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Introduction to the 1830s Journals

Joseph Smith’s foundational spiritual experiences were in the past when he began keeping a journal in November 1832. He had already organized a church in a log home in western New York in April 1830 and set in motion ambitious efforts to preach throughout the world and gather the converted in one location in preparation for the imminent return of the Lord.1 Seven years later, when the last of the five journals published in this volume concluded, Smith and his followers had built a temple in Kirtland, Ohio, and launched missionary efforts not only in the eastern United States but also in Canada and England. They had weathered internal dissension, external opposition, evacuation of Kirtland, and expulsion from each of the two gathering centers they had established in Missouri, and persisted as a viable religious movement despite repeatedly being forced to leave their homes. By fall 1839, the Latter-day Saints numbered about sixteen thousand, operated with a well-defined leadership and doctrinal structure, and had begun to establish Smith’s final and most successful community, Nauvoo, Illinois.

When the first entry in Joseph Smith’s first journal was made in 1832, the establishment of a gathering place in Jackson County, Missouri, was well under way. The Book of Mormon, Smith’s first published work, prophesied that Gentiles who received the true gospel would assist descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples—usually called “Lamanites” by the Mormons—to build a New Jerusalem, which would be a center for gathering the righteous.2 Smith announced as early as September 1830 that this city would be located near the western boundaries of the United States.3 In late 1830, he dispatched missionaries to American Indians living immediately west of Missouri. This mission established a westward trajectory for the Mormons, following the pattern of thousands of other Americans, and would lead to designation of the gathering place in 1831.

On the way west from New York, the missionaries stopped in northeastern Ohio to share their message with Reformed Baptist minister Sidney Rigdon and his congregations in Mentor and Kirtland. This apparent diversion had far-reaching effects on the development of Mormonism. Rigdon had long been involved in the Christian restorationist movement and had only recently broken with one of its leading lights, Alexander Campbell. As Rigdon and many of his followers converted to the new faith, Ohio soon became a more promising base of operations than New York, where persecution and the Smith family’s financial difficulties thwarted the church’s efforts. Revelations in December 1830 and January 1831 mandated gathering the Latter-day Saints to Ohio, where they were to seek sanctification, receive further revelation, and be “endowed with power from on high,” all of which would empower them to “go forth among all nations” and play an essential role in the salvation of the house of Israel.4

From the time Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland in February 1831, “the Gathering” knit together Mormon belief and experience. Latter-day Saint converts came to understand the gathering as a divine work of calling out the elect from the world—Babylon—to build communities of believers—Zion and her stakes—who would construct temples and prepare for the imminent return and millennial reign of Christ. Places where the Saints gathered would provide refuge from the destruction expected prior to the Second Coming and function as centers of collective strength from which the word could go forth to warn the world.5 Gathering made conversion to Mormonism no longer analogous to joining other Christian congregations: Mormonism involved changing location as well as belief.

While the Mormons began moving to Ohio, the missionaries to the Lamanites were scouting a location for the gathering place in Missouri that was envisioned in their original mandate. In July 1831, Smith officially designated the frontier village of Independence, Jackson County—the eastern terminus of the Santa Fe Trail—as the center of Zion and the site for the New Jerusalem.6 Most Saints who had migrated from New York to Ohio, as well as many of the Ohio converts, moved to Jackson County. Though Smith maintained his headquarters in Kirtland, the Mormon population in Missouri, numbering about eight hundred souls by November 1832, soon exceeded that in Kirtland.7 Counter to the spirit of freewheeling democratic capitalism that characterized America at the time, the Latter-day Saints sought to care for the poor collectively, balancing community needs with private stewardship. Temporal concerns were also spiritual, Smith declared. But despite strenuous efforts on the part of Smith and other leaders, the reforms faltered, and the economic blueprint remained a largely unrealized ideal.

These were the circumstances of Joseph Smith and the church when in November 1832 he began keeping his first journal. Covering two momentous years, this fragmentary, personal record provides information about Smith’s relationships and attitudes but only a piecemeal narrative of his activities. Evident here are the themes of insufficient resources and competing priorities that surface repeatedly throughout the journals of this volume. Maintaining and developing both Zion in Jackson County and Kirtland in Ohio—more than eight hundred miles apart—with the limited resources of the infant church and the rudimentary transportation and communication systems of the day imposed enormous logistical challenges. Anchored in revelation,8 both gathering places were indispensable—at least for the present—and yet together they put a nearly unbearable strain on the church.

