Back to Kirtland, City of Revelation Podcast
Spencer: On July 14, 1831, Joseph Smith set foot in Independence, Missouri, for the first time. It was an unimpressive settlement. There was a courthouse, a few stores, and some log buildings, but the town was more of a trading post than a booming community. Yet, looking westward Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Edward Partridge, and others beheld vast prairie lands that seemed ideal for farming and for the gathering of men and women who were preparing themselves—and the world—for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Six days later, on July 20, Joseph Smith received a revelation designating the land of Missouri for the gathering of the Latter-day Saints. The revelation called the area “a land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion.” The revelation directed church leaders to purchase large tracts of land in the area and it appointed a location for the temple that they were to build there.
This revelation was paramount to the Saints vision for the future. But it also had repercussions for the immediate work of building and directing the church. Relocating and settling thousands of people in Missouri would require considerable resources, strong leadership, and clarifying revelation. Complicating matters was the fact that many church members, including Joseph Smith, would not immediately move to Zion. Instead, they would remain for a time in Kirtland.
The challenge of leading a young church with two geographic centers, that's what we are talking about in this episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 3: “A Stake of Zion”
Spencer: The emphasis of Joseph Smith’s revelations on the building of a New Jerusalem was not the only source of church members enthusiasm for knowing more about the prophesied city. They also looked to scripture.
David: When the church was first organized, the Saints had the Book of Mormon and Joseph’s earliest revelations. And when those scriptures talked about sacred space or geography, they focused on a great city that would be built that was called the city of Zion or the New Jerusalem.
Spencer: That’s David Grua, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers.
David: And so people were really looking forward to finding out where the city would be built. They expected that a temple would be built there, and that was really the focus of the early expectations of the Saints.
Spencer: However, it was only a few months after Joseph Smith had moved to Kirtland, while visiting the state of Missouri, that he received the revelation specifying the location of this prophesied city.
David: Joseph Smith received revelation in July of 1831 that told him the New Jerusalem, the city that they had been anticipating, would be built in Jackson County, Missouri.
Spencer: That revelation, which is now section 57 of the Doctrine and Covenants, states that the city of Independence, Missouri, “is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse.”
Following the directions in that July 1831 revelation, church leaders purchased large tracts of land in and around the city of Independence. The revelation also directed Bishop Edward Partridge to move to Missouri to preside over the church there. Sidney Gilbert would act as the church’s agent that in that place.
This was important because, over the next two years, more than a thousand church members would move to Jackson County, eager to participate in building the city of Zion. And that effort would require strong leadership.
The enthusiasm that many Latter-day Saints exhibited for moving to Missouri was motivated in part by their desire to prepare themselves—and the world—for the second coming of Jesus Christ, and the millennial era that biblical prophets declared would follow that event.
Historian Chase Kirkham of The Joseph Smith Papers explained the basic premise of the Millennium and how Latter-day Saints understood this era that would follow the second coming of Jesus Christ.
Chase: The book of Revelation indicates that there’s going to be this 1,000-year period where two things are going to happen. The first thing is that Satan will be bound, he will have no power. The second thing is that Jesus is going to rule.
Spencer: Chase then explained the concept of millennialism, which is more than just a belief in the presence and personal reign of Jesus Christ on the earth, but also about how humankind could prepare for it.
Chase: Millennialism is an explanation of how the world will transition from this realm of injustice and wickedness into a state of peace and tranquility. It’s about the transition.
Spencer: For some Christians in nineteenth-century America, their form of millennialism included making predictions about the precise moment of the Second Coming.
Chase: But Joseph didn’t. Joseph told the Saints that one day he was praying very earnestly to find out when the Second Coming would happen, and the Lord said essentially, “I’m not going to tell you.” We don’t know when that prayer occurred. It could have happened during Kirtland, but essentially the answer in Joseph’s revelation was: it’s not for you to know.
