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Joseph Smith/Prophet/Rocky Mountain prophecy
Joseph Smith's Rocky Mountain prophecy
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- Question: Did Joseph Smith make "forged predictions" and add them retroactively to the history of the Church that a "mighty people" that would dwell "in the midst of the Rocky Mountains"?
Many a time have I listened to the voice of our beloved Prophet, while in council, dwell on this subject [the removal of the Saints to the Rocky Mountains] with delight; his eyes sparkling with animation, and his soul fired with the inspiration of the Spirit of the living God. It was a theme that caused the bosoms of all who were privileged to listen, to thrill with delight; intimately connected with this, were themes upon which prophets, patriarchs, priests and kings dwelt with pleasure and delight: of them they prophesied, sung, wrote, spoke and desired to see, but died without the sight. My spirit glows with sacred fire while I reflect upon these scenes, and I say, O Lord, hasten the day!
—John Taylor, quoted in B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 179–180.
Question: Did Joseph Smith make "forged predictions" and add them retroactively to the history of the Church that a "mighty people" that would dwell "in the midst of the Rocky Mountains"?
To accept a "forgery" theory, we must accept that all of the people listed who remembered Joseph speaking about the Rocky Mountains were lying or fabricating their experience
Furthermore, we must also accept that Joseph was sending explorers to the west with no real expectation of moving, and the discussion of heading west by both members and enemies was all idle talk.
Furthermore, the mention of moving to the west is often incidental—Church leaders mention the matter as if many of their hearers from Nauvoo would recall it. No great effort is made to establish the truth of the matter; it is presumed to be too obvious to require much demonstration.
The source of the prophecy account
The prophecy source is the biography of Anson Call, in August 1842. The relevant section reads as follows:
"A block schoolhouse had been prepared with shade in front, under which was a barrel of ice water. Judge Adams, the highest Masonic authority in the State of Illinois, had been sent there to organize this lodge. He, Hyrum Smith and J. C. Bennett, being high Masons, went into the house to perform some ceremonies which the others were not entitled to witness. These, including Joseph Smith, remained under the bowery. Joseph as he was tasting the cold water, warned the brethren not to be too free with it. With the tumbler still in his hand, he prophesied that the Saints would yet go to the Rocky Mountains, and said he, 'This water tastes much like that of the crystal streams that are running from the snow-capped mountains. I had before seen him in a vision, and now saw, while he was talking, his countenance change to white, not the deadly white of a bloodless face, but a living, brilliant white. He seemed absorbed in gazing upon something at a great distance and said, "I am gazing upon the valleys of those mountains."
I had before seen him [Joseph Smith] in a vision [i.e., while seeing or reporting a divine vision or revelation], and now saw while he was talking his countenance change to white; not the deadly white of a bloodless face, but a living brilliant white. He seemed absorbed in gazing at something at a great distance, and said: "I am gazing upon the valleys of those mountains." This was followed by a vivid description of the scenery of these mountains, as I have since become acquainted with it. Pointing to Shadrach Roundy and others, he said: "There are some men here who shall do a great work in that land." Pointing to me, he said, "There is Anson, he shall go and shall assist in building up cities from one end of the country to the other, and you, rather extending the idea to all those he had spoken of, shall perform as great a work as has been done by man, so that the nations of the earth shall be astonished, and many of them will be gathered in that land and assist in building cities and temples, and Israel shall be made to rejoice."
It is impossible to represent in words this scene which is still vivid in my mind, of the grandeur of Joseph's appearance, his beautiful descriptions of this land, and his wonderful prophetic utterances as they emanated from the glorious inspirations that overshadowed him. There was a force and power in his exclamations of which the following is but a faint echo: "Oh the beauty of those snow-capped mountains! The cool refreshing streams that are running down through those mountain gorges!" Then gazing in another direction, as if there was a change in locality: "Oh the scenes that this people will pass through! The dead that will lay between here and there." Then turning in another direction as if the scene had again changed: "Oh the apostasy that will take place before my brethren reach that land! But," he continued, "The priesthood shall prevail over its enemies, triumph over the devil and be established upon the earth, never more to be thrown down!" He then charged us with great force and power, to be faithful to those things that had been and should be committed to our charge, with the promise of all the blessings that the Priesthood could bestow. "Remember these things and treasure them up. Amen." 
