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How Did Early Latter-day Saints React to D&C 76?

Even such stalwarts as Brigham Young struggled a little when they first read “the Vision.”

Joseph Smith recognized that preparation to receive an expansive view of the afterlife as presented in the Vision was still limited. Later, he acknowledged: “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me in the vision, were I permitted, and were the people prepared to receive them.”


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Book series. This is an excerpt from Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations. Read the book for the full story.

The book cover for Mark Staker's publication, "Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith's Ohio Revelations"
Mark Staker’s book includes the reaction of early Latter-day Saints to D&C 76 which was known at the time as “the Vision.”

Introduction

In other words, although Disciple teachings may have prompted the asking of significant questions, they were still insufficiently prepared for everything Joseph and Sidney saw on February 16, 1832.

What they received in vision at the Johnson home went well beyond what was already being preached to prepare the hearts and minds of believers on the Western Reserve.


“The Vision” becomes public

Despite strict commands to keep their work from the world until the revelations were published, someone leaked the contents of the Vision to the community.

It may have been one of the Church leaders. They were enthusiastic about the new revelation. Joseph believed, “The sublimity of the ideas . . . are so much beyond the narrow-mindedness of men, that every honest man is constrained to exclaim: ‘It came from God.’”

However, the unauthorized source of information was most likely Eli Johnson, who was living in the home at the time.

Learn more about the theology of Doctrine and Covenants Section 76, also called “the Vision.”

Although it is not known who first shared the vision, Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde were proselytizing in New England when, on March 21, they

came across a man by the name of haskin he told us that he had been to kirtland & to Hyram (for he was a Brother) . . . he told us that he had Seen Joseph & Sidney & that they had had a vision & that they had seen great & marveilous things & that they had got a long wonderful well in translating.

Samuel Harrison Smith, Diary, March 21, 1832.

By the beginning of March the word was out.

The next week Seth and Joel Johnson showed up, and Samuel rejoiced for “they had the Vision with them which Joseph & Sidney had seen & we had the privilidge of Reading it.”

Even such stalwarts as Brigham Young struggled a little.

When local members received a printed copy of the revelation in August former Disciple minister Orson Hyde “Explained it unto them.” With Haskin and others traveling about the country sharing oral and manuscript versions of the Vision, making printed copies of the revelation became important.

In July 1832, as soon as Joseph arrived in Independence, Missouri, where the Mormon paper, the Evening and Morning Star was being published, he had the revelation published for general distribution.

Joseph’s haste to publish a revelation after receiving a strict command to keep it secret may have been an attempt to set the record straight in the light of misinformation distributed in Hiram. But nothing in documents of which I am aware sheds additional light on motives for his decision. Members in Hiram, however, knew at least as much about the Vision in March as Brother Haskin and members in New England.


Initial reactions to Section 76

Not everyone was prepared to receive the revelation with rejoicing. Those who did not come out of the Disciples of Christ movement particularly seemed to question. Even such stalwarts as Brigham Young struggled a little when they first read it:

My traditions were such, that when the Vision came first to me, it was so directly contrary and opposed to my former education, I said, wait a little; I did not reject it, but I could not understand it. I then could feel what incorrect traditions had done for me. Suppose all that I have ever heard from my priest and parents—the way they taught me to read the Bible, had been true;—my understanding would be diametrically opposed to the doctrine revealed in the Vision. . . . I never could believe like the mass of the Christian world around me; but I did not know how nigh I believed as they did. I found, however, that I was so nigh, I could shake hands with them any time I wished.

Brigham Young, “Minutes of Conference,” 52.

And later he added, “[The revelation] was a great trial to many, and some apostatized. . . . It was new doctrine to this generation, and many stumbled at it.”

As John Murdock, a former Disciple of Christ preacher, served a mission in Ohio, he traveled with his companion from Cleveland to Warrenville and from there to Orange “& the brethren had just received the Revilation called the vision & were stumbling at it I called them togather & confirmed them in the truth.”