Spencer: Several revelations that Joseph Smith dictated in the early 1830s speak to the last days and the second coming of Jesus Christ. Chase explained that while some referred to prophesied signs that the Second Coming was soon, the primary focus of such revelations was on the spiritual preparation of men and women for that event, no matter when it occurred. He pointed specifically to a March 1831 revelation that Joseph Smith received in Kirtland, a revelation that is now canonized as Doctrine and Covenants section 45.
Chase: In section 45, after this discussion of these apocalyptic events, the revelation shifts into this instruction of the Bible translation. And the scripture says, “Wherefore I give unto you that ye may now translate the Bible, that ye may be prepared for the things to come.” I like the phrase, “Be prepared for the things to come.” There’s all of these very disturbing passages in the scriptures that can lead to a lot of fear. But what the scriptures are also saying is that God will prepare you for what’s coming.
Spencer: And I think Chase got at what was at the heart of all these revelations on the distress the world would face prior to the Second Coming. The revelations urged people to prepare but reassured them that if they kept the commandments and followed Joseph Smith as a prophet, they would be ready; they would be protected. So some of these revelations could be unnerving in their descriptions of the last days, but the revelations also sought to instill in the Saints a confidence born of faith. They could be ready for and withstand all that was coming their way if they sought the power of godliness in their lives.
Spencer: Joseph Smith returned to Ohio in late August 1831 with big plans for the future of the church already taking shape. Yet Joseph and the hundreds of church members who had moved to Kirtland earlier that year had done so because a revelation promised that God would there endow them with power. And even after the revelation designated the city of Zion to be built in Jackson County, Missouri, revelations reaffirmed the importance of Kirtland to work of the church and its importance to the gathering of Israel.
In September 1831, in a revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants section 64 referred to Kirtland as a temporary “strong hold.” Then in April 1832, another revelation explained that the church’s presence in Kirtland would not be so temporary and designated the Ohio city a “stake of Zion.” David Grua explains.
David: This is drawing on imagery from the book of Isaiah and from the Book of Mormon that describes Zion as kind of the central place, and then imagine these outlying settlements that are connected to Zion almost as if they’re tent poles that are connected to the central tent to Zion. So that’s where this image of the “stake” emerges, and this really is a significant development. I don’t think people fully recognize how significant this was for the subsequent development of the church. Because prior to that, all the focus had been on Zion itself. And now there’s an idea that outside of Zion there would be “stakes” where the church could grow and develop.
Spencer: And the church did grow. Missions served by church members resulted in hundreds of converts, many of whom moved to either Ohio or Missouri to live and worship with their fellow Latter-day Saints. But just as the rapid growth of the church in Kirtland without established local leadership led to problems, the presence of two large communities of church members separated by nearly 1,000 miles represented a new challenge for church leaders.
David: So initially, the church was fairly small—a few dozen people, then a few hundred people. So the church organization was not elaborate when the church was organized in 1830. When the church was organized, the Lord designated Joseph the First Elder of the Church and Oliver Cowdery the Second Elder. By the end of 1830, however, the church had expanded to the point where the Lord called Edward Partridge to serve as the first bishop, and it was partly his job to manage the church’s resources. And so when Joseph received their revelation, designated Jackson County as the site of the New Jerusalem, Edward Partridge was called to go and lead the church in Missouri.
Spencer: Joseph Smith extended that call to Edward Partridge in February 1831.
David: A short time later, Newel K. Whitney was called as the bishop in Kirtland. So you had a structure where you had Joseph and then two bishops who were presiding over each of the center places, and then you had elders and so forth beneath that. But as of yet, there was no stake organization, no seventies or apostles, not even a First Presidency at that point in time. As the church continues to expand and grow, Joseph receives additional revelations. In November of 1831, he received a revelation that is now part of D&C 107, in which he was told that there would be a president of the office of the high priesthood that would preside over the whole church and to be like unto Moses.
Spencer: Those priesthood offices, that expanded leadership structure, would be in place in time. They would come in Kirtland, but not right away. Still, these revelations on priesthood and Christian ministry emphasized a divine appointment of the church’s organization and demonstrated the adaptability of the organization by revelation to meet the needs of a growing church. There was an ability in place to adjust the organization to minister to men and women as their needs and circumstances changed. But in the early days of the church, leaders were often figuring out as they went the best way to lead a young church with two geographic centers.
