John C. Bennett played a pivotal role in the history of the church, initially as a leader, but later as an instigator of persecution and suffering. He had held a variety of careers in his lifetime and added several more after becoming a Mormon.
Bennett had been a doctor and a minister, had founded and headed a college, and had been a quartermaster in Illinois. He had been very successful in the state headquarters and seemed to have great influence there. He arrived in Nauvoo in 1840. He said he was single, but it was later learned that he had actually abandoned his wife and child. His arrival coincided with discussions about the type of government to form in Nauvoo, the town organized for the Mormons who had settled there.
Bennett had written to Joseph Smith claiming to consider the persecution the Mormons had received in Missouri to be an outrage and had offered to help the Mormons find better conditions in Illinois. When he arrived, he was soon baptized and, given his connections in the state capital, assigned to assist the church in gaining a charter government. The charter Bennett and others won for them was very generous and gave them permission to establish a court, a militia, and a university. This seemed to offer them protection from religious persecution. Bennett quickly settled into the community and became a recognized community and church leader. He was even chosen to be the first mayor of the city.
It was not long after he became a member of the church that Bennett tried to have Joseph Smith killed. He organized a mock or practice battle and tried to convince Joseph to take certain positions. However, Joseph Smith felt prompted that there was danger and chose a safer position with his lifeguard. Joseph later came to understand the plan was to have him killed during the confusion of the battle, when it would be impossible to know who carried it out.
In 1841, Joseph Smith learned about Bennett’s wife and child and asked him about it. Bennett responded by taking poison, presumably trying to kill himself or to appear sorry enough to do so, although he did not die. At about the same time, it was discovered he was misusing the doctrine of plural marriage. He was involving women in immoral relationships, convincing them they were spiritually married to him, even though they were not legally married at all. He and his friends convinced these women Joseph Smith had approved their immoral relationship.
John C. Bennett was excommunicated for this behavior and was relieved of his church positions and his role as the mayor. Angry over his loss of power, he left Nauvoo, saying the Mormons were beneath him, and set out to write a book in which he claimed to “expose” the Mormons in an effort at retaliation. The book was serialized and then published, but never gained popularity. He devoted a great deal of time trying to undermine the religion and Joseph Smith and in trying to get Joseph Smith arrested for murder and other spurious charges he invented.
Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants, Lynn F. Price, published by Cedar Fort, 2007.
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Captain Jens Martin Christensen was a faithful convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is frequently misnamed the Mormon Church). Jens was born on April 29, 1843, in Hammerholt, Denmark, the seventh of eight children, to Christen Oveson and Kirsten Marie Andersen. When Jens grew up, he proudly wore his red military uniform jacket, black trousers, and large black fur hat as a member of the Danish queen’s guards. Jens was known for keeping his boots polished and looking smart.
When Jens heard the gospel preached in Denmark in 1866, he gained a personal testimony of its truthfulness and was baptized on February 4 of that year by Elder S. Petersen. Not long thereafter, Jens boarded a three-mast ship called the Kenilworth and sailed to New York from Germany. He brought his fiancée, Maren Johanne Rasmussen with him, having snuck her out of her home against the wishes of her parents. Her mother had locked her in her bedroom, but Jens tied bed sheets together to help her escape. They then took a train to Hamburg, Germany, where they sailed from.
After arriving in New York, Jens and Maren travelled up through the Great Lakes and came down the Missouri River by rail, trying to avoid the inflated prices of the direct rail tickets. They travelled further to North Platte, Nebraska, where other Saints arrived to walk the rest of the way across the plains to Utah. The tradition of Jens’ descendants is that Jens kept his boots shiny all the way to Utah.
Maren became very sick with cholera. Jens was a volunteer to help the many sick pioneers, and he would carry Maren around with him, sometimes holding an umbrella over her to protect her from the sun. Maren survived the trek to the Salt Lake Valley, and she eventually recovered fully. They were married on October 22, 1866, and moved to Fairview, Utah, where they built their first home. They were sealed a few months later, on May 8, 1867 in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City (the Salt Lake Temple was not yet complete). Their faith was tried when church authorities asked them in 1878 to relocate to the Manasseh-Ephraim area of Colorado, 500 miles away. Then, after moving, Jens was called on a mission to Denmark. He sought reconciliation with his in-laws, but they refused to acknowledge they had a daughter.
After returning home from his mission in April 1887, Christensen’s health began to fail. He and his family moved to Murray, Utah, where he stayed until he passed away on July 8, 1908, at the age of 65. Jens’ descendants look to their ancestor for faith and determination to remain clean and pure, even in the face of adversity.
If you wish to read the full account of Jens Christensen, it is told in Erastus Snow Christensen, 1874–1943, A Family History, by Steve Mecham and Verda Christensen Murphy, accessible at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Family History Library on Film No. 142703, Item 2.
