Thomas Marsh and the Individualized Instructions of Doctrine & Covenants 30-36
by Steve Densley
Various sections of the Doctrine and Covenants consist of instructions to specific individuals. It may be that this is illustrated no better than in sections 30 through 36. In these sections we read about individualized revelations directed to various men who were called on a mission to the Lamanites (Peter Whitmer, Parley P. Pratt, and Ziba Peterson), some called to share the gospel at home and minister in the church in surrounding areas (David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Thomas B. Marsh, Ezra Thayre, Northrop Sweet, Orson Pratt, & Edward Partridge), and one was given a special assignment to be the scribe for Joseph Smith as he worked on his translation of the Bible (Sidney Rigdon).
As we read these sections, we are reminded perhaps of our own patriarchal blessings or other blessings in which we are set apart for some Church service and are given insight and direction as to how to carry out our assignments and generally conduct our lives. These kinds of blessings can come to be more meaningful with time as we look back on specific events of our lives and how those events were perhaps foreshadowed through prophetic instruction.
As we read Section 31, for example, we are left wondering if the life of Thomas B. Marsh may have been much different if he had followed the direction he received more closely. And, of course, the instruction he received can be applied in our personal lives and may similarly make our lives better if we heed the counsel provided here.
There are few early members of the Church who showed more potential as future leaders than Thomas Marsh. Indeed, on May 2, 1835, he was ordained as the first man to serve as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and he may have succeeded Joseph Smith as President of the Church had he not left the Church in 1838.
Marsh was born in 1800 in Massachusetts and at one time joined the Methodist church. Through his study of the Bible, he became convinced that “a new church would arise, which would have the truth in its purity.” He therefore withdrew from all churches in anticipation of finding this new church. In 1829, he “believed the Spirit of God dictated me to make a journey west.” After moving to western New York, he heard about “the Golden Book found by a youth named Joseph Smith.” He went to Palmyra and found Martin Harris at E.B. Grandin’s printing office. Harris gave Marsh the first 16 pages of the Book of Mormon, which had just come off the press. Marsh returned to Massachusetts and showed the pages to his wife, Elizabeth. They were both convinced that the translation was the work of God. After corresponding with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith for about one year, he moved his family to Palmyra in September of 1830. Marsh was baptized by David Whitmer on September 3, and later that month, received the word of the Lord through Joseph Smith that we now know as Section 31.
Through that revelation, he was given many wonderful blessings and told that “the hour of your mission is come” (v. 3). Among other things, he was told to “thrust in your sickle with all your soul, and your sins are forgiven you” (v. 5).
The significance of other counsel was perhaps not recognized at the time, but in retrospect, it strikes us as especially poignant. In verse 9, he was told: “Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast.” And then in verses 12 and 13: “Pray always, lest you enter into temptation and lose your reward. Be faithful unto the end, and lo, I am with you.”
By all accounts, Marsh was faithful to this counsel for the next several years and despite facing various afflictions and persecution, remained stalwart in his dedication to the Church. But his faithfulness seems to have been stretched to its limit when Heber C. Kimball was assigned by Joseph Smith to open the missionary work in England. At this time, on July 23, 1837, he was told to “be thou humble” and to “rebel not against my servant Joseph” (D&C 112:10 & 15). Despite this counsel, and despite the earlier counsel of D&C 31, his discontent with the leadership of Joseph Smith eventually grew.
It can be hard to know why someone leaves the Church. A single incident may be identified, but as we learn more about a person, we usually find there are a complex set of circumstances and many factors may have contributed.
In the case of Thomas Marsh, his discontent with Joseph Smith suggested in Section 112 may have created a sore spot that festered with time. Later, in May of 1838, Marsh’s son James died suddenly from illness at the age of 14. It is hard to know if that played a role in the eventual disaffection of Marsh, but a tragic death can contribute to bitterness toward God. Also, persecution against the saints increased at this time including expulsion of the saints from Carroll County, Missouri in August and a fight that broke out at the polls on election day in Gallatin, Missouri, when members of the Church were denied the right to vote.
