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THE FIRST GREAT MISSION OF THE CHURCH
Shortly before the September conference, a division appeared for the first time among the members of the church and threatened serious trouble. In a world where men's opinions differ, these things must come soon or late. This controversy, arising over the finding of a stone by Hiram Page, young husband of Catherine Whitmer, through which he, too, was giving "revelations" to guide the church, found the Whitmer family naturally sympathetic, and also Oliver Cowdery. Joseph Smith faced the difficult problem of correcting this error, which, if carried to its ultimate conclusion might wreck the young organization, and at the same time of maintaining at high level the faith and zeal of these loyal friends and brethren who had so stoutly defended him through the trying months just past. Again, the young man sought his altar in the woods, and came before the people with a masterly solution, a new project that dwarfed in significance the threatened division among them. He proposed a missionary trip to the very borders of the civilized world, with its object the conversion of the Indians, or the Lamanites as the church now called them (for they were so known in the Book of Mormon). All differences of opinion were soon dropped in the excitement of preparation for the first great mission of the church that promised hazards enough to test the mettle of the most courageous.
From the time the Puritans landed in New England, the conversion of the Indian had been a project dear to the heart of pious New Englanders, and to those who had accepted the Book of Mormon that ambition now shone with new luster. For they were going to offer to the Indian, the book of books, the record of his forefathers. Those chosen for this work were Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and Ziba Peterson. The call came in October, and before the month passed they were on their way. Pratt's young wife, Thankful, was to spend the winter with the Whitmers, where there seemed to be always room for one more. The other young men were unmarried. They left Fayette on foot and made their way to Buffalo. The autumn weather was beautiful, and they were used to much walking. Many travelers went on foot in those days. Near the town of Buffalo they had their first experience in meeting the "Lamanites," the Catteraugas tribe near Buffalo. They stayed only part of the day, as they had some difficulty in making themselves understood, but they were treated well and left two copies of the Book of Mormon with those of the tribe who could read English.
Two hundred miles now lay between Pratt and his most longed for objective--to meet and win the orator of the Western Reserve, Sidney Rigdon, to the new faith. Rigdon was known far and near for his eloquence and personal magnetism. He could chain the imagination of the most prosaic listener, and draw him to a cause in a way no other minister Pratt had ever met could do. Thus in his eagerness Rigdon's house was the first one entered in Mentor:
After the usual salutations, [they] presented him with the Book of Mormon stating that it was a revelation from God. This being the first time he had ever heard of or seen the Book of Mormon, he felt very much prejudiced at the assertion, and replied that "he had one Bible, which he believed was a revelation from God, and with which he pretended to have some acquaintance; but with respect to the book they had presented him, he must say that he had considerable doubt." Upon which they expressed a desire to investigate the subject, and argue the matter; but he replied "No, young gentlemen, you must not argue with me on the subject; but I will read your book and see what claim it has upon my faith, and will endeavor to ascertain whether it be a revelation from God or not." After some further conversation on the subject, they expressed a desire to lay the subject before the people, and requested the privilege of preaching in Elder Rigdon's church, to which he readily consented.1
The preaching appointment was published from house to house and "a large and respectable congregation assembled. Oliver Cowdery and Parley P. Pratt severally addressed the meeting. At the conclusion Elder Rigdon arose and stated to the congregation that the information they had that evening received, was of all extraordinary character, and certainly demanded their most serious consideration: and as the apostle advised his brethren 'to prove all things, and hold fast that which is good,' so he would exhort his brethren to do likewise, and give the matter a careful investigation; and not turn against it, without being fully convinced of its being an imposition, lest they should, possibly, resist the truth."2
About two miles from Rigdon's home a group of members of his church, viz., Lyman Wight, Isaac Morley, and Titus Billings, had "all things common,"3 and the missionaries went to present the gospel to them. The community had been started in February of 1830, when Wight moved to Kirtland and into the same house with Isaac Morley. Eight other families later joined them, and Lyman Wight says they lived "in great peace and union" and "began to feel as if the millennium were close at hand."4
Along about the first of November five families in the town of Mayfield, about seven miles up the Chagrin River, concluded to join them. As these families owned good farms and mills there, it was decided to organize a branch of "The Family" as it was called there, instead of moving the five new families to Kirtland. Lyman Wight was appointed to take charge of the new branch and had his goods about loaded when Pratt, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Peterson came along. "I desired they would hold on till I got away, as my business was of vital importance, and I did not wish to be troubled with romances nor idle speculators," said Lyman Wight. "But nothing daunted, they were not to be put off, but were as good-natured as you please. Curiosity got uppermost, and I concluded to stop for a short time."5 And this curiosity changed the course of many lives.