Sidney Rigdon was an early leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often misnamed the “Mormon Church”). He was born in 1793 in Pennsylvania. When he was seventeen, his father died. His mother died when he was twenty-six, but the year prior to that, Sidney became a Baptist and left home to become a preacher. Six years later, in 1824, Sidney Rigdon, Alexander Campbell, and Walter Scott left the Baptist church over the issues of what happened to infants who died without baptism and began meeting together to discuss religion. They were known as Campbellites, although they called themselves Disciples. Sidney Rigdon continued his work as a preacher, but focused on faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost, rather than promoting the doctrines of a specific religion.
In 1830, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized and its members were largely known as “Mormons.” One Mormon leader, Parley P. Pratt, had known Rigdon previously, because Pratt had been a missionary for the Campbellites in the past. During a mission trip to the Native Americans, Pratt and his companions visited with Sidney Rigdon and received permission to give a sermon in Rigdon’s church. The sermon had a strong impact on the preacher, and Rigdon and his wife began to pray to know whether or not the Mormons had the truth. They also began to study the new religion. Two weeks after the sermon, the Rigdons were baptized along with more than 100 members of Rigdon’s congregation. The group was formed into a new Mormon congregation and Rigdon was quickly called to the ministry.
In December of that year, Sydney Rigdon was commanded by revelation to become a scribe for Joseph Smith, who had minimal education and used scribes while translating manuscripts. He worked with Joseph on a translation of the Bible that was never completed due to the assassination of Joseph Smith.
Sidney Rigdon was among the first group of men to be ordained as high priests, which made them lay priests and did not correlate to modern views of a professional minister. He served several missions for the church, being called to preach to the Quakers and along the route to several church conferences. He also undertook several journeys to counter false information being distributed by Ezra Booth, a former member of the church. Booth had been upset because the church, which was new and had little money, did not pay for his mission and because he did not experience a continual stream of miracles, which he felt was a required aspect of a true church. He was upset that Joseph Smith played with children (behavior he found not fitting for a prophet of God) and that his own missionary work did not result in a prophecy that he seems to have thought applied to him. Eventually, he began writing letters to newspapers that contained incorrect or slanted information. These letters led to the persecution and even the death of some Saints.
Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon saw a vision that contained important elements of Mormon belief. It taught them about the Plan of Salvation, the resurrection of the Dead, and the structure of Heaven. They also saw Jesus Christ and God.
In March of that same year, Sidney Rigdon and Joseph Smith were both dragged from their homes by mobs, leaving Rigdon delirious for a number of days and resulting in the death of one of Joseph Smith’s children who was exposed to the cold when Joseph was taken.
Sidney Rigdon became the First Counselor to the prophet. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is organized with a prophet at the head, who is also the president, serving under Jesus Christ as the Lord’s representative on earth, just as ancient prophets did. The prophet is assisted by two counselors and the three men together are called the First Presidency. They lead the church, assisted by the apostles. When the prophet dies, the First Presidency dissolves, the most senior member of the apostles is sustained as the new president, and he selects his own counselors.
However, Rigdon apparently had problems maintaining his role as a counselor. He had, several times in the past, been chastised for behavior and attention to his role. After a mission trip with the prophet, Joseph Smith said that Sidney tended towards selfishness, which diminished his effectiveness as a leader.
In 1834, Rigdon also became a trustee and conductor of the school the church ran during the winter. In 1838, he and Joseph Smith were forced to flee Kirtland, Ohio, where the Mormons were living, and moved to Missouri.
During this time, Joseph seems to have been fairly quiet, with Rigdon giving most of the sermons and others taking on more leadership—leadership that was more militant than Joseph’s own style.
In Missouri, Joseph Smith received a revelation to begin the building of a temple, but to avoid any further debt for the project. A cornerstone was laid for the temple and Sidney Rigdon was the speaker. Unfortunately, he gave a speech that was so filled with anger against the anti-Mormons that people who were not Mormon became upset.
Tempers rose to the point that mobs threatened the Saints, and negotiations between a government colonel and the mob led to Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and other leaders being handed over to the mob to avoid violence against the Saints. Sidney Rigdon spent November through the following February in jail to satisfy a mob. He was angry with the government when he was released and wanted justice for his illegal imprisonment. In Illinois, he devised a plan to impeach Missouri for violation of freedom of religion and obtained the support of two governors—from Illinois and Iowa. However, the plan withered. Joseph Smith, with others, drafted an appeal to the federal government to recognize their abuse and appointed Rigdon to deliver it. However, Rigdon was losing interest in the project and did not go. Eventually, he was asked again to go, and two other men accompanied him. He became ill on the journey and did not complete it.
By 1834, Sidney Rigdon’s enthusiasm for the church and its trials was waning. In the next General Conference, Joseph Smith expressed a preference for Rigdon to be released, but Joseph’s brother Hyrum, ever the optimistic peacemaker, spoke up for Rigdon and Joseph agreed to keep him on as First Counselor.
