Historian Jedediah S. Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey recently co-edited a collection of essays on Latter-day Saint environmental history entitled The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden. In the volume, contributors explore the relationship between members of the church and the places they settled.
Editor Matthew Godfrey has written extensively about the early years of the church and lends additional light on how these connections were both physical and theological.
In this episode, join us for Matthew Godfrey’s perspective on the early Latter-day Saint quest to obtain and redeem a promised land.
About Our Guest: Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also a member of the Church History Department Editorial Board. Matthew holds a PhD in American and public history from Washington State University. Before joining the project, he was president of Historical Research Associates, a historical and archeological consulting firm headquartered in Missoula, Montana.
Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast
Episode 108: The Latter-day Saints and Zion with Matthew C. Godfrey
Released June 12, 2019
This is not a verbatim transcript.
Some wording has been modified for clarity.
Laura Harris Hales: Historian Jedediah S. Rogers and Matthew C. Godfrey recently co-edited a collection of essays on Latter-day Saint environmental history entitled The Earth Will Appear as the Garden of Eden. In the volume, contributors explore the relationship between members of the church and the places they settled.
Editor Matthew Godfrey has written extensively about the early years of the church and lends additional light on how these connections were both physical and theological.
In this episode, join us for Matthew Godfrey’s perspective on the early Latter-day Saint quest to obtain and redeem a promised land.
Laura Harris Hales: Hello, this is Laura Harris Hales, and I am here today with Matthew Godfrey from the Church History Department. Matthew, we have spoken before. In fact, it was one of my favorite podcasts to research. It was about the Utah–Idaho Sugar Company. But to those who may not have listened to that episode yet, can you remind us about your educational experience and what you do professionally?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Sure. I have a PhD in history from Washington State University where I studied American and public history, and I’m currently the managing historian and a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers Project with the Church History Department of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Laura Harris Hales: We are going to talk today about something that we don’t talk about very often. It’s a little off the trodden path. We’re going to talk about the Latter-day Saint relationship with the environment. How did you become interested in this topic?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Before I was working at the Joseph Smith Papers, I was a historical consultant in Missoula, Montana, and I did several projects for the federal government that touched on environmental history. I did studies for the National Parks Service and the Army Corps of Engineers and got interested in environmental history that way. Then a few years ago, in 2012, I think, one of the renowned environmental historians in the United States, Mark Fiege, published a book that’s called The Republic of Nature where he took several events in American history and looked at them through the lens of environmental history. He was taking events such as Brown vs. Board of Education and the building of the transcontinental railroad and looking at what we can learn, what insights we can gain, from these things if we look at the human interactions with nature surrounding these events.
It was a nontraditional approach to some of these topics in American history, and it just fascinated me. Having done studies in Latter-day Saint history with the sugar beet industry, it made me think that it would be great if more historians were looking at events in Latter-day Saint history with that environmental history lens as well.
I contacted Jed Rogers, who is an old friend and colleague of mine who is an environmental historian, and we put together a session for the 2013 Mormon History Association conference. John Alley of the University of Utah Press was at that session and approached us afterward and asked if we’d be interested in editing an anthology of essays about environmental history and the Latter-day Saints. We were very interested in it, so that’s how we got started on the project.
Laura Harris Hales: I’m not going to touch on every chapter, but I’m going to touch on a couple. One of them is yours, but I’m going to start with your co-editor’s chapter. He does a chapter on the historiography of Latter-day Saint history, which for non-history speakers is what?
Matthew C. Godfrey: It’s basically the study of what historians have written already about the subject.
Laura Harris Hales: When we were talking before, I said that is mostly what historians like rather than regular people. And you responded, “Well, we wrote the book for the historians.” However, I was able to glean some stuff out of that chapter that I found fascinating as a layperson. Jedediah Rogers begins his look at the historiography by calling attention to the shift that came in the study of Latter-day Saint history with Leonard Arrington and the new generation of scholars doing research in the late 20th century who “looked beyond God to explain the arc of the past.” At first, I was like, “Whoa,”
you know, and then I thought about it. What do you think he meant by that statement and how did that change the way Latter-day Saint historians do their job?