Thus, the accusation must be not only that the Church decided to "forge" a prophecy by Joseph, but that Anson Call did as well. Can we assess how likely these claims are?
It could be, of course, that Anson Call forged his account, and all the Church leaders and members lied about remembering Joseph speak about the matter. But why then appeal to "many of you" remembering Joseph speaking about it? Why not claim it was a private, secret teaching given to the apostles—for, they certainly also reported these. If the claim was fraudulent, why risk exposure?
Or, the story could have started after the Saints reached the valley, and simply grown in the telling with members "remembering" the story as it was retold to them. But, the contemporary evidence would seem to argue against this, and witnesses often mentioned how struck they were by Joseph's remarks. They also described him discussing this idea in a variety of setting, which argues against an accumulated "folklore."
It is strange to see critics argue that Joseph would not prophesy about this—in their view, Joseph was always larding his ideas with prophetic pronouncement. And, is it any stretch to think that he would say that the people would grow "mighty" there. Would even a false prophet or charlatan tell his beleaguered followers that they were going into the wilderness to become weak and oppressed?
The simplest explanation seems to be that Joseph discussed moving to the west several times, and likely prophesied about it. Too many witnesses would have to collude or self-deceive for it to have no basis in fact. Whether the story grew in the telling, of course, is difficult to determine.
None of this, to be sure, proves that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. But, to claim that the account of him discussing and even prophesying a move to the west rests on nothing but "forgery" is to distort and ignore too many sources, from too broad a time period, over what is essentially a peripheral issue.
How have less friendly historians treated this prophecy?
We have seen that believing historians such as B. H. Roberts or Orson F. Whitney would be likely to accept this claim. How have less friendly historians treated it?
Hubert Howe Bancroft opined that "In 1842 an expedition had been planned to explore the country toward or beyond the Rocky Mountains; but when Joseph Smith put himself forward as a candidate for the presidency of the United States, all other matters were for the time forgotten."  Thus, Bancroft saw the move west as one long contemplated.
D. Michael Quinn, whose work has been repeatedly cited by the author of the critical work One Nation Under Gods, includes this in his Church timeline without comment or qualification, even using the date traditionally ascribed it in the History of the Church :
6 Aug . While attending a Masonic ceremony Smith prophesies that Mormons would settle in the Rocky Mountains. 
Historian Dale Morgan, certainly not an LDS apologist or propagandist, wrote to a private correspondent who seemed to share the author's views of this account:
it is my understanding from reading controversial works involving the Reorganized Church that you have combatted the idea that Joseph Smith ever intended leading the Mormons out of the Mississippi Valley to the West, and that you tend to regard proofs advanced by the L.D.S. church as being revisions of original history to serve the propagandic purposes of this church. This is a matter to which I have given especial attention, and in the work on the Mormons that I have conceived, I believe I shall be able to demolish once and for all any argument that Joseph Smith did not entertain this purpose.
My materials have been drawn in some part, though by no means wholly, from the L.D.S. archives here, but I do not think historians of the Reorganized Church will seriously question my findings when I am enabled to publish them. I cannot speak so authoritatively about the authenticity of the Rocky Mountains prophecy, but I am by no means disposed to doubt it, in view of what I have learned about Smith's purposes in the winter of 1844. I cannot undertake to discuss the whole subject at length here, so for the present I must content myself with assuring you that the statements in the Utah Guide about the proposal to migrate to the Rocky Mountains have a firm factual foundation, and I will publish the proofs in due course. 
