“Thou Wast Willing to Lay Down Thy Life for Thy Brethren”: Zion’s Blessings in the Early Church, Part I

By October 1, 2008

*This is the first of a two-part summary of the paper I presented at JWHA this past weekend.

The march of Zion?s Camp was a trying experience for all those involved. Promised the opportunity to ?redeem Zion? by restoring expelled Saints to their Jackson County property, the result was less triumphant: an anti-climactic disbandment at Fishing River as a result of what they considered a failed promise on behalf of the Missouri Governor for not delivering pledged backup. This disappointing halt of the march was followed by an intense sickness that spread through the camp and ended up proving fatal for some of the participants. For a young religious movement perceivably placed on the shoulders of a young Prophet, this ?failure? could easily have also been fatal for the Church itself as well.

However, this was not the case. Though some like Sylvester Smith did grow disenchanted with Joseph Smith,”[1] many others like Brigham Young and Wilford Woodruff came away invigorated and more dedicated to the Mormon movement. Rather than interpreting this experience as an excuse to leave the religion, they perceived it as an important step in what they felt was their developing discipleship in the Restored Church.[2] I believe that their ability to interpret this negative experience as “faith-promoting” demonstrates the ability that Joseph Smith, and early Mormonism for that matter, possessed in turning perceived failures into positive triumphs. Esteemed philosopher Louis Dupre has written that ?the primary function of [a] culture is to provide a society with the norms, values, and means needed for coping with the conditions of its existence.?[3] So, when faced with the inability of achieving immediate success in ?redeeming Zion,? the Saints were able to take advantage of an ideological structure emphasizing personal worthiness and future blessings. Such an outlook was necessary in order to reassure Zion?s Camp members that Joseph Smith was still a divinely appointed Prophet as well as their need recommit to the Mormon movement.

The revelation that Joseph Smith recieved at Fishing River helped to accomplish this. It placed the failure not on bad intentions or mismanagement, but rather on ?the transgressions of my people.? It claimed that in order for the army to ?become very great,? it first needed to be ?sanctified.?[4] This shift in focus was to make the Saints more inward looking rather than outward?a move that would make them turn their attention to the upcoming blessings they would receive in the temple.[5] Several camp members later remembered how this revelation helped ease their disappointment. Nathan Baldwin wrote, ?this intelligence was the most acceptable to me of anything I had ever heard before, the gospel being the exception.?[6] Likewise, Joseph Noble later remembered that his ?heart rejoiced? when ?President Joseph Smith received the word of the Lord saying our offerings were accepted and compared it to that of Abraham.?[7] Indeed, the reception of a revelation promising blessings served to dispel dissention among those who may have felt disappointment.

The blessings pomised would have to be fulfilled, though, if they were to have any lasting power. The most common fulfillment pointed to was the upcoming Kirtland Temple dedication where many Zion’s Camp participants took part in numerous spiritual experiences. However, while this ensuing ?endowment? usually gets the most attention, it was not the only promised reward for those who marched to Missouri. The Fishing River revelation also included the statement, ?inasmuch as there are those who have hearkened unto my words, I have prepared a blessing and an endowment for them,? implying that there would be a ?blessing? and an ?endowment??two distinct things that historians have often combined together.[8] This promised ?blessing? would come to fruition over the next few years, as many would receive what came to be termed ?Zion?s blessings.? These blessings helped serve the purpose of making positive an event that might otherwise be interpreted as negative.

It appears that these ?Zion?s blessings? were accomplished in two different ways. The first implementation of the blessings was the most commonly analyzed result of the march: a call to for many to new ecclesiastical positions. In the important organizational year of 1835, Joseph Smith made a point to put many of the camp members into newly created positions of authority. Heber C. Kimball classified this call to authority as a type blessing when he wrote of this event in his 1835 journal: ?a meeting was called for the camp of Zion to be assembled, to receive what was called a Zion?s blessing.?[9] Luke Johnson corroborated this sentiment by later writing in his autobiography that he ?returned to Kirtland? in February 1835 and ?received my blessing in common with the members of Zion?s Camp.?[10] Harrison Burgess, after quoting the Fishing River revelation, wrote that “during the winter and spring [of 1835] the members of Zion?s Camp were called together, to receive an especial blessing, according to a promise which had been made in the before-mentioned revelation. Out of this number most of the Twelve were selected, and also the first Seventy, of whom I was one.”[11] For many, Zion?s March came to be understood as a needed preparation and test of obedience for their later call to important positions, thereby making their sacrifices meaningful and not in vain.

However, while a call to leadership was one way of sanctifying Zion?s Camp participants and fulfilling the promised ?blessing,? there were still many marchers who were not called to ecclesiastical positions. They may have wondered what their purpose was in taking part with the Camp if they were not being prepared for authority. Indeed, they were still promised to receive an endowment in the upcoming temple, but they were not granted immediate rewards like their fellow Camp brethren. But, as it turned out, these brethren would not be left completely without reward. Instead of being called to a position of authority, they would become the only Camp participants who received a special and unique ?Zion?s Blessing??a blessing often associated with Patriarchal Blessings yet which are quite distinct from them. These particular blessings served as a means of strength for the recipients?it gave them reason to look fondly on their experience in 1834 and assured them that their sacrifice was accepted and acknowledged by God. It also fulfilled the promised ?blessing? to go along with the ?endowment? as was promised in the Fishing River revelation.