Matthew C. Godfrey: It’s an interesting question about an interesting moment in Mormon history. When Leonard Arrington wrote his dissertation at the University of North Carolina, which subsequently became Great Basin Kingdom, his seminal work on the economic history of the Latter-day Saints, he was one of the first Latter-day Saint historians to really look at the past less as, “What is God’s hand in all of this?” and more in terms of what was the context of what was going on in the United States, in Utah territory, at the time that all of these things were happening. It was this method of looking at things such as Joseph Smith and the Word of Wisdom, for example, and saying, “What was going on in the United States at this time that might’ve prompted Joseph Smith to ask questions about health and what we should eat and what we should drink and what we should avoid?”
It was a way of looking at history less as God’s hand is governing everything that’s going on with the Latter-day Saints and more of what’s the fuller context behind these things. I think we know that things don’t happen in a vacuum. There are events that occur in our lives that cause us to ask questions. What I think Arrington and then those who followed in what became known as the New Mormon History were looking at was less of the spiritual aspects of and more of the material aspects of history with the Latter-day Saints.
Laura Harris Hales: Would you say that they infused or reinfused this concept of agency into what these early members of the church were doing? These saints were asking certain questions that lead them in certain directions. It wasn’t just that they were getting revelations out of the blue, and there was no interpretation internally.
Matthew C. Godfrey: Yeah, definitely. I think it really does show how what’s going on around a person’s life influences the questions that they might ask of God. Certainly, I think agency was an important part of it. I think the human aspect of Latter-day Saint history was an important part as well. There are some studies that were done about Joseph Smith and others, and we still see this sometimes today, where Joseph Smith is mythologized and portrayed as this perfect person who almost doesn’t seem human. When you study some of these things about context and agency, it shows that these individuals really aren’t that different from us today.
Laura Harris Hales: Jedediah Rogers also lays a framework that is really important for understanding the choices made by Utahns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He talks about the Utah saints, or the Saints coming to Utah in 1847, as desertifying Zion. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Matthew C. Godfrey: When Jed talks about this, he’s actually using a phrase that Jared Farmer coined in his book On Zion’s Mount, which is an environmental history of Utah Valley and Mt. Timpanogos. What Jared Farmer argued is that when the saints came here in 1847, the Great Basin wasn’t this desolate desert; it was a region where you had Utah Lake to the south, you had the Great Salt Lake, and you had the Jordan River. There were native Americans who were living here who were living off the land and fishing in the lake. It wasn’t a place that was necessarily a barren desert, and desertification of Zion is this myth that the saints in the 19th century began to promote about what the Great Basin was like when they came there—that it was this barren landscape.
They made it blossom like the rose through their righteousness and through their hard work. Now certainly, through their hard work, there was a lot that they had developed here. But I think what Jared and Jed are getting at here is that it wasn’t as barren and as awful of a place as sometimes the saints made it out to be. They looked back on it, and they were perhaps influenced in making this claim by looking at these early years, which really were tough years. They were trying to get crops growing and everything else, and that probably influenced the way that they regarded the valley when they entered it. As they’re looking back on that, they’re thinking, “Boy, those were some tough times. This must’ve been a really barren place when we came here.”
Laura Harris Hales: There’s another idea that he introduces and that’s the idea of the search for land and water. How central is that to the early Latter-day Saint story?
Matthew C. Godfrey: I think certainly the search for land is very central to the early Latter-day Saints, and it all revolves around the notion of the gathering of Israel. The Latter-day Saints really did perceive themselves as a modern-day Israel. They were to gather the lost tribes of Israel together, gather the elect, and build up Zion. Everyone would gather by design, and they’d build a temple. Jesus Christ would return again. But in order to be able to have a place for the elect to come to, you had to have land to do that. So, they started talking about the gathering. This is present in Joseph Smith’s revelations early on—this idea that you’re supposed to gather Israel together, and you need land to do that.
