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Spencer: Kirtland buzzed with excitement in early 1836. The exterior of the House of the Lord was completed and the finishing work on the interior was well underway. It would only be a matter of time before the Latter-day Saints could dedicate the building and hold their solemn assembly, in which they eagerly anticipated the long-promised endowment of power. And their hopes would be realized.
Yet it was not long after the solemn assembly in the temple that the church and community in Kirtland experienced intense dissent and disunity. How did they go from such an exultant spiritual high to such a frustrating communal low? That’s what we’ll talk about in this episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 6: “An Endowment of Power”
Spencer: As Christians, the first Latter-day Saints held regular worship services. These services often involved the administration of the sacrament, or what some would have referred to as the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. But at this time, and in places where the church was rather large, such as Kirtland, there were not formal wards or branches established to organize the Saints into distinct congregations. To better understand the nature of worship services in Kirtland in the 1830s, I spoke with Jonathan Stapley, a historian with the Church History Department.
Jonathan: During this early period, church members largely experienced worship services when missionaries were in their city or town, and they traveled throughout the Northeast and the Midwest of the United States. And so some people might have a worship service and experience the Lord’s Supper on a Tuesday or a Wednesday, whenever the missionary was passing through, but as soon as a sufficient body of converts gathered that they could have a branch and a priest or an elder could be called from among them, they then instituted Sunday worship services.
Kirtland, being the center of the church, was one of the earliest locations to have regular Sunday services. Many cities and many branches didn’t have the sacrament administered every week. But again, Kirtland is one of the first areas to have the sacrament observed every Sunday.
Spencer: How long were these weekly worship services?
Jonathan: Latter-day Saints, when they worshipped here in this period, would often have two or three meetings a day, and in one of these meetings, often in the afternoon, they would celebrate the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In Kirtland, the sacrament was blessed by a church leader, typically a member of the First Presidency, one of the bishops, and after their calling, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
So it was not uncommon to have Joseph Smith or Newel K. Whitney or David Patton bless the Lord’s Supper during this time. They would bless the bread and the wine, and they would pass it to the members of the congregation, and while it was passed, they would deliver sermons. So one of the few accounts that we have of the sacrament being passed during this period, Sidney Rigdon is preaching a sermon while it’s passed and it takes fifteen minutes to pass the bread and move on to the wine after he finishes his sermon.
Spencer: At this time, the Saints had not yet constructed formal meeting houses. When the weather was nice, they could meet outdoors. But when the weather was not so accommodating, they had to make use of whatever facilities they could.
Jonathan: In Kirtland, just like in other places during this period, the Saints worshipped where they could. Oftentimes that was in a schoolhouse or in somebody’s home. So, in Kirtland, the schoolhouse could accommodate between 400 and 500 people. So that is where the early Sunday meetings largely occurred.
Spencer: Of course, once the House of the Lord was completed, the Latter-day Saints in and around Kirtland could use that space for their worship services. And as the work progressed, Joseph Smith did more and more to prepare church members for its dedication. Brent Rogers, managing historian of The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Brent: As the Saints in late 1835 and early 1836 work to complete the physical construction of the temple, and it was something that was on the thoughts and in the efforts of church members in Kirtland, Lucy Mack Smith had said there was but one main spring to all our thoughts and that was building the Lord’s house. And as they were working to finish the physical construction of the temple, Joseph Smith really started focusing more on the spiritual preparation.
Spencer: In a November 12, 1835 meeting with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Joseph Smith declared: “We must have all things prepared and call our solemn assembly as the Lord has commanded us.” He added that in the temple they would attend to the ordinance of washing of feet, which was “calculated to unite our heart, that we may be one in feeling and sentiment and that our faith may be strong, so that Satan cannot overthrow us, nor have any power over us.” In that discourse he again emphasized the need for an endowment of power if the Saints were to “be prepared and able to overcome all things.”
Brent: And as he continued to talk about the importance of spiritual preparation, he told those in attendance that day that all who are prepared and are sufficiently pure to abide the presence of the Savior will see him.