A meeting was held that very afternoon before sundown, for the sun was still an hour high when Lyman Wight left for his new home, a bit provoked because he would not arrive in Mayfield before dark. "But I amused myself by thinking the trouble was over, and that I would not see them again for a long time, supposing they would start the next morning for the western boundary of the State of Missouri; but in this I was very much disappointed."6 For seven weeks the missionaries remained in the vicinity, thronged with visitors, preaching every night in various places. They occasionally visited Rigdon, who was reading and praying over the new book. On November 14, Lyman Wight and his family, Sidney Rigdon, and others were baptized. By the end of their stay those converted to their cause numbered one hundred and twenty-seven souls, so that the church in the West7 had a larger membership than the church in New York State. larger membership than in the State of New York.
But the missionaries felt they could no longer delay their departure as winter was closing in upon them. On the way west a Book of Mormon accidentally left in the home of Simeon Carter some fifty miles west of Kirtland was to do missionary work of its own as the missionaries traveled on, their number augmented by one Doctor Frederick G. Williams, one of the Kirtland converts. Continuing on foot to near Sandusky, they spent a few days with a tribe of Indians, Wyandottes, near that place and were well received. Then they went on to Cincinnati where they spent several days preaching, but with little success. About the 20th of December they took passage by steamboat to St. Louis but arriving at Cairo, Illinois, found the Mississippi River so blocked with ice that the steamboat could not proceed farther. Unwilling to wait until spring, the missionaries walked the two hundred miles between them and East St. Louis. Inclement winter weather had now taken away all the pleasure of walking through the forests. Every ounce of courage and stamina was demanded for the journey ahead. The country was just entering upon the coldest winter in history. No one suggested turning back or waiting until spring.
Christmas came and went unnoticed while the youthful missionaries waited anxiously for a severe storm of snow and rain to abate, but another storm of similar character followed a few days later, until snow lay two and a half feet deep on the prairie. But still the storms were not at an end. On the 5th of January another two feet of snow fell.8 Preaching had helped to pass the tedious days, but all felt that longer delay was useless, so they plunged into the trackless wilds of snow, anxious to proceed on to their destination.
How they ever crossed Missouri that season was perhaps as miraculous as any in the series of unusual and exciting events that had thrilled them thus far in the restoration of the gospel church. But walk they did the entire distance, and arrived safely over snowfields that the bravest settler dared not attempt, although local writers admitted that "many strangers must have attempted such journeys and perished, as proved by the findings of bodies of strangers in many places when the snow went off in the spring."9
Among the weather features of early days, probably none has received more attention than the "deep snow" of the winter of 1830-31. Settlers lost their way in going three miles in the snowstorms of that winter. Following the December storms, the weather was continuously cold, and what little melting occurred was balanced by later snowstorms, so the depth on a level of four feet was maintained practically up until the last of February. Not before the middle of January were some of the settlers able to break roads sufficiently to get away from their homes at all. Fatalities from lack of fuel and food were narrowly averted in places. Wild animals found life difficult. At first, while the snow was soft, wolves were handicapped, and farmers on horseback could run them down. But the tables turned early in January when a driving rain, freezing as it fell, was covered by a few inches of soft snow. Then the wolves were practically lords of the snowcovered creation. Deer, buffalo, and elk could not get through the snow to forage on grass beneath, nor get about to browse on shrubs and twigs of trees, while the snow could now hold up the wolves, and they preyed upon the deer and buffalo, helping the famine to destroy them in large numbers. That winter the elk were exterminated from the plains of Missouri and Illinois, never again to return.10
The American Journal of Science for 1831-1832, later recharted and published in the Smithsonian Institute Journal of Science, says, "The winter months were attended with a degree of cold found only in Arctic regions."