Thus, Morgan thought it clear that Joseph Smith had intended to go to the Rockies with the Saints, and felt it plausible that Joseph had made a prophecy to that effect. Thus, whatever the facts, it seems unlikely that a crude "forgery" is at work.
Many other Church members later wrote about Joseph's discussion of the Rocky Mountains area
Before the Nauvoo Expositor incident, Benjamin F. Johnson said,
...the Prophet had foreshadowed the close of his own earthly mission, and the near approach of the time when the Saints in tribulation would find a place of refuge in the far-off vales of the Rocky Mountains, which has already taken place; and also relating still to the future, when a path will be opened for the Saints through Mexico, South America, and to the center Stake of Zion.
These, and many more great things were given by him, some of which, as with the ancient disciples, we could not comprehend until fulfilled....It was now revealed to the Prophet that his only safety was in flight to the Rocky Mountains, and he crossed the river with a few faithful friends with a full purpose not to return. 
"These things did not come upon us unexpectedly," observed Wandle Mace,
--at least to those who were watching the signs of the times--the Prophet Joseph had told us that many of us would live to go the "Rocky Mountains', and there become a mighty people, therefore we were looking forward to this time. Some of us was afraid we would not have time to finish the [Nauvoo] temple before these things came upon us, they were coming so fast. 
Samuel W. Richards remembered being assigned by Joseph to "explore the Rocky Mountains with 23 other men to find a place where the Church could be established." 
In 1864, Brigham Young remembered:
In the days of Joseph we have sat many hours at a time conversing about this very country. Joseph has often said, "If I were only in the Rocky Mountains with a hundred faithful men, I would then be happy, and ask no odds of mobocrats." And neither do I. 
In 1880, Orson Pratt asked:
Was it upon our own natural judgment [that we came to the valley]? No; we founded our expectation upon that which God had spoken in the modern revelations which He had given to us as a people. He told us, by revelation, before our prophet was martyred, that we would have to leave the United States: go beyond the Rocky Mountains, and seek our home in the wilderness, and that we would have a great people gather with us. 
John Taylor spoke of Joseph's frequent mention of this idea:
Many a time have I listened to the voice of our beloved Prophet, while in council, dwell on this subject [the removal of the Saints to the Rocky Mountains] with delight; his eyes sparkling with animation, and his soul fired with the inspiration of the Spirit of the living God. It was a theme that caused the bosoms of all who were privileged to listen, to thrill with delight; intimately connected with this, were themes upon which prophets, patriarchs, priests and kings dwelt with pleasure and delight: of them they prophesied, sung, wrote, spoke and desired to see, but died without the sight. My spirit glows with sacred fire while I reflect upon these scenes, and I say, O Lord, hasten the day! 
As is often the case, Mosiah Hancock confirmed Joseph's Rocky Mountain destination in an off-hand manner:
Before the Prophet spoke from the frame [in his last speech before Carthage], he had started to go to the rocky mountains, and went as far a Montrose; but through the interference of some pretended friends, he returned. I was a witness to these things--and when the Prophet spoke from the frame, he spoke with power, and the people loved him. 
Some of these later witnesses discussed the matter under different circumstances, which strongly suggests that this was no "secret" teaching of the prophet's, but well noised about. For example, Bathsheba W. Smith remembered:
Joseph, the Prophet, said we would come to the Rocky Mountains, and he had a company of young men selected to hunt a location for a home for the Saints. Samuel Richards was one of that company. I heard of it when we were in Illinois, and I remember an old lady coming in and talking to mother about what Joseph, the Prophet, had said that we would be in the Rocky Mountains sometime. I said I would like the time to come soon, I would like to get away from our enemies. She gave me a right good scolding, saying it was terrible to think of going to the Rocky Mountains. 
Rachel Grant remembered that "It tried a great many people when the Prophet gave out the word that there was to be no more gathering at Nauvoo, as the people thought that was the place. He first told them to gather there, but later told them the Rocky Mountains would be the gathering place. It was his thought that they would come to the Rocky Mountains." 