As persecution against the Saints increased and the federal government refused to step in and protect their constitutional right to free practice of religion, Joseph Smith began to contemplate a run for president. He understood those who voted in his favor might be throwing away votes, but did not want to vote for someone who would use that vote to further the persecution against the Saints. Although it was a gesture, he received a nomination for president, with Sidney Rigdon as vice-president. Whether or not he thought he could win, he saw it as an opportunity to present the issue of freedom of religion to the public. Their platform did not fit into either party, marking him as an independent. He also ran on an anti-slavery platform, which increased the persecution by pro-slavery advocates, but he had long supported the freedom and education of slaves, stating that doing so would make them the same as white people.
Soon after Rigdon was nominated vice-president, he went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and was there when Joseph Smith was murdered. At that time, because there was no explicit succession plan in place, many people tried to take over the role of prophet and president, including Rigdon. As the First Counselor, he announced in a meeting held on the eighth he was the Guardian of the Church now that Joseph was gone. However, that afternoon another meeting was held. As Brigham Young stood and began to speak, people saw the face and heard the voice of Joseph Smith transposed on Young. This transfiguration confirmed to the membership that God had chosen Brigham Young, who was the president of the apostles. Today, the most senior member of the apostles becomes the new president of the church upon the death of the previous president.
Many refused to accept the decision the people made to follow what they believed was God’s will, however. Rigdon was angry and refused to sustain the apostles, which led to his excommunication. He then claimed the Spirit had been missing from the church for a long time. He returned to Pittsburgh and organized his own short-lived church. He died in 1876.
This article was adapted from: Price, Lynn F. 1997. Every person in the Doctrine and Covenants. Bountiful, Utah: Horizon.
With additional information from: Bushman, Richard L., and Jed Woodworth. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
With the so-called “Mormon Moment” having taken center stage for such a length of time in the media, it’s hard to imagine anyone left in the United States who has not heard of a Mormon. Yet, many people are still mixed up about what exactly a Mormon is. What is a Mormon?
First off, “Mormons” do not refer to themselves as “Mormon.” They are Latter-day Saints. They are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. However, the media constantly confuses this name and misnames the church the “Mormon Church.” This causes many people who are not familiar with the faith to think of Latter-day Saints as “Mormons.” The confusion extends so far that some people actually think Mormons and Latter-day Saints are followers of two different religions.
The misnomer “Mormon” comes from an ancient prophet who lived in the Americas. He and many other ancient prophets kept faithful records of their history (which began in Jerusalem), their flight to the Promised Land, and their dealings with Jesus Christ. This record was eventually buried in order to prevent its destruction by these people’s enemies. Mormon was the name of the prophet who abridged the record which spanned about 1,000 years. He gave this record to his son, Moroni, who was the last surviving, righteous man of their people. Moroni added to the record and eventually buried it. Moroni returned 1,200 years later, as an angel, to show Joseph Smith, a man who was called to restore the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, where this record was buried. Joseph then translated this record by the power of God and it was published as the Book of Mormon. Because Latter-day Saints believe the Book of Mormon to be inspired scripture and a companion book of scripture to the Bible, many people began calling them Mormons. The name has stuck, but unfortunately brings many misconceptions with it.
One of the most troubling misconceptions about Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) today is that they practice polygamy. While Mormon polygamy was practiced in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has not been practiced for more than 100 years. There are many splinter groups who call themselves “Mormons” who do practice polygamy. Since the media continues to refer to Latter-day Saints as “Mormons,” it has become very difficult to distinguish which “Mormons” believe and practice what.
Now, Mormon doctrine does not say that polygamy was wrong when it was practiced. It was a commandment from God that most people were not keen on living. In fact, only a very small percentage of church membership ever did practice polygamy. Among those who did, each polygamous marriage had to be approved by church leaders. No one was ever forced into a polygamous marriage, and all members of the marriage had to agree when a new wife came in. Women who found themselves unhappy in a polygamous marriage were given the opportunity to divorce with no kind of punishment or penalty.
Many Mormon women actually found the circumstances liberating. Having more women to handle the demanding chores which life in an early settlement brought with it freed women to have more personal time. Some of them became involved in politics, some went back to school, some became doctors, some were just able to enjoy some more free time. Some found more protection under the arrangement as widows; they were given more rights and were taken care of. There is no recorded reason given for the early practice of polygamy. It was a commandment, and people obeyed, though sometimes reluctantly, and despite heavy persecution.
By 1890, many Saints had been stripped of their rights as citizens. Many had to flee with their families to escape physical harm. When God saw the condition and that His people were still willing to be obedient, He withdrew the commandment to live the law of polygamy. He did this in order to protect His people. In 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made it an excommunicable offense to enter into a new polygamous marriage. It has continued in that standing today. Any Latter-day Saint (“Mormon”) who enters into a polygamous marriage does so in direct violation of God’s law and will be excommunicated.
Those groups who call themselves “Mormon” and still practice polygamy today are not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
So far, this article has touched on what Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) aren’t. It is far more uplifting to discuss what Mormons are. Mormons believe in Jesus Christ. They do not worship anyone named Mormon, nor do they worship Joseph Smith. Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Redeemer of the world. God the Father is a tangible being who created each person as a spirit before that person came to this earth. We are His beloved children, and He earnestly desires our happiness.
