Steven C. Harper is the Executive Editor of The Wilford Woodruff Papers.

Cover image via Gospel Media Library.

As 1834 dawned, the Latter-day Saints in Missouri were “exiles in a land of liberty.” [1] A mob had driven them from the land they legally owned and inhabited—land the Lord had consecrated (D&C 52:2, 57, 58:57, 103:22).

The Missouri Saints sent Parley Pratt to Kirtland, Ohio to seek counsel from the Prophet Joseph Smith. He probably carried a letter informing Joseph that Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin was willing to help the Saints regain their land, but he would not maintain a militia to defend them indefinitely.[2] Would eastern Saints come to the aid of Zion?

Joseph counseled with his brethren, resolved that “he was going to Missouri, to assist in redeeming it,” and asked for volunteers to go with him. Sometime in this sequence of events, the Lord revealed Doctrine and Covenants section 103 to Joseph. It is not clear whether the revelation motivated Joseph’s actions or affirmed them after the fact.[3]         

Section 103 says Zion will be reclaimed “by power” (D&C 103:15). The Lord reminds the Saints of his recent promise to raise up a Moses to lead the modern Israelites (D&C 101). He calls on Joseph to gather an army of Israel. Things could get violent, and the Lord promises to go with them, but he makes no guarantees that they’ll all come home. He exhorts them, “Let no man be afraid to lay down his life for my sake”  (D&C 103:20, 27).

The Lord called eight recruiters, including Joseph, to gather five hundred men to march to Zion. The Lord knew that “men do not always do my will,” and that relatively few would respond to the call. But he forbade them from marching if they couldn’t find at least a hundred men who were willing to consecrate their lives to Zion. He left the outcome in their hands: “All victory and glory is brought to pass unto you through your diligence, faithfulness, and prayers of faith” (D&C 103:36).

With the Lord’s revelation in hand, Joseph sent the recruiters it named in every direction to gather the Camp of Israel. Parley Pratt was one of them. In Richland, New York he met a twenty-seven-year-old who had been converted to the restored gospel three months earlier, a miller of ordinary stature but exceptional resilience. He was a hard worker who was devoted to the cause of Zion. His name was Wilford Woodruff.

Wilford was among the first few who were ready to march to Missouri. While he and others were camped with the baggage wagons, waiting for their brethren to arrive, Wilford climbed a hill. He looked over the camp, knelt down, and prayed. “I rejoiced and praised the Lord that I had lived to see some of the tents of Israel pitched, and a company gathered by the commandment of God to go up and help redeem Zion,” he wrote.[4]

In a few days, more men gathered, almost all were young men like Wilford. Heber Kimball said they gathered “with what means they could spare to go up to Zion and render all the assistance that we could to our afflicted brethren. We gathered clothing and other necessaries to carry up to our brethren and sisters who had been plundered; and putting our horses to the wagons and taking our firelocks and ammunition, we started on our journey.”[5]

Wilford said “it was a great school for us to be led by a Prophet of God.”[6] The most important lessons, it turned out, were hard to learn. The first lesson came from the invitation for everyone to put all the money they had into a general fund. Those who had little put it all in. Those who had much put it all in, and “all became equal.” They lived on scant rations. They passed through beautiful woods and prairies, shallow streams, and occasionally through mud holes, with sore, blistered feet, under the early summer sun. They were willing to give their lives for Zion.

The revelation in section 103 tested the resolve of Wilford Woodruff and his companions. A local newspaper reported, “in obedience to a revelation communicated to their great Prophet, Joseph Smith, three hundred young men are to ‘go well armed and equipped to defend the promised land in Missouri.’”[7] The revelation seems purposefully ambiguous, leaving Joseph and his followers uncertain how Zion would be redeemed. “By power,” it said, but what kind of power? Were they to take the promised land by the force of arms? Would the God of Israel lead them with “a stretched-out arm” (D&C 103:17). Would they lay down their lives? The revelation raised these questions but did not answer them, making it a suitable test of faith, sacrifice, and their willingness to consecrate lives to Zion (D&C 101:4-5).

