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ZENAS H. GURLEY AND THE YELLOWSTONE BRANCH
The coming forth of the church in 1830 partook no more of the miraculous than did the combination of the scattered elements that were to form the Reorganization of the church, with Young Joseph at its head. The fact that here and there over the land several men were to receive almost exactly the same instruction, at the same time, and be guided together to form the organization we all love was quite as wonderful as the beginnings of the angel message in New York in 1830.
Zenas H. Gurley, another of the good men so strangely moved upon was one in the quorum of seventies in the church in Joseph's time. He was born in Bridgewater, New York, May 29, 1801. In a letter written to Young Joseph, near his sixty-ninth birthday, he thus described the circumstances that surrounded his infancy:
"Sixty-nine years ago the 29th of May last, a little squalling boy made his appearance in Bridgewater, Oneida County, New York. As his father had died five months previously, the friends thought it right that the father's name should be transferred to the son, so they called him Zenas; and as the law had kindly relieved the mother of nearly all her furniture, a hollow log was provided for a cradle in which this Zenas was carefully rocked through infancy, thus preparing him for the hollow world in which he has been rocked most of the time since."1 For a second name the child received the maiden name of his mother, that of Hovey.
As he grew older, he adopted the trade of a tanner and currier, but being always of a studious turn of mind, he made the best of his advantages and soon adopted the profession of a schoolteacher. He also became a member of the Methodist Church, considering that more adapted to his ideas than the Presbyterian faith, in which he had been born and reared. Gurley secured a school to teach near Leeds, Ontario, and there he met and married Miss Margaret Hickey. Here were born to the couple six children, the two oldest dying in infancy. He relates that one night in returning home in a skiff (for he lived beside a lake), the boat was nearly upset in a tempest. In his extremity he called out, "Save, Lord, or I perish!" and he saw the flash of a light and heard a voice say, "Your life is spared for this time, that you may warn sinners to repentance." Believing this to be a call to service, he continued his zeal in the Methodist Church, in which he was now a local minister. At one time in vision he thought he heard John the Baptist preach, and so much did the dream impress itself upon his mind that Gurley did not forget the peculiar construction John the Baptist placed upon certain passages of Scripture.
Some time later he was called upon by friends, who knew his careful study of the Scriptures, to go to hear some "Mormon" missionaries and help "put them down." Nothing loath to be an instrument in the hands of God in so good a work, Gurley went to hear James Blakeslee preach. Again, as in his dream, he listened to the voice of John the Baptist, and heard the speaker place the same, as it had seemed to him, peculiar construction upon the Scriptures. That was evidence enough. He was baptized on April 1, 1838, and soon after loading their household goods and little family of four children into a wagon, they made the long trip overland to Missouri, arriving just in time to join the exodus to Illinois.
They came to Nauvoo almost penniless, and while Margaret Gurley took in washing to support the family, they lived upon corn bread made of corn grated on a hand grater and mixed with water, until Zenas found work as a tanner in the growing city. He had been ordained an elder in June by James Blakeslee, and at Far West had been chosen a seventy. He now felt he should go to preach the gospel, but he had no money with which to proceed to the work he felt he was called upon to do. In this dilemma he and is wife thought of their cow. It was their only cow, bought with their joint earnings, and had been a great source of comfort and help. Nearly every family in Nauvoo possessed themselves early of the luxury of a cow, and one English immigrant says ", It is a delight to see the cows coming into the city at night in droves of hundreds, each one with a small bell at its neck, tinkling as they go along." It had been a great day for the little ones in the Gurley home when their cow joined the herd and they had milk to drink with their corn bread!
But it was a day of sacrifice, and if the father must go on a mission, the cow must be sold to get the necessary funds to take care of the family in his absence and outfit him for his journey. Gurley took his way that day (winter of 1840), on foot of course, with his heart a little heavy, as he thought towards evening of the sacrifice his little ones had made. He found shelter for the night with a Mr. Cline (probably William Cline). Almost the first question asked was in regard to provision made for his family, and when Zenas Gurley told what had been done, Mr. Cline immediately sent the Gurleys another cow.