Spencer: Brent’s comments led me to think about another theme in Joseph Smith’s teachings and revelations during his time in Kirtland. He often spoke to church members about living righteously, about sanctifying themselves so that they would be prepared to stand in the presence of God, and even that they might see God. I asked Chase Kirkham, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, about how literally church members understood such teachings.
Chase: An example of this is in a November 1831 revelation, this is Doctrine and Covenants section 67. And the section says that if you strip yourself of jealousies and fears and you humble yourself, then the scripture says, “The veil shall be rent, and you shall see me and know that I am, not with the carnal, neither natural mind, but with the spiritual.”
So there’s a promise that you can see God. In May of 1833, that promise is reiterated. This is Doctrine and Covenants section 93. And at the beginning of the revelation, it states that everyone who forsakes their sins and comes to the Lord “shall see my face.” The revelation says that you, in addition to this, you shall know that I am, you shall know that God exists. You’ll know that God is the source of light, and you will know that Christ is in the Father and the Father is in Christ.
So the question is, how do you interpret this? What do you do with these revelations, because if you don’t have these revelations, there’s this temptation to think, what’s wrong with me? Why am I not having these kinds of visions? The earliest church members and Joseph Smith likely interpreted these promises literally.
Spencer: There are several records of such visions occurring. Chase shared a couple from Kirtland.
Chase: So an early church member, Levi Hancock, reportedly had a vision of Christ after his baptism. There was a council of elders in June 1831. There, Lyman Wight reportedly saw Christ, and he was also at this conference that Joseph also apparently had another vision of the Father and the Son. So all of that is to say that these early church members, if they read those passages and were familiar with them, they would have interpreted that literally.
Spencer: But was Joseph Smith only referring to literal appearances of God to the Latter-day Saints or were there other ways of understanding these teachings?
Chase: While a literal fulfillment of this promise to see God is within the scope of possible readings of these passages, it’s not the only meaning. One thing that I’ve learned about Joseph Smith is that Joseph may not have appreciated the full implications of his revelations. And I’m basing this on a sermon he gave in Nauvoo, where he said that I learned something when I translated the Book of Abraham. That’s always stuck with me as sort of an example of Joseph’s humility, meaning that he’s willing to learn from his own scripture. He’s willing to learn from his own revelation. It also means that the interpretations of scripture that we find from Joseph Smith and early church members, that that’s not the only way these can be read, and that there’s other meaning that we can draw from these passages.
Spencer: To help explain other ways that Latter-day Saints in Kirtland understood such teachings from Joseph Smith, Chase pointed to a revelation from late 1832 and early 1833 that is now canonized as section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants. That revelation describes the natural wonders of the earth and in the sky above and declares, “any man who hath seen any or the least of these hath seen God moving in his majesty and power. I say unto you, he hath seen him; nevertheless, he who came unto his own was not comprehended.”
Chase: I love section 88 because what it says is, if you look out into the world of nature and you watch some movements of the natural world, you’ve seen God, and the verse almost anticipates our question, which is, “But no, I haven’t. Right? Where’s the form of God? Right? Where is the experience that Joseph had in the sacred grove?” And then section 88 continues by saying, “He who came unto his own was not comprehended.”
So what I want to say is, is that, yes, there are promises that church members can see God, and while a vision of the form or the person of God is certainly sufficient to fulfill that, it’s not necessary. There’s more to seeing God than just seeing the person of deity.
Spencer: Chase described for me several instances recorded in scripture wherein Jesus was in the presence of men and women but they did not understand what he was teaching them.
Chase: So I ask which is the greater blessing, to see God or to understand the mind of God. And that promise of understanding the mind of God, that’s also in the earliest of revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Spencer: With the hope of better understanding the mind and will of God, in late March 1836, the House of the Lord was ready to be dedicated. Church leaders invited the Latter-day Saints to gather in the temple.
Spencer: On the morning of March 27, 1836, thousands of Latter-day Saints made their way up the steps of the Kirtland temple and took their seats in one of its two assembly rooms for the dedication services.
Jonathan: The Saints had been looking forward to this dedication for years.
Spencer: That’s Jonathan Stapley.
