This is probably one of the first recorded statements in this dispensation relative to a special mission of dedication for the eventual gathering of Israel. The blessing was most likely administered upon Orson’s head by the Prophet Joseph in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831 when Orson was confirmed a member of the Church and ordained an elder.
At the April 1840 general conference of the Church, Orson Hyde was called on a mission to the Holy Land, with Elder John E. Page as his companion. They were to meet with Jewish leaders and dedicate Palestine for the return of the Jews. Their letter of credentials as missionaries to Palestine was written in Nauvoo on April 6, 1840.
To the world the very idea was imprudent—a tiny band of religionists on the western frontier of the United States announcing to the world that the time had come for the gathering of the Jews.6
While preaching at a public meeting in Philadelphia, Orson mentioned that he was going on a mission to Jerusalem to dedicate the Holy Land for the return of the Jews. He also mentioned that Mormon missionaries travel without purse or scrip, and that he was looking for financial assistance for his mission. At the end of his sermon, a stranger gave him a purse of gold and asked but one favor in return—that when Orson delivered his dedicatory prayer in the Holy Land, he would mention the anonymous donor in that prayer. Over a year later, as Orson knelt on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives, he prayed:
“Do Thou also look with favor upon all those through whose liberality I have been enabled to come to this land. Particularly do Thou bless the stranger in Philadelphia, whom I never saw, but who sent me gold, with a request that I should pray for him in Jerusalem. Now, O Lord, let blessings come upon him from an unexpected quarter, and let his basket be filled, and his storehouse abound with plenty.”7
Later John F. Beck, the son of the anonymous donor, revealed that his late father had been the generous stranger, and that the whole Beck family had indeed been blessed. He said:
“We settled in Spanish Fork [Utah] where we continued to live until father died at the age of ninety-three, having enjoyed good health until within three days of his death. I do not know of an apostate among any of father’s posterity. He always had plenty for his family and loaned breadstuffs to scores who were in want. He did not become rich, but always had money laid aside for a time of need.”8
At Philadelphia, Elder John E. Page lost the spirit of the mission and Orson continued on to Jerusalem alone. During his travels Orson met many notable personalities, some of whom were amazed at and interested in his mission. He enjoyed his travels through Europe and while waiting for his visa in Munich, learned to write and speak German.
Tired and weary after several months’ travel of nearly 10,000 miles, Orson’s enthusiasm was revitalized as he finally arrived at the sacred city of Jerusalem. Here he carefully walked along a dark, narrow street, avoiding the heavily loaded camels that traveled toward him. In the early morning hour he passed through the ancient gate in the old decayed wall near the brook, Kidron. As Orson crossed over the small brook and climbed up the gentle slope of the hill, bright rays of sunshine encompassed the Mount of Olives. It was a magnificent sight as he gazed upon the surrounding countryside from the top of the mount.
There, alone, on Sunday, October 24, 1841, Orson wrote and offered the prayer dedicating Palestine for the return of the Jews and for the building of a temple in the future. For the first time in 1,800 years, an apostle stood again on the Mount of Olives. After his prayer Orson Hyde built two stone altars patterned after those of ancient Israel for memorials. The first memorial was on the Mount of Olives and the second on Mt. Moriah.
In 1960 Elder George Q. Morris spoke of “God’s promise that he would gather Jews to Jerusalem, and I think perhaps we may well now not continue saying the Jews are going to gather in Jerusalem. I think now we may well say they have gathered. … The Jews have returned to Palestine.”9
Orson Hyde believed that the mission to Palestine was part of his divine destiny. This mission illustrated his great faith in Joseph Smith as a prophet of God and his belief in the Jews’ eventual return to Palestine preceding the coming of the Messiah as it has been prophesied by both ancient and modern prophets. There was no question in Orson’s mind that he had helped to prepare the way for the gathering of the members of the tribe of Judah and the final restoration of their homeland. He had traveled 20,000 miles to fulfill a mission call for his beloved Church, which was probably one of the longest and most hazardous missions undertaken in this dispensation.