David: So Edward Partridge is leading the church in Missouri. Joseph visited Jackson County in July of 1831, and through revelation designated territory or land that Edward Partridge was supposed to purchase, and then he was supposed to direct the church. When church members migrated to Jackson County, Edward Partridge was the one who determined where they should live, what land they should live on. And for the most part, this worked well, but Edward Partridge had been a hat maker, a merchant, and there were times when he had opinions about how things should function, and his opinions sometimes differed from Joseph’s opinions, Sidney Rigdon’s opinions, and that occasionally caused friction.
Spencer: Figuring out the right configuration of decision-making processes between Ohio and Missouri presented related challenges.
David: Joseph wanted to empower the leaders of the church in Missouri to make the day-to-day decisions that were required to run the church, but occasionally they ran into differences of opinions that caused problems, and Joseph occasionally had to remind them that he had been designated the president of the high priesthood and that he was president over the whole church. I think they understood that at a conceptual level, but when it came down to actually figuring out what can we decide on our own versus what do we always have to pass off in Kirtland, they sometimes got frustrated with how does that actually play out in practice?
Spencer: Some of the problems associated with leading the church in Missouri and Ohio were associated with communication. Brent Rogers, managing historian of The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Brent: Communication in any relationship, in any organization, it’s such a crucial part of that relationship’s or organization’s success. And communication seems pretty easy for us today; we have so many different avenues or options to reach people or to connect with them and in almost any time of the day or night. They can send a text message or call or send an email, and most people expect to get a response within minutes or hours. Maybe we’re not a very patient people today, but communication for Joseph Smith and the early members of the church, like for others in 1830s America, was much, much different.
Spencer: In the 1830s, just how long did it take for church leaders in Ohio to communicate with their counterparts in Missouri and vice versa?
Brent: So if somebody writes a letter in June, it’s not gonna get to that destination until July at the earliest. Messengers could travel much faster—some could travel in as few as ten days between the two destinations—but for the Kirtland-based presidency of the church, which was where Joseph Smith was for the majority of the time, advising and interacting with church leaders and members in Missouri in any sort of timely manner was a significant obstacle because of that time lag that it took for communications to get back and forth. So in some cases, events are moving so rapidly in Missouri that by the time their letters arrive in Kirtland for Joseph Smith to even read, the information could be obsolete, and they could have already made a decision and moved on because of the press and the need for a decision to be made.
So if a question arises in Missouri, and they write to Kirtland for an answer, it could be two months before they receive any word back from Joseph Smith or from another church leader in Kirtland. And so that significant amount of time created a lot of problems and issues in terms of being able to govern in an efficient way.
Spencer: Another obstacle church leaders in Ohio and Missouri had to figure out was the movement of church members from one place to another and the way that movement altered the strength of the church in each of those places.
Brent: By 1833, church members living in and around Independence numbered around 1,000. I think maybe a little bit over 1,000, and that population had grown to that size in just a couple of years. That’s a pretty rapid growth for a small town on sort of the edge of western, white settlement at the time. And those roughly 1,000 people had accumulated more than 2,000 acres of land, and so it’s a growing church body there. In Kirtland, by contrast around that same time frame—the summer of 1833—there were only about 150 in Kirtland.
We have a letter that Joseph Smith and others write to the leaders of the church in Missouri. So they’re writing from Kirtland to Missouri, and they mention in there that there’s about 150 church members that live in Kirtland and that they are, though small in number, working rapidly on the temple. But those numbers in Kirtland do swell to around 2,000 people by the end of the 1830s. So population and growth, the population growth in both places, it’s pretty significant, and it’s part of what leads to some friction and some of the dynamics that will happen between church members and their neighbors for that decade.
