In 1831, Latter-day Saints began to gather to Jackson County, Missouri, hoping to build the New Jerusalem, or the city of Zion, which the Lord had informed them would be built in that place (see D&C 57:2–3). There they hoped to prosper in peace and await the glorious advent of the Son of God. Two years later their neighbors expelled them. The Zion’s Camp efforts to return the Saints to Jackson County crumbled in 1834, followed four years later by their expulsion from the entire state.
This perplexing question led to frustration for many early members and to apostasy for others. But those who possessed faith in the Lord and His promises gradually acquired a deeper understanding of Zion and discovered that before the city of Zion could be completely established, there were many lessons to be learned and gospel principles to be more diligently lived.
As Latter-day Saints prepared in 1831 to gather to Missouri, the Lord warned them of Satan’s efforts to incite others against them: “Satan putteth it into their hearts to anger against you” (D&C 63:28). A year later, the Prophet Joseph Smith, observing hostile conditions in Jackson County, received a revelation for the members there on the same point (see D&C 82:5). Yet Satan’s influence could have been reduced and perhaps much violence avoided if Latter-day Saints there had done what the Lord requested: “to be a light unto the Gentiles” (D&C 86:11; D&C 103:9).
David Whitmer, the leader of a settlement eight miles west of Independence and one who suffered through the Jackson County troubles, said that some of the Latter-day Saints “were continually making boasts to the Jackson county people that they intended to possess the entire county, erect a temple, etc. This of course occasioned hard feelings and excited the bitter jealousy” of their neighbors.1 In December 1833 Brother William W. Phelps, a Church leader in Missouri, wrote to the Prophet in Kirtland, lamenting the “gloomy” prospects of the exiled people, whom he thought were victims largely of their own imprudence. “I know it was right that we should be driven out of the land of Zion,” he confided, “that the rebellious might be sent away.”2 He noted that even amidst their suffering, when the members “are discreet, little or no persecution is felt.”3
When the Missouri Saints inquired of the Prophet Joseph Smith to know why such great persecution had come upon them, the Lord said, “They have been afflicted in consequence of their transgression” (D&C 101:2). He reproached them for the “jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them” (D&C 101:6). The Lord also said that “many, but not all, … were found transgressors, therefore they must needs be chastened” (D&C 101:41). They further learned from this revelation that their failure to promptly build a temple in Jackson County, as had been commanded by the Lord (see D&C 57:3; D&C 58:57; D&C 84:3–5), was an additional cause for receiving the Lord’s chastisement (see also D&C 101:75; D&C 105:9–13). The Lord later reiterated that the Missouri Saints “did not hearken altogether unto the precepts and commandments which I gave unto them” (D&C 103:4) and that “Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the celestial kingdom” (D&C 105:5). When Latter-day Saints gathered to Clay County later, the Lord instructed them to “talk not of judgments, neither boast of faith nor of mighty works” but to be sensitive to “the feelings of the people” and find “favor and grace in their eyes” (D&C 105:24–25).
What other factors contributed to the Saints’ situation in Jackson County? The noted author Washington Irving traveled to Jackson County in 1832 and wrote that the “fertility of all this Western country is truly astonishing.” He also noted the unrefined character of many of its settlers. From Independence he wrote, “We have gradually been advancing … toward rougher and rougher life.”4 Independence was a frontier village and had a robust and sometimes lawless quality.
John C. McCoy, a county resident, wrote that the incoming Latter-day Saints and their neighbors were acutely dissimilar: “I will only say now that since the world began no two classes of people were ever before thrown together who were so thoroughly and completely unfitted to live together in peace and friendship.” In some ways, he said, “they were as wide apart as the poles.”5
Latter-day Saint religious beliefs were seen by many Missourians as peculiar. Beliefs in spiritual gifts and revelation, in being an elect people, in following a prophet, in claiming a commission from God, and in angelic visitations aroused ridicule from many.
The enthusiasm of some members for establishing the city of Zion generated tension. Sometimes this inordinate zeal to possess the valuable lands of their neighbors and to spread the gospel message greatly annoyed early settlers, who feared that members might even use violence to acquire the land.
Economic patterns separated them. Church members were seen as clannish. They did not purchase goods from the local merchants, as they had no money, but traded among themselves at the Church storehouse. This and the economic system the Church followed there—the law of consecration, wherein Bishop Edward Partridge distributed Church lands to the Saints—added to the unrest.6
Most local settlers had come from the plantation culture of the South. Their mannerisms of speech, dress, and other social conventions differed greatly from Latter-day Saints coming from the industrial and small farm society of the North. Brother W. W. Phelps observed in a July 1831 letter from Independence that “the inhabitants are emigrants from Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, the Carolinas, &c. with customs, manners, modes of living and a climate entirely different from northerners, and they hate yankees worse than snakes.”7 Though seemingly innocent, these differences fostered suspicion and distrust.
Slavery, a practice that separated the two peoples culturally, became a source of excited anxiety and a pretext, or at least an excuse, for hostility. When Brother Phelps published an article in the July 1833 Evening and Morning Star titled “Free People of Color,” many settlers protested to this and other items printed in the newspaper by tearing down the Church printing house.
All of the above suggested potential loss of political control in the county and aroused enmity among the leading class of residents who wanted control for themselves. “It requires no gift of prophecy to tell that the day is not far distant,” stated a mob complaint, “when the Civil government of the county will be in their hands.”8
Yet despite their cultural differences and the weaknesses and misjudgments of the Missouri members, the cruel and illegal atrocities perpetrated against Latter-day Saints by mobs and others cannot be justified.
Many of the expelled members in Missouri were faithful individuals whom the Lord called His “friends” (D&C 103:1; D&C 105:26). To them the Lord said, “He that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven” (D&C 58:2) and “Zion shall not be moved out of her place, notwithstanding her children are scattered” (D&C 101:17).
The Lord did not reveal all the reasons why this attempt failed, though He disclosed some. In His infinite wisdom, He knew what would occur in Missouri and also knows when the city of Zion will be established there. In a revelation just a few days after the Prophet Joseph Smith’s first arrival there, the Lord told His faithful Saints, “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God. … For after much tribulation come the blessings. … [And] for this cause I have sent you … that you might be honored in laying the foundation [of Zion]” (D&C 58:3–4, 6–7). Thus, the early Saints had the privilege of performing an important foundation-laying work for the future establishment of the city of Zion.
The early Missouri experience teaches vital lessons: (1) the omniscience and far-seeing nature of God, (2) the central requirement for each member to live all the teachings of the Lord, (3) the urgency of building temples when commanded by the Lord, (4) the need to be nonthreatening, personally and culturally, to others, (5) the unnecessary sad fruits of engaging in zealous statements about doctrines and prophecies of the kingdom of God. The leaders of the Church continue to teach that followers of the Lord worldwide are to be people of goodness, meekness, and wisdom. Wherever they live, they are called both to love the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength and also to love their neighbors as themselves. For the Lord has said, “This is Zion—THE PURE IN HEART“ (D&C 97:21).
“Lessons from the past can quicken our memories, touch our lives, and direct our actions. We are prompted to pause and remember.”
President Thomas S. Monson of the First Presidency, “Your Eternal Voyage,” Ensign, May 2000, 47.