In the memory of the oldest inhabitant of the new country of Missouri, the winters had been uniformly mild and open--grass and pasture fairly abundant until January, then light falls of snow, an occasional storm with zero temperatures that moderated in a few days; thaws to start the pastures and a fairly early spring. Cattle were pastured in the open the greater part of the year, with little or no shelter provided; wheat and corn left standing in the fields to be husked when needed. Now the shocks of grain were under the frozen snow, the limbs of the trees lay on the surface of the ground, making it impossible to drive horses into the woods, where at best their feet broke through the frozen crust with every step. No morning dawned for many days when the thermometer registered less than twelve degrees below zero. This storm visited the whole length of the United States. The icy crust was not quite thick enough to support a man's weight; on top of this was a layer of snow as "light and fine as ashes, and as hard as sand. Then a bright, cold sun shone on the dazzling landscape to threaten the eyesight. To add to these difficulties a strong northwest wind arose, to fill the air with flying snow, so stinging, blinding, and choking that men could not make headway against it."11 Often it was not easy to determine whether new snow was falling or only the old surface snow was being driven before the icy blast. For nine weeks snow covered the ground to the depth of forty-eight inches. Mail was not carried for many weeks at a time. Newspapers suspended publication.
On January 8, 1831, the Missouri Intelligencer of Columbia, although newspapers of the day were usually supremely indifferent to such ordinary affairs as weather reports, stated: "We are informed that the snow in the upper counties of Missouri is fortyone inches deep, and what is more remarkable, the falling was accompanied by frequent and tremendous peals of thunder and vivid blue streaks of lightning. It was an awful scene indeed." January 15, the paper was only a half sheet. The little settlement in the western wilds was cut off from the world by a blanket of snow. "Have no news," the editor said briefly. "Last mail brought only one Washington newspaper, no paper from Jefferson City [thirty miles]. Saint Louis Times reports eight to ten inches of snow in last storm. Here it is not less than twenty inches, and most of it remains, for the weather has been intensely cold." The Edwardsville (Illinois) Advocate for February 28, 1831, says, "We have issued no paper for the last two weeks, owing to excessively cold weather, and our office being too open to resist the rude attacks of the northern blasts." "The few roads were blocked, and no one pretended to go abroad except on horseback."12
Parley P. Pratt leaves the only record of this perilous journey in one paragraph in his journal. He was much more concerned with theology than with physical discomforts. "In the beginning of 1831 we renewed our journey; and, passing through Saint Louis and Saint Charles, we traveled on foot for three hundred miles through vast prairies and through trackless wilds of snow--no beaten road; houses few and far between; and the bleak northwest wind blowing in our faces with a keenness which would almost take the skin off the face. We traveled for whole days, from morning till night, without a house or fire, wading in snow to the knees at every step, and the cold so intense that the snow did not melt on the south side of the houses, even in the midday sun, for nearly six weeks. We carried on our backs our changes of clothing, several books, and corn bread and raw pork. We often ate our frozen bread and pork by the way, when the bread would be so frozen that we could not bite or penetrate any part of it but the outside crust. After much fatigue and some suffering we all arrived in Independence, in the county of Jackson, on the extreme western frontiers of Missouri, and of the United States."13
We know from other accounts that it was all human power could do, perhaps more than human power could do, to ward away during that journey the twin specters of cold and starvation, as they kept their course without a beaten road over a wilderness of snow, the few stake and rider fences, corn shocks, low outbuildings completely buried, and streams only traced by the half buried lines of woods. All familiar features of the landscape were obliterated in a blur of blinding snow .14
One writer asserts that the missionaries upon their arrival from Ohio "sought and found shelter at the home of Colonel Robert Patterson, over toward the state line"15 and remained there several days. Of this we do not know, but two of the missionaries were soon established as tailors in Independence. One of the first patrons of the new tailor shop was a tall young Kentuckian, Alexander W. Doniphan, who rode thirty miles from Lexington in order to have a suit made in the latest eastern style by Peter Whitmer.16 The other missionaries passed over the line, through the Shawnees, and preached for a short time among the Delawares, until forced to leave by the Indian agent, Major Richard W. Cummins.17
The copies of the Book of Mormon had all been sold or given away, and someone was needed to go back to report the success of their mission. A meeting of the five was held in Independence on February 14, and Pratt was selected as the emissary to return to civilization, get more books, and report the mission. The snow had begun to melt, the great rivers were breaking up, but the snow turnpikes that had been made along main-traveled roads remained long after the great body of snow had melted--shining ribbons of white across the green spring prairie."18
After Pratt had gone, the other missionaries continued their efforts. Oliver Cowdery, when he wrote on May 7, 1831, to his brethren in the East, speaks of a missionary trip cast into Lafayette County. He and Ziba Peterson had made this trip, forty miles, and "in the name of Jesus, called upon the people to repent." They found many earnestly "searching for truth," and Oliver "prayed that they might find that precious treasure." Apparently his prayer was answered. Forty-four were baptized in Big Sni Township, Lafayette County, at a point about three miles west of Lexington.