Rudger Clawson's diary described a talk he heard:
Patriarch Jas. H. Leathead bore an interesting testimony. Said that he was a resident of [p.613] Nauvoo in the early days of the church and filled the position of drummer boy in the Nauvoo band. Said that he was present and heard the Prophet Joseph Smith predict that the saints would move to the Rocky Mountains. 
Wilford Woodruff reported the earliest account of Joseph's teaching on the west. He recorded one of his own addresses on 5 October 1884:
spok 10 M, & gave an Account of the first testimony of the Prophet Joseph in kirtland Aprail 1834 of filling the Rocky Mountains with the Saints of God. 
Woodruff would also copy Philo Dibble's record of Joseph's last address to the Nauvoo legion, noting that "Broth J Jaques this Book is W Woodruffs private Historical Book. I wish you to take special care of it yourself until I call for it. I wish you to copy last pages in red ink & file in the office as it is the Last Address of Joseph Smith before his death [from Philo Dibble] and I think we have no Copy of it in the office. The Book itself I wish locked up." 
Other members also mentioned their own spiritual experiences about the west. Wilford Woodruff recalled that
When in the western country, many years ago, before we came to the Rocky Mountains, I had a dream. I dreamed of being in these mountains, and of seeing a large fine looking temple erected in one of these valleys which was built of cut granite stone, I saw that temple dedicated, and I attended the dedicatory services, and I saw a good many men that are living today in the midst of this people. 
The same or a similar account was also noted by L. John Nuttall on 7 October 1891 at a meeting
Over fifty years ago, while in Boston, he [Woodruff]...dreamed that the Saints migrated to the Rocky Mountains, built a Temple and dedicated it; that at the dedicatory services Elders were set apart to go among the Gentile nations to bind the law and seal the testimony. 
Other evidence from Joseph's lifetime
There is other evidence recorded during Joseph's lifetime that lends plausibility to the account given by Call and others.
For example, Elder Jonathan Dunham was sent to explore the western countries, and was "most probably prospecting a possible trail and locating resting places for the Saints when engaged in a great westward movement."  Why else would Joseph send Dunham—whom he later trusted to head the Nauvoo Legion during his final days before being taken to Carthage—on such a long and difficult journey, given all the pressing difficulties which remained in Nauvoo? As one author noted, "During the Council of Fifty's first meetings in March and April 1844, the Mormon prophet urged the exploration of the American West. In this region the Saints would make a settlement and raise "a standard and ensign of truth for the nations of the earth." 
Members of the Council of Fifty believed, in "a retrospective statement on Smith's purposes" according to William Clayton, that when Joseph
crossed the Mississippi River intending to go to the Rocky Mountains. Several hours before his departure, he asked his followers to make a sixteen-foot emblematic flag "for the nations," apparently hoping to take a Mormon, scripture-fulfilling banner with him on his journey. However after less than a day on the Iowa side of the river, he returned to Nauvoo and began his fateful journey to Carthage. The day prior to Smith's death, not fully understanding his danger, Nauvoo citizens responded to his earlier wish and began preparation of a flag of white cloth. The flag, said one of the Saints later, was not intended for Nauvoo. Smith undoubtedly meant the banner to be a tangible symbol of a restored latter-day Kingdom in the mountainous West. 
In a related vein, Lorenzo Snow later remembered that
On the 20th of February, 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith instructed the Twelve Apostles to send a delegation and make explorations in Oregon and California, and seek a good location to which we can remove after the Temple is completed, and "where we can build a city in a day, and have a government of our own....Previous to this, the Prophet had remarked to me that he anticipated moving to the Rocky Mountains with all his family, where he could live in peace and worship God unmolested. But other scenes and prospects awaited us. 
