In Behalf of the Pioneer Saints

By Nancy Harlacher

 Pioneer Saints being driven out of Missouri
The Saints suffered much as they were being driven out of Missouri during the cold winter of 1838–1839 because of their religious beliefs.

I have been privileged many times to stand on the places where the early Saints lived, suffered, and died. When visiting such locations one cannot help but feel what the Saints must have felt during the years of 1831 to 1839. Though we could never fully understand and appreciate what the early Saints went through as a direct result of their belief in the Restored Gospel, my husband, Larry, and I have felt great empathy for them and their suffering. We've felt it as we have stood on the Temple Lot in Independence and watched the sunrise while awaiting the arrival of a group of Saints, eager and excited about spending a day with us touring Church history sites in northwest Missouri. And we have felt it as we have stood on a field adjacent to Winchester Road one mile west of the Temple Site in Far West where over 250 of the pioneer Saints are buried in unmarked graves, including one of the most beloved and brave apostles of that time, David Patton—often referred to as "Captain Fear Not." We have felt it while standing in mud up to our ankles after a heavy spring rain, or while swatting a variety of pesky bugs on a hot and humid August afternoon as we have explored the field and surrounding area at Haun's Mill where fifteen men and two boys were hastily buried in a shallow, unlined well after their peaceful little community was suddenly and viciously attacked by a force of over 200 militiamen.

How can anyone think about these people, who endured so much while living through these terrible days, and not feel deeply for them, even to the point of being brought to tears? Though some historians have tried to label them as violent, how can anyone think of the Saints in any other way than as a brave and valiant people, in many cases willing to die for what they believed—the precious Restored Gospel. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for their courageous stand.

Though there are many recorded firsthand testimonies of the Saints from this period of time which give us a glimpse of their suffering, I have chosen to relate just one as an example. In speaking of one incident which he endured in 1836 near Independence, Perry Keyes said, "He gave me 23 lashes with a cowhide and all this for my religeon [sic] for I am a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints" (Clark V. Johnson, editor, Mormon Redress Petitions, Documents of the 1833–1838 Missouri Conflict, 475).

When I think of what the Saints of our day have endured and suffered because of what they believe (suffering that is very real and should not in any way be discounted or considered unimportant), somehow I just don't believe it compares to that which was experienced by the early Saints in Missouri. The feet of many pioneer Saints were frozen from walking in the snow, sometimes without shoes (especially the children, who on occasion left bloody footprints). Their backs were bruised and scarred from beatings and whippings. Sometimes the women and children were badly or unspeakably abused. Over 160 years ago thousands of Saints were forced to leave their warm firesides in the coldest time of the year and travel often by foot all the way from Far West to Quincy, Illinois. They were stripped of virtually all their possessions except the meager clothes upon their backs, never to receive any compensation for their losses.

If you and I were ordered today to leave our homes, as the pioneer Saints were, and we were given no more than an hour to make preparation for the journey, we would probably pack a lunch and gather some warm clothing and perhaps some favorite creature comforts. Then we would carefully load the car, stop and fill it with gasoline, possibly stop by a drive-through bank to obtain enough cash for the trip, or at least be sure we had a credit card or two with us so that we could easily purchase anything needed along the way. Then within a few hours we would be out of our state, traveling down comfortable, paved roads. But in stark contrast, during the winter of 1838–1839, the mobbers had taken so many of the Saints' horses and cattle that there were few teams available to move all the people. The few animals they had traveled at a very slow rate of speed due to the intense cold and rough roads. The Saints had previously suffered much abuse at the hands of the Jackson County mob, leaving many of them already lame, sick, and in bad physical condition before being driven to Clay County. They eventually settled in Caldwell County and surrounding counties north of the Missouri River. Now, once again having suffered much abuse, they were forced to leave everything behind as before, and to strike out on a journey filled with many unknown hazards, while a goodly number of their men had to be left behind, imprisoned and awaiting an uncertain fate.