Spencer: Despite being a part of the same church, believing the same doctrine, and following the same prophet, sometimes these obstacles of distance and communication led to friction between church members in the two places. And for Joseph Smith and other church leaders, establishing and maintaining unity in the church became more difficult. This also pertained to implementing Joseph Smith’s revelations in both places.
Brent: There’s quite a bit of friction between church members in both places, and I would say maybe more specific than church members, as church leaders, because of leadership dynamics that as Joseph Smith is developing and receiving more revelation that helps guide his own leadership in Kirtland, those things aren’t being as seamlessly transferred to the leadership in Missouri, and so when some of that information gets to Missouri, it is received in a questionable manner.
And the dynamics between the church leaders in both places require a lot of meetings to happen over the course of a time where Joseph Smith has continually having to set things in order in Missouri when he comes to visit there. So there’s a lot of friction, a lot of disagreement, and I think that comes partly because of the inability to communicate in a rapid and efficient manner and trying to govern the church in a similar manner in both places, but without a handbook to do so or not a specific set of written instructions that everybody has from the get-go. And as things develop, that requires the leaders in Missouri to be willing to adapt. And sometimes as humans, we don’t want to adapt or change things right away.
Spencer: As a historian, I think there is something very human and real in how the church organization fell into place in Ohio and Missouri in the early 1830s. Church leaders received revelation to guide them, but those revelations did not function as step-by-step guides for every possible situation. At times they were left to find solutions on their own, or, in some cases, to seek further clarifying revelation.
Spencer: For Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints, Kirtland continued to be a city of revelation, a place where they heard the word of God through a prophet. Sometimes those revelations made subtle corrections to doctrine and practices. Other times, those revelations represented sizeable shifts in the way men and women understood the workings of God and divine plans for humankind.
One of those particularly monumental revelations came in February 1832 in the form of a vision. By that time, Joseph and Emma Smith had moved with their adopted twin children to Hiram, Ohio, a town about thirty miles southeast of Kirtland. There they resided with John and Elsa Johnson. Sidney Rigdon and his family lived in a small log home across the street from the Johnson home.
Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were hard at work on their translation of the Bible and, in February 1832, were working in the Gospel According to John. Joseph Smith’s history later recalled that as they worked on this inspired translation, they realized “that many important points, touching on the salvation of man, had been taken from the Bible, or lost before it was compiled.”
Then, on February 16, they came to John chapter 5, verse 29. In that verse, Jesus declares the dead “shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” As they pondered this verse together, Joseph and Sidney reported seeing a vision of what awaited men and women after death.
In their written record of the vision, they stated: “And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about. And we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness.”
In that record, Joseph and Sidney testified of Jesus, stating: “and now after the many testamonies which have been given of him this is the testamony last of all which we give of him that he lives.”
Today, this record of the vision is published as section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It contains descriptions of what Joseph and Sidney saw interspersed with the words of Jesus Christ. According to this record, as part of the vision, Joseph and Sidney beheld three levels of heavenly glory: the celestial, terrestrial, and telestial, with different requirements for entering into each. To Joseph and Sidney, this vision helped them understand those important points on life after death that they observed were missing from the New Testament.
When they published the record of this vision, which became known simply as “The Vision,” many church members rejoiced with Sidney and Joseph for the clarification and promises it made. Recent convert Wilford Woodruff wrote, “[The Vision] makes plain to our understanding our present condition, where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going.”
However, while Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon would testify of the veracity of their visionary experience and demonstrate that it was supported by passages in the New Testament, some church members struggled to accept this view of the afterlife. For some, it was too far of a departure from what they believed in their religious lives prior to joining the church.
For many of the church’s harshest critics, they viewed the vision as a threat to their Protestant Christian beliefs. They were already frustrated by the teachings of Joseph Smith. They did not believe that he really received revelation from heaven, and they were dismayed by friends, family members, and associates who did believe and joined the church. As Sidney Rigdon later recalled, many of these critics decided that the vision was the last straw and required a violent response. They were determined to stop the revelations of Joseph Smith.
