Back Previous chapter Table of Contents Table of Contents Next chapter Next chapter

THE PANIC OF 1837

Zion had not been forgotten. The Saints fully expected soon by some means or other to return to their lands in Missouri. A new phrase crept into the conversation and writings of the Saints, "The redemption of Zion." We still hear it with an enlarged significance. But could our fathers see the land they loved and longed for, "the goodly land" for which they yearned, thronged with the Latter Day Saints today, they would think that the "redemption of Zion" for which they prayed had come about, and feel that they had not sacrificed and sorrowed and died in vain.

Occasionally a family or two, in spite of adverse conditions "started for Missouri the place designated for Zion, or the Saints' gathering place." One such incident as recorded in Joseph Smith's journal says:

They came to bid us farewell. The brethren came in to pray with them, and Brother David Whitmer acted as spokesman. He prayed in the Spirit, and a glorious time succeeded his prayer, joy filled our hearts, and we blessed them and bade them Godspeed and promised them a safe journey, and took them by the hand and bade them farewell for a season. May God grant them long life and good days.1

The next day

The High Council met . . . to take into consideration the redemption of Zion. And it was the voice of the Spirit of the Lord that we petition the Governor; that is, those who have been driven out should petition to be set back on their own lands next spring, and that we go next season to live or die on our own lands which we have purchased in Jackson County, Missouri. We truly had a good time, and covenanted to struggle for this thing until death shall dissolve the union; and if one falls, that the remainder be not discouraged, but pursue this object until it is accomplished, which may God grant unto us in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Also, this day drew up a subscription for enrolling the names of those who are willing to go up to Missouri next spring and settle; and I ask God in the name of Jesus, that we may obtain eight hundred or one thousand emigrants.2

But an unforeseen calamity awaited them, and not them alone but all their countrymen:

We were much grieved [says Heber C. Kimball] on our arrival in Kirtland to see the spirit of speculation that was prevailing in the church. Trade and traffic seemed to engross the time and attention of the Saints. When we left Kirtland (but a short time before), a city lot was worth about $150; but on our return, to our astonishment, the same lot was said to be worth $500 to $1,000, according to location; and some men, who, when I left, could hardly get food to eat, I found on my return to be men of supposed great wealth; in fact, everything in the place seemed to be moving in great prosperity and all seemed determined to become rich.3

About this time it was planned to organize a banking society among the Saints. Joseph Smith thought, as he later implied, that "an institution of the kind, established upon just and righteous principles" would be a "blessing not only to the church but the whole nation," and many another of the leading men of the church took stock and prominent part in organizing the affair. While it was not a church institution, so many of the prominent church officials were involved that it was naturally associated in the minds of the people with the "new sect" as it was then called. It was on the 2d of November, 1836, that the brethren "drew up certain articles of agreement, preparatory to the organization of a banking institution." Oliver Cowdery was sent to Philadelphia to procure plates for printing the notes and Orson Hyde to Columbus to apply for an act of incorporation. Oliver secured the plates at "great expense, but Orson Hyde was disappointed. "The legislature raised some frivolous excuse on which they refused to grant us those banking privileges they so freely granted to others." It was true. Banks were springing up like mushrooms all over the State and issuing their paper money wholesale.

At a meeting of January 2, 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society was formed as contemplated, not as a bank, but to all intents and purposes doing the business of a bank. They could not afford to have new plates made, so they used the ones that Cowdery had bought in Philadelphia at such "great expense," putting anti before the word "banking," thus, "Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company," thus fulfilling the letter of the law. And they paid their price for this ingenious device for saving money by being accused as long as books will be published of having deliberately invented this misleading name for purposes of deception. A little investigation would have shown that the plates were made and paid for while the members of the company still believed they were to have a banking charter. There was no reason why they should contemplate refusal. No one else was being refused.

For a time the Kirtland Bank paper circulated freely and, according to contemporaneous history, was taken without question by the whole community. But the whole venture was ill-starred from the start. The Nation was upon the verge of one of the greatest of those financial crashes which have characterized its history. Before the summer was over, the prosperity of the country, as Kimball plaintively asserts, was found to be "artificial and imaginary." The Kirtland notes began to be refused and rapidly depreciated in value. One by one almost all banks throughout the country suspended specie payment, and gold and silver rose in value in direct proportion with the depreciation of paper currency, which became practically worthless.

"Yes, I know about that bank..." said I. P. Axtell, Esq., director in the First National Bank of Painesville in 1889 and a member of the Whig convention as early as 1844. "These parties went into the banking business as a great many others in the State of Ohio and other States. They got considerable money out at first, and their enemies began to circulate all manner of stories against them, and as we had a great many banks then that issued what was known as 'wildcat money,' the people began to get alarmed at so many stories, and would take other banks' issue instead of the Kirtland; and so much of it was forced in at once that the bank was not able to take it up. Had the people left these Saints alone there is no reason that I know of why the Kirtland Bank should not have existed to this time, and on as stable a basis as other banks.... Yes, they were as good citizens as those of any society. It was the fanatics in religion that tried to drive those men out. There were a great many conservative men in our country at that time who held these fanatics back, and if it had not been for this they would have gone in and killed them all. But our intelligent and honorable citizens prevented this. . . . I know Mr. Pratt very well. He was a smart and a square man all around. These men were neither knaves nor rogues.4