An entire branch in New York balked at the revelation. The branch president particularly had trouble with it and “Said the vision was of the Devil came from hel & would go there again.”

Orson Pratt helped explain the teachings to the congregation. The disruptions caused by the vision apparently continued for some time. As late as the fall of 1833, the presiding elder in Livingston County, New York, and about twenty-five other members, were excommunicated “for rejecting the vision concerning the three glories.” Murdock presided as the branch was brought back in order.

Although it was consistently former Disciples of Christ leaders among the membership who explained the revelation to others and helped with the transition in theology that took place in the Church at that time, in at least one case a Latter-day Saint who had no connection with the Disciples of Christ comfortably embraced the revelation, including portions Disciples found difficult.

Wilford Woodruff recalled:

I was taught from my childhood that there was one heaven and one hell, and was told that the wicked all had one punishment, and the righteous one glory. . . . I never did believe a word of this doctrine a day since I was born, and I am sure that I never did before; and when I read the vision . . . it enlightened my mind and gave me great joy.

Wilford Woodruff, April 9, 1857, Journal of Discourses, 5:84.

The one element that seemed particularly difficult for most members to accept was the concept that, roughly paraphrased, “the Lord was going to save everybody.”

I renounce my belief in Mormonism.

It had not been preached in Latter-day Saint congregations up to this point and was new doctrine for everyone, even former Disciples. Some members, like the branch president in New York, concluded that it was knowledge plucked from that old tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The tension between the search for scriptural knowledge and the possibility of tempting God by seeking forbidden knowledge was a real one for many Disciples of Christ.

These fears about seeking after prohibited mysteries showed themselves fully several years later in the published speculations of Jesse B. Ferguson. He wrote an article touting a “new discovery” he developed in theology titled “Spirits in Prison” expressing his belief that the Savior had preached to the spirits in prison (1 Pet. 3:18–20) before His resurrection so that they could repent and be redeemed from the fall. “Infants, idiots, and pagans, who have never heard, will hear the gospel before they are condemned by it.”

Such thinking brought a sharp rebuttal from many Disciples who insisted hell was a place of “everlasting burning” and assumed that “Spirit Prison” was the same place.

Ferguson’s ideas were labeled “heresy.”

Campbell criticized:

We should think, indeed, that it must needs be a short mission and a universal conversion. . . . For, who in a place of torment, or in any uncomfortable position in hades, would need much urging to accept an invitation to come out, and to ascend to heaven?

Alexander Campbell, “The Christian Magazine, No. 1,” 393.

Other readers argued that Ferguson’s error was much more grievous than a problem of logic. He had picked one of the difficult subjects to explore.

Isaac Errett wrote from Warren, Ohio: “It is a subject on which our limited faculties, if heedless of the teachings of the Infinite Mind, are sure to mislead us; and our sympathies, unblest with the control of enlightened and sanctified judgment, give birth to theories of monstrous deformity.”

The attacks against Ferguson continued for a year, consistently arguing that the scriptures did not reveal answers to events taking place after this life and that it was heresy to speculate on the afterlife.

Eventually Disciples insisted that those who truly renounced a “belief in Mormonism” acknowledged that God’s children already “had a full, perfect, and clear revelation from God of every thing pertaining to salvation, that we needed not, nor did we expect another; that the age of miracles had passed away.”

Those who mobbed Joseph and Sidney were primarily Latter-day Saints.

The Disciples of Christ newspaper Millennial Harbinger celebrated a former member who announced: “I believe in the prophecies which have been given—I expect no other. I renounce my belief in Mormonism.”


“The Vision” sparks violence

Hiram’s citizens shared the widespread attitudes toward remaining silent about the unknown aspects of the afterlife when Joseph and Sidney received the Vision.

