1. Joseph Smith Zion’s Camp

On May 5, 1834, the prophet Joseph Smith led 85 men out of Kirtland, Ohio, towards Missouri. Their purpose was to help the 1,200 Saints in Missouri whose land, homes, and possessions had been taken from them by mobs. A revelation had been given to Joseph Smith on December 16, 1833, about Zion’s Camp. The Lord said to summon “all the strength of mine house, which are my warriors, my young men, and they that are of middle age also among my servants, who are the strength of mine house…[to go] straightway unto the land of my vineyard; for it is mine.”1 On February 24, 1834, another revelation was given concerning Zion’s Camp in which the Lord told Joseph Smith that a minimum of 100 men should make up the group. In this revelation the Lord also appointed Joseph Smith to be the leader of Zion’s Camp. The idea of leading a military group was overwhelming to Joseph Smith. He was not a military leader, and the group would have to be organized well enough to travel more than 900 miles over four states on roads that were rough or barely recognizable.

joseph smith mormonAs the group marched, recruits joined them. When the last group of recruits arrived there were a little over 200 men, 12 women, and 9 children. The oldest volunteer was Samuel Baker who was 79, and the youngest was George A. Smith, Joseph Smith’s cousin; he was only 16.

The men of Zion’s Camp walked the 900-mile one-way trip. They usually walked between 20 and 40 miles per day. Brigham Young, who went on the trek said, “it was seldom that I ever laid down to rest before eleven or twelve o’clock at night, and we always rose very early in the morning [usually around 3 or 4 in the morning].” Even though Joseph was the leader of the group and revered as the Prophet, he did not receive special treatment. He too, walked most of the trip. George A. Smith recorded, “the Prophet Joseph took a full share of the fatigues of the entire journey…he walked most of the time and had a full proportion of blistered, bloody, and sore feet.”2 The group always camped on Sundays, held Church meetings, and partook of the sacrament, so that they could obey the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. Group prayers were held each day, morning and evening. Those on the march were able to hear about Joseph’s visions and experiences from the Prophet first-hand, and were also present when Joseph received the revelation now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants section 105.

While on the march, Joseph Smith thought often of his family and wrote home regularly to Emma to let her know that he was safe. In one letter written on May 19, 1834, Joseph wrote, “I sit down in my tent to write a few lines to you to let you know that you are on my mind and that I am sensible of the duties of a Husband and Father and that I am well and I pray God to let his blessings rest upon you and the children and all that are around you until I return to your society.” In his letters he often expressed to Emma his feelings of inadequacy in leading Zion’s Camp and expressed that her letters gave him comfort during his “lonely moments” as a leader.3

On June 18th, the Prophet experienced a portent of danger and woke the camp early. As they marched through the city of Richmond, a woman warned them “there is a company of men lying in wait here, who are calculating to kill you this morning as you pass through.” The company was only able to march nine miles because of broken wagon wheels, but they were never attacked. They had intended to reach Liberty but instead set up camp between two forks of the Fishing River. The following is what happened, as recorded in the book Church History in the Fullness of Times:

“Joseph learned that mobs were preparing to attack, he knelt and prayed again for divine protection. Joseph’s fears were confirmed when five armed Missourians rode into camp, cursing, and swore that the Mormons would “see hell before morning.” They boasted that nearly four hundred men had joined forces from Ray, Lafayette, Clay, and Jackson counties and were then preparing to cross the Missouri River at Williams Ferry and ‘utterly destroy the Mormons.’ Sounds of gunfire were heard, and some of the men wanted to fight, but the Prophet promised that the Lord would protect them. He declared, ‘Stand still and see the salvation of God.

“A few minutes after the Missourians left, a small black cloud appeared in the clear western sky. It moved eastward, unrolling like a scroll, filling the heavens with darkness. As the first ferry load of mobbers crossed the Missouri River to the south, a sudden squall made it nearly impossible for the boat to return to pick up another load. The storm was so intense that Zion’s Camp abandoned their tents and found shelter in an old Baptist meetinghouse nearby. When Joseph Smith came in, he exclaimed, ‘Boys, there is some meaning to this. God is in this storm.’ It was impossible for anyone to sleep, so the group sang hymns and rested on the rough benches.