The women of Far West showed great courage in the face of danger when they realized a huge army was about to besiege their beloved city. According to the testimony of John Brush, who was an eyewitness that day, the enemy, which numbered in the thousands, prepared to attack Far West. Joseph Smith, Jr., placed each available able-bodied man about forty feet apart in a line facing the approaching large force and told them, "Brethren, don't go into trouble any farther than you see me go." Many of the wives of these badly outnumbered brave men took their places and stood by their men waiting, willing to sacrifice their very lives if necessary. Nothing could be said to persuade them to leave the sides of their husbands, even in the face of possible death. (See Autumn Leaves, 4:131, 173, and John Brush, Eyewitness of Early Church History, 22, selected and edited by Paul Ludy.)

When forced to leave Far West, many women and children, as well as the elderly, suffered terribly from hunger, sickness, and exposure, and thus never made it to Quincy, Illinois. Because of the extremely cold conditions, burial of those who died along the way was very difficult. When children died, they were sometimes wrapped in bark stripped from trees and placed in shallow graves in the frozen ground. It has been said that if all the graves of the adults and children who died along the way could be found and suitably marked, it would literally point out the entire route of their journey from Far West to Quincy.

Even though the many critics of the early Missouri Saints believe they are correct in stating that these Saints were guilty of being too zealous in proclaiming and advancing the Restored Gospel, I would rather stand before God and have to answer for defending it zealously than to have to answer His question: "Why did you try to destroy this precious Gospel by attacking those who gave so much and can no longer defend themselves?" These faithful Saints were no different than others who have clung to the true Gospel in other ages, for the true followers of God have been persecuted in all ages for their religion. It is written of them:

And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment; they were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; of whom the world was not worthy; they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promises [of God in this world]; God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.                  (Hebrews 11:36–40; italics added)

If the early Christians had denied their belief in Christ they wouldn't have been thrown to the lions. Many of the early Saints were given a choice to escape their abuse and go free if they would deny their belief in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or their belief in the Book of Mormon, or Joseph Smith as a prophet. These denials never came, and the abuse continued until they were either killed or driven from Missouri.

Some, both within and without the Church, believe the Saints were wrong in not turning the other cheek when being attacked by mobs. Upon reading the many petitions written by those who lived to tell what happened to them, it becomes clear that a number of these attacks resulted in near-death experiences for the Saints—experiences such as beatings, whippings, stonings, rapes, etc. I believe the Saints were justified in trying to save their lives and the lives of their families. In August 1833 Joseph Smith was given the following words which are recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 95:5f:

Nevertheless thine enemy is in thine hands, and if thou reward him according to his works, thou art justified, if he has sought thy life, and thy life is endangered by him; thine enemy is in thine hands, and thou art justified. (italics added)

Remember, only a few Missourians died in this war while hundreds of Saints died during or as a result of these terrible times which they had to go through. Today, when I hear someone say, "We must be a peaceful people—not violent like the pioneer Saints in Missouri," at first I become very upset and defensive. Then, upon further reflection, I know what I would say to those Saints of yesteryear, if I could. My words would be, "I know that you were not perfect, just as we are not perfect today. I know that you made mistakes, just as we make mistakes today. But I just want to say to you, 'Thank you so much for being so valiant and standing up so strongly for the Restored Gospel that you believed in, and for leaving such a wonderful legacy for us today.'"

The pioneer Saints suffered greatly at the hands of the Missourians because they were, as stated above by Perry Keyes, "a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints." My companion and I have not suffered physical abuse as they did, but like Perry Keyes, I can say: "Those who have been ashamed of the Gospel have forced me from my congregation, silenced my husband, and verbally abused me for the past twenty years—and all this because I am a member of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and believe in the original doctrines and teachings of that Church."

I can't help but recall a scripture found in Second Nephi. I'm beginning to see it in a different light than I have ever seen it before. It states:

Yea, and there shall be many which shall teach after this manner, false, and vain, and foolish doctrines, and shall be puffed up in their hearts, and shall seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord; and their works shall be in the dark; and the blood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them. (2 Nephi 12:12; italics added)

Is it possible that this scripture could at least in part apply to those who today seek to portray the early Saints as violent, because of their valiant effort to stand up for their belief in the Restored Gospel?

Though I may never be called upon to suffer as the early Saints did, I pray that I will always be valiant and faithful to the Gospel as Christ restored it, and endure to the end no matter what the cost.

(Vision 46:3–4)