In Part II, I will describe what a “Zion’s Blessing” was for the individuals who missed out on the opportunity of leadership positions, what characteristics distinguish them from other blessings, and what insights they give of early Mormon thought.


[1] George A. Smith remembered ?several of the brethren apostatized because they were not going to have the privilege of fighting.? George A. Smith, Memoirs, 1817-1847, George A. Smith Papers, LDS Church Archives, 38.

[2] See Thomas G. Alexander, ?Wilford Woodruff and Zion?s Camp: Baptism by Fire and the Spiritual Confirmation of a Future Prophet,? BYU Studies 39, no. 1 (2000): 131-146.

[3] Louis Dupre, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2004), 6.

[4] The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints: Carefully Selected from the Revelations of God (Nauvoo, Ill: Printed by John Taylor, 1844): 102:2, 9.

[5] See Richard Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 245.

[6] Nathan Baldwin, [An Account of Zion?s Camp] 1882, typescript in LDS Archives, 13-14.

[7] Joseph B. Noble, Journal, transcript in the LDS Archives, 3.

[8] Doctrine and Covenants (1844): 102:5.

[9] Quoted in Times and Seasons, 15 April 1845.

[10] Luke Johnson, ?Autobiography,? The Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 26 (1864): 834-36.

[11] Harrison Burgess, Autobiography, LDS Church Archives.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History Intellectual History Ritual Theology


  1. Very cool stuff, Ben. I look forward to part II.

    Comment by Christopher — October 1, 2008 @ 7:50 pm

  2. This is very interesting Ben. Thank you for your generosity in sharing your paper. I look forward to part 2, this is a real treat.

    My guess is you have read both Launius and Quinn. Do they have any comment on this receiving “what was called a Zion?s blessing”? I find both Kimball and Johnson’s comments compelling. I would only suggest on the Kimball quote to remember what Stan Kimball wrote about the “journal”, “The following [meaning the “journal”] is not a journal in any sense of the word, but is rather a memoir of events, a reconstruction, based entirely on memory, notes, or a contemporary account that no longer exists.”

    Quinn also wrote some insightful comments about Zion’s Camp in his “Echoes and Foreshadowings” essay that was published a number of years ago in Sunstone but is now available on their website.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — October 1, 2008 @ 9:18 pm

  3. Joe: Thanks for your comments. Neither Launius or Quinn talk about these “Zion’s Blessings” (though I haven’t read “Echoes and Foreshadowings”–i will have to pick look at it this week).

    You bring up a great point about Kimball’s journal, and when I expand this article I will at least mention it in a footnote. I still think it is still significant, however, because it is still a reflection within 10 years and even the act of “remembering” it a certain way is revealing.

    Comment by Ben — October 1, 2008 @ 9:59 pm

  4. Quinn does not write about the blessing in this essay. I think this is a very important article in understanding how Kirtland forshadowed Missouri, Nauvoo and Utah.

    It sounds like you have picked up on something that others have missed. This is great. I think the fact that Luke Johnson seems to corroborate Kimball is important. How many of the twelve and seventy came from Zion’s Camp? This will also help in supporting your thesis.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — October 1, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  5. Fascinating stuff, Ben. I like how you note how the participants were “reading” the revelation. You quote at least two people rejoicing over the promised blessings, but were you able to find any reactions to the narrative that the Camp had failed because they had sinned or were insufficiently sanctified?

    Comment by David G. — October 2, 2008 @ 8:24 am

  6. Nice write-up, Ben. I had not been aware of the “Zion’s Blessings” and look forward to the second installment.

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 2, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  7. Joe: 9 of the first quorum of the twelve, and especially all 70 of the first quorum of seventy were Zion’s members (which I’m sure you knew–you are right that I need to add that info to my paper.

    William Cahoon also seemed to view this call to authority as directly linked to Zion?s Camp participants, especially the calling of the First Quorum of Seventy, of which he wrote were only chosen from ?amongst those brethren that had volunteered to go with the Prophet to assist in redeeming our brethren that had been driven from their homes in Jackson County by a ruthless mob” (Cahoon Autobiography, LDS Archives).

    Comment by Ben — October 2, 2008 @ 10:31 am

  8. Great question, David. While I couldn’t find any accounts saying that the failure was a result of their sinfulness or uncleanliness, a majority of them mention that it was because of the sins of fellow camp members, often pointing out specifically members like Sylvester Smith et. all.

    It seems those who remained committed to the Church easily accepted that sinfulness was the reason for not redeeming Zion, but they placed that sinfulness on a small group of camp attendees and labeled them as the “sinners.”

    Comment by Ben — October 2, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  9. Makes sense, I guess. Thanks Ben.

    Comment by David G. — October 2, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  10. Wasn’t the sickness of the camp directly associated with sinfulness, though?

    Comment by J. Stapley — October 2, 2008 @ 10:47 am

  11. J: That is how I see them viewing it, so yes.

    Comment by Ben — October 2, 2008 @ 11:02 am

  12. […] “Thou Wast Willing toJ. Stapley: “Thou Wast Willing toDavid G.: “Thou Wast Willing toBen: “Thou Wast Willing toBen: “Thou […]

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