“One camp member recorded that ‘during this time the whole canopy of the wide horizen was in one complete blaze with terrifying claps of thunder.’ Elsewhere the beleaguered mobbers sought any refuge they could. The furious storm broke branches from trees and destroyed crops. It soaked and made the mobbers’ ammunition useless, frightened and scattered their horses, and raised the level of the Fishing River, preventing them from attacking Zion’s Camp. The Prophet recalled, ‘It seemed as if the mandate of vengeance had gone forth from the God of battles, to protect His servants from the destruction of their enemies.’”

Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde were sent to the Missouri capital to discuss the Saints’ position with Governor Daniel Dunklin. In their meeting, they were told that Governor Dunklin had decided against sending out the state militia to help the Saints, because he was afraid of starting a civil war. Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde returned to camp and reported this to Joseph Smith. They knew that without the help of the state, they would not be able to return the Saints to their homes. Joseph Smith turned to the Lord for direction, and on June 22, 1834, Joseph Smith received a revelation where the Lord told him that because of the current circumstances, the returning of the Saints to their homes would not happen at that time.4 The Lord instructed Joseph to send the men home, and that the men who had gone on the trek would receive blessings for their sacrifice.

On July 3, in a general meeting for the Missouri Saints and Zion’s Camp, the camp was disbanded, divided into smaller groups, and sent home. The group never fought a battle, and many of the men felt that Zion’s camp had been a failure. Joseph Smith stayed in Missouri until July 12, uplifting and helping the Saints in Missouri. Joseph arrived back in Kirtland on August 1st.

The trek was a time of trial and tribulation. Although Zion’s Camp was not able to complete its purpose or stop the hostilities and persecutions the Saints were experiencing in Missouri, Zion’s Camp was not a failure. Many of the men complained about the poor conditions, but those who pressed forward and continued in their faith that Joseph Smith was a prophet were strengthened. The trials were for their benefit and learning; nine of the Twelve Apostles called in this dispensation were a part of Zion’s camp, and all of the members of the Quorum of the Seventy had marched with Zion’s camp.

Brigham Young, who later became the second Prophet of the Church, marched with Zion’s Camp. Of his experience Brigham Young wrote, “I have traveled with Joseph a thousand miles, as he has led the Camp of Israel. I have watched him and observed everything he said or did…For the town of Kirtland I would not give the knowledge I got from Joseph from this journey…This was the starting point of my knowing how to lead Israel.”5 Brigham Young later had the daunting task of moving the entire membership of the Church across the plains to Utah; his experiences gained during Zion’s Camp were important in teaching him how to lead.

Wilford Woodruff, the fourth Prophet of the Mormon Church, also traveled with Zion’s Camp. He recorded, “we gained an experience that we never could have gained in any other way. We had the privilege of …seeing the workings of the spirit of God with [the Prophet], and the revelations of Jesus Christ unto him.”6 When Joseph Smith organized the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835, he said to the men, “Brethren, some of you are angry with me, because you did not fight in Missouri; but let me tell you, God did not want you to fight. He could not organize His kingdom…unless he took [leaders] from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”7 Not only did Zion’s Camp help shape and teach the men of the camp, but it also helped mold Joseph Smith into a better leader and Prophet. The experiences of the trek were an important part of the experiences needed to shape a great leader.

See the next article in the timeline series.

Other Links:

1 Section 101:55-56. Doctrine and Covenenants

2 George A. Smith,  “My Journal,” Instructor, May 1946, 217.

3 Joseph Smith to Emma Hale Smith, in Dean C. Jesse, The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (2002), 340-341.

4 Section 105:12. Doctrine and Covenants

5 Quoted in Leonard J. Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (1985), 45-46.

6 Deseret News, Dec. 21, 1869.

7 History of the Church, 2:182

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