Mark: The night of March 24, Joseph says in his history, a couple of dozen people go to the Johnson home, pull him out of the house, brutally attack him. Brutally attack Sidney Rigdon, who lived across the street.
Spencer: That’s Mark Staker, a curator with the Historic Sites division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The mob pulled Sidney Rigdon from his home and dragged him by his feet to the base of a large oak tree. The way the mob dragged Rigdon caused his head to bump repeatedly against the hard ground and he was soon unconscious.
The mob then tore Joseph Smith from his bed across the street in the Johnson home. The assailants debated killing Joseph but instead beat him, shoved tar into his mouth and poured it on his body, followed by feathers. This was called tar and feathering and was a brutal act commonly used by mobs to hurt and humiliate their victims.
With medical care and time, Smith and Rigdon would recover from these attacks, but, as Mark Staker points out, some effects of these attacks stayed with the two men for the rest of their lives.
Mark: Rigdon apparently never quite recovers. His head’s bumped, so it has some profound impact on them. Joseph’s left with a permanent bald spot, knocked two teeth out in front. His side is severely injured, a couple of accounts of him actually dying and having an out-of-body experience and then coming back into his body, stumbles home, and Emma sees him there at the door, looks like he’s bloody, it’s the tar that’s all over him, but she’s distraught over the whole thing and they spend the whole night cleaning Joseph up.
Spencer: But the attack did not stop Joseph Smith from attending to his duties as a church leader.
Mark: What I find is most profound from this experience is that the next day, Joseph has a preaching assignment in the neighboring town just over a mile away in the schoolhouse there. He shows up to it and preaches his sermon, teaches the gospel of Jesus Christ, and continues to go on even though he knows that people in that congregation tried to kill him the night before.
Spencer: Perhaps most tragically, both of the Smiths’ twins were sick with measles at the time of the attack. Shortly thereafter, the baby boy, who was named Joseph, died. Joseph Smith believed that the death occurred due to the already sick baby boy’s exposure to the cold night air during the mob attack.
Despite his show of resilience and commitment to preaching the gospel in the wake of violent opposition, Joseph Smith understood that staying in Hiram, Ohio, represented a grave risk to his life and to the safety of his family.
Mark: The tar and feathering, the attack on Joseph in Hiram, had an immediate response. Joseph was already scheduled to go to Missouri to oversee some publication efforts that were going on there, and he decided it wasn’t safe for Emma to stay there. So he told her to go up to Kirtland and stay with the Whitneys, and then he went off to Missouri to fulfill his responsibilities there. Unknown to him, when Emma gets to Kirtland, Sarah Smith, an aunt of Ann Whitney, kicks her out of the house. She knocks on the door, says, “You can't come in.” Doesn’t tell Ann that Emma had even shown up at the door. So Emma goes to Reynolds Cahoon, he’s one of the bishop’s counselors—Bishop Whitney. And Reynolds Cahoon brings her into his home, takes care of her while Joseph’s still gone; but they never go back to Hiram.
Spencer: When Joseph returned to Ohio from Missouri, he and Emma moved back to the city of Kirtland itself and began building a home there.
Spencer: Throughout all of this—amid the identifying and building up of the city of Zion in Missouri, amid the efforts to install leadership structures appointed by revelation and to find ways to effectively communicate over long distances, amid excitement by some over prophetic revelations and violent opposition by others—amid all of this, men were departing Kirtland on missions. They traveled throughout the United States and into Canada. The result was hundreds of men and women joining the church and the formation of branches, or congregations, of the church in more communities than ever.
Many of these church members picked up their lives and moved to Kirtland to be with the Saints, to be near the prophet. They saw Kirtland as a city of revelation where the full gospel of Jesus Christ was being revealed and preached by a prophet of God. And, in turn, Joseph Smith was empowering them to better understand the mind of God as it pertained to their own lives and to the moral redemption of humankind.
Yet as the church grew, church leaders faced the obstacle of getting the revelations to church members. But it turns out publishing revelations at that time was easier said than done. The logistics and challenges of publishing revelation—that’s where we’ll pick up the story in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.