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Spencer: Episode 1: “Missionaries in Kirtland”
Spencer: The history of the Latter-day Saints in nineteenth-century America is filled with stories of church members founding and building up settlements and cities. The founding of Nauvoo, Illinois, and Salt Lake City, Utah, are two prominent examples. But the story of the Saints in Kirtland is different. Kirtland was already established as a town when Latter-day Saint missionaries first arrived there in 1830.
Kirtland, Ohio, is located in the United States, approximately twenty-five miles northeast of the city of Cleveland and ten miles south of Lake Erie, on the traditional homelands of the Mingo and Delaware peoples.
In the 1600s, the King of England, Charles II, designated the territory as part of the colony of Connecticut, but large-scale settlement of the land by Anglo-Americans did not occur for more than a century.
Mark Staker, a curator with the Historic Sites division of the Church History Department, explains.
Mark: Kirtland’s part of a larger region known as the Western Reserve that comes from Connecticut—the Connecticut Western Reserve. And originally, the king had given Connecticut a right to land, going all the way west, and so that term is still frequently used in talking about this area, and after the Revolutionary War, soldiers were given land out here in Connecticut, had the right to sell this property. And so we find that a lot of the earliest settlers come from Connecticut, and that’s why.
Spencer: When surveyors divided the land that would become the state of Ohio, they simply numbered the townships instead of naming them. Early maps, then, designate this part of Ohio simply as Township 9. The name Kirtland came from an early settler in the area.
Mark: That man was Terhand Kirtland, and in 1796, he came in found some areas where he could establish mills and then he moved on to live elsewhere. And so he owned a little property, and he did a little business but had no physical presence in the settlement other than just to find those mill seats. And so he sold some of that property to Peter French. Peter French was really the first settler of what becomes Kirtland Township—Township number nine. And Peter French had a tavern there that’s on the main road.
Spencer: Yet Kirtland remained a relatively primitive settlement for years. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, described it to me.
Elizabeth: So this is still the frontier of the United States in many, many ways, and it’s heavily wooded. Christopher Crary, one of the early settlers, describes this as a heavily forested area with thick underbrush. This isn’t an area that is immediately suitable for farming, even though that’s what most people will do in the area. But it’s a very wooded, forested frontier area and a very small settlement initially.
There are two areas in Kirtland: one known as the Flats and then a higher area. And the Flats area has a portion of the Chagrin River that runs through it, so there were several mills along that area. And so the first Post Office in Kirtland is often named Kirtland Mills for the mills that were along the river.
You only have about a population of five hundred residents by the 1820s, 1830s, so it’s not a huge settlement. They do form a township government in 1818, electing trustees and overseers of the community; the following year, they’ll elect a justice of the peace. So you do have the beginning workings of a township government, but this is not by any means a large settlement.
Spencer: And Elizabeth explained that those early settlers in Kirtland and in surrounding communities brought an assortment of Christian denominations and beliefs with them.
Elizabeth: The background of these Kirtland residents are largely New Englanders who have moved, searching for land of their own to settle on, to establish farms for themselves. You have some immigrant communities, Irish and German, that are also searching for land, but by and far, these are New Englanders, and that shows in both their kind of socioeconomic backgrounds as well as their religious backgrounds. These are people coming from the Second Great Awakening; you’ve got Baptist communities, Calvinist communities, Methodists—all of these are in the area and comingling.
Spencer: So when Latter-day Saint missionaries arrived in Kirtland in 1830, it was an established town but still quite a young community. How did missionaries end up there in 1830 when the church was less than one year old? That story has to do with a mission call, not to Ohio, but to Missouri.
Spencer: In the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, there were several particularly notable missions. Sometimes they were notable because of the number of people who joined the church as a result of the mission. Other times they were notable in retrospect because the mission resulted in the conversion of particular individuals, men and women who would later play a significant role in the growth and development of the church. A four-person mission in October 1830 is significant in church history—and the history of Kirtland —for both reasons.