In mid June as the Camp of Israel crossed the Missouri prairie they learned that Governor Dunklin had backed away from his promise to provide a militia force to assist the Saints.[8] By then Joseph already knew that the camp was “altogether too small for the accomplishment of such a great enterprise.” He had repeatedly urged the eastern Saints to provide men and means to reclaim Zion, but they offered too little, too late.[9]

When Wilford and the camp arrived in Clay County, local citizens were already alarmed. Several hundred of them gathered, threatening attack. Joseph assured the sheriff and militia officers that the camp had come to defend, not to attack. “We are anxious for a settlement of the difficulties existing between us,” Joseph assured them, “upon honorable and constitutional principles.”[10]

Wondering when and how, not if, Zion would be reclaimed, Joseph asked the Lord for revelation. While encamped near Fishing River, he received the landmark revelation in section 105.[11]

“I do not require at their hands to fight the battles of Zion,” the Lord said of the camp. The revelation assured them that their prayers were heard, their offering accepted, and that they had been “brought thus far for a trial of their faith” (D&C 105:19). Because too few Saints had chosen to live the law of consecration and had not responded to the Lord’s will and Joseph’s repeated invitations to send men and means, Zion had to be postponed (D&C 105:1-10).

Zion would have to wait, the Lord explained, until there were enough Saints who really wanted Zion; too many of them didn’t. Some of the men who had walked hundreds of miles with supplies for the Saints in Missouri asked one of the brothers who lived there if they could have one of his chickens to make some soup. He said no. “In a few days we expect to return back into Jackson county,” he reasoned, “and he should want” all his chickens then.[12] Wilford recalled how he and a few other members of the camp seized the chance to bunk in the spare room of one of the Missouri Saints, rather than outside. Fearing that someone else would get the room first, Wilford and his companions greedily claimed it. Soon it was needed for fellow Saints who were dying of cholera, however, and Wilford felt foolish. “We gained nothing but experience by being selfish,” he remembered.[13]

In section 105, The Lord rebuked the mistaken idea that we will all enjoy Zion just as soon as others make the sacrifices to bring it to pass. He reminded the Saints that there had been “a day of calling”—in fact, we are all called—and “the time has come for a day of choosing.” We must be worthy to be chosen, by living the celestial laws (D&C 105:35). The Lord accurately predicted that “there are many who will say: Where is their God? Behold, he will deliver them in a time of trouble, otherwise we will not go up to Zion, and will keep our moneys” (D&C 105:8-9). But “Zion,” the Lord said, “cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself” (D&C 105:5).

So Zion would be postponed as long as Latter-day Saints postponed fidelity to celestial laws. It would also be on hold until the Saints were endowed with the necessary power. That power, the Lord revealed, would come through a priesthood endowment in the House of the Lord the Saints were constructing in Kirtland (D&C 105:11, 33).

Section 105 led Joseph to disband the camp and direct its members to return to their families or, if they had none, to remain in Missouri to assist the exiled Saints. The revelation reoriented Joseph Smith and the Church. Zion remained the ultimate goal, but the revelation declared that Zion would not be redeemed until the Saints were endowed with power. Now, having submitted to the trial of their faith, the brethren could understand section 103’s promise that Zion would be redeemed by power. They were to return to the House of the Lord in Kirtland, there to be endowed with power on conditions of humility and faithfulness (12), and then spread out over the globe to gather Israel. Then, when gathered Israel became very great both numerically and by obedience to the law of consecration, they would regain Zion. 

Joseph organized the Saints in Missouri and appointed many of them to return to Ohio to participate in the solemn assembly. Back in Kirtland, Joseph and the Saints finished the temple and received an endowment of priesthood power (see D&C 110). These were means to the end of establishing Zion, and Joseph turned his attention back to regaining the promised land. He anticipated that the “little season” (D&C 105:9) leading up to Zion would end within a few months, and it could have if the Saints had done the specific things listed in D&C 105:10.