Ziba Peterson married one of these converts, and also among them was a young couple by the name of Francis and Mary Case. These were to follow the fortunes of the church on down through all its joys and sorrows. Mary Case died in the Old Folks Home in Lamoni at a very old age, and saw her children and grandchildren working in the church. Two of her grandsons, Oscar and Hubert Case, became missionaries for the church, and Hubert has probably baptized more people into the faith than any other man. He often heard his grandmother tell of her baptism by Oliver Cowdery. Little did those two, missionaries know, as they took that forty-mile trip into the wilderness, how many would find that "precious treasure" as a result of their efforts.
The Indian mission had not been forgotten, although they had been refused admittance to the Indian country about them. Cowdery had been partaking of the excitement that was then pervading Jackson County, which was to connect the fame of the little village of Independence forever with the great saga of the Santa Fe Trail. "I am informed of another tribe of Lamanites lately," wrote Oliver Cowdery, "who have an abundance of flocks of the best kinds of sheep and cattle, and they manufacture blankets of a superior quality. The tribe is very numerous; they live three hundred miles west of Santa Fe, and are called Navajos."19
One cannot but mark in the early writings of the Latter Day Saints, an unusual tolerance and kindliness, which later persecutions slowly changed into a bitterness that is wholly understandable, if not pardonable. Cowdery, speaking of difficulties that were being met in the East, wrote, "God forbid that I should bring a railing accusation against them, for vengeance belongeth to him who is able to repay; and herein, brethren, we confide."20
Pratt took immediate leave of his fellow missionaries and the friends they had made in Missouri and started on foot to St. Louis, a distance of around three hundred miles, which he made in nine days, then visited with friends near East St. Louis (the same place and with the same friends they found when snowbound just before Christmas). Another week accomplished the trip by steamboat from St. Louis to Cincinnati. It was March, 1831, and the "big snow" had at last melted, leaving as Pratt said "the whole country inundated as it were with mud and water."
He started, in spite of the mud, and walked two hundred and fifty miles towards Kirtland, but as the journey stretched out ahead, he became unaccountably weak and weary. About sundown, some days after he left Cincinnati, he came into the village of Strongville, Ohio. Pratt was so ill, he felt he could go no farther. Kirtland was only forty miles away, so he inquired for Latter Day Saints, and was directed to the Coltrin home. He knocked at the door and asked if they could entertain a stranger who had no money.
Even in pioneer times, when all strangers were made welcome, "Brother" Coltrin's slight hesitation might have been excusable, for there stood "a weary, weather-beaten traveler; soiled with the toil of a long journey; besmeared with mud, eyes inflamed with pain, long beard, and a visage lengthened by 'sickness and extreme fatigue.' "And Mrs. Coltrin had "ladies in to tea!" Our church history records only this one mention of Sister Coltrin, but what a gracious lady she must have been. "She received me with a smile of welcome, and immediately insisted upon my sitting down to tea with them," Pratt says.
Although he felt deathly sick, Pratt summoned every force to be agreeable. "You look so weary, stranger," Mrs. Coltrin said, as after making himself as presentable as possible he took his place at the table, "you must have traveled a long distance?" When he told them where he was from, all was animation immediately.
"Did you hear anything of the four great prophets out that way? . . . four men, four strange men, who came through this country, and preached, and baptized hundreds of people; and, after ordaining elders and organizing churches, they continued on westward, as we suppose, to the frontiers on a mission to the Indians; and we have never heard from them since."
Someone else hastened to add to the description: "They were dressed plainly and comely, very neat in their persons, and each one wore a hat of a drab color, low round crown and broad brim; after the manner of the Shakers, so it is said, for we had not the privilege of seeing them."
"They had neither purse nor script for their journey, neither shoes, nor two coats apiece," added a third.
Pratt admitted he had seen them.
"Will they return soon? Oh, who would not give the world to see them!"
Pratt laughed. "My name is Parley P. Pratt, one of the four men you have described, but not much of a prophet, and as to a sight of me in my present plight, I think it would not be worth half a world."