I spoke about this pivotal early mission in the church’s history with Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Matt: Well, Joseph Smith receives revelations in the fall of 1830. So this is only a few months after the church was organized, and one of the revelations tells him that there should be a city—a Zion built, in the language of that time—built on the border of the Lamanites. And Joseph Smith and others understood the Lamanites to mean American Indians. Lamanites, of course, is one of the people in the Book of Mormon, and they understood the American Indians to be descendants of the Lamanites. So, one of the revelations told them there would be a city built. Another of the revelations called for men to serve as missionaries to the Lamanites to take the gospel of Jesus Christ, as found in the Book of Mormon, to them. And so Joseph Smith is really acting on revelation when he chooses to send missionaries.
Spencer: This October 1830 revelation, now canonized as section 32 of the Doctrine and Covenants, called Oliver Cowdery to lead this mission “into the wilderness.”
Matt: And Oliver is, of course, Joseph’s right-hand man. He had been the key scribe of the Book of Mormon. Among this very small congregation of Latter-day Saints in the fall of 1830, Oliver stands out for his education. He’s well spoken, he has the trust of Joseph and the trust of the Lord as indicated in the revelation.
Spencer: Oliver Cowdery took with him three other church members named in the October 1830 revelation: Ziba Peterson, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Parley P. Pratt. The inclusion of Pratt on the mission is key to understanding how the missionaries end up stopping in Kirtland on their way to the Native Americans in and near Missouri. I spoke with Matt about Pratt’s background.
Matt: Parley P. Pratt was a native of New York who had moved to northeast Ohio as a young man. And he’d felt that he wanted to go and make his own way in Ohio. And after some time in Ohio, he felt inspired. He was very religious. He’d read the Bible a lot; he felt inspired to preach, to become a minister. And the way he decided to do this was to take his wife, Thankful Halsey Pratt, and to go to preach in the area that they had known growing up in New York.
So, they’re going to travel from Ohio to New York, while Parley is trying to preach and find his way as a really self-called minister of the gospel. And en route, Thankful leaves Parley to go reunite with her family and his family. He continues on looking for opportunities to preach, and he encounters a man who has a copy of the Book of Mormon. And Parley captures this experience in an autobiography that he writes a couple of decades later, and he just writes about the power that the Book of Mormon immediately has on him. He talks about how he just reads and reads and reads, how eating is a burden and how sleep is a burden, and he just comes to love the Book of Mormon.
And Parley Pratt is really unusual among early Latter-day Saints in how much he reads, loves, teaches from the Book of Mormon throughout his life. Many of the early saints, of course, love the Book of Mormon; they see it as a divine sign of Joseph Smith’s calling, and they read it, they take it seriously. But Parley Pratt seems to take it to another level. He just engages with the Book of Mormon and teaches from the Book of Mormon.
And it all stems from this encounter that he has with the Book of Mormon as a young man. And after he encounters the Book of Mormon and he really becomes converted through the Book of Mormon, he then goes and travels to Palmyra so that he can talk to Joseph Smith, the translator of the Book of Mormon. And it’s after he has an opportunity to go to Palmyra that he’s baptized in early September 1830 as a member of the Church of Christ.
Spencer: Pratt’s familiarity with Kirtland and the surrounding communities led the missionaries to stop and preach there. Ultimately, they had little success preaching to the Native Americans farther west. But in Kirtland, it was a different story.
Matt: The so-called Lamanite missionaries really have their greatest success in Kirtland. And Parley Pratt is the bridge between the small congregations of Latter-day Saints in New York and really the future of the church, which is going to get an enormous boost from what happens in Kirtland.
Before he had joined the Church of Christ, Parley P. Pratt had an association with a minister by the name of Sidney Rigdon. And Sidney is a really interesting figure in early church history. He is a trained minister renowned for his preaching ability. He had been a Baptist minister and then had become associated with a movement that hoped to restore early Christianity. And this movement had a lot of leaders; one of them was Alexander Campbell, and Sidney Rigdon worked with Alexander Campbell and others, and their hope was to create a Christian church that was true to what they called the primitive Christian church, or the Christian church that you read about in the New Testament. So Sidney Rigdon and others looked to the New Testament as their guide, and he had tremendous influence at this time in the areas of Kirtland and that surrounding region.