Mormon doctrine differs from traditional Christian doctrine in that it does not hold to the Christian creeds. These creeds were written hundreds of years after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. After the apostles were martyred, the wickedness of powerful, scheming men in the Early Church changed the doctrine to fit in with the more popular philosophies of the time. They denied that God was a tangible being. They began to deny that Jesus Christ was the literal Son of God, instead claiming He was some other, incomprehensible manifestation of the same being.
Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) believe that Jesus Christ lives. He suffered and atoned for the sins of the world, He was crucified, and He rose on the third day from the tomb. He organized His church and then ascended into heaven. Mormons also believe that during this time, Christ spent time with His followers in the Americas. The Book of Mormon records His dealings with a people there, as well as His visitation after His resurrection. The Book of Mormon is another testament that Jesus is the Christ and that He is mindful of righteous followers everywhere.
Latter-day Saints do their best to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are taught to have charity (the pure love of Christ) and to build one another up. The commandments that God has given us are for our safety and happiness. It is only by following His commandments and applying the cleansing power of the atonement of Jesus Christ in our lives that we can return to live with God after this life.
For faithful Latter-day Saints, their religion is a way of life. It requires a great deal more than going to church once a week (or twice a year). When He was on the earth, Jesus Christ was very clear about the higher law that His followers are expected to live. They must set themselves apart from the cares and the temptations of the world and strive to be better people, more like Him.
Latter-day Saints also believe in eternal families. While civil marriages are unions for this life, until “death do you part,” Mormons believe that marriages performed in temples last for eternity, if both spouses keep the promises they make in that covenant. Another blessing is that any children born to them will also be sealed to them for eternity. Family relationships can extend beyond the grave.
The bottom line is that Mormons are not cultish people hiding out in colonies hoping to take over the world. They are normal people living trying to live their lives according to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They live in cities, towns, and villages across the world and band together in a community trying to help each other manage with the normal trials of life. They worship Jesus Christ as their Savior and are respectful of other people’s beliefs.
Jeremiah Morgan was raised by a loving, single mother, in the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (RLDS). This group broke off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often misnamed the “Mormon Church”) in 1860, after many of the Saints had trekked west to the Salt Lake Valley. It is now called the Community of Christ.
Jeremiah’s mother was very devout and taught him that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was inspired scripture. She read Jeremiah the Book of Mormon every morning and, when he was in high school, took him (albeit reluctantly on his part) on a Church history tour, where they entered the Sacred Grove (the location of Joseph Smith’s First Vision). Here, he had a spiritual experience which testified to him of the reality that Joseph Smith was a true prophet.
Jeremiah Morgan’s mother is the descendant of a convert baptized by Oliver Cowdery in 1831 in Lexington, Missouri, Francis Case. Case and his wife, Mary Ann, moved several times with the Saints when they were driven from state to state. However, for reasons which remain unclear, the Cases did not travel west with the rest of the Saints, and they later became part of the RLDS Church.
After Jeremiah’s experience in the Sacred Grove, he began to be aware of changes within the RLDS community. Doctrines were being changed, and he felt that church leaders were beginning to deny the Book of Mormon as revealed scripture as well as retreating from the truths restored through Joseph Smith’s First Vision, including that God the Father and Jesus Christ were two separate, distinct beings with bodies of flesh and bone.
These changes disturbed Jeremiah because he felt he had already learned for himself the truth of those things. He began to attend both RLDS meetings and LDS meetings each Sunday. “In the morning I would go to my RLDS church and then in the afternoon go to the LDS church and sit in the overflow. I knew right away there was a big difference. It didn’t take me long to figure that out,” Jeremiah said.
Although he had dated an LDS girl a few times in high school, he didn’t even tell her (or anyone else) of his interest in the LDS Church. “I didn’t want anybody to make up my mind for me or try to influence me,” he said.
After thoroughly investigating both churches, Jeremiah made the decision to be baptized into the LDS Church. “I told my mother first that I was going to join the LDS Church, and she didn’t say a word to me. She went right to the phone to let all the relatives know so they could begin working on me,” said Jeremiah. Friends and family tried to discourage Jeremiah, giving him a lot of anti-Mormon literature, and his mother refused to let him be baptized until he was 18. However, “I am the kind of person that when I know, I don’t turn back,” Jeremiah said, and he had his witness.
Jeremiah decided to put in his papers to go on a mission for the LDS (“Mormon”) Church, and his mother was also upset about that, but her wrote her faithfully each week, and as he shared stories and experiences with her (which she, in turn shared with friends), she came to terms with his conversion. Some of her friends even said, “We wouldn’t mind if our sons joined the LDS Church, if they did the same thing.”
Though Jeremiah’s mother did not join the LDS Church, he noticed that the changes in the RLDS Church continued slowly. He compared the change to the frog that stays in the water while it is gradually heated until it is cooked alive. She changed her view of God to fit in with the Nicene Creed description, as the RLDS Church changed to that view. She also failed to see the slow abandonment of the Book of Mormon by the RLDS Church.