Laura Harris Hales: This envisioning themselves as the Israelites in a modern-day situation really goes back to their attachment to the Old Testament, right? That’s what the Old Testament is about—the Israelites trying to find the Land of Promise. You’re such an expert on their early period of the church. Do you see them being a chosen people looking for their promise land?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Yeah, definitely. It’s interesting because we look at these early saints, and we think that they’re most attracted to the restored church because they see in it the restoration of the New Testament church, the church that Jesus Christ set up. Certainly, it is a factor, but they’re also attracted to Joseph Smith reaching back into the Old Testament and restoring a lot of Old Testament practices and identifying with the Israelites of the Old Testament. They certainly saw themselves as individuals who would fulfill prophecies of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah about how Israel would be gathered in the last days and that they would be the means of helping to gather the elect together. This spoke to a lot of them. It was something that they found very attractive about the restored gospel.
Laura Harris Hales: Of course, this metaphor is amplified as they leave Nauvoo and cross the plains calling Brigham Young the Modern-Day Moses. There’s that tie to the ancient Israelites fleeing Egypt into what is a desert. They’re going to make it blossom as the rose.
Let’s talk about your chapter now. It’s called “The Natural World and the Establishment of Zion, 1831–33.” What were some of the prevailing 19th-century, Judeo-Christian views of man’s relationship to the land?
Matthew C. Godfrey: You know, it’s very interesting. They had views that were prevalent in the United States at this time about the necessity to develop land. I think there were these tendencies to view areas that were not developed as wilderness—wild areas and places with trees and forests and animals. They’d view those as almost evil and believed that they were places where devils or demons might dwell. The way to really make those locations redeemed or to redeem those locations would be to cut down the trees, plant crops, and cultivate it through agriculture. This comes out with Thomas Jefferson’s views at the time of agrarianism and the importance of agriculture in helping people reach a higher spiritual state. There was something about cultivating the land that brought you closer to God. Both the Latter-day Saints and Americans in general at the time believed that the best way to utilize land would be to cultivate it to plant crops and to harvest those crops. That was the way that you could use the land to its highest potential.
Laura Harris Hales: It’s interesting that in Protestant and American culture, the Old Testament Bible, Adam Eve, and the book of Genesis are so inculcated. Another thing that you brought up were the Puritan ideas that settled America. What did that have to do with the Garden of Eden and how persistent did that linger in American culture?
Matthew C. Godfrey: When the Puritans come over to the United States from England and other locations in Europe, they’re really seeing their settlement as being a way to establish what they would call the “city on a hill.” As John Winthrop put it—a place where other people would be able to perceive what they were doing, what they were establishing, and say, “This is the ideal spiritual society.” They were trying to create a community that would be an example to other people. I think Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints, many of them from New England, would have been very familiar with Puritan ideas and the necessity of cultivating land. This really becomes key with Joseph Smith and the establishment of Zion. It isn’t that dissimilar from the “city on a hill” that John Winthrop wants to establish. They are both trying to establish communities that will be the shining example of spirituality—a way to show other people this is what you can become if you obey God’s commandments.
Laura Harris Hales: When I was reading that section in your chapter, the song “Now, Let Us Rejoice” came into my head from W.W. Phelps. This was in the first hymnal: “the earth will be like the Garden of Eden.” I thought, okay, that’s what they’re singing and that’s what they’re thinking.
We have these twin ideas of Moses looking for the promised land and also a Garden of Eden. A new Jerusalem is mentioned in the Book of Mormon. How early did the saints go about building a Zion community and calling it the New Jerusalem?
Matthew C. Godfrey: This idea of the New Jerusalem is prevalent very early on because the Book of Mormon talks about a New Jerusalem that would be built on the American continent. When Joseph Smith is doing his translation of the Bible in the early 1830s, part of the revelation that he receives, from that which we have now as the book of Moses in the Pearl of Great Price talks about Enoch, this Old Testament prophet, who establishes the Zion Community. These ideas of Zion were very prevalent in those things. They were also mentioned in several of Joseph Smith’s revelations. From the organization of the church in 1830 and even earlier than that, Joseph Smith and others are thinking about what to do to establish Zion. Where is it going to be and what do we need to do to establish the Zion community? In the summer of 1831, Joseph Smith receives a revelation, which is section 57 in the Doctrine and Covenants that talks about the city of Zion that would be built in Jackson County, Missouri, and that Independence would be the center place of the city of Zion. It’s really after that revelation is given in July of 1831 that the saints actively begin building this New Jerusalem, the city of Zion, in Jackson County.
Laura Harris Hales: What factors would have influenced Missouri as a choice for the New Jerusalem?