He went on to the village of La Harpe, where a joint revival was in progress, held by the Episcopal Wesleyan and the Protestant Methodist groups in that village, but they got no converts. Gurley arrived in time to attend the last meeting and gave out an appointment. To his own surprise, curiosity drew a large crowd, and after four or five sermons, he sent for Elder Jehiel Savage (who had baptized Margaret Gurley). He was preaching some twenty miles south of La Harpe, but he came to the place, joined his efforts with those of Gurley, and by spring they had baptized some sixty members, including young Alfred Moffet,2 whom Gurley baptized in April, 1840. At the General Conference of the church in 1841, held at Nauvoo, Illinois, he was appointed one of eight men (John Murdock, Lyman Wight, William Smith, H. W. Miller, Amasa Lyman, Leonard Soby, Jehiel Savage, and Z. H. Gurley) to travel and collect means for the building of the temple.
Then came the trouble of 1844, and being faithful and unsuspecting, Gurley planned as a matter of course to accompany the westward exodus. The loss of his fine team prevented, and having been forced by the mob to leave all his earthly possessions, he took refuge in Jo Daviess County, Illinois, where he made his home until 1849, when he moved to near Burlington, Wisconsin, having in the meantime become dissatisfied with the claims of Brigham Young, and still later adopting those of James J. Strang.
For perhaps a year he threw himself with old-time enthusiasm into the movement sponsored by Strang, who was a man of winning personality and much native ability. November 6, 1849, found him preaching in the mission where he himself had first heard the gospel, at Gananoque, Landsdown, Pittsburgh, and other points in Canada, evidently spending the winter there. By the middle of March, 1850, be was "assisting Brother Silsby in organizing the brethren and getting them ready for Beaver"3 at Saint Lawrence, New York, but returned to Voree sometime during the spring and summer and attended conference there June 1 and 2. From there Gurley was sent on a mission to the Indians in the northern part of Wisconsin. On his way, he was solicited to go about fifteen miles south of Yellowstone, Wisconsin, and having preached for several weeks in that vicinity, someone told him of a man he knew who had formerly been a friend of his in the old church. In the latter part of the year, he stopped there to rest, and about the second day of his visit, he was asked to preach the funeral sermon of a little child of David and Anna Wildermuth, the first sermon preached in that vicinity by a Latter Day Saint. Mr. and Mrs. Wildermuth were so pleased with his address that they begged him to remain in the neighborhood and hold meetings. He consented, preaching from house to house about the neighborhood. After hearing a few sermons, David and Anna Wildermuth and two of their sons, E. C. and Eli M., and two old ladies gave their names for baptism. They were accordingly baptized in Yellowstone4 Creek and became the nucleus of a large and prosperous branch in that place.
From this time [says Gurley himself], the way seemed to open before me. Calls for preaching came in from various places, which I gladly responded to as far as it was in my power, and with the help of H. P. Brown, who came to my assistance some time in the winter following, we succeeded in building up a church of twenty-three or twenty-four, which we called the Yellowstone Branch. A few months afterward I moved my family into this section [this branch was situated about ten miles east of Mineral Point, Wisconsin, in the western part of the State] and continued my labors with the church, teaching them the principles of the gospel as revealed from heaven to us through Joseph the Seer.
During this time several strange things came to my knowledge that fully satisfied me that unless good and evil, bitter and sweet, could proceed from the same fountain, neither J. J. Strang, B. Young, William Smith, nor any that had claimed to be prophets, since Joseph's death, were the servants of God.5
About this time the newly baptized members at Yellowstone heard that J. J. Strang was preaching polygamy. Naturally they were horrified, and not wishing to have their neighbors think they were connected with an institution of the kind, they immediately drew up a statement and had it published in the Mineral Point Tribune and a local paper in Galena. Zenas H. Gurley was absent
from home at the time preaching, but the people were so anxious to shake off the hateful implication of what they heard that they felt they could not wait until his return. This document as given in substance by Eli M. Wildermuth was about as follows:
To Whom It May Concern: This is to certify that we, the undersigned, who are members of the Yellowstone Branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, do hereby protest against the practice of polygamy and other abominations that are practiced by James J. Strang and his followers; and withdraw our fellowship from them and from all so-called pretenders to the successorship or presidency of the church, among whom are the said James J. Strang, Brigham Young, William B. Smith, Colin Brewster, Alpheus Cutler, Lyman Wight, and others, and hold ourselves aloof from them and do not wish to be held responsible for any of their evil teachings or practices.