The previous fall, Ezra Booth had denounced the translation of the New Testament with the obvious intention of arousing public ire:

These revelations entirely supercede the Bible, and in fact, the Bible is declared too defective to be trusted, in its present form; and it is designed that it shall undergo a thorough alteration, or as they say, translation. This work is now in operation. The Gospel of St. Matthew has already received the purifying touch, and is prepared for the use of the church. It was intended to have kept this work a profound secret, and strict commandments were given for that purpose; and even the salvation of the church was said to depend upon it. The secret is divulged, but the penalty is not as yet inflicted.—Their revelations are said to be an addition to the Bible.—But instead of being an addition, they destroy its use; for everything which need be known, whether present, past or future, they can learn from Smith, for he has declared to the church, that he “knows all things that will take place from this time to the end of the world.” If then, placing the Bible under circumstances which render it entirely useless, is infidelity, Mormonism is infidelity.

Ezra Booth, “Mormonism II, October 2, 1831,” 3–4.

His efforts proved fruitful. Sidney Rigdon, speaking at April 1844 general conference in Nauvoo, recalled the Vision’s role in the context of events that led to violence in Hiram:

I have seen the time when the Presidency of the Church Sitting now before me, were locked up with me in secret places waiting upon God. We did not go out at all but to eat &c. But it was soon found out, & a mob Came . . . & threatened our lives. It was at this time we sat for hours in the Visions of heaven around the throne of God & gazed upon the scenes of Eternity. . . . Afterwards the mob came in & broke the door, took me & dragged me out through the streets . . . This is the reason why we were in secret under lock & key.

Thomas Bullock, Minutes of April Conference, Nauvoo, Illinois, April 6, 1844, spelling modernized. See also Scott G. Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898, 2:276–377.

John Johnson Sr.’s brother Eli apparently still lived at the Johnson home at the time the Vision was received and may have been among the twelve or so men who entered the unlocked room and heard Joseph and Sidney narrate the contents of their vision for hours as they received it.

A photograph showing the room where Joseph Smith received Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received Section 76 (also known as “the Vision”) in this room in the Johnson Home. Photo credit: Church History: Historical Resources.

Although the Johnson family had come from Universalism, Eli later shared with the Disciples of Christ an ardent opposition to it. “Why, if that doctrine is true,” he lamented, “there is no hell for the Shaddocks.”

Eli was never one to keep his feelings to himself. “Not a day passed when he did not have a grievance, some record of abuse or charge against someone, to send up to the high court of heaven,” commented the historian of his village.

None accused Joseph of immorality or gave it as a motive for the mob.

A revelation that declared “all shall bow the knee, and every tongue shall confess to him who sits upon the throne” (D&C 76:110) would certainly have been difficult for someone with his perspective to accept without sincerely humbling himself.

Eli may have been the original source of local information on the contents of the revelation but no one recorded the leak. Eli’s full role in opposition to the Prophet is unknowable, but he was only one of a number of antagonists.

Former Disciples of Christ represented the majority in the burgeoning Mormon community. They were familiar with Scott and Campbell’s theology and had been taught similar ideas by Rigdon for years.

Joseph Smith not only built on their old teachings but also received new doctrine as the Bible translation proceeded apace. Sidney Rigdon shared the responsibility for articulating the pair’s dramatic experience. Because Rigdon was particularly influential with the Disciples in Portage County, a few local members may have felt a sense of betrayal as the new faith diverged rapidly from the old. Perhaps such feelings explain why many connected most of the violence with the Campbellites and why much of it was directed at Rigdon.


Latter-day Saints in the mob

Although originally Disciples in name, those who mobbed Joseph and Sidney were primarily Latter-day Saints at the time of their deed.

One Hiram resident later recalled that it was “some who had been the dupes of this deception” who determined to “get rid” of Joseph and Sidney. A Latter-day Saint resident of Hiram described the mob as consisting of “apostates.” At least some from the mob showed up at a Latter-day Saint meeting the day after their violence, perhaps to help hide their deeds from their still-believing families.