Pratt had fallen among brethren, which was well, for on the following morning, he could not lift his head from the pillow. He had the measles, but the long exposure in rain and mud had so aggravated what might be a very simple disease, that he almost died. But he was "watched over night and day, and had all the care that a man could have in his father's house." As soon as he had recovered sufficiently, he was provided with a horse to finish the trip to Kirtland.21
He found the church in Ohio had increased to "more than a thousand members, and those in New York, to several hundred."22 He also heard from his wife in New York, whom he had not seen for six months, with the "news that the whole church in the State of New York, including herself (for she had joined the church during my absence) was about to remove to Ohio in the opening spring."23 He concluded to go no farther eastward, but await their arrival.
His young brother, Orson, whom he had baptized shortly after he himself had been baptized and ordained, had also become a missionary. The boy was but nineteen when he was baptized on his birthday. Less than a year had passed, and Orson had walked from New York to Ohio, preaching and baptizing by the way. Lyman Wight, who had been ordained before the missionaries left Kirtland on November 20, 1830, had traveled six hundred miles in Ohio and Pennsylvania and baptized three hundred and ninety-three persons (by June 14, 1831).
He learned that Simeon Carter from near Amherst, in whose home he had accidently left a Book of Mormon, had read it, believed, and made the trip of fifty miles to Kirtland for baptism, confirmation, and ordination; that he had then returned to his home and was preaching and baptizing.
But perhaps the most outstanding change was the call of Edward Partridge to be Bishop, and to look after the financial concerns of the church which had occurred very shortly before he left Missouri to come east (February 4, 1831). Edward Partridge had become interested in the work while the missionaries were in Kirtland, but being of a conservative turn of mind, he, in company with Sidney Rigdon, had made a trip to New York to see for himself. They had found Joseph Smith at Fayette, and Partridge had become convinced of the truth of the message and was baptized by Joseph in the Seneca River, December 11, 1830. In the revelation which called him to great responsibility in the church he was likened to "Nathanael of old in whom there is no guile."24
Partridge was born in Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, on the 27th of March, 1793. He was a hatter by trade, living, when the gospel found him, in Painesville, Ohio. He had not united with any church in his younger days, being unable to reconcile the popular preaching of the wrath of God with his own ideas of the mercy and kindness of a Supreme Being. Eventually he became a restorationalist, as the belief in a universal restoration of the wicked to divine grace was much in accord with his tolerant and forgiving disposition.
Rigdon and Partridge brought to the church a ripened experience that was much needed in the new organization at the time. Both were thirty-seven years of age, scarcely six months between their dates of birth, and both were rich in the knowledge of humanity, Partridge as a business man, Rigdon as a minister of no ordinary ability.
1 Times and Seasons, Volume 4, page 289.
2 Times and Seasons, Volume 4, pages 289, 290.
3 Lyman Wight's Journal as quoted in Church History, Volume 1, page 153.
6 Lyman Wight's Journal as quoted in Church History, Volume 1, page 153. 7 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, page 50.
8 The Winter of the Deep Snow, by Eleanor Atkinson, Illinois State Historical Society Proceedings, 1909, page 47, seq.
9 Record and Historical Review of Peoria, by Drown.
10 "The Climate of Illinois--Its Permanence," by M. L. Fuller, forecaster of the weather bureau at Peoria, writing in Illinois State Historical Society Proceedings for 1912.
11 Winter of the Deep Snow, by Eleanor Atkinson.
12 History of Clay and Platte County, Missouri, page 122.
13 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, pages 54, 55.
14 Ida M. Tarbell in her Life of Abraham Lincoln states that old settlers for many years dated events by the "Winter of the Big Snow." Hay and Nicolet in their history of Lincoln give two pages to the description of the great snow of this winter.
15 William W. Harris in Kansas City Star for Sunday, March 19, 1933.
16 Interview with Doniphan published by Kansas City Journal in 1881--Church History, Volume 4, page 360.
17 William W. Harris in Kansas City Star for Sunday, March 19, 1933.
18 Winter of the Deep Snow, by Eleanor Atkinson.
19 Letter of Oliver Cowdery written May 7, 1831, from Kaw Township, Missouri, as published in Times and Seaons, Volume 5, pages 432, 433.
20 Letter of Oliver Cowdery, Times and Seasons, Volume 5, pages 432, 433.
21 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, pages 61-64.
22 Ibid., page 64.
24 Doctrine and Covenants 41: 3.
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