Matthew C. Godfrey: There are a couple of reasons why they chose Missouri. One reason, and this actually gets back to a spiritual aspect, but it is a key reason for them, is that early revelations told them that Zion would be built among the Lamanites. The Latter-day Saints at the time interpreted Lamanites to mean the American Indians who they believed were descendants of the Lamanites. They were looking at working with the American Indian groups to build the city of Zion. West of Missouri’s border was unorganized territory where a couple of different Indian tribes had been relocated by the federal government. One reason why they’re looking at Missouri is because they go out to this unorganized territory to begin preaching to these groups, but they don’t have the necessary licenses to preach to native Americans. You had to have a license from the federal government to do that.
They’re actually kicked out of Missouri. They’re told: “You can’t preach here.” They go over the western border of Missouri into Jackson County, and they began to preach the gospel to people in Independence. There’s this practical reason why they chose Jackson county because Oliver Cowdery and others were already there preaching the gospel, and it was close to this unorganized territory where these Indian groups lived. Another aspect is that this really was a beautiful place. You have people, who aren’t members of the church, that later on say, “Well, it’s no wonder that the saints chose this area to live in because it’s one of the most beautiful and most productive agricultural areas in the United States at the time
Laura Harris Hales: You have mentioned a few things in this interview that have come together to influence why they would go to Missouri. You said they wanted to be by the Indians. They wanted to be in the wilderness. They needed to have empty land, and it had to be beautiful so it could be what they imagined the Garden of Eden would be to set their “city on the hill.”
I found it interesting that we start hearing this discussion of a wilderness blossoming as a rose, which we associate with Utah during this period. What were Joseph and other church leaders saying about this process of taming the wilderness?
Matthew C. Godfrey: It gets back to these Judeo-Christian notions of agricultural development being the highest use of the land. What they were thinking was, “Okay, here’s this location. It’s a beautiful location.” Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and others describe Jackson County as beautiful, but despite its beauty, it still needs to be developed, so it can fulfill this higher use. They’re saying, “This place is beautiful, but we still need to plant crops. We need to develop the land. We need to bring in seeds of plants that we are growing in Ohio and plant them here so that it looks more like the eastern United States where we’re from. When we do that, we’re really redeeming the land. We’re helping the earth reach its spiritual potential.” That’s why you get them talking about the wilderness. You would not necessarily associate “blossoming like a rose” with this fertile location, but they’re talking about agricultural development.
Laura Harris Hales: Geographer Richard Francaviglia says, “This settlement expansion scenario was part of an intense religious drama unfolding in which the Latter-day Saints envisioned themselves playing a central role as modern-day Israelites helping to restore the gospel of Jesus, which Joseph Smith claimed had been lost through neglect and willful disobedience. You showed how that was manifest in the early days of the church.
Matthew C. Godfrey: It really is this notion of gathering the elect and creating this new Jerusalem. This is a Zion community where the elect can come and be gathered, so that Jesus Christ can return.
Laura Harris Hales: This next part of your chapter is so fascinating because if you look at the revelations from this period, much of the language employed I recognized as modern temple language. What does this say about how the saints viewed their various settlement projects during the 19th century?
Matthew C. Godfrey: I think one thing it says is that they really viewed the land and nature as ways that they could tie themselves to God; nature was very important in their relationship with God. When they have these settlement projects, whether it’s in Missouri, whether it’s in Nauvoo, or whether it’s in the Great Basin, how they treat the land and how they interact with the land is key to their relationship with God and vice versa. How the land produces, for them, is dependent on their own righteousness, so it can show God’s approval of them. If they’re obeying the commandments and are doing the things that they should do, then God will bless them with the abundance of the earth. It’s because of this mutual relationship that they treat the land well. They interacted with it in the way that they believed would allow the land to reach its highest potential. They keep God’s commandments, and if they do that, then their communities will flourish and will be blessed with the abundance of the earth.
Laura Harris Hales: A lot of our listeners have probably read the book Saints that came out last year and remember that the first attempt at building Zion didn’t go all that well. Can you briefly review the experience that they had?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Sure. They start having people move to Zion in July of 1831. By 1833, there’s about 1200 saints who are living in Zion, in Jackson County, Missouri, and they’re not the only ones there. There are people who were already living there who were not members of the church. As more and more saints moved to the area, these people became fearful of the saints becoming so great in numbers that they would dominate politically. Most of the saints were from northern states, and these settlers who were not members of the church were mainly from southern states.