There is also a Times and Seasons newspaper account of a conference held on November 1, 1842 in Kirtland, Ohio by LDS missionaries. Reporting on their success, one wrote:
One woman, who at the commencement of the conference declared herself good enough without re baptism, has now come forward before the close and says that she would go to the Rocky Mountains if Joseph said so.... 
This might be a mere figure of speech, i.e., such as "to the moon and back if Joseph said so." On the other hand, it may be that Joseph's thoughts about the west were beginning to percolate among the Saints and even their enemies, so it can hardly have been much of a secret. Oliver Olney, an apostate member who was supporting John C. Bennett, wrote a letter to Joseph Smith on the matter on 20 July 1842:
"They say with your numerous wifes and maidens you are about to start west as far as the Rocky Mountains where you will raise up a Righteous Branch without being molested by the Laws of the Land." Olney later noted that the Saints "are fast a fixing to go West where they can live in peace without being molested By the laws of the land. They say soon to start If what I hear is correct as far West as Origen Territory and establish a stake of Zion." 
As we have seen above, there are accounts of Joseph discussing the matter at least as early as 1834.
- Tullidge's Histories, Vol I. History of Northern Utah, and Southern Idaho.--Biographical Supplement, p. 271. See History of the Church, 5:85, note. note Volume 5 link; Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report (April 1916), 66-67.
- Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah, 1540-1886, 198.
- The History of the Church note by B.H. Roberts says of this matter: "While in Tullidge's biography of Call the date is given as the 14th of July, 1843, evidently an error. There is no entry in the Prophet's journal for the 8th of August, 1842, and the entries for the 8th of August, 1843, and the 14th of July, 1843, relate to matters of quite a different character. Tullidge, in relating Anson Call's recollection of the incident also says that J. C. Bennett was present on the occasion, which must also be an error, as the rupture between Bennett and the Church and its authorities occurred and he had left Nauvoo previous to the 6th of August, 1842. In the Call statement as published by Tullidge, the name of Mr. Adams, the Deputy Grand Master Mason in charge of the ceremonies, is given as George, it should be James."
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Signature Books, 1994), 635.
- Dale Morgan to S.A. Burgess, "Dear Mr. Burgess" (1 July 1842); citing in John Phillip Walker, editor, Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1986), 38. (emphasis added)
- Autobiography of Benjamin F. Johnson, from My Life's Review (Independence, MO: Zion's Printing and Publishing Co., 1947), 101.
- Autobiography of Wandle Mace, 188–189.
- Samuel W. Richards, cited in Autobiography and Diary Excerpts of Anthony W. Ivins (8 October 1905); compare similar story recorded by Diary Excerpts of Thomas A. Clawson, 1904-1906 Bk, p. 350 (Aug 6, 1906).
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:16.
- Orson Pratt, Journal of Discourses 21:274.
- B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 179–180.
- Autobiography of Mosiah Lyman Hancock, 28.
- Bathsheba W. Smith, Young Woman's Journal 16 (1905): 549-58
- Rachel Ridgeway Grant, Young Woman's Journal 16 (1905): 549-58
- Larson, Diaries of Rudger Clawson, 612–613.
- Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 8:279. ISBN 0941214133.
- Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 8:appendix (journal entry dated 24 November 1878). ISBN 0941214133.
- Wilford Woodruff, Journal of Discourses 21:299.
- L. John Nuttall Papers, Letter Press Book #4, 285.
- History of the Church, 5:xxviii. Volume 5 link
- Ronald W. Walker, "'A Banner is Unfurled': Mormonism's Ensign Peak," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 26 no. 4, 72.
- Walker, 72-73; citing Council Meeting, 26 Feb. 1847, Thomas Bullock minutes, LDS Archives.
- Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow, 76.
- John P. Green, "Kirtland, October 28, 1842," Times and Seasons 4 no. 3 (15 December 1842), 39. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Marvin S. Hill, Quest for Refuge, 120; citing Olney papers, #15 and #30.