During the period of this first journal, Smith led the Latter-day Saints toward realization of the promise announced in early 1831 that they would be endowed with divine power in Ohio. For five years, they pursued an “endowment,” an anticipated outpouring of spiritual gifts like the Pentecostal experience of the apostles in the New Testament. Smith repeatedly called elders of the church together for instruction and empowerment to help them with their responsibilities in the ministry, but the fulfillment of the promise was not immediate. Revelations in December 1832 and January 1833 mandated the creation of sacred space, “a house of God” for a “school of the prophets” in which to receive instruction, ordinances, and “edification,” as part of the longed-for endowment.9 A revelation in June 1833 chastised the Saints for not having built such a space and dictated the dimensions of the “house” in Kirtland that came to be known as the House of the Lord, or temple.10 Its construction required a major expenditure of labor and money from a body of the Saints, who at that time numbered only about 150 in Kirtland itself.11

Joseph Smith envisioned temples—buildings dedicated to God—as key religious and educational centers for the Saints. Three weeks after excavation began for the House of the Lord in Kirtland in June 1833,12 he sent a plat for an expanded city of Zion to church leaders in Missouri. It provided for twenty-four temples on three central squares and for lots to accommodate an eventual population of fifteen to twenty thousand.13 He and his presidency mandated the immediate construction of one of these temples in Jackson County.14

The Saints’ ability to sustain two such costly construction projects was never tested. Conflict with non-Mormon neighbors in Jackson County made it impossible to build any temple there. A cultural chasm divided the Mormons, largely northerners and easterners, from other Missourians, largely southerners and westerners. The fissure corresponded to a growing polarization of the United States in terms of sectional politics and identity. The perceived threat of Mormon economic and political dominance in the region, compounded by the insistence of the Saints that their expansive plans were based on contemporary revelation from God, aroused alarm. Local opposition to the Saints’ project of building Zion was inflamed by suspicions that the Mormons would incite rebellion among slaves, ally with Indians, and expand their landholdings and influence by force of arms. Verbal and physical confrontation climaxed with the destruction of the Mormon press at Independence by local vigilantes in July 1833 and the expulsion of the Mormons from the county that November. Most Mormons regrouped north of the Missouri River in Clay County and neighboring counties, awaiting assistance to return to their homes.

“Redeeming Zion” replaced building the temple in Zion as an urgent priority for Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints. This meant restoring the Saints to their Jackson County property and swelling their numbers with fellow believers from Kirtland and elsewhere to continue the project of preparing for Christ’s second coming. A February 1834 revelation called for the Saints to gather an expeditionary force to escort the exiles back to Jackson County.15 Expecting that Missouri governor Daniel Dunklin would assist by activating state militia, Smith and an “army” of slightly more than two hundred men marched about eight hundred miles to Clay County in spring 1834 but retreated after state support failed to materialize. Before Smith returned to Ohio, a revelation deferred the Mormons’ return to Jackson County until after the House of the Lord in Kirtland could be completed and the Saints empowered.16

In the ten months that elapsed between the end of Joseph Smith’s first journal in 1834 and the start of the second in 1835, the church sought through outreach—proselytizing, fund raising, and attracting additional settlers to both Ohio and Missouri—to achieve their prophet’s goals of completing the temple in Kirtland and building a larger population base in areas near Jackson County from which to return to reestablish Zion. To support these efforts and the administration of congregations outside the main gathering places, Smith directed expansion of the church’s leadership. At the initial church organization in 1830, the only ecclesiastical officers were Joseph Smith as “first elder” and Oliver Cowdery as “second elder.” Within about five years, church leadership included a presidency for Kirtland and the church as a whole, another presidency for Missouri, a patriarch, bishops, high councils, and “quorums” of additional priesthood officers. A Quorum of the Twelve and several members of a Quorum of the Seventy were appointed in February 1835, chosen primarily from the ranks of veterans of the expedition to Missouri. This newly constructed hierarchy administered both local and general jurisdictions, and a lay priesthood that included most adult males and some older youth shared responsibility for the success of the church’s activities.

Though self-taught and having little formal education, Joseph Smith cared about learning and promoted education in the Mormon community. In Kirtland’s School of the Prophets and its 1835–1836 successor, the Elders School, Smith spearheaded instruction and study in theology, English grammar, and other fields to better qualify himself and the elders of the church for conducting God’s work and especially for proselytizing worldwide. As construction of the House of the Lord in Kirtland neared completion and members of the lay ministry gathered from Missouri and elsewhere for training and spiritual preparation, Smith added yet another item to an already full agenda: the study of Hebrew by many of the Mormon ministry under the tutelage of a Jewish scholar.