Jonathan: At the end of March, thousands gathered, far too many than could be admitted to the dedication ceremonies. And in fact, 400 to 500 moved from the entrance to the schoolhouse in an overflow, and many went home because there was simply no room.
Those who entered were asked to give donations to help support the payment for the House of the Lord and for the approximately 1,000 people who entered. According to some diarist, approximately $1,000 was gathered that morning.
In a series of meetings, there were two major intermissions that spanned a good portion of the day. The Saints gathered and started with prayers, sermons, and sustainings. This is the first time and perhaps the only time during Joseph Smith’s life that the entire First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators.
Spencer: After an intermission, the Saints reconvened for the dedicatory prayer. Joseph Smith read the prayer from a prepared text that he said he received by revelation. That dedicatory prayer is canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 109. Brent Rogers described the scene.
Brent: In the afternoon is when Joseph stands in front of the assembled congregation and reads the words of the dedicatory prayer. And there’s this really significant, really poignant quote that a woman named Sylvia Cutler Webb gives about her experience. She was a very young child, but she says, “I clearly remember the occasion, I can look back through the lapse of years and see as I saw then, Joseph, the Prophet, standing with his hands raised towards the heaven. His face is ashy pale, the tears running down his cheeks as he spoke on that memorable day.” She has seared on her memory what Joseph Smith looked like as he gave that dedication. And I think you see a lot of people had recollections, remembrances, experiences that happened on that day in Kirtland, Ohio, that testified of their knowledge of seeing a prophet of God speak the words of revelation that he received as he dedicated the first temple in this dispensation.
Spencer: Brent spoke to me about the numerous records people kept of spiritual manifestations they experienced during the dedicatory services, including visions of angels.
Brent: Frederick G. Williams wrote that he saw an angel come in as Joseph was giving the dedicatory prayer and that it came in and it sat kind of in between him and Joseph Smith Sr.
And so there’s lots of records of these manifestations that happen. And I think maybe the best summation of the day when the Kirtland temple was dedicated comes from Eliza R. Snow.
She wrote that “The ceremonies of that dedication may be rehearsed, but no mortal language can describe the heavenly manifestations of that memorable day. Angels appeared to some, while a sense of divine presence was realized by all present and each heart was filled with joy and expressive and full of glory.”
And I think that’s a really strong summarization of the experience the Saints had and the dedication of the temple that day. And I think, if you look back in the previous five years, it’s a result of a devoted effort and sacrifice of men and women, of Saints who had a deep faith that if they followed the commandments, and if they were unified and spiritually prepared, that they would have this glorious experience. And they did.
Spencer: There is a moment in the dedicatory service that I think is particularly helpful as a lens through which to view how the Saints understood the dedication of the Kirtland House of the Lord. It comes from one of the hymns that they sung on that occasion.
For the service, William W. Phelps wrote a new hymn. Called “The Spirit of God,” its verses encapsulate how Latter-day Saints in Kirtland understood the events that they were part of. It illuminates how they understood the work they were undertaking as members of the church.
When singing “The Spirit of God,” church members sang of “latter-day glory,” the return to the earth of “the visions and blessings of old,” and the visitation of angels. They sang of an increased understanding of the plan of God for humankind and the restoration of divinely appointed organizations. They sang of more visions and blessings to come, they sang of the second coming of Jesus Christ, and they sang of the tranquility of the millennial era that would follow, in which “the lamb and the lion” would “lie down together without any ire.”
It’s a hymn of restoration, a celebration of revelation. It’s a song, in part, about what was happening in Kirtland, Ohio.
Spencer: Church members could now use the dedicated Kirtland temple for their worship services and other meetings. And they did. But so many of the revelations directing the construction of the temple focused on a solemn assembly for the priesthood officers of the church. Three days later, on March 30, 1836, they had that meeting. Jonathan Stapley explains what happened.
Jonathan: The promises of God were that the Saints should be “endowed with power,” and all of the priesthood officers of the church gathered in a subsequent meeting, which they called the solemn assembly, for that specific purpose. Whereas the earliest endowment of power, the ordination of the first high priests, was for a handful of individuals, the promise of the Lord was that in Kirtland, all of the priesthood officers were to be “endowed with power from on high.” So they gathered.