The new revelations were not the only point of antagonism. Many if not all of those who joined in mob action had family members who belonged to the Church.

Membership in Portage County continued growing during 1831. Some members near Kirtland had already immigrated to Missouri, and many of Portage County’s Saints started planning a large migration there. Church leaders were also preparing to visit to Missouri for a time.

On March 8, 1832, Joseph called and ordained counselors at the Johnson home with strong local support from the membership. At least one hundred of these local members were busily preparing wagons and gathering supplies, forming one of the earliest organized Latter-day Saint treks leaving Ohio.

A hundred members represented a large congregation by local standards. Many other denominations in the county would not reach those numbers for a congregation until toward the end of the nineteenth century.

A woman from Shalersville was planning on leaving with those gathering to Missouri even though her husband wanted her to stay in Ohio. Peggy Redding Judson of Mantua had many relatives leaving for Missouri with the Mormons. She convinced several men, including her husband Gershom, to do something to stop this exodus. Silas Raymond’s sons later identified him as a leader of the mob. He had a brother and two sisters arranging to gather to Missouri. Silas served as the ensign in the Hiram militia under Captain Symonds Ryder’s direction and probably led the mob only in a physical, rather than in an organizational, sense.

Apparently the threats were delivered in person.

Abram Garfield noted that both his great-aunt (Olive Cole Mason, married to Carnot Mason) and Mehitable Ryder (married to Symonds Ryder) were still very devout Latter-day Saints in the spring of 1832 who were willing to give up all to follow Joseph. They were apparently among those pushing to gather with the Saints in Missouri.

Some of the community’s best resources were also going to Missouri. Members in Zion were expecting the services of a blacksmith, a shoemaker, and a mason among the Kirtland emigrants. In addition Oliver Olney was sending his carding machine and clothier’s tools to the new Zion.

The fear that many of the local residents would leave because of Mormonism was confirmed over time. Not only did more than a hundred Saints leave in May, but still others followed as circumstances allowed. This emigration continued until, by the winter of 1839–40 when Lorenzo Snow was teaching school in Shalersville, he commented that he was one of only a few members still living in the area.


Motives of the Ohio mob

Fawn Brodie

Later, Fawn Brodie would erroneously claim that Eli Johnson, whom she misidentified as Father John’s son, instead of his brother, joined the attack on Joseph and Sidney—and may, in fact, have instigated it—because Joseph was “too intimate with his sister, Nancy Marinda.”

Although this theory has received some consideration from those looking for sources of plural marriage during the Kirtland period, it is simply not a creditable charge.

Brodie uses two sources:

  1. George A. Smith’s sermon in which he repeated Luke Johnson’s claim that the mob wanted to emasculate Joseph (she mistakenly attributes George A.’s sermon to Brigham Young). Even when Luke disaffiliated from Mormonism, he never suggested that the mob was motivated by sexual impropriety on Joseph’s part; and
  2. An 1884 debate in Kirtland between Clark Braden, a prominent Disciples of Christ minister and E. L. Kelley, Presiding Bishop of the RLDS Church.

Braden’s charges in the debate were clearly intended to malign Joseph Smith’s morality and to take advantage of the national outrage over polygamy.

He is the original source of the incorrect claim that Eli was Marinda’s brother and the inversion of Marinda Nancy Johnson’s two given names which became frequently perpetuated in secondary sources.

Brodie, though influential, was simply wrong in this suggestion.


Polygamy wasn’t a motive

None of the original participants or contemporaries of that period accused Joseph of immorality or gave it as a motive for the mob.

In her own autobiography published in 1877, Marinda Johnson Hyde stated:

Here I feel like bearing my testimony that during the whole year that Joseph was an inmate of my father’s house, I never saw aught in his daily life or conversation to make me doubt his divine mission.

Marinda Johnson Hyde, “Autobiography,” 404.

