The saints in Jackson County, Missouri, experienced severe persecution in 1833. They were driven from their homes and forced across the Missouri River into Clay County. Joseph Smith received assurances from the Governor that if the saints raised an army to help the Missouri militias, the saints would be restored to their land.
Based on this information, the Lord approved the march, called for at least 100 recruits, gave instructions organizing the march, and appointed Joseph Smith as the leader. (D&C 101:55-56; D&C 103:21-35)
Two hundred men volunteered for the “Camp of Israel.” But after they schlepped almost 1,000 miles, the Governor betrayed them and turned against the saints. The state militias were no longer allies; they were enemies.
Joseph Smith had little choice but to disband the group. They were outnumbered and outgunned. Joseph did not want to lead his men into a massacre. Plus, Joseph did not want to lead an insurrection against the established government.
Due to the change of circumstances, Joseph Smith disbanded Zion’s Camp and sent the men home. The common fund was divided, each man receiving only $1.14.
Many members of the camp felt the effort was a blatant failure. Saints in Kirtland were bitter. Criticism of Joseph was widespread. The colossal mistake put into question his inspiration and prophetic call.
Was Zion’s Camp really a failure?
Joseph Smith’s Character Revealed
Zion’s Camp revealed Joseph’s character for compassion and empathy for people and animals.
Joseph’s affection for the men and his grief for those who had died under his command were deep and profound.
At the beginning, Joseph noticed that George A. Smith, the youngest member, was barefoot. Joseph had two pairs of well-worn boots, anticipating that he would need both for the approximate 2,000 mile march. However, he gave his backup pair to young George.
While pitching tents one evening, the men found three rattlesnakes. They prepared to kill them when Joseph intervened, “Let them alone – don’t hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose his venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon them? Men must become harmless, before the brute creation … lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race.” He told the brethren to get sticks and carefully carry the snakes across the creek. “I exhorted the brethren not to kill … an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve ourselves from hunger.”
Zion’s Camp Miracle: Locating Water
The miracles during Zion’s Camp reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s divine call and the Lord’s hand in the young church.
In the hot prairie, the camp ran out of drinking water. Joseph Smith, frustrated with the constant bickering and murmuring, grabbed a shovel, and without saying a word, walked some distance from the camp. He looked around, dug a hole in the ground, and water came forth. George A. Smith recorded that his miracle was no less dramatic than when Moses brought forth water out of the rock for the Israelites.
Zion’s Camp Miracle: Attackers Driven Back by Sudden Storm
As the men reached Missouri, they encamped between the fork of two small rivers. A large heavily armed militia approached and demanded that the men return to Ohio. When Joseph refused, the militia began preparations to attack. As the saints started to panic, Joseph Smith said that not a shot would be fired. He looked to the skies and declared, “Stand, and behold the power of God!” A sudden storm arose which thrashed the militia with heavy rain and hail. The terrified the horses became uncontrollable. The rivers flooded, making it impossible for the militia to cross. They retreated. Zion’s Camp took refuge inside a nearby empty church and waited out the sudden storm by singing hymns of praise for the miracle they had witnessed.
Contention, Cholera, Prophecy, and Vision
Contention among the men became so severe, Joseph Smith scolded the men. “I said the Lord had revealed to me that a scourge would come upon the camp in consequence of the fractious and unruly spirits … and they should die like sheep with the rot; still, if they would repent and humble themselves before the Lord, the scourge … might be turned away; but, as the Lord lives, the members of this camp will suffer for giving way to their unruly temper.” This sad prophecy was fulfilled within a few weeks.
Cholera struck. Thirteen died. Joseph yearned to heal them. He and Hyrum tried, but they had no sooner laid their hands on the sufferers than they themselves were smitten with cholera. They felt its ravages, fell down prostrate together, and prayed for deliverance.
After praying the cramps began to ease, Hyrum sprang to his feet and exclaimed, “Joseph, we shall return to our families. I have had an open vision, in which I saw mother kneeling under an apple tree; and she is even now asking God, in tears, to spare our lives, that she may again behold us in the flesh. The Spirit testifies that her prayers, united with ours, will be answered. “
Within minutes they arose free of the disease which had been fatal to others. (Joseph Smith: The Prophet, p. 46)
Testing and Training Ground for Church Leaders
The greatest success of Zion’s Camp was that it was a training and testing ground for future church leaders.
In 1835, when the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was organized, 8 of the 12 were Zion’s Camp veterans. This included such lifelong stalwarts and leaders as: Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, Parley Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and later, George A. Smith.
In 1835, when men were called to the First Quorum of Seventy, everyone has served in Zion’s Camp.
Zion’s Camp gave Brigham Young and others invaluable lessons that prepared them for the great migrations from Missouri to Illinois, and from Illinois to Iowa, and from Iowa to the the Rocky Mountains. Brigham declared, “I would not exchange the experience gained in that expedition for all the wealth of Geauga County.”
Finally, these faithful brethren were welded into a devoted “band of brothers” whose loyalties to the church, to Joseph, and to each other, were lifelong, and would withstand future trials.
By these measures, Zion’s Camp was a success, and it reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling.
(See: “Zion’s Camp (Camp of Israel)” Church History Topics, churchofjesuschrist.org; Donna Hill, “Joseph Smith: The First Mormon,” 183-184; “Zion’s Camp,” Wikipedia)
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