Joseph Smith’s second journal, covering more than six consecutive months from fall 1835 to spring 1836, records the multitude of activities and concerns that filled his days as he prepared his people for a hoped-for Pentecostal season. With daily entries that Smith apparently dictated to scribes, this journal provides a connected and much fuller narrative than the first. It covers institutional and spiritual developments and provides revealing glimpses of Smith’s relationships with his family.

Joseph Smith carefully laid the groundwork during the winter of 1835–1836 for sacred ordinances and spiritual experiences by focusing on discipline, unity, organization, and individual sanctification. From within this highly structured setting, his second journal describes the rituals and spiritual ecstasy experienced in Kirtland from January through early April 1836, culminating in the long-sought endowment in the House of the Lord. The diary concludes with an account of visions that he and Oliver Cowdery experienced in the temple on 3 April 1836. It tells that Jesus Christ appeared and accepted the temple, and Moses, Elias, and Elijah each conferred “keys” upon Smith and Cowdery in anticipation of the advent of the Millennium.

Smith instructed the now empowered Latter-day Saint ministry to go forth as the Spirit directed them. During the two-year gap that separated Smith’s second journal from his third, they cast their missionary net widely, establishing the church in the British Isles in 1837. The Saints had initially anticipated an imminent return to Jackson County, perhaps backed by a more impressive Mormon military force than before. Instead, now they sought converts and marshaled resources to help purchase new Missouri land for Mormon settlement.

By summer 1836, the continued influx of Saints into Clay County, Missouri, led the other local residents to insist that the Mormons move elsewhere. Since neither Jackson nor Clay county could serve as their gathering place, the Mormons looked to sparsely settled land to the northeast, where, at the close of 1836, the Missouri legislature created Caldwell County for Mormon settlement. Meanwhile, the Saints continued to build homes and enterprises in Kirtland, where the Mormon population swelled to about two thousand by 1838, eclipsing the local non-Mormon population of about twelve hundred.17

Despite continued gathering, growth, and doctrinal development, all was not well. Informed by an Old Testament model of prophetic leaders who exercised a broad scope of leadership powers, Joseph Smith moved increasingly in the direction of theocracy. Some members of the church felt a growing tension between the inspired direction of their prophet and the American value of individual freedom. Vexing to many was Smith’s regulation of political and economic matters, especially as economic challenges mounted. Rebellion erupted when a Kirtland banking venture promoted by Smith failed just prior to the nationwide panic of 1837. Mormon enterprises succumbed and the Latter-day Saints struggled as depression engulfed America. Some of Smith’s closest associates joined the ranks of the disillusioned, even attempting to depose him as church leader. He rallied support and won votes of confidence from Mormon congregations in both Ohio and Missouri, but dissidents continued their efforts to undermine his leadership. From outside the church, Grandison Newell, a non-Mormon businessman in the Kirtland area, instigated numerous lawsuits against Smith, crippling him financially and constraining his freedom of movement.18

As conflict in Kirtland mounted and arrangements for Mormon settlement in Caldwell County, Missouri, were completed, Smith gave renewed emphasis to the imperative to gather to Zion. By late 1837, apostle Brigham Young, fearing for his life, left for Missouri, and Smith himself was planning to move. Facing both threats of physical violence and renewed legal harassment, on 12 January 1838 Joseph Smith and the presidency received a revelation to leave Kirtland as soon as possible for Missouri.19 Faithful Latter-day Saints were to follow. Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and their families fled to the new Mormon center at Far West in Caldwell County. Other Kirtland Saints immigrated to Missouri throughout the spring, summer, and autumn.

Soon after his arrival in Far West, Smith began a third journal. Incorporating key minutes and correspondence, this first Missouri journal, spanning March to September 1838, documents his reassertion of authority both in Kirtland before his departure and in Missouri, where he set about reestablishing a church headquarters. In a form of documentary history, Smith’s clerk copied into this record a series of letters, revelations, and other documents before settling into more traditional journal entries. Operating in crisis mode in early 1838 prior to Smith’s arrival in Far West but under his direction, the Latter-day Saints in Caldwell County had already begun to counter the influence of leading dissidents there by removing the Missouri presidency from office and excommunicating two of its members. Upon his arrival in March 1838, Smith ratified these actions and moved against the remaining dissident leaders. David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and other prominent Missouri Saints were excommunicated in Smith’s presence that spring. Though Smith had been slow to act against dissenters in Ohio in 1837, now he and his supporters acted decisively to right the ship. In June, Sidney Rigdon publicly denounced excommunicants who still sought to undermine Smith’s leadership, and several fled the county in response to threats of physical harm.