There were some cultural differences as well. All of this coupled with the fact that I think some Latter-day Saints probably unwisely would say things to those who weren’t members of the church about how this is going to be our land and is the land God has given to us infuriated people. In July of 1833, a mob attacked the saints’ printing shop that W. W. Phelps was running and destroyed it. They tarred and feathered Bishop Edward Partridge, and they made the church leaders promise that half of them would leave Jackson county by the 1st of January 1834 and the other half by April of 1834. The saints agreed to this, but then they began to look at legal recourse, so they could keep their lands. When the nonmembers in Jackson County found out that they were looking into legal ways to stay in the county, this made them furious. They attacked the saints’ communities at the end of October of 1833, and during the first week of November, they drove the saints out of the county. Most of the members went across the Missouri River into Clay County, Missouri.
Laura Harris Hales: At this time there were really two church centers, one in Jackson County and one in Kirtland. So, couriers are sent to Kirtland to tell Joseph and the other leaders what has happened. Let’s talk about the law of consecration because I think a thorough understanding of that and how it was practiced at that time is crucial to understanding what the saints were thinking both in Missouri and back in Kirtland when this tragedy occurred.
Matthew C. Godfrey: The law of consecration comes in a revelation that’s given to Joseph in February of 1831. What it essentially tells the saints is that in order for the church to have money to help the poor and needy and to have money to buy land for Zion, the saints need to consecrate their properties to the church. This really only works in Missouri. They try to implement it to some degree in Ohio, but it doesn’t really work. There are elements of the law of consecration that are present in Ohio, but they don’t really attempt to live it to its fullest extent in Ohio. What would happen is if you were told to move to Missouri, to settle there, you were supposed to sell the lands that you had, take that money with you to Missouri, and you would give that money to Bishop Edward Partridge. He would give you an inheritance, which is what they termed a plot of land, that you could then develop and cultivate. Edward Partridge could then take that money and buy additional lands so that more people could move there. Those who could not afford to purchase land somewhere else or didn’t have any money, because they didn’t have any land, would be able to get an inheritance.
Laura Harris Hales: But it goes even deeper than that. How did a physical parcel of land tie someone directly to God, both in this life and the hereafter?
Matthew C. Godfrey: That’s one of the interesting things key in building the city of Zion and key in the law of consecration. When you got this inheritance, this plot of land, it showed that God approved of you, and your name would be recorded in the records that would be kept in heaven. Joseph Smith in November of 1832 writes a letter to William W. Phelps because Phelps asked him, “What should we do about people who are moving to Missouri, but they’re not consecrating their property? Should we still give them an inheritance?” And Joseph says, “No, if they’re not consecrating their property, they don’t get an inheritance, and their names will not be recorded in the kingdom of heaven.” The inheritance really becomes a physical way of tying yourself to God. If you have an inheritance, it shows that you’ve lived the law of consecration, that you are living the commandments, and that God approves of you, which becomes very key in your relationship with God.
I think that’s one reason why the saints are so upset when they’re driven from Jackson County. Another reason, of course, is just because they’re supposed to build the city of Zion there. But this other reason is because these inheritances, these plots of land that tie them to God are in Jackson County, and now the saints no longer possess them. I think that’s why they work really hard to try to get their land back and why this notion of returning to Jackson county where these inheritances are has such a long life among Latter-day Saints. Throughout the 19th century, Brigham Young is always talking about returning to Jackson County and even today you still hear people talk about returning there. I think part of that is because of this notion of these plots of land tying you to God, which is a way for God to show his approval of you.
Laura Harris Hales: In preparation for this interview, you were gracious enough to send me a couple of articles you had written on Zion’s Camp, which I think ties in really well here. We can try to understand this relationship with the land, what they were thinking when they went to Missouri, and why they had difficulties. We call this Zions Camp, but what did they call it in the 1830s?
Matthew C. Godfrey: They refer to it as the Camp of Israel. Again, reflecting this Old Testament understanding that they had. They were identifying themselves as Israelites.