This document was signed by David Wildermuth and family, H. H. Deam, David Newkirk, Reuben W. Newkirk, and others. This was in 1851.
When Elder Gurley returned and found what had been done he asked David Wildermuth: "What are you going to do next?"
David Wildermuth replied, "I do not know. I believe the first principles of the gospel, which you have taught, and which we have obeyed are true, but I positively will not accept polygamy and other doctrines that are taught and practiced by Strang and others."6
This was the sentiment of all the signers of the protest and others associated with them. Almost as he asked the question, "What shall we do?" the answer came to Elder Gurley, and he said:
Let us take the advice of the Apostle James, as recorded in James 1:5, "If any lack wisdom, let him ask of God," etc. So it was agreed that each member of the branch should ask for wisdom about what to do next.
[Gurley himself tells feelingly of the dilemma that now faced him.] The inquiry arose in my mind, "What shall we do? Here are a few honest Saints who have obeyed the gospel, and are looking to me for instruction. What can I say? What can I teach them?" Thus I meditated for months. God, and God only, knows what the anguish of my mind was. I resolved that I would preach the word, and thank God, preaching brought me out right.
It was after preaching one Sunday evening, in the fall of 1851, while sitting in my chair at Brother Wildermuth's house, my mind was drawn to Isaiah 2:2,3. At that moment the great work of the last days, as it was spoken of by the prophet in that chapter, seemed to pass before me in all its majesty and glory. It appeared that I could see all nations in motion, coming to the mountain of the Lord's house in the top of the mountains. At this time Strang's Beaver Island operation appeared before me. It looked mean and contemptible beyond description. A voice--the Spirit of God--the Holy Ghost--then said to me, "Can this [alluding to Strang's work] ever effect this great work?" I answered, "No, Lord." I felt ashamed to think that I had ever thought so. The voice then said, "Rise up, cast off all that claim to be prophets and go forth and preach the gospel and say that God will raise up a prophet to complete his work." I said, "Yea, Lord."
As I left the house, my mind was dwelling upon what had just transpired. Although the Spirit had told me that God would raise up a prophet to complete his work, it did not enter my mind at that time that I would realize the work in its present form. My whole desires were that those dear souls around me might enjoy the gifts and blessings of the gospel as the Saints did in Joseph's time, and be saved from those meshes of iniquity which thousands had run into. A few weeks afterward, while reading a paragraph in the B. of C. which says, "If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light," the Spirit said unto me, "Rise up, cast off all that claim to be prophets, and go forth and preach the gospel, and say that God will raise up a prophet to complete his work." I answered, "I will do it, God being my helper." From that time I began to look about in earnest for a starting point. I examined the book carefully and saw at once that the teachings of the day were contrary to the law and resolved that although I had but one talent, in the name of Israel's God, I would go forward and leave the result with him.
At this time I was laboring with Brother Reuben Newkirk, a young and worthy brother [Reuben Newkirk was twenty-nine years of age] I explained my visions to him, and he endorsed them at once. The Spirit of God was with us, and day after day was spent in holding council about the matter, until one day (being at work together in a lone place) we joined hands, and in a most solemn manner entered into a covenant, calling God to witness that we would from that hour renounce all that claimed to be prophets and take the Bible, Book of Mormon, Book of Covenants, and the Holy Spirit for our guide. This was a new era in my existence. In Joseph's time I had stood with thousands of the servants of God and counted it an honor to call them brethren, but alas, how changed the scene! One, only one remained of my associates that I could call brother. At times how dark, how dark was the future! ...