Joseph asked Wilford Woodruff to stay behind in Missouri and build Zion, and he did. On the last day of 1834 he wrote in his journal:

December 31st 1834 Believing it to be the duty of the latter-day Saints to consecrate and dedicate all their properties with themselves unto God in order to become lawful heirs to the Celestial Kingdom of God. It was under such a view of the subject that I consecrated before the Bishop of the Church of the latter day Saints in Clay County Dec 31st 1834 the Following is a coppy of the Consecration.

Clay Co Missouri Dec 31st 1834 Be it known that I Willford Woodruff do freely covenant with my God that I freely consecrate and dedicate myself together with all my properties and affects unto the Lord for the purpose of assisting in building up his kingdom even Zion on the earth that I may keep his law and lay all things before the bishop of his Church that I may be a lawful heir to the Kingdom of God even the Celestial Kingdom.

Holy cities cannot be built by selfishness or greed. They are never established by those who wait to see how it turns out before deciding whether to consecrate their lives to the cause. Zion always has been and ever will be built by selfless hard workers who love Zion more than life itself.

Today we remain in the “little season” before Zion is redeemed, perhaps in part because we have not acted on section 105’s specific instructions to learn obedience to the law of consecration and gain experience obeying it. Some commentators have suggested that D&C 105:34 rescinds, postpones, or suspends the law of consecration, but that is not what it says. It says that the specific commands for the bishop to give the Saints inheritances of the land in Zion, and to establish a storehouse and print the scriptures there, will necessarily need to wait until after the Saints reclaim the land on which to keep those commandments (see D&C 57).

The Camp of Israel succeeded and failed, and not because the Saints didn’t return to Jackson County. It succeeded because more than 200 men and about a dozen women consecrated their lives to Zion through it. It failed because the Lord had asked for 500 men. Less than fifty-percent showed up. Wilford Woodruff did, however. He learned the lessons of sections 103 and 105.  

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[1] Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989)

[2] William W. Phelps to Dear Brethren, December 15, 1833, in The Evening and the Morning Star 2:16 (January 1834): 127.

[3] Historical Introduction to Revelation, 24 February 1834 [D&C 103], p. [7], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 12, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-24-february-1834-dc-103/1.

[4] “Leaves From My Journal,” p. 17, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/8b2aa80a-b208-418b-81eb-43a596287c6f/page/21eb0975-2eb9-468b-8ca7-3e20528246cc.

 [5] “Extract from the Journal of Heber C. Kimball,” http://www.boap.org/LDS/Early-Saints/HCKimball.html.

[6] “Leaves From My Journal,” p. 18, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/8b2aa80a-b208-418b-81eb-43a596287c6f/page/d4ceb072-2ecb-4e2f-a284-6b2d53344fcb.

[7] “Mormonism,” Huron Reflector (Norwalk, OH), 20 May 1834, [2], italics in original. 

[8] Peter Crawley and Richard L. Anderson, “The Political and Social Realities of Zion’s Camp,” BYU Studies 14:4 (1974): 406-20. History of George Albert Smith, Church History Library. Parley P. Pratt, Jr., editor, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1950), 115.

[9] “Letter to Emma Smith, 4 June 1834,” p. 56, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 13, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/letter-to-emma-smith-4-june-1834/1.  

[10] Letter From Cornelius Gilliam, Clay County, Missouri, 21 June 1834, and a statement of reconciliation, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[11] Autobiography of Joseph Holbrook, typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University. Autobiography of Harrison Burgess in Kenneth Glyn Hales, ed. and comp., Windows: A Mormon Family (Tucson, Arizona: Skyline Printing, 1985).

 [12] http://signaturebookslibrary.org/on-the-potters-wheel-appendices-b/.

[13] “Leaves From My Journal,” p. 19, The Wilford Woodruff Papers, accessed August 19, 2021, https://www.wilfordwoodruffpapers.org/documents/8b2aa80a-b208-418b-81eb-43a596287c6f/page/41d47fa8-57c2-4263-a4dd-75f644f5257e.