Spencer: When the Latter-day Saint missionaries stopped in Ohio, Pratt was eager to share with his friends the Book of Mormon, as well as news of Joseph Smith and the prophetic revelations he was delivering to members of the church. Rigdon was one of the first people that Pratt wanted to visit.
Matt: So when Parley Pratt and Oliver Cowdery and the other two missionaries get to Kirtland, it seems that the first thing that Parley Pratt does is he takes Oliver Cowdery and they knock on Sidney Rigdon’s door. And you have to remember that this is a moment when Parley Pratt is going to someone who he had considered a spiritual mentor, a guide, and now he’s bringing to Sidney Rigdon the Book of Mormon. And Sidney doesn’t quite know what to do initially. He hears them out. He is seemingly open to an investigation. At the same time, there’s tremendous obstacles to Sidney Rigdon accepting the Book of Mormon.
Spencer: Those obstacles included Rigdon’s livelihood as a minister.
Matt: First of all, of course, he has his whole career as a minister and all of that learning and all of that preaching. Second of all, it’s just not his learning and preaching, but it is that element that he has a career as a minister, the very house that he lives in with his wife, Phebe, is owned by the congregation. So if he converts to the Church of Christ, he has no home, literally. And so this is a very momentous moment for Sidney Rigdon, and it’s going to take him some weeks of investigating and thinking about the Book of Mormon before he comes to accept it.
Spencer: So while Rigdon investigated the Book of Mormon and while considered the claims from Pratt and company about the gospel of Jesus Christ being restored to the earth through a prophet, he opened his church to the four missionaries to preach. Their preaching drew tremendous interest from members of Rigdon’s congregation, and word of what they were teaching soon spread throughout the area.
As for Rigdon, he soon became convinced that what Pratt and Cowdery were teaching was true. But could he join the church if it meant giving up his livelihood and the security that it provided him?
He broached the subject with his wife, Phebe. As it’s recorded in Joseph Smith’s history, Sidney asked Phebe, “My dear, you have once followed me into poverty. Are you willing to do the same?”
Phebe responded, “I have counted the cost. It is my desire to do the will of God, come life or come death.” Soon thereafter, Sidney and Phebe Rigdon were baptized.
I asked Matt Grow to summarize the significance of this mission and the conversion of Sidney Rigdon in particular.
Matt: Rigdon’s conversion is really instrumental in the early church. When Rigdon converts, the center of the church is in New York. But after Rigdon and many others convert, within weeks of the missionaries going there, they baptized 130 people. Within months, there’s a thousand members of the church in Kirtland. So the whole center of the gravity of the church shifts from New York to Kirtland.
Spencer: However, not all of those new members of the church came from the missionaries preaching to Rigdon and his congregation. To fully understand the rapid growth of the church in and around Kirtland in late 1830, we need to talk about a unique community living on a nearby farm.
Spencer: Around the time that Parley P. Pratt and Oliver Cowdery were meeting with Sidney Rigdon, Ziba Peterson and Peter Whitmer Jr. were preaching in nearby Euclid, Ohio. One member of the missionaries’ audience in Euclid would become a key figure in the church’s growth in the area. Mark Staker explains.
Mark: They preach while they’re in Euclid, and there’s a man in the congregation, Isaac Morley, who hears them, and he is profoundly touched by what he hears. This is important information, and he takes it back with him to his settlement there in Kirtland where he’s living, having been touched but not having acted on that.
Spencer: There is no record of the missionaries meeting with Isaac Morley himself at this meeting in Euclid, but shortly thereafter two or three of these missionaries encountered a member of his family. This occurred when the missionaries, feeling quite hungry, stopped at a home to ask for some food. However, the owner of the home declined to provide them any sustenance.
Mark: The woman who lives there turns them away, is not interested. They say a few things on the doorstep, enough that a young woman inside, one of Isaac Morley’s daughters, overhears what they have to say. She is in helping do the weaving in this woman’s other room, and when they turn and they’re heading away from the home, she runs out and says, “Go to my father, he’ll feed you.” So she gives them directions to the home in Kirtland. So Isaac Morley has already been prepared by those two missionaries up north, and then he meets these other two missionaries that have the same message; and as they come down, they’re looking for dinner, he begins to talk to them.