Could I at that time have been permitted to realize what I have enjoyed with you and other dear Saints within a few weeks past, how gladly would I have stemmed the torrent and said with the apostle, "I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord." Well, thank God, he who commenced this work will carry it forward, and I rejoice. My past experience strengthens me for the future. Then we were alone; our brethren around us, having been taught that Strang was Joseph's successor, could only look upon us as apostates when they became acquainted with our opposition. We seemed to be hedged in. Darkness was all around us on every side. Light was only above us. Well, thank God, we proved him to be a present helper. A few days after we had entered into this covenant, while Brother Newkirk was in secret prayer, the Holy Spirit rested upon him. He arose and spoke in tongues, and started homewards, speaking in tongues and praising God. His wife heard him and met him, and shortly after, she received the same gift and blessing. These gifts were the first fruits of the reformation.
About this time Brother David Powell came from Beloit (about fifty miles distant) bringing with him a revelation which had been given to Jason W. Briggs sometime in the previous November, declaring that the Lord would in his own call upon the seed of Joseph Smith to come forth and set in order the quorums; in a word, to fill his father's place. He was commanded to write it and send it to all the churches. There were some ideas in the revelation that I could not receive. I was entirely unacquainted with the order of the priesthood as it really is, nevertheless I knew that God would raise up a prophet, but who he was, or where he would come from, I did not know.
About ten or fifteen days after I had heard of this revelation, ...my boys came running into my room, declaring with great earnestness that their little sister was up to Brother Newkirk's speaking and singing in tongues. For a moment I was overpowered with joy. I exclaimed, "Is it possible that God has remembered my family?" Immediately I went up and when I was within one or two steps of the house I paused. I listened, and oh, the thrill of joy that went through my soul! I knew that it was of God. My child, my dear child, was born of the Holy Spirit. I opened the door and went in. It appeared to me that the entire room was filled with the Holy Spirit. Shortly after, I requested them all to join with me in asking the Lord to tell us who the successor of Joseph Smith was. I felt anxious to know, that I might bear a faithful testimony. We spent a few moments in prayer, when the Holy Spirit declared, "The successor of Joseph Smith is Joseph Smith, the son of Joseph Smith, the prophet. It is his right by lineage, saith the Lord your God."
It is proper here to state that the main body of the church lived from four to eight miles from us, and having learned that we had left Strang, they regarded us as apostates. However, it was not long after the gifts were manifested, and when they came to know that these blessings were indeed with us, they admitted that they were of God, and gradually, one after another, united with us, until the whole church was made to know the truth of our position and rejoice with unspeakable joy. Although the church had been organized more than a year and was striving to live right before God, yet no visible gifts had been manifested among us.
It was now necessary that we should change our organization and position in regard to the Presidency of the Priesthood. The branch had been organized under Strang. The Lord had taught us that this was wrong, consequently we appointed a day for the purpose of acknowledging the legal heir. The day arrived, and it will be long remembered by many that were present. While we were singing the opening hymn, the Holy Spirit was sensibly felt. Several sang in tongues. A halo of glory seemed to be spread over the congregation, and when we bowed before Almighty God in solemn prayer, all felt and all knew that what we were about to do was approbated of God. After singing, I stated to the church what was the object of our meeting, and I requested all who wished to renounce J. J. Strang as prophet, seer, and revelator to the church, and acknowledge the seed of Joseph Smith in his stead to come forth in the own due time of the Lord, to manifest it by raising up. In a moment the entire congregation, stood up, and one simultaneous shout of joy and praise went up to God for our deliverance. Nearly all the congregation were under the influence of the Spirit of prophecy, and many important truths relating to the triumphant accomplishment of this great work was then declared.7
After this meeting Elder Gurley wrote Jason W. Briggs, simply:
"We have received evidence of your revelation."
1 Saints' Herald, Volume 17, pages 406, 407.
2 Father of Mary Moffet, wife of O. B. Thomas, the mother of James A. Thomas. Mrs. Lydia Wight, and Olive Thomas Mortimore, who have contributed to the work of the Reorganized Church at various times.
3 Gospel Herald, Volume 5, page 22.
4 Church History, Volume 3, page 745.
5 Saints' Herald, Volume 1, page 19.
6 Church History, Volume 3, pages 745, 746.
7 True Latter Day Saints' Herald, Volume 1, pages 19-22; Church History, Volume 3, pages 206-209.
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