War clouds covered America. South Carolina threatened to secede from the republic. The crisis deeply troubled Joseph Smith. He said that on Christmas Day 1832 he “was praying earnestly on the subject.” In answer, a voice revealed to him a “Revelation on Prophecy and War” (D&C 87), which begins: “Verily, thus saith the Lord concerning the wars that will shortly come to pass, beginning at the rebellion of South Carolina, which will eventually terminate in the death and misery of many souls.” Warfare and bloodshed, it added, then would become common throughout the world.
The Prophet wrote the revelation down. He told Church members about it. But it was not printed. Saints wanting copies had to hand copy from Joseph’s copy. Orson Pratt, the energetic young missionary, obtained a handwritten copy, which he frequently pulled out and read to people during his travels. In February 1832 he started, on foot, on a 4,000-mile mission that would continue for several years, preaching in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and Canada, during which he converted 104 people. Every year for the next five years he walked east and filled missions. Of those preaching days he later recalled:
“When I was a boy, I traveled extensively in the United States and the Canadas, preaching this restored Gospel. I had a manuscript copy of this revelation (on civil war), which I carried in my pocket, and I was in the habit of reading it to the people among whom I traveled and preached.”
How did his listeners respond? Did they say, “Well, it takes no prophet to see war will start in South Carolina”? No. Said Orson: “As a general thing the people regarded it as the height of nonsense, saying the Union was too strong to be broken; and I they said, was led away, the victim of an impostor.”
When South Carolina’s secession threats cooled down after 1832, did Orson begin to doubt the prophecy? No, because “I knew the prophecy was true, for the Lord had spoken to me and had given me revelation.” But year after year passed away without war, and now and then “some of the acquaintances I had formerly made would say, ‘Well, what is going to become of that prediction? It’s never going to be fulfilled.’” Orson replied, “Wait, the Lord has his set time.”
Perhaps doubters chided Joseph Smith too that the prophecy had “failed.” For just before his death the Prophet restated it:
“I prophesy, in the name of the Lord God, that the commencement of the difficulties which will cause much bloodshed previous to the coming of the Son of Man will be in South Carolina. It may probably arise through the slave question. This a voice declared to me while I was praying earnestly on the subject, December 25th, 1832.”
Then, more years of unfulfillment passed. But Elder Pratt, an Apostle since 1835, still felt such confidence in the prophecy that he helped arrange for its publication in England in 1851. This was the first time the prophecy appeared in print.
Orson had to wait only a decade more. In December 1860 South Carolina voted itself out of the United States. Other southern states soon did the same. On April 12, 1861, secessionists’ cannons opened fire on the United States’ fort, Fort Sumter, in Charleston harbor, and South Carolina thereby started a bloody war that would last four years and claim 600,000 lives.
After the Civil War, Elder Pratt said, “This is another testimony that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Most High God.”
Interestingly, the printed prophecy had circulated far and wide. When war broke out in April 1861, 28 years after the prophecy was pronounced, the PhiladelphiaSunday Mercury newspaper carried a lengthy article entitled “A Mormon Prophecy.” “We have in our possession a pamphlet, published at Liverpool, in 1851, “the article began, referring to the civil war prophecy. “In view of our present troubles, this prediction seems to be in progress of fulfillment, whether Joe Smith was a humbug or not.” The article reprinted the entire prophecy, then noted how events were fulfilling it, and concluded regarding Joseph Smith: “Have we not had a prophet among us?”
As Fort Sumter surrendered, others, like the Mercury’s editors, remembered hearing about the prophecy. Perhaps some of those who once scoffed when youthful missionary Orson Pratt pulled the prophecy from his pocket and read it now had cause to wonder, to worry, and to wish they had listened more closely to what the rest of the prophecy said.
Sources: Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia 1:87–91; Orson Pratt Discourse, August 26, 1876, in Journal of Discourses 18:224–5; Philadelphia Sunday Mercury clipping in Journal History, 5 May 1861.