As the Mormon population continued to grow, with converts arriving from as far away as Canada, the Latter-day Saints expanded their settlements and moved to establish more. Their hopes for a new Zion, however, were short lived. They came up against the widespread determination of many Missourians to confine the Mormons within a small, remote county of their own. The growth of Mormon settlements in neighboring Daviess and Carroll counties especially aroused ire. An August 1838 skirmish between Mormons and Missourians at the Daviess County voting polls triggered a chain of incendiary rumors and responses. Joseph Smith led a large body of armed men across county lines to seek assurances that local Mormons could enjoy their civil rights in peace. For the moment, numbers were now in their favor. Missourians from Jackson and Clay counties had been able to compel the Latter-day Saints to leave their counties where the Saints were a small minority, but the sparsely settled inhabitants of Daviess County could not expel the rapidly immigrating Saints without help from other counties. Vigilantes from Daviess County used the Caldwell County Latter-day Saints’ incursion into Daviess as the pretext for soliciting aid from other counties to drive the Mormons out. Legal proceedings against Smith and intervention by state militia to forestall violent confrontation averted a showdown only temporarily.

As the conflict in Missouri escalated, another scribe began Joseph Smith’s fourth journal, for September and October 1838. The first week of this set of skeletal notes overlaps the final week of the third journal. The third journal probably ended because Smith or his scribe left Far West to aid endangered Saints in Daviess County. Confining itself to terse reporting of Smith’s whereabouts in a five-week period, the fourth journal ends 6 October, just before Smith helped evacuate the Mormon village of De Witt, Carroll County, which was under siege by an overwhelming vigilante force, including many who were among those recently dispersed from Daviess County.20 No journal was kept during the Mormons’ chaotic final weeks in Missouri.

The De Witt debacle demonstrated the futility of Mormon appeals for aid from Missouri governor Lilburn W. Boggs and emboldened a wide-ranging coalition of anti-Mormon volunteers, who regrouped in Daviess County. After two generals in the Missouri militia advised the Latter-day Saints to fight their own battles because the generals’ troops could not be relied upon for protection,21 the Saints started an aggressive counteroffensive. In a preemptive strike, they first drove most of those who did not share their faith out of Daviess County. Immediately south of Caldwell County, a company of Mormon militia defeated and dispersed a unit of Ray County militia that had previously taken Mormon prisoners. Rumors spread quickly that the Mormons had annihilated the entire company. In the midst of this external conflict, two leading apostles denounced Smith, charging him with ruthless aggression to fulfill ambitions for power.22 The perceived threat of more-widespread Latter-day Saint aggression enraged opponents and alarmed the governor. Vigilantes from Daviess, Livingston, and other nearby counties massacred Mormon villagers in eastern Caldwell County, and Boggs ordered an overwhelming contingent of state militia to restore peace by subduing the perceived insurgency. If necessary, read the governor’s order, the Mormons were to be “exterminated or driven from the state.”23 In early November 1838, Missouri’s “Mormon War” concluded with the surrender of Far West, the arrest and imprisonment of Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders, and the beginning of forced exile of all practicing Mormons from the state.

While thousands of Latter-day Saints trudged eastward through bitter cold toward Missouri’s boundary at the Mississippi River across from Quincy, Illinois, Smith agonized over the lessons to be learned from the Saints’ crushing defeats in Missouri and over the future of their movement. Why had God allowed such an outcome?24 The practice of gathering together in their own religiously based communities had repeatedly proven hazardous; leaders among the Mormons who had left Missouri questioned whether it should be continued.25

Joseph Smith emerged from more than five months in Missouri jails with a tenacious sense of purpose as he rejoined his refugee people in Quincy. He soon established a new gathering place, his last. Smith’s 1839 journal, the last in this volume, opens with Smith’s escape from Missouri in April 1839. Through 15 October of that year, it reports his activities during the founding of the Mormon community at Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois, on a bend on the Mississippi River some fifty miles north of Quincy. Brief entries, mostly from the perspective of the scribe, outline Smith’s activities and travels, occasionally conveying the gist of a sermon. Scarcely had the Latter-day Saints begun to regroup in and near their new headquarters before malaria sickened many. Smith extended aid to the suffering and, in a bold move for a difficult time, dispatched some of his most loyal and capable leaders, the Quorum of the Twelve, to the British Isles to find new converts. The gathering was resuming in earnest.