Spencer: What happened once the church leaders were assembled?
Jonathan: Joseph Smith and other church leaders started by washing themselves, washing their hands, their faces, and feet in preparation to administer the ceremonies of the temple. This was an explicit evocation of the work of the ancient priests in Israel, where they prepared by washing themselves before administering in priestly offices. The Saints came fasting again to the solemn assembly. These men gathered and testified and preached. They brought bread and wine to eat as a meal. It was the Lord’s Supper, and just as they had in the School of the Prophets, they distributed the emblems generously, and they ate until they were full.
Joseph Smith then gathered some leaders and washed their feet after the pattern of Jesus Christ, washing His disciples’ feet. These leaders then washed the feet of others. In a meeting that went through the night. Many prophesied, angels appeared to some, some spoke in tongues. And Joseph Smith’s diary explaining this event concludes the solemn assembly by saying, “This will surely be an endowment to be remembered.”
Spencer: In that same journal entry, Joseph recorded, “the Saviour made his appearance to some.”
Spencer: Spiritual manifestations in the temple did not cease following the dedication and the solemn assembly. It was on April 3, 1836, only one week following the dedication, that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery prayed together in the temple following a sacrament meeting. Having drawn closed one of the veils installed to divide the large assembly hall into compartments, the two men prayed together near the pulpits. A series of visions ensued.
Oliver Cowdery’s brother, Warren, served as a scribe to Joseph and recorded their account of this vision. It is now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 110.
According to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, Jesus Christ appeared to them, standing upon the breastwork of the temple. He introduced Himself and declared to Joseph and Oliver that their sins were forgiven and that they were clean before Him. Jesus then declared that he accepted the house that they had built to His name and that the endowment of power that they had received in the temple would, in time, bless the entire world, contingent on church members keeping the commandments of God.
After the vision of Jesus closed, Joseph and Oliver stated that a series of three visions occurred, one right after another. Moses appeared and committed to them “the keys of the gathering of Israel.” Elias appeared next and committed to them “the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham.” Finally, Elijah appeared. He invoked a prophecy from the Old Testament book of Malachi regarding the turning of the hearts of the fathers to the children and the turning of the children to their fathers. He then committed to them “the keys of this dispensation.”
Beyond the sheer marvel of such a series of divine visions, this moment stands out in the life and ministry of Joseph Smith. Up to this point so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations pointed to the completion of the Kirtland temple as well as the establishment and eventual redemption of Zion. Now the temple was complete, and the endowment of power realized. Zion was yet to be redeemed, but Joseph Smith would draw upon these experiences in the Kirtland temple for the rest of his life. And the keys bestowed upon him by these heavenly visitors would prove essential to the doctrine and ordinances he would reveal years later in Nauvoo, Illinois.
Spencer: In the days, weeks, and months following the dedication and solemn assembly in the Kirtland temple, the House of the Lord continued to serve important functions in the Kirtland community. Joseph Smith and other church leaders had offices on the attic story. The community could gather in the building’s large assembly rooms. And the Latter-day Saints used the sacred building as a place of worship.
But while the endowment of power proved a significant moment in the lives of so many of the Saints, the community continued to face considerable obstacles. Some of these obstacles grew out of criticism of the church. But others were related to the community’s rapid growth and larger economic patterns of booms and busts throughout the United States. And in reality, criticism of the church, dissent within it, and economic concerns all blended together to create a tumultuous period in the history of the church in Kirtland. To better understand how these elements of discontent came together, let’s start with the financial.
Spencer: In 1836, following a mission to New York City, Joseph Smith presented an idea for the economic well-being of Kirtland and the Latter-day Saints who made the city their home. They proposed a financial institution that became known as the Kirtland Safety Society. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains the basic concept of the Kirtland Safety Society.
Elizabeth: So, at its most basic, the Kirtland Safety Society was intended to be a bank, and it functioned as a bank. It was a bank that was established by church leaders; Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon are its two elected officers. But it was never intended to be exclusively for the church, and it was never directly a church institution, even though church members were predominantly those who supported it.