Laura Harris Hales: How well is this Camp of Israel documented?
Matthew C. Godfrey: You know, there’s not a lot of contemporary sources. There were later reminiscent sources about it. It was something that really affected the people who went on this expedition. They looked back on it as a key spiritual moment in their lives. A lot of people later on wrote about it and their experiences, but these are 30, 40, or 50 years after the Camp of Israel occurred. That’s where we get most of our information about it.
Laura Harris Hales: They’re writing these reminiscences 30 and 40 years later. What factors could have influenced how they remembered the incident?
Matthew C. Godfrey: There are a lot of things that go into how we remember things and a lot of it depends on what’s going on in our lives at the time that we’re remembering something that has happened in the past. What we’ve experienced since that time is important. Sometimes events will take on different meanings to us as we age and as we experience different things. Many of these people had been church members who were driven out of Missouri and Nauvoo, had come to the Salt Lake Valley, and had seen the federal government continue, in their minds, to persecute them because of their practice of plural marriage. These notions of always facing persecution are key for them.
When they think back about Zion’s Camp, they’re thinking a lot about this experience that they had and how they saw God’s hand help them through this trial of walking this great distance to Missouri, having mobs try to prevent them from going to Missouri, and how God helped them with those things. I think as they’re reflecting back on their entire life experience, they’re seeing what happens in Zion’s Camp as a time when they did see God’s hand in their lives, when they were able to get closer to God, and when he protected them from some of these persecutions.
Laura Harris Hales: Let’s get past some of the folklore before we get down to the nitty gritty. We’ve heard that they had no money. Do we know how well the group was funded?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Yes, we do. Outside sources, meaning members of the church who didn’t go on the expedition, contributed about $300, which isn’t a lot of money. And actually, almost half of that came from one woman, Pauline Vost, who lived in Massachusetts. She contributed $150 herself. All of the members were told that they needed to consecrate their money into a general fund. Most of the Camp of Israel was funded through the donations of the people actually participating in it. There was roughly about $1,600 that was contributed through the consecration of this money.
Laura Harris Hales: Was that a lot of money? Was that sufficient?
Matthew C. Godfrey: It was adequate. They weren’t living high on the hog on this trip, but they generally had enough food to eat. There were some stretches, especially when they’re crossing prairies, where they don’t have too much to eat, but for the most part, they had adequate food.
Laura Harris Hales: You know how we’ve all played this through our minds. I imagined a chuck wagon doing dinners, but I’ve learned from your chapter that they were pretty much in charge of getting their own meals. Is that correct?
Matthew C. Godfrey: Yeah. The camp was divided up into different companies. Companies have about 10 to 12 people each and each company was responsible for their own food. The captain of the company would get money from the general fund and was supposed to buy provisions for their company.
Laura Harris Hales: Okay, silly me. I don’t know how I got this into my head, but I thought the Camp of Israel was going to redeem the lands. What was the actual goal? Did they have a specific goal in assembling these men and traversing miles to Missouri?
Matthew C. Godfrey: They did, and it’s not so silly that you have that in your head because the revelation that commands the formation of the Camp of Israel talks about this parable of a nobleman whose land is overrun by the enemies. He calls up the strength of the Lord’s House to go redeem the land. When we read that, we think, “Oh, this is what the Camp of Israel is supposed to do.” I think Joseph Smith and other church leaders, though, had a more moderate plan for the Camp of Israel. What they were hoping would happen is that when they got to Missouri, they would petition the governor of Missouri, Daniel Dunklin to call up the state militia, and the state militia would then escort the saints back to their lands in Jackson County. Once that had happened, the state militia couldn’t stay mustered to protect the saints. Once they were restored to the lands, the members of the Camp of Israel would then remain in Jackson county to protect the saints from being driven off of their lands again. That was really the primary purpose of it.
Laura Harris Hales: So, no battles are planned,
Matthew C. Godfrey: No battles were planned. They had weapons with them that they carried, but Joseph Smith and others on a few different occasions reiterated that they’re carrying weapons for defensive purposes—only in case of being attacked. They’re not planning on attacking anyone themselves.
