Zion’s Camp

During the winter that spanned 1833–34, the Saints continued to hope for assistance from Governor Daniel Dunklin, but received none. Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight travelled from Missouri to Kirtland to put before the high council the sufferings of the Missouri Saints. Joseph received a revelation the same day to organize an army. Many of the men present at the meeting volunteered to join and selected Joseph as the “commander-in-chief of the armies of Israel.”

A black and white photograph of the Kirtland countryside. Eight missionaries travelled to the Eastern United States to collect money and recruits from those Saints to help the suffering Saints in Missouri, but they met with little success. Joseph remarked, “If this Church, which is essaying to be the Church of Christ will not help us, when they can do it without sacrifice, . . . God shall take away their talent, and give it to those who have no talent [Matthew 25:14–30], and shall prevent them from ever obtaining a place of refuge, or an inheritance upon the land of Zion.”

Ultimately, 207 men, 11 women, and 11 children comprised Zion’s Camp, many fewer than the Lord had requested through the Prophet. The men averaged 29 in age, which was Joseph’s age at the time. The youngest boy, George A. Smith, a cousin of the Prophet, was just 16, and Samuel baker was the oldest at 79. Many of the men who joined Zion’s Camp did so entirely on faith. They left families with little or no money nor any source of income, and the men were leaving during a critical planting and harvesting time. Several members of the Church planted gardens to provide for the families of the men who left, so they would have something to sustain themselves.

The one-thousand-mile march to Jackson County, Missouri, was by no means easy for the company. They often marched thirty-five miles in one day with “blistered feet, oppressive heat, heavy rains, high humidity, hunger, and thirst.” One of the biggest problems for the company was lack of food. The men were always hungry and, due to poor conditions, were often forced to eat rancid or maggoty food. There was a real fear of contracting milk sickness or puking fever from bad milk; however, Joseph told them to “use all they could get from friend or enemy, [and] it should do them good, and none be sick in consequence of it; and although we passed through neighborhoods where many of the people and cattle were infected with the sickness, yet my words were fulfilled.”

Even more dangerous than the poor conditions was the dissension that arose among some of the men. Sylvester Smith (who was of no relation to Joseph) was a “sharp-tongued captain” who often incited murmuring and dissension among those who would listen to him. Joseph remarked of Sylvester’s and the men’s rebellious spirits, “I told them they would meet with misfortunes, difficulties and hindrances, and said, ‘and you will know it before you leave this place,’ exhorting them to humble themselves before the Lord and become united, that they might not be scourged.” Many of them did not listen, however, and the next day nearly every horse was sick or lame. As the men finally heeded the Prophet’s counsel to humble themselves and resolve their discord, the horses were healed by noon, except for Sylvester Smith’s, who died soon thereafter.

Other conditions were also dangerous. News of the camp’s march preceded it, and there were nearly always angry mobs who wished to attack them and keep them from reaching Jackson County. Spies who tried to ascertain the camp’s number generally counted hundreds more than there really were: the Lord protected His people in many ways and on numerous occasions. One June morning, as they were just outside of Richmond, a slave woman told them, “There is a company of men lying in wait here, who are calculating to kill you this morning as you pass through.”  The men did not see anyone. However, they were unable to travel as far as they had hoped to that day, due to broken wagon wheels, so they camped just outside of Clay County on a hill between two branches of the Fishing River.

There was to be no peace, though, as five armed men rode into camp swearing that the group would “see hell before morning.” They told the Mormons a mob of nearly 400 was ready to cross the river and “utterly destroy the Mormons.” The Saints could hear gunfire, and, though some of the company wanted to fight, Joseph declared, “Stand still and see the salvation of God.” Shortly after the five men left, a small, black cloud appeared out of the clear sky, moving quickly towards them and growing all the time. Only one ferry load of the mob was able cross the river before the storm broke with such intensity it forced the Saints from their camp. They took refuge in a nearby Baptist meetinghouse. Surely the men felt what Joseph declared, “Boys, there is some meaning to this. God is in this storm.” The storm kept the mobbers away, and the men did not have to fight.

As the Saints in Missouri continued petitioning Governor Daniel Dunklin for help, he acknowledged they had been sorely wronged and that he would try to help them. Zion’s Camp finally reached Missouri, and Joseph sent Orson Hyde and Parley P. Pratt to speak with the governor and see if he was still willing to honor his promise to help the Saints. He was however, as Parley noted, a coward, and refused to stand up against the mobs to reinstate the Saints to their homes. The Saints who had been thrown out of Jackson County continued meeting with other Jackson County citizens striving to come to an arrangement whereby they could repossess their lands, but more than one of these men remarked that they would by no means allow the Mormons to return. They were robbed of all their possessions and were not compensated in any way for the loss of their land, homes, or property.

At the end of their journey, on June 22, Joseph received a revelation from the Lord expressing His dissatisfaction with the Saints’ disobedience and refusal to help the poor among them. The Lord instructed Joseph that Zion’s Camp would not fight, because the Saints as a group had proven they were not ready to build Zion. Thus, the Lord declared, they would not have their lands restored at that time. However, concerning those who had served faithfully in Zion’s Camp, He said, “I have heard their prayers, and will accept their offering; and it is expedient in me that they should be brought thus far for a trial of their faith.” Indeed, coming so far and not fighting was too much for some of the group, who apostatized. Due to their insubordination, the Lord struck them with a devastating scourge of cholera. Sixty-eight people, including Joseph, were infected with the disease, and fourteen died. Joseph told the members of the camp that if they would repent and humble themselves, the Lord would not cause the plague to spread any further. They covenanted to repent, and the plague was stayed.

Zion’s Camp was not successful in its attempt to return the exiled Saints to Jackson County, but many noble citizens of Clay County took the Saints in for a time. Any military leader would view Zion’s Camp as a failure, but the Lord had his own purposes in leading the group. The men who participated were able to learn at the Prophet’s feet day after day. They were able to see the Lord work through him, and witnessed mighty miracles. Their faith was tried in many ways, and their testimonies were strengthened as a result. In February 1835, mere months after the dispersion of Zion’s Camp, the Quorums of the Twelve and the Seventy were organized, and nine of the twelve Apostles, as well as all of the members of the Seventy were men who had served the Lord in Zion’s Camp. Joseph remarked,

“God did not want you to fight. He could not organize his kingdom with twelve men to open the gospel door to the nations of the earth, and with seventy men under their direction to follow in their tracks, unless he took them from a body of men who had offered their lives, and who had made as great a sacrifice as did Abraham.”

There were many who viewed Zion’s Camp as a disaster, but, interestingly enough, none of those pessimists were members of the camp. Brigham Young responded to one such man who asked what Brigham had gained from the experience, “I would not exchange the knowledge I have received this season for the whole of Geauga County.”

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