So it’s this effort to establish a bank in the community of Kirtland, and Joseph has grand ambitions for this bank to the point that in the founding document, the constitution for the bank, he envisions branches of this bank spreading across the entire country. He sees this as the Saints’ bank, right, but also a necessary step for the community of Kirtland, which was growing phenomenally and could support a local frontier bank.
Spencer: How did Joseph Smith’s trip to New York City help him conclude that a financial institution would be beneficial for the community of Kirtland?
Elizabeth: Part of this trip is going to the New York Financial District and clearly seeing the benefit of having these capitalist centers, to have a bank, and also, I think, realizing that that would be of use to their community and to strengthen the economy in the area. A bank allowed illiquid assets like land, which the Saints had in large supply, would give you that liquid capital that you would need to start businesses or to build homes, to do the things that the Saints were wanting to do.
Spencer: Joseph Smith and others set up the Kirtland Safety Society as a separate institution from the church, but it was an institution that, if successful, could benefit the work of the church and the community at large.
Elizabeth: So the perceived ideas of the bank is that it’s often called in contemporary sources the “Mormon Bank.” It’s very directly associated with the church. But in an actual fact, it was more established by the leaders of the church who are not acting as leaders of the church in establishing it.
You have Joseph, Sidney, Oliver Cowdery, and others who are interested in this venture, who are involved in creating it, but they’re not doing it specifically under the church umbrella or for the church. It will, of course, benefit the church, but it’s intended to benefit the entire Kirtland community, not just the church. Oftentimes, I think we see a direct correlation between the Kirtland Safety Society and, say, the United Firm. They’re both economic enterprises that the church takes on, right, but they’re established in very different ways. The United Firm is established through revelations that we have canonized, that the Lord is setting out exactly how he wants this firm to function. The bank does not have that. The most we have for the Kirtland Safety Society is Wilford Woodruff, in his journal in January, as they’re opening the banking office, says that Joseph tells him that he got the word of the Lord in relation to the establishment of the bank.
Now that’s misunderstood both at the time and now to have it be founded by prophecy and by revelation. Joseph never says that. He’s very clear to say that the Lord has approved of them pursuing this course but that they will have to act correctly for it to be successful. And so it seems very conditional and not this kind of direct revelation from the Lord.
Spencer: The Kirtland Safety Society opened and was faced with several significant obstacles from the start.
Elizabeth: The Kirtland Safety Society had some challenges from the outset. We have to remember that none of these men have ever been involved in banking before. They’re new at this. They’re kind of struggling to make it work. While it makes sense to have a frontier bank, they don’t have the resources necessarily to establish it in the way that you would want to. So, for example, banks in nearby Cleveland have local subscribers, but they also have financial backing from the East, from wealthy individuals who will give them the capital stock that they need to function. The Kirtland Safety Society never has that benefit. They’re only able to gather local support, and even that support is rather minimal. It’s something that Joseph and Sidney actually chide members on for their lack of support through 1837. As I said, the population of Latter-day Saints in Kirtland by this time was probably in about the 1,500 to 2,000 range. There were only ever two hundred subscribers for stock in the Kirtland Safety Society, so this is not something that the Saints are getting behind in full force. There’s a couple of reasons for that.
Spencer: Elizabeth explained that those reasons included the fact that even in the good economic climate of the year 1836, Kirtland was not a wealthy community. Many who had moved there to gather with the Saints had essentially started over financially when they arrived. This means fully funding the financial institution is a real challenge. Some who subscribe to purchase shares of stock are only able to buy a fraction of what they intended. There was also strong opposition from people in and around Kirtland who were already critical of Joseph Smith and the church and did not want to see this venture succeed, even if it was not part of the actual church. Many were even actively cheering for it to fail.
But there were factors beyond Kirtland and Ohio that represented a huge obstacle to the successful establishment and operation of the Kirtland Safety Society. That was a devastating economic crash that occurred in 1837.