Laura Harris Hales: This wasn’t a secret caravan. What did the Missourians think about the approach of the Camp of Israel?
Matthew C. Godfrey: I think it scared them because no matter how many times the Latter-day Saints said, “this is just a defensive measure,” I think they thought there’s this huge group of people coming here that are armed. We know we just kicked their people off of these lands, so they’re going to come attack us and try to get these lands back. You have people in Jackson County and neighboring Lafayette County that raise a number of people to try to protect those citizens in Jackson County. You also have accounts in newspapers of people saying if the saints cross the Missouri River and come into Jackson County, then they’re going to get a battle, and there’s going to be a lot of bloodshed. I think the Missourians prepared themselves for an attack from the Camp of Israel because that’s what they thought they were going to do.
Laura Harris Hales: You told us about the pie in the sky desire of the Camp of Israel, but the current sitting governor of Missouri, Governor Dunklin, sees several options for settling what he called the “Mormon problem.” What were those?
Matthew C. Godfrey: So at the time that the Camp of Israel is marching, there was actually a delegation of citizens from Jackson County and a delegation of Latter-day Saint leaders and Clay County leaders who were meeting together to try to figure out how to resolve the saints being kicked out of the county. There were different proposals that were made. The settlers of Jackson County said, “Well, we’ll pay you for your lands, and then you can just live somewhere else.” The saints didn’t want to do this because they didn’t want to sell their lands because, again, they’re these inheritances that tied them to God. The saints came back and said, “How about if you sell your lands to us for one and a half times the value of your land.” The settlers of Jackson County said, “No, we don’t want to do that because we don’t want to move. We want to stay here.” These negotiations continued, and I think one reason why Governor Dunklin doesn’t call up the state militia when the saints requested him to do so is because he wanted to see how these negotiations played out before he took what he considered to be a drastic step of calling the militia out.
Laura Harris Hales: You mentioned that the law of consecration, this belief, really hindered the saints in their ability to find a compromise, right?
Matthew C. Godfrey: This notion that they needed to keep these lands and couldn’t sell them was something that I think made it impossible for them to reach an agreement with the settlers in Jackson County. If the saints had been willing to sell their lands, then I think they could have gotten some compensation for the lands. But Joseph Smith had been very specific in telling Edward Partridge, “Don’t sell the lands. We need to hang on to these lands.” They end up doing so until after they’re kicked out of the entire state of Missouri, which happens in 1838 and 1839. At that time, they began to sell off some of the lands in Jackson County. But before that time, they said, “Nope, we’re not going to sell the lands. They’re ours. We’re going to hang onto them because someday we’ll go back, and we’ll get those lands again.”
Laura Harris Hales: Why did Joseph Smith disband the camp?
Matthew C. Godfrey: When they are approaching Clay County, Missouri, there’s a delegation of men, representatives from Ray County and Clay County, that come into the camp and tell Joseph about this large group of people that are gathering on the other side of the Missouri River to attack the Camp of Israel should they cross the river. And they basically tell Joseph, “If you keep going into Jackson County, there’s going to be bloodshed, there’s going to be attacks that happen.” Joseph is thinking about that. He’s also sent Parley P. Pratt and Orson Hyde to consult with Governor Dunklin. Governor Dunklin tells them, “We’re not going to call up the state militia.” That ends that plan. Joseph has these things going on in his mind, but he’s willing to continue marching on. But he ultimately gets a revelation, section 105 in the Doctrine and Covenants, that tells him that it’s not time for the Camp of Israel to redeem Zion. They’ve come this far, but the Lord is not going to require them to redeem Zion at that time. That’s when he begins to disband the camp.
Laura Harris Hales: Earlier when we were talking about the factors that might have influenced reminiscent accounts, you mentioned that they wanted to recall a time in their lives when they had felt God. How did participants see God’s hand in the endeavor itself?
Matthew C. Godfrey: There are a couple of ways that they see God’s hand in what’s going on. One is that as they are going to Missouri, they’re making that sacrifice of their time and their money to do this. I think there’s just some kind of testimony or spiritual experience that they receive that they’re willing to sacrifice for their fellow church members. I think that helps them grasp what God is willing to do for us, for example. I think that teaches them a little bit more about God’s nature. The other thing is that there are some specific experiences they have where they believe that God’s hand really was present.
