“Milk Strippings” Story Redux: Thomas B. Marsh’s Reconciliation with George W. Harris

By July 13, 2013

Every four years, the Sunday School curriculum cycle hits D&C/Church History. It’s during this time that we’re reminded of the story of Thomas B. Marsh, first President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who left the church in 1838. According to Apostle George A. Smith, whose 1856 telling of this story became the basis of subsequent renditions, in 1838 Elizabeth Marsh got into a dispute with Lucinda Harris over a pint of milk skimmings [1]. Believing that his wife’s good name was at stake, Marsh defended Elizabeth in a series of investigations held, according to Smith, by the Teachers Quorum, the Bishopric, the High Council, and the First Presidency. Smith indicated that, humiliated by each quorum’s decision against Elizabeth, Marsh left the church and swore in an affidavit that the Saints were “hostile towards the State of Missouri.”  In Smith’s account, “That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an exterminating order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs.”

Back in 2009, friend of the JI John Hamer wrote a BCC post analyzing the facticity of George A. Smith’s 1856 telling. Hamer concluded that the story was a “fable,” pointing to the lack of contemporary documentation of a Marsh/Harris trial in the Far West High Council Minutes. Hamer acknowledged that Marsh had made an affidavit in 1838, in which he described the growing militarism manifested by Joseph Smith and other church leaders, although Hamer argued (correctly) that George A. Smith failed to acknowledge that Marsh’s charges were essentially true. In the context of 1838, with fresh memories of the 1833 Jackson County expulsion and subsequent persecutions, the Prophet and Sydney Rigdon had opted for self-defense over meekness in the face of a renewed round of violence, leading to the formation of the independent and secretive Danite militia organization. So whatever the truth of the milk strippings story, Marsh had larger concerns in 1838 that led him to leave the church.

On Hamer’s 2009 thread, a brash Mormon graduate student, who thought he knew a thing or two about Mormon memory and the study of ways that the milk strippings and similar stories function in LDS culture, declared that “George A. Smith likely just made up the story” in 1856 to illustrate a point. A few comments later, another LDS graduate student suggested that commenters were too readily dismissing the historicity of the strippings story (without defending George A. Smith’s later use of it), and called for additional research. I’m not sure if that new research was ever conducted or published, but the “brash Mormon graduate student” finally decided to poke around in some old research, and found that there is indeed some support (albeit ambiguous) for the strippings story. In a May 5, 1857 letter to Heber C. Kimball, Marsh expressed his desire to return to the church after eighteen years of “grooping in darkness.” He was already en route to Salt Lake City, where he was prepared to “throw [himself] at the feet of the apostles and implore their forgiveness” and petition for rebaptism. Interestingly, in the letter, Marsh indicates that he had “met with G. W. Harris and a reconsiliation has taken place between us, and when that was accomplished I was so overjoyed that I was constrained to say in my heart truely this is an evidence that the Lord loves me after all my rebellion & my sins.” Unfortunately, Marsh did not specify the nature of the initial rift between the two men, making this an intriguing, if obscure, reference that may confirm the strippings story.[2]


[1] Lucinda Harris was the widow of William Morgan, the exposer of Masonic secrets who was mysteriously killed in 1826. She was later one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives.

[2] None of the above should be seen as defending the problematic way that George A. Smith and others have used the Marsh story. And I repeat my call for a scholarly analysis of ways that that story has functioned in Mormon culture.

Article filed under Biography Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Memory


  1. Hat tip to Kay Darowski of the JSPP, author of the Thomas B. Marsh article in the “Revelations in Context” series on history.lds.org, for citing the 1857 Marsh to HCK letter, which I then found reproduced in full in Lyndon Cook’s 1980 BYU Studies article linked above.

    Comment by David G. — July 13, 2013 @ 12:07 pm

  2. Thanks for this update, David.

    Comment by Ben P — July 13, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Thanks for posting this David. The Sunday school account always seems a little too simple. I would love to see what a folklorist would do with “apocryphal” stories of the Kirtland/Missouri period. Or pretty much any period, for that matter!

    Comment by J Stuart — July 13, 2013 @ 1:24 pm

  4. Very cool, thanks David.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — July 13, 2013 @ 4:31 pm

  5. It seems back when I looked into this around this time, I came across some Nauvoo era sources relating to the topic that lend some credence to the idea of some sort of friction between the Marshes and the Harrises. However, I can’t remember and I didn’t keep notes. I hate it when that happens.

    Comment by J. Stapley — July 13, 2013 @ 6:21 pm

  6. Thanks for the new info.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — July 13, 2013 @ 11:37 pm

  7. Thanks, David, for the additional information.

    Comment by Christopher — July 14, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  8. What makes this whole episode even more painful is our persistent inability to discuss — in Sunday School — what seems to have been the main reason for Marsh’s disaffection. As Dave notes here, it was the Saints’ militarism in 1838 that led some people like Marsh and Orson Hyde to leave the Church, as they believed that the leadership had departed from the Savior’s path of peace. We don’t have to defend their decision to leave, nor the affidavits they signed. But telling the whole story would help us think hard about what it means to be disciples of the Prince of Peace, and what happens to us both individually and collectively when we depart from the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (and 3 Nephi, and D&C 98…).

    Comment by Patrick Mason — July 14, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

  9. Quick follow-up, at the risk of beating a dead horse. I love the “Revelations in Context” series, and genuinely wish every Gospel Doctrine teacher in the Church read it alongside their lesson manuals as they prepared. The entry on Marsh is excellent in all the typical ways — great research, with a much more fleshed-out story, showing how Marsh really was one of the great early Saints prior to 1838. But even here, only one sentence is given to his becoming “disturbed by the increasingly violent relationship between Church members and their Missouri neighbors.” (No mention of the leadership of the Church, including Smith and Rigdon, just “members.”) Then the “strippings” story gets the rest of the paragraph. I’ll settle for baby steps, I suppose.

    Comment by Patrick Mason — July 14, 2013 @ 10:43 pm

  10. Thanks for the update. I get an email every few months from people wanting to know if I ever finished that project I said I was working on a few years back. It got back-burner’d, then shelved. I might get around to it sometime yet. The main thrust is that there was some truth to the milk event, but that in terms of its actual contribution to Marsh’s leaving the Church it has been blown out of proportion. The catch is that Marsh himself helped to contribute to this blown proportioning for a variety of very interesting reasons, to be discussed perhaps at some future point.

    Meantime, excellent addition to the ongoing discussion on the original TBM.

    Comment by BHodges — July 15, 2013 @ 4:22 pm


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