Elizabeth: 1836, we have to understand, is a boom year. It’s an exceedingly prosperous time in the United States at large, and so people are purchasing a lot on credit, extending themselves far too far in terms of loans, in terms of the commitments that they’re making, banking on another very prosperous year in 1837. And that bubble bursts. There are many factors here.
It’s an international issue with England calling in loans and many banks unable to meet those loans. You see banks across the United States close or fail. Land values plummet dramatically as a result of this bubble bursting, and we get a moment in February and March that is the Panic of 1837. This is a financial panic that the nation goes through as, you have to understand, the capitalism and the market economy are still pretty unstable.
Spencer: The Panic of 1837 wreaked havoc on the economies of several different countries, and the financial crisis wreaked havoc on hundreds of communities in the United States. Kirtland was no exception. Elizabeth explains that the economy of the United States at this time was not set up to prevent such extreme cycles of economic boom and bust.
Elizabeth: This is not a set economy yet. And so what you’re struggling with is when that economy can’t deal with the challenges, the stresses that it faces. And there had been earlier panics, but this was one of the worst. And some scholars even compare this to the Great Depression. It’s a real constricting of the market and will lead to years of economic decline and depression after it.
Spencer: Elizabeth also told me that compounding all these stressors on the bank were actions by critics of Joseph Smith and the church to destroy the Kirtland Safety Society.
Elizabeth: There’s opposition from outsiders, the most prominent individual in that regard is Grandison Newell, who is very antagonistic to the church and especially Joseph Smith and sees this somewhat problematic thing as the way that he can drive the Latter-day Saints out of Ohio.
He knows that this is a weaker area, and he can use this. And so one of the things that he apparently does is to stage runs on the bank where he would gather up the notes and then he or someone acting for him would bring these into the bank and essentially draw all the money that they had, so that they would become less and less able to be solvent, to exist as a society that could have money backing them.
Spencer: A run on a bank is when customers seek to withdraw a large amount of their deposits simultaneously.
Elizabeth: So he does this probably several times, but we only have one really good, documented example at the end of January of 1837. And this leads the society to close for the day. This run, they panic, they close the banking office and this spreads through the press like wildfire. And everyone sees this as a failure of the bank. It’s closed; it will never come back. And so we get the press widely saying that the Kirtland Safety Society has failed, the “Mormon Bank” has failed.
That’s not actually the case. They panic, they close for the day. There’s threats of Newell even leading a mob from local Mentor to attack the bank, maybe burn it down. All of this leads them to close the bank. But they open again, and they still have money that they’re able to trade for banknotes, and so they continue functioning, limping along.
Spencer: Joseph is committed to the success of the Kirtland Safety Society, knowing its importance to the long-term prospects of the community but also because he and so many of his friends have invested considerable sums of money into the institution. And so he does all that he knows how to do in 1837 to shore up the bank amid trying economic conditions.
Elizabeth: Joseph takes out loans from several local banks to try and add to the specie that they have to keep the institution afloat. And it’s not until August, late summer, that the institution will close. Now Joseph and Sidney step down sometime between June and July as the officers of the bank and say, “We can see the writing on the wall; this is not successful. We no longer want to be associated with the bank. We actually think it should close.”
The bank directors go against that and say, “No, we want to keep it open.” And they elect Warren Parrish and Frederick G. Williams, who are both dissenters by this point, to run the bank. And so it’s in July that you see a big push of more notes by the new officers, Williams and Parrish, that actually serves to essentially collapse the bank. The notes had been significantly devalued, and so putting hundreds and thousands more notes circulating, just dropped that further, depreciated to the point that no one was willing to take them, and then by August, the bank has failed.
Spencer: The collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society was devastating to all who had invested in it. But financially, nobody was hurt by the failure of the bank worse than Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. But the economic turmoil, the roots of which lay far outside Kirtland, contributed to a growing degree of dissent within the church.
Spencer: The financial crisis of 1837 hit the entire United States, and the church and its members were no exception. In July 1837, the church is forced to mortgage the temple because the mercantile firms set up to pay the construction costs were unable to turn enough profit.