For Jeremiah, what he calls the RLDS apostasy is a key example of what happens without a living prophet. “They had the truth and many of their early leaders would have been priesthood holders. Look what happens in 160 to 170 years. Look what happens to a church without a living prophet. They diverge from the gospel by degrees. If you are along the path with them, you don’t see it as you go. It is not evident to you.”
“I love my restoration heritage,” Jeremiah said, “and I love the restoration branches. There are some really great people there trying to do some great things. But when you have been given the whole truth as I finally was, where do you go from there? You don’t go anywhere from there. This is Jesus Christ’s church, there’s no doubt about it. I was grateful that I was in a position that something could open my mind and heart that there was something else than what I had been raised to.”
Former RLDS, Now a Missouri Stake President, read Jeremiah Morgan’s full story
“Because Heavenly Father loves His children, He has not left them to walk through this mortal life without direction and guidance,” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said. “That is why He pleads so earnestly with us through His prophets. Just as we want what is best for our loved ones, Heavenly Father wants what is best for us.”
Prophets and apostles who speak today represent and carry out the Lord’s will as they lead His children in this dispensation. President Uchtdorf said, “Our fate and the fate of our world hinge on our hearing and heeding the revealed word of God to His children” (“Why Do We Need Prophets?” Ensign, March 2012). We are blessed to have a living prophet and living apostles today. They reveal God’s words to His children and bless our lives by being God’s mouthpieces today.
A new FamilySearch Center, operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is frequently misnamed the “Mormon Church”), opened in Nauvoo, Illinois, on May 16, 2012. Nearly 300 people gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the historic Raymond Clark store, across the street from the Nauvoo Temple.
The original FamilySearch Center was in the Clark Store, but about five years ago, this building was made into a visitor center for the newly reconstructed Nauvoo Temple. The Center was moved to the LDS (“Mormon”) church building nearby, but fewer patrons used the facility, even though it was still open to the public.
Two years ago, the Temple Arrival Center replaced the visitor center in the Clark Store, and several Church representatives determined the Clark Store would be a better location to meet the needs of FamilySearch patrons, but the building needed a lot of work to be brought up to code.
Now the new facility houses a state-of-the-art research facility that is open to the public free of charge. The Nauvoo FamilySearch Center is one of 4,500 genealogical research centers open to the public and offering records from all over the world, but few are as up-to-date as this one. The Nauvoo FamilySearch Center has 15 high-speed Internet computers which offer free access to genealogical websites such as FamilySearch.org, Ancestry.com, Fold3.com, and Findmypast.co.uk. Patrons are also able to order microfilms and microfiche online from Salt Lake City for a nominal fee and are then able to use the microfilm readers in the Center for their research. The Nauvoo FamilySearch Center is open 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. It is closed on Sundays.
The Center also offers training classes and family history videos for the inexperienced, and volunteers are available to help people get started with their own family history or to answer questions along the way. During the ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 16, Mayor John McCarty was presented with a binder containing his family tree traced back eight generations. He learned he had an ancestor, Leonard Bratz, who settled in Nauvoo in the mid-1800s and whose brother George was called to help keep the peace and insure the safe departure of the remaining Saints who were fleeing West. George’s son later became mayor of Nauvoo.
The Nauvoo FamilySearch Center is the second center of its kind on a Mormon historical site. The other is located in Kirtland, Ohio, but it has not been updated. The unique thing about the Nauvoo Center is it has a visitor facility for people to learn about family history and to capture part of the vision.
Latter-day Saints descended from Nauvoo citizens who come to the Center will be able to search their ancestors, even if they do not have their names. Once they find their ancestors’ names, they can get additional information at the Land and Records Office.
The Nauvoo Center will also be a community resource for genealogical and historical research, open to the public at no cost.
LDS Church Historian and Recorder Steven L. Snow said at the opening ceremony, [Nauvoo] tells stories. There’s a remarkable story of the community before and after the saints came. These stories can once again be told, found, and shared.”
For those who understand LDS (“Mormon”) history, it is fitting that such a center is in Nauvoo. According to Mormon history, this is where the temple ordinances for eternal families were first restored, and thus, the first wave of family history in our day began here.
The Nauvoo Mormon Temple was the first temple in which sacred ordinances could be performed by proxy for deceased ancestors. Now that the Nauvoo Temple has been reconstructed and this FamilySearch Center has been built, many more families can be together forever.
Oliver Cowdery, born 3 October 1806, in Wells, Rutland County, Vermont, played important roles in the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (frequently misnamed the “Mormon Church”). He moved to western New York along with several of his brothers in hopes of finding better employment opportunities. He became a general store clerk, but also did blacksmithing and farming.
Oliver met Joseph Smith when his brother was unable to take on the school teacher job he had been hired to do. He recommended Oliver for the position, and Oliver was hired by the trustees. The position was near the Smith home and Joseph’s brother Hyrum was a trustee, so he arranged for Oliver to board in his parents’ home.