Spencer: Eventually, Isaac and Lucy Morley invited all four missionaries to stay on their farm near Kirtland. However, this was not your average nineteenth-century American farm. Matt Grow explains.
Matt: Isaac and Lucy Morley were farmers outside of Kirtland, and they were influenced by this movement to restore primitive Christianity or the Christian church that they read about in the New Testament. And there’s lots of elements of that early Christian church that you read about in the New Testament, and one of them is found in the book of Acts, and it says that the early Christians had all things in common.
Think about that. Think what a radical statement that is. And Isaac and Lucy Morley decided that they would not only read about that statement, they would live it, they would practice it. And at this time, there’s other groups in early America who are also taking seriously this charge to have all things in common. There’s other, mostly religious groups that are living communally, and that’s what Isaac and Lucy Morley are going to do on their farm. They invite other believers to join with them and attempt to create a society like the one they read about in the New Testament.
Spencer: So Cowdery, Pratt, Peterson, and Whitmer all end up on a farm filled with men, women, and children who are seeking the primitive Christian church, which is the phrase often used at this time to refer to the church of Jesus Christ and his disciples as described in the New Testament. And this community on the Morley farm was sincerely trying to recreate the type of society they read about in the Bible.
It’s worth noting here that the desire many Americans felt at this time to discover the primitive Christian church made the message of Joseph Smith and early Latter-day Saint missionaries particularly appealing. After all, the reason Joseph Smith had asked which church was true back in 1820, when he prayed in the woods near his family’s house in New York, was because he wanted to know which of all the churches seeking converts in his community at that time actually taught the full and correct doctrine of Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith sought the primitive church because he wanted forgiveness for his sins through Jesus Christ, but all the different churches taught different things about how the atonement of Jesus Christ operated in the lives of men and women.
But Joseph Smith was hardly the only person with that question at that time. Accordingly, the message of his teachings and revelations, the message of Latter-day Saint missionaries, was that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been restored through a prophet. For many who were seeking the gospel of Jesus Christ as it was described in the Bible, this news was an answer to prayer. Especially for those who were seeking living prophets and apostles like those described in the Bible.
But, as Matt Grow explains, not all who were seeking the primitive Christian church were unified in organization or in their opinions.
Matt: The movement to restore or recreate early Christianity was really strong, it was really prominent in most of the American states around this time. I think particularly strong in this sort of northern area, but you’d find it throughout the United States as well and in Great Britain and other areas where there were these movements.
And in a lot of ways, it was a movement without a lot of structure. We tend to think of a church as a church of hierarchy and structure and organization. Many of the people who belonged to this movement didn’t have a lot of that structure or organization. So it’s a little bit hard to take the pulse of the entire movement. But one of the things that they did was they simply called themselves Christians, so they wouldn’t identify very strongly with a particular denomination.
Spencer: This was the culture the four Latter-day Saint missionaries found in and around Kirtland and particularly on the Morley farm. Mark Staker described what happened.
Mark: When Isaac Morley brings in these two missionaries, it has a profound impact on the Morley family. It looks like not everybody joins, but almost everybody in this community becomes influenced by the missionaries, and they end up getting baptized into the Church of Christ, or we call it The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today. And it creates quite a stir in the community. Everybody around is interested in what’s going on. Most of those that haven’t been part of this attempt to restore early Christianity are interested but not drawn in immediately into the group as they join.
Spencer: Eventually, Cowdery, Peterson, Pratt, and Whitmer left Kirtland and the Morley farm for the intended audience of their mission—the Native Americans living western border of the of the United States.
Spencer: By the end of the year 1830, there were far more members of the church in and around Kirtland, Ohio, than there were anywhere else in the world. Yet this rapid growth brought new obstacles. There was no leadership structure and little organization in Kirtland. And the First Elder of the Church, Joseph Smith, lived hundreds of miles away. But in early 1831, Joseph Smith would receive a revelation that addressed the needs of the growing church. That same revelation would direct Joseph Smith to move to Ohio. And that’s where we’ll pick up the story in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.