At the individual and family level of society, everyone began to feel the effects of this financial meltdown. Food was scarce, making payments on loans became difficult, and many were forced to default. Others lost property they had purchased or invested in. The economic turmoil did not, by itself, cause dissent in Kirtland. But it exacerbated existing disagreements and doubts. Elizabeth Kuehn explained that when Joseph Smith returned to Kirtland from a trip to Michigan in February 1837, he discovered that many who had been his friends prior to the trip were now opposed to him when he returned.
Elizabeth: In February, Joseph goes briefly to Michigan and in an attempt to align the Kirtland Safety Society with the Bank of Monroe, and while he’s gone, there seems to be some speaking against him that happens. We don’t know exactly what’s being said. We just have Wilford Woodruff who records what happens when he gets back. And this is Joseph essentially defending himself from those who were questioning his leadership or saying that he was moving in the wrong direction.
And so, in his journal, Wilford records:
“I repaired to the house of the Lord and stood in the midst of the congregation of the saints, where I beheld President Joseph Smith Jr. arise on the stand and for several hours, addressed the saints in the power of God. Joseph had been absent from Kirtland on business for the Church, though not half as long as Moses was in the mount. And many were stirred up in their hearts and some were against him as the Israelites were against Moses. But when he rose in the power of God in their midst, as Moses did anciently, they were put to silence, for the complainers saw that he stood in the power of a prophet.” And Woodruff concludes, “Oh how weak is man.”
And so you get this sense that there are people acting ready to act against Joseph as early as February. Now this doesn’t really come to a head until May. Again, Joseph has been forced to leave. This is from outside opposition. It stokes the ire of local mobs and Joseph’s afraid for his life and, in April, will go into hiding.
Spencer: It’s striking that just a year earlier so many men and women who had participated in the services in the Kirtland temple and recorded miraculous visions and spiritual experiences were now in direct opposition to Joseph Smith and the church. Some called him a false or a fallen prophet. Some cited the hard economic times—the lack of constant prosperity—as proof for their claims. Others seem to have let difficult circumstances exacerbate existing doubts.
Elizabeth: It’s in late May that Wilford Woodruff pinpoints this dissent, and in his journal he writes, “The same spirits of murmuring and complaining and mutiny that I speak of in February in this journal, hath not slept from that day to the present. They have been brewing in the family circle and the secret chamber and in the streets until many and some in high places have risen up against Joseph, the servant whom God had raised up to lead Israel, and they were striving to overthrow his influence and cast him down.
Until Joseph was grieved in spirit to stand such perils among false brethren. But not withstanding this thick cloud of darkness standing over Kirtland, Joseph being unmoved in the cause, entered the congregation of the saints, arose in the stand and spake to the people in the name of the Lord, in his own defense. The Lord was with him by his power and spirit to the convincing of the honest that he would stand and his enemies would fall.”
Spencer: The dissent even extended to some church leaders. This included apostle Parley P. Pratt.
Elizabeth: A very similar situation happens to the apostle Parley P. Pratt. He had invested in real estate in Kirtland, and Joseph had told him that he would be successful. And then in May, he finds that his land is being taken from him because he can’t pay for those debts. And he feels very betrayed. And Parley P. Pratt, in this summer of 1837 moment, he’s one of these lead dissenters who is moving against the prophet, calling him a false or fallen prophet. Now Pratt quickly goes to Missouri and doesn’t stick around for a lot of the vitriol that will come from other dissenters.
Spencer: But Parley P. Pratt would soon have a change of heart.
Elizabeth: On his way to Missouri, he meets the leaders of the Quorum of the Twelve, Thomas B. Marsh and David Patton, who have heard rumors of problems in the Quorum of the Twelve and are coming from Missouri to Ohio to figure out how to help things. Meeting Pratt on the road, they convinced him to come back to Ohio with them and softened his heart, and by the time Parley gets back to Kirtland, he’s repentant. He begs Joseph’s forgiveness.