Joseph was in the process of translating (with the help of his wife, Emma, and her brother, who acted as scribe) the plates that would become the Book of Mormon. However, Joseph also had to work to support his family, and his time to translate was limited. Joseph was not well-educated enough to scribe for himself. Emma’s brother lost interest in helping because he lost faith in the records. Joseph, frustrated, prayed and was promised a new scribe would be sent and was told to stop work on them until that time.
Oliver quickly heard about these plates, but found the Smiths unwilling to discuss them. They had grown tired of the ridicule of neighbors and others who knew of them. Eventually, however, he gained their trust and Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith, Sr., told Oliver about the plates. Oliver was intrigued and began to pray privately about them. He felt impressed that he might have a role to play in the book’s preparation. He also felt impressed to meet Joseph Smith after the school session ended and made plans to travel with Joseph’s brother Samuel. He was determined to do whatever God wanted him to do in this matter.
During the journey, they stopped to visit Oliver Cowdery’s friend David Whitmer. David was curious and asked Oliver to write to him with his impressions of Joseph Smith and this reported ancient record. This relationship had a profound impact on the future of the Church.
Immediately upon meeting Oliver Cowdery, Joseph felt impressed that he was the scribe the Lord had promised him. They talked together the remainder of the day and then, after completing some business on Tuesday, began working on the translation the following day.
The work went amazingly quickly, with 500 pages translated in just three months. During this time, Oliver was given several personal revelations through Joseph Smith, reminding him that he was there because he had prayed to know what to do and had acted on those promptings. After receiving that revelation, Oliver told Joseph about the night he had prayed concerning the plates and about whether or not Joseph was truly a prophet.
Oliver longed to be allowed to translate himself. God gave him permission, and Oliver was permitted to see the plates. He worked to translate, but was unsuccessful, and God revoked the permission to translate. However, God also explained to him what he had done wrong. He had presumed he could merely sit there and have the words come to him, but he was actually expected to study them himself and then ask God if his decisions were correct. If they were, he would feel a burning in his bosom; he would not feel that burning if he had translated incorrectly. Despite losing the power to translate, Oliver continued as a scribe to Joseph.
On May 15, 1829, Oliver was a witness of and participant in a powerful vision. He and Joseph had encountered the Savior’s teachings on baptism in the Book of Mormon. Recognizing from the text that baptism is essential to salvation, they wondered how God wanted baptism to work. They decided to pray about it in the woods along the Susquehanna River near their home in Pennsylvania. Of this event, Oliver wrote:
“On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance!—What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world were racked and distracted … our eyes beheld—our ears heard.”
The angel was John the Baptist. John told them he was acting under the authority of Peter, James, and John. In order to baptize, they would need the Aaronic Priesthood—the priesthood described in the Old Testament. There was an additional level of priesthood, but they were not to receive it at that time.
Baptism must be done by the living, so John instructed them to baptize each other. Joseph, as the prophet, was to first baptize Oliver, and then Oliver could baptize Joseph. Both Oliver and Joseph were filled with the spirit of prophecy as they came out of the water, although they did not report their prophecies due to the persecution that had become increasingly difficult to control.
The Melchizedek Priesthood and apostleship was given to them near the end of the month and was conferred by Peter, James, and John. This gave them the authority to organize the church and to do God’s work on earth.
Eventually, they moved into the home of David Whitmer in Fayette, in order to work on the translation of the Book of Mormon in greater safety. Emma remained behind to care for their home. During this time, they translated a portion of the Book of Mormon that spoke of the need for witnesses. Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris asked Joseph to pray for them to be the witnesses, and God approved. They were permitted to see not only the plates, but a number of preserved Book of Mormon artifacts. However, after some time spent reading from the manuscript and praying, Joseph received a revelation that Martin Harris needed to repent in order to be worthy to participate.
The men went into the woods and prayed for the promised event. After two attempts were unanswered, Harris received personal revelation that he was the reason they were not receiving their answer. He went away from the group and began to pray privately.
The other three men began to pray again and Moroni appeared to them. Moroni was an angel, but during his lifetime he was the last prophet to write on the records Joseph was translating and was the one who hid them for safekeeping until modern times. He was also the being who prepared Joseph Smith to become the prophet and who led him to the plates. Moroni showed the men the plates and testified of them, instructing them to share their own testimonies. Joseph then went for Martin Harris and prayed with him so he could also see the plates.
Oliver was responsible for helping to oversee the printing of the Book of Mormon while Joseph returned home to care for his family for a time. He learned the printing business while doing so and set much of the book by hand himself.
Oliver Cowdery was among the six invited to officially organize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1830—the number requirement of the state for organizing a religious society. Soon after, on April 11, Oliver Cowdery gave the first public sermon of the new church, an event which led to several baptisms.