And one of these is at Fishing River in Clay County, Missouri. They camp there, and they have some people that come into the camp and tell them that there’s a mob of about 400 men that are going to cross the Fishing River and attack them that night. When these men leave, there’s this huge thunderstorm that springs up in the area. All kinds of rain and hail and wind, and the river rises, according to Heber C. Kimball, 40 feet from the storm. This mob isn’t able to cross the river at that time. And almost all of the participants in the Camp of Israel believed that this was God’s hand protecting them, that he sent the storm so that this mob couldn’t come in and attack them. There were experiences like that where they really saw God’s hand in what was going on.
Laura Harris Hales: In the appendix. You include an address that Elder Marcus B. Nash gave at University of Utah in which he provides a window into current Latter-day Saint beliefs regarding nature and the environment. Why do you think it was important to include his address in your anthology?
Matthew C. Godfrey: I think the primary reason is just that you don’t really see a lot of high church leaders talk about the environment today. This was really a unique occasion where Elder Nash, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, spoke about the environment, spoke about what Latter-day Saint beliefs are about the environment, and spoke about how we should treat the environment. We thought that was important just to get a devotional side to this. Here is a high church leader who’s talking about our responsibility and our stewardship over the environment. And again, because you don’t hear a lot of church leaders talk about this, we felt it was important to include that.
Laura Harris Hales: I thought he brought up one interesting point that I’ve thought about quite a bit. According to Elder Nash, how does Latter-day Saint doctrine establish a different relationship between man and the earth than other Christian religions?
Matthew C. Godfrey: He talks about a couple of things here. As a preface, back in 1967 there was a scholar named Lynn White Jr. who said that most of the environmental problems throughout the world were caused because of the Judeo-Christian religious tradition. That religious tradition, and the notions of man having dominion over the environment was really one of the causes or the major cause for environmental degradation. But Elder Nash’s talk emphasizes that as Latter-day Saints, we believe that all living creations were created by God and that animals and plants even have souls. They are creations that we need to respect, just like we respect human life. I think that’s one teaching that differentiates us from others. One of the other things that Elder Nash talks about is that the gospel teaches us that we need to get rid of selfishness and selfish desires. Key in treating the earth well and creating a good environment is making sure that it’s a decent place to live for generations that follow. It is putting our own selfish desires aside so that those generations that follow have an earth where they can live and enjoy the scenery and the beauty of it just as much as we do.
Laura Harris Hales: Also interesting is our view of the afterlife and where we’ll be at that time.
Matthew C. Godfrey: Certainly, we believe that the earth will reach a celestial state where those in the celestial kingdom will live. That’s another key part—our interactions with the earth help the earth reach its celestial destiny. Just like you would help your fellow human being try to increase their spirituality, you help people along in their journey to the celestial kingdom. We should do the same for the earth because it’s going through that same journey.
Laura Harris Hales: In Sarah Dant’s chapter, she mentioned that in Utah saints worshiped in the fields as much as they did in their buildings of worship, which goes right along with what you just said and what Elder Nash brought up.
I got so much insight from reading your chapter and the articles that you sent me. This is so crucial to have context when we are trying to think of the early church because it’s such a foreign time to us.
What would you like Latter-day Saints to take from this discussion?
Matthew C. Godfrey: I think what I’d like Latter-day Saints to take away from this is just that it is important how we interact with the earth The way the early saints interacted with it was key in the earth’s redemption. The same can be said for us today. We might not believe today that the way that we have to interact with the earth is to plant crops and develop it agriculturally, but, certainly, the way that we treat the earth and the things that we do to make sure that it is still beautiful for generations to come is not only important for the next generations but also it is an important part of our own spirituality and our relationship to God. So, that’s what I hope Latter-day Saints get from this.
Laura Harris Hales: Thank you, Matt.
Matthew C. Godfrey: Thanks, Laura. I appreciate it.
Disclaimer: Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The opinions expressed on this episode represent the views of the guests and the podcaster alone, and Latter-day Saint Perspectives Podcast and its parent organization may or may not agree with them. While the ideas presented may vary from traditional understandings or teachings, they in no way reflect criticism of Latter-day Saint Church leaders, policies, or practices.