According to his autobiography, he’s in tears, he’s begging forgiveness, which Joseph readily gives. But it’s really Thomas B. Marsh that arises in the summer moment as a peacemaker and an intermediary that tries to soften the tensions existing between Joseph and particularly the Quorum of the Twelve. And this is where we get D&C 112, which is given to Thomas B. Marsh and essentially praises him for the role that he is doing and also rebukes the Twelve for moving against Joseph, for not being unified and for not following the directions of the prophet.
Spencer: For a time, it appeared that this severe moment of dissent was over and that many of the hard feelings that church members held toward one another were resolved.
Elizabeth: Thomas B. Marsh has helped resolve these tensions. Several of the apostles that had been in kind of a tense position give public confessions. They admit that they had done some things wrong and confess those sins to the congregation and are reinstated in their various positions in September. Things seem to be improving, and it’s in this moment that Joseph thinks that he can go to Missouri and help establish things in Far West, and so he does.
Spencer: However, the opposition to Joseph Smith did not stay subdued for long. By the time he returned to Kirtland, the Kirtland high council was forced to hold disciplinary hearings for many church members actively declaring Joseph a false or fallen prophet. This included some members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other prominent church leaders, men such as John Boynton, Warren Parrish, and brothers Luke and Lyman Johnson.
Elizabeth: All of these men act against Joseph, to the point that John Smith, Joseph’s uncle, who is left in charge of the Kirtland high council, is forced to excommunicates thirty members in December of 1837. And these were largely these dissenters that were acting against Joseph, moving against Joseph, calling him a fallen prophet. It’s this then core group that will establish what they call the Church of Christ, the initial name of the church, and say that they are going to follow the true path that God has decreed and that Joseph is leading the church astray. It’s essentially a schismatic movement. Oftentimes in church history, we call this “the Kirtland Apostasy” or “the Kirtland crisis.” Many will move to kind of an apostate state. Warren Parrish definitely falls under the apostate rubric as he becomes more and more jaded and bitter and angry at Joseph. He’s one of the initial kind of founding members of this Church of Christ but will soon move to a point where he doesn’t believe any of the religious tenets that he once did.
Spencer: In some ways this dissent in Kirtland represented a stunning turn of events, that so soon after the spiritual manifestations and endowment of power that occurred in the Kirtland temple, the community could descend into such disharmony and disunity. While some remembered and cherished their experiences in the temple to provide strength in challenging times, others discounted or dismissed them when circumstances became difficult.
Many Latter-day Saints lamented the effect this had on their ability to worship alongside their neighbors. Mary Fielding wrote in a letter to her sister that the disunity prevented the partaking of the sacrament as regularly as they were able to do so before.
Elizabeth: By January 1838, the dissenters come out in full force, and there’s threats of violence; this is a community divided. It’s to the point that they’ve organized essentially a night watch to try and keep the peace between these two angry parties. Amid all of this, the church’s printing office is seized for debts, sold in a public auction, and the dissenters acquire it. We’re not sure who, but someone sets fire to the printing office. This is arson.
Spencer: The circumstances had grown dire and, in January 1838, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had a difficult decision to make.
Elizabeth: So the printing office is on fire. Brigham Young has to leave in early January, because his life is threatened. And then on 12 January 1838, Joseph receives a revelation, directing the First Presidency, which was composed of him, Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith to leave Kirtland and go to Missouri and that all of their faithful friends should follow.
So Sidney and Joseph leave that night. They are also being threatened like Brigham was, and so there is this threat of violence that they’re running from, but it was also a direction of the Lord through a revelation for them to leave.
Spencer: Joseph and Sidney traveled to Far West, Missouri, where the Saints in that state have started to build a new city. Their families soon followed them, as did hundreds of church members from Kirtland. However, some are unable to make the move because of the expense it required or because they felt the need to remain in Kirtland.
Spencer: Even after Joseph Smith moved to Missouri and hundreds of other church members followed him, Kirtland remained an important place for the church. Many Latter-day Saints remained in the city, and it was still the site of the temple. But how would Joseph Smith’s residence in Missouri and later, in Nauvoo, Illinois, affect the lives and religious devotion of Latter-day Saints in Ohio? What would be the ultimate fate of the temple? That’s what we will talk about in the next episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.