In 1829, Joseph and Oliver had received the authority of apostleship and later that year, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer were commanded in a revelation to find the twelve apostles. Martin Harris would later receive a revelation to assist them, so that the three witnesses would select the apostles. A conference was held, and the apostles were named. Normally, seniority in the apostleship is set by how long a person has served in the position, but all twelve were called at the same time, so it was set by age in this case.
In 1834, Oliver Cowdery was called to be the Assistant President of the Church. As second in authority, he was required to be a witness each time the prophet received new keys of authority from God. He served as the second witness of the restoration of the gospel and of the truthfulness of the church.
Unfortunately, by 1838, he had lost this position due to apostasy, and he was excommunicated. Despite leaving the church, he refused to deny his testimony of having seen the plates and Moroni, even when he was pressured to do so.
“He was charged by the high council for persecuting Church leaders with vexatious lawsuits, seeking to destroy the character of Joseph Smith, not abiding ecclesiastical authority in temporal affairs, selling lands in Jackson County, and leaving his calling as Assistant President of the Church and turning to the practice of law. Oliver refused to appear before the council, but he answered by letter. He denied the Church’s right to dictate how he should conduct his life and asked that his fellowship with the Church be ended. The high council excommunicated him 12 April 1838. He spent a decade outside the Church, but later humbly submitted himself for rebaptism in October 1848 in Kanesville, Iowa” (Church History in the Fullness of Times, Chapter 15).
Oliver Cowdery was rebaptized and was a member in good standing at his death in 1850. His is a story of faith, repentance, humility, and forgiveness. He sacrificed a great deal to help build up the kingdom of God, and even though he became distracted for a while, he came back to the full fellowship of the Church.
The Book of Mormon (Another Testament of Jesus Christ)
In 1910, the Mexican Revolution began as an uprising led by Francisco Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz. This struggle evolved into a multi-sided civil war which lasted until about 1920, though sporadic fighting still broke out after that. In 1912, many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which church is often misnamed the “Mormon Church”) fled Mexico for their safety because they had no desire to be part of the civil war.
In what has become known as the Mormon Exodus from Mexico, about 4,500 Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) fled their homes in several colonies in northern Chihuahua and Sonora. These refugees fled to El Paso, Texas. Some of them stayed in El Paso, some moved to other parts of the United States, and some moved back to Mexico after the war ended.
This group of Latter-day Saints had originally fled intense religious persecution in the United States in the mid 1880s. In the early days of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, select people were asked to live the law of plural marriage, in which a man married more than one wife. (Read more on Mormon polygamy.) The Saints felt this was a law given by God, but the citizens of the United States were violently opposed to the practice and made sure it was outlawed. Though The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints later ceased the practice (also under a direct commandment from God) and came to an agreement with the government regarding those who had already entered plural marriages, a large number of those who had already fled persecution stayed in Mexico with their families.
The first Latter-day Saint (“Mormon”) settlements in Mexico were established in 1885 in the state of Chihuahua at Colonia Diaz and Colonia Juarez. In 1887, two more colonies were built in Cave Valley and Pacheco. A colony in Dublan followed in 1888, and during the 1890s, two more colonies were established in Garcia and Chuichupa.
Settlers in these “Mormon” colonies came from all over: New England, the Atlantic States, the Midwest and South, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and other countries of Western Europe. Their lives began quite humbly. Most families had only a wagon of personal belongings they could haul with them. However, as a community, they came together to dig wells, build dams, survey and build irrigation canals, erect churches and schools, and establish businesses such as tanneries, stores, grist mills, and lumber mills.
As expected, religion was central to these settlers’ lives. Each colony was led by a bishop who served as the presiding ecclesiastical authority in charge of both religious and social activities.
The Latter-day Saints in these Mexican colonies lived peaceful, quiet lives, until the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution. They tried to remain neutral, but soldiers from both sides of the civil war would show up expecting the “Mormons” to feed them and give them whatever supplies were needed.
In 1912, followers of General Pascual Orozco had made life nearly unbearable for those who lived in the Mormon colonies in Mexico by placing exorbitant demands on them and even murdering them on occasion. In July of that year, one of Orozco’s subordinates demanded the Latter-day Saints’ guns and ammunition, but refused to promise them protection. It was then that the colonies’ leaders decided to send women and children to El Paso for their protection. Refugees travelled to train stations and took the train to Union Depot in El Paso, Texas. The first group arrived on July 28, 1912.
The community of El Paso welcomed the refugees with open arms. About 2,500 of the refugees who first took a train to El Paso stayed in temporary housing in a local lumberyard which had been made into a tent city. Only about 10 percent of these refugees stayed in El Paso, where they established the first Mormon congregation (ward) in Texas in 1918. They also built the first LDS chapel in Texas in 1931, which has been recognized and protected by the Texas Historical Commission. Most of the Latter-day Saints moved to other areas of the United States, but some returned to Mexico after the fighting, where two of the original colonies still survive.
Several significant Latter-day Saints have ties to the Mormon Exodus from Mexico. Anthony W. Ivins later served in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Henry Eyring (11 years old at the time of the exodus), who became a renowned physical chemist, was among the refugees, as was George W. Romney (5 years old at the time), future American Motors Corporation CEO, Michigan governor, and father of Mitt Romney.