Said Robert Lucas, Iowa's first Governor and Governor of Ohio in 1836: "I think it due to that people to state that they had for a number of years a community established in Ohio, and that while in that State they were (as far as I ever heard) believed to be an industrious, inoffensive people; and I have no recollection of having ever heard of any of them being charged in that State as violators of the laws."5

By August, 1837, Joseph Smith felt that he was in honor compelled to warn people against the circulation of these notes. In the August number of the Messenger and Advocate, he says under the caption of "Caution to the Brethren and Friends of the Church of Latter Day Saints": "I am disposed to say a word relative to the bills of the 'Kirtland Safety Society Bank.' I hereby warn them to beware of speculators, renegades, and gamblers, who are duping the unwary and unsuspecting by palming upon them those bills which are of no worth here."

But long ere this, the church, in common with the rest of the country, was in the grip of one of the worst depressions ever known. "The panic of 1837" was one of the most disastrous crises the Nation ever experienced. The Kirtland Bank was organized in November, 1836, and by the close of the next month the decline had begun. There was some nervousness at the beginning of the year 1837 among deposit banks. By March of 1837, failures among business houses were a common thing.

The big banks struggled against the current, but on the 9th of May, 1837, $652,000 in specie was withdrawn from vaults of the city banks in New York. And on the evening of the same day it was learned that the principal deposits banks could not sustain themselves, while some local banks had but a few thousand dollars. The next day every bank in New York City suspended specie payment.

This was followed by a general suspension of business all over the country. Few banks survived. A general apathy covered the entire country. At least nine tenths of the factories and manufacturing plants closed down. Gold and silver went into hiding and almost disappeared as a circulating medium. In the largest city of the country, New York City, six thousand masons, carpenters, and other artisans of the building trades were without employment. Men thronged the eating houses, begging a chance to serve as waiters for enough to eat.

Boats and barges and all other shipping lay idle at the docks. One half to two thirds of all clerks and salesmen were out of work. Mothers begged on the street for food for their families, while almshouses and other charitable institutions were running over. Amid such surroundings the bankrupt law was revised and thirty thousand individuals, with aggregate debts of many millions, an average of about $7,000 each, took advantage of it. States abrogated their debts. Even the Federal Government was threatened with bankruptcy.

Not only those interested in the Kirtland Bank, but bankers in general were under the ban. The citizens hated banks, which they blamed for their misfortunes; they hated bankers, and mobs, lynchings, and riots against them became common. While solemn legislative assemblies passed drastic laws against banks in general, the people vented their rage on the bankers themselves. Even the church leaders who had engaged in the Kirtland Banking Association found their lives scarcely safe on the street, so great was the wrath of some of their brethren.

Of Joseph Smith's reputation in Kirtland, E. L. Kelley writes to Joseph III from Painesville, Ohio, on February 19, 1880, after a week of inquiry in the village of Kirtland and vicinity:

So far among the acquaintances of Joseph Smith, Jr., I have failed to find one who will say that he was not a good citizen and an honest man. "Joe Smith," say they, "was an honorable man and a gentleman in every particular, let the histories say what they may."

In regard to the Kirtland period of the church, Samuel Murdoch wrote to the Dubuque (Iowa) Times, April 13, 1893:

Kirtland is situated in the county in which I was raised from youth to manhood, and at the time Joseph Smith and his Mormons settled there I was nearly a man grown, and some of them were my immediate neighbors, with whose children I was often schoolmates, and I often met their prophet, Joseph Smith, although I was not personally acquainted with him . . . . From the time they settled in my county until they left it, I must say that during all that time, I never heard Joseph Smith called a thief, a drunkard, or a vicious man, even by his worst enemies, and my recollection of him to this date is that he was a tall graceful, good-looking man, continually wearing a smile6 upon his face for everyone, and that he was a kind-hearted, generous friend and companion and that it was his winning manners by which he succeeded more than anything else.

It was in the hour of this catastrophe that the mission to England came to divert the minds of the faithful ones from their calamity. Had they not been able to unite in some common purpose, wreckage was almost inevitable.

1 Church History Volume 1, page 586; Millennial Star, Volume 15, pages 342, 343.
2 Ibid., page 586.
3 Life of Heber C. Kimball, page 111.
4 Saints' Herald, Volume 27 page 85. Church History, Volume 2, page 96.
5 Millennial Star, Volume 17, page 151. Church History, Volume 2, page 97.
6 A dispatch from Springfield, Illinois, dated January 4, 1843, and printed in the New York Herald of January 18, contains this description of Joseph Smith: "The prophet is a large, portly, and fine looking man, fix feet without shoes, looks forty or forty-two [he was thirty-seven], and weighs 220 pounds, eyes light blue, approaching to gray, light brown hair, peaked nose, large head. I think a very little self-esteem, but more of the intellectual than the animal--dressed in box coat, black, blue dress coat and pants, black silk velvet vest, white cravat, a large gold ring on the finger next to the little one of his left hand, a black cane, and wears a continual smile on his countenance."

Back Previous chapter Table of Contents Table of Contents Next chapter Next chapter