William McLellin, who arrived in Hiram a few weeks after the attack on Joseph and Sidney wrote to “Beloved Relatives” on August 4, 1832:

They rise in mobs, black themselves, waylay houses and even break in and drag the the [sic] servants of God from their beds, and families into the streets, and abuse and torture them, for no other reason only their religion differs from the popular—(as was the case last April with Jos. Smith and Sidney Rigdon in Portage Co. O.).

Jan Shipps and John W. Welch, eds., The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836, 81.

Thus, he defines the mob’s motive as religious.

Although William McLellin was not a member of the mob and therefore could not definitely describe their thoughts and motives, Reverend Burke Aaron Hinsdale, speaking at Symonds Ryder’s funeral, noted: “Let us not fail to remember, how ever, that Mormonism in northern Ohio, in 1831, was a very different thing from Mormonism in Utah, in 1870. It then gave no sign of the moral abomination which is now its most prominent characteristic.”

Later visitors to Hiram corroborate Hinsdale’s perception. Historian Harriet Taylor Upton not long after Braden made his wild claims, visited Hiram to learn the truth about the mobbing. After visiting with the locals she reflected:

Several stories have been told as to why this was done. The truth is that they received this treatment because they had interested the people of that vicinity in their belief, and because some of these converts had decided them to be frauds. This was before the days of polygamy.

Harriet Taylor Upton, History of the Western Reserve, 1:699.

Local historian Eliott I. Osgood, writing in about 1935, after years of conversations with old-timers in the village, repeated: “We must remember that in those beginning days Mormonism had not yet taken on some of the errors later practiced.”


New doctrines and local migration

In short, Clark Braden’s ungrounded speculation about the motivation behind the mobbing was not supported by those who knew their motives best—the men who joined in the event and their families.

Mobs rarely respond in a reasoned, careful manner, nor do they spend many months pondering an issue before they decide to act. Ryder’s defection from the faith the previous fall may have been the beginning of events that led up to the mobbing, but his disaffiliation and the publication of Booth’s letters only prepared the ground for the crisis that came in the spring of 1832.

The two elements of dramatically changing doctrine and the migration of many local residents were the immediate factors that combined in Hiram as a catalyst for overt violence.

Just eleven days after Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon received “the Vision” in the Johnson home, a large Mormon congregation met at the home on February 27, 1832, “to arrange for a great day in the following Spring” when they would leave for Missouri.

The Prophet received a revelation that he was also to go to Missouri briefly to see to the publication of his previous revelations, and he intended to obey it. His own account of the mob attack on him begins:

According to previous calculations, we now began to make preparations to visit the brethren who had removed to the land of Missouri.

Joseph Smith, “History of Joseph Smith,” 611.

At the February 27 meeting in the Johnson home as members planned their journey to Missouri, Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon both “had notice that they would be mobbed.”

Although the exact nature of that “notice” is not specified, apparently the threats were delivered in person, since Joseph, in a scene reminiscent of Nephi’s assurance in the face of Laman and Lemuel’s threats (1 Ne. 17:52–55) “dared anyone to touch a Mormon saying that anyone who should do so would be stricken by the Lord.”

Again reminiscent of the story of Nephi in the Book of Mormon, the meeting ended with the few angry individuals backing down— but only briefly.


Book excerpt. From Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations by Mark Lyman Staker. Copyright © 2009 by Mark Lyman Staker. Published by Greg Kofford Books, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. Minor style adjustments have been made to facilitate online reading, including the addition of headers.


About the author

Mark Lyman Staker is a Master Curator for the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. He holds a PhD in Medical Anthropology from the University of Florida, and is the author of several books and articles, including Joseph and Lucy Smith’s Tunbridge Farm: An Archaeology and Landscape Study. His book on the historical setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio revelations, Hearken, O Ye People, is widely considered to be the seminal book on the subject.


Further reading

Pioneer reactions to Section 76 resources

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