On July 28, 2012, a centennial celebration recognized the charity which the citizens of El Paso offered the Mormon refugees.
“This is a remarkable story, one that deserves retelling,” said Steven Olsen, senior curator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, one of many Mormon Church officials who expressed gratitude to descendants of Fort Bliss and El Paso residents who participated in “a historic and not forgotten act of charity.”
The centennial hosted a series of events including an exhibit at the El Paso Museum of History and the screening of a new documentary, “Finding Refuge in El Paso.”
“For me, this exhibit tells the story of three different communities coming together to address a crisis,” Olsen said. “The military community, the residential community and the refugee community were all very different in terms of their background and value structure, but each one of them figured out how they could contribute to the solution.”
“We don’t mind extending to others the same kind of charity and help that we received coming to El Paso,” Olsen said. “Charity is the essence of humanity. That gets at the heart of what it means to be a human being, serving and extending charity to those in need.”
Today, El Paso has an estimated 9,000 Mormons, and Mexico has an estimated 1 million Latter-day Saints.
Fred Woods, a professor of religious education at Brigham Young University, and producer of “Finding Refuge in El Paso,” said, “To me, this is not just a Mormon story. It’s a story about humanity, a very moving story about community and about serving people in need.”
Read more about the Mormon Exodus from Mexico
George Goddard, an early convert to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often misnamed the “Mormon Church”) was rejected by his relatives in England after he was baptized. George and his wife and seven children journeyed to the western Zion by land and sea. Four of the children died along the way.
Establishing themselves in the Salt Lake Valley, George became a prominent business and Church leader, serving with the presiding bishopric, serving in the presidency of the Sunday Schools of the Church (with President George Q. Cannon and the other counselor, Karl G. Maeser), singing in the Tabernacle Choir for fifteen years, and being called by Brigham Young to serve as secretary to the school of the prophets in Salt Lake City.
During the early 1860s the pioneering Saints needed more paper to advance the causes of education and publishing. Paper was made from rags for several years, but even rags were difficult to come by because the people had scarcely enough to cover their bodies. Brigham Young called successful businessman George Goddard on a “Rag Mission,” going door to door throughout the territory “for the purpose of gathering up whatever might be obtained convertible into printing paper.”1 As a true Englishman, George wrote, “[This calling] was a severe blow to my native pride. . . . After being known in the community for years, as a merchant . . . then to be seen on the streets going from door to door with a basket on one arm and an empty sack on the other, enquiring for rags at every house. Oh, what a change in the aspect of affairs. . . . When President Young first made the proposition, the humiliating prospect almost stunned me, but a few moments’ reflection reminded me that I came to these valleys of the mountains . . . for the purpose of doing the will of my Heavenly Father, my time and means must be at His disposal. I therefore answered President Young in the affirmative, and for over three years, from Franklin, Idaho, in the north, and Sanpete in the south, my labors extended, not only visiting many hundreds of houses during the week days, but preaching rag sermons on Sunday. The first time I ever spoke in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, was a rag discourse, and Presidents Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball backed it up with their testimony and enlarged upon it.”2
“It was my duty as a servant of God to obey, and as such I undertook it, to assist in laying the foundation of an important home enterprise. . . . No person could have been more abundantly blessed of the Lord than I was during the three years I was thus engaged. The Spirit of the Lord made me cheerful and happy, and the feeling of humiliation was removed.”3
This was a “riches to rags” story, in a sense, but George’s humble service provided over 100,000 pounds of rags for the paper mills. Not only that, but he “became so well known to the Saints in the territory that following his mission his business flourished and his popularity as a merchant was even greater than before.”4
George Goddard concluded this episode of his life by testifying: “I can truly say that the Lord inspired me with His Holy Spirit to deliver rag sermons, as much as if I was preaching upon . . . any other principle of the gospel. . . . [Jesus] descended below all things that He might be exalted above all things. And he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. Therefore, let no one feel that by responding to the calls of the Priesthood, however humiliating the duty imposed may be to natural pride, the luster of their respectability will not be dimmed or their usefulness curtailed thereby. Let us stoop to conquer.”5
Many Latter-day Saints have been asked to sacrifice a great deal to build up the kingdom of God on the earth, and most of the time they heed the call. Men like George Goddard were fortunately not scarce at critical times in the Church’s history, and the inspired others Saints then as well as today to step up and make the sacrifices that God requires of them.
Read D. Kelly Ogden’s full article, “What More Can We Do? A Rags to Riches Story”
1 Deseret News, May 14, 1862.
2 Deseret Weekly, April 4, 1896, 485; as cited in Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958, 115.
3 George Goddard, “Review of an Active Life,” in The Juvenile Instructor, 1882, 174.
4 Church News View point, August 3, 1996, 16.
5 George Goddard, “Review of an Active Life,” in The Juvenile Instructor, 1882, 174.