Another event occurred around August of 1838 that has become synonymous with the name of Thomas Marsh: The milk strippings incident. This dispute involved Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lucinda Harris, the wife of George W. Harris. The incident was described later by George A. Smith, the apostle who replaced Thomas Marsh upon his leaving the Church. Kay Darowski summarizes the incident in this way:
According to George A. Smith, the women had agreed to exchange milk from their cows for making cheese. But counter to their agreement, Elizabeth allegedly kept the cream strippings—the richer part of the milk that rises to the top—before sending the rest of the milk to Lucinda. According to Smith, the matter went before the teachers quorum, then the bishop, and then the high council, all of whom found Elizabeth to be at fault. Marsh, not satisfied, appealed to the First Presidency, who agreed with the earlier decisions. Further hurt by this chain of events, the already frustrated Marsh was said to have declared “that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.”
It has been reported that “Henry William Bigler, a witness who attended the trial presided over by Bishop Edward Partridge, added that during the hearing ‘[Mrs. Marsh] called on God and angels to witness her innocence. At this time the Prophet [Joseph Smith] jumped up and said, `Sister Marsh, if you say that, you lie like the devil.’”
It is not hard to imagine how this rebuke against his wife could cause Thomas Marsh to become embittered against Joseph Smith. One wonders if Thomas Marsh considered at that time the counsel he had received in verse 9 of Section 31 when he was told: “Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast.” And if not, Marsh received new counsel that, if it had been followed, he would have avoided a great deal of sorrow for himself and the saints. Heber C. Kimball related:
About the time [Thomas Marsh] was preparing to leave this Church, he received a revelation in the Printing Office. He retired to himself, and prayed, and was humble, and God gave him a revelation, and he wrote it. There were from three to five pages of it; and when he came out, he read it to brother Brigham and me. In it God told him what to do, and that was to sustain brother Joseph and to believe that what brother Joseph had said was true. But no; he took a course to sustain his wife and oppose the Prophet of God, and she led him away.
What!—sustain a woman, a wife, in preference to sustaining the Prophet Joseph, brother Brigham, and his brethren! Your religion is vain when you take that course.
Thomas Marsh himself would later recollect:
About this time [August of 1838] I got a beam in my eye and thought I could discover a mote in Joseph’s eye, though it was nothing but a beam in my eye; I was so completely darkened that I did not think on the Savior’s injunction: “Thou hypocrite, why beholdest thou the mote which is in thy brother’s eye, when a beam is in thine own eye; first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, then thou shalt see clearly to get the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
Had I seen this I should have discovered myself a hypocrite, but as I had often said while in the Church, if I ever apostatized I would go away quietly; I tried to do so, but the Saints kept inquiring of me if I was going to leave, and so did Joseph twice. I evaded him both times. The last time he almost got me into so tight a corner I could hardly evade. He put the question direct to me, whether I was going to leave? With an affected look of contempt I answered: “Joseph when you see me leave the Church, you will see a good fellow leave it.”
So while it can be hard to know why a person leaves the Church, and a variety of factors usually contribute, it seems likely that here, Thomas Marsh identified the milk strippings incident as the precipitating cause of the bitterness that led to his apostasy. While in this state of bitterness, Marsh left Far West with his family.
Then, from October 18-21, some members of the Church retaliated against the mobs. On October 24, Thomas Marsh signed an affidavit, along with fellow-dissident Orson Hyde, that falsely made Joseph Smith out to be a blood-thirsty and ambitious war-monger: “The plan of said Smith, the prophet, is to take this State, & he professes to his people to intend taking the U.S. & ultimately the whole world–This is the belief of the Church & my own opinion of the prophet’s plan & intentions.” The affidavit further states: “I have heard the prophet say that he should yet tread down his enemies & walk over their dead bodies–That if he was not let alone he would be a Mahamet to this generation, & that he would make it one gore of blood, from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean.”
While there were other pieces of evidence used against the saints at that time, this affidavit was key in providing a basis for the extermination order of Governor Boggs and for the jailing of Joseph Smith and charges against him of treason. Of the affidavit, Joseph Smith stated that it contained
all the vilest calumnies, aspersions, Lies and slanders, towards myself and the Church that his wicked heart could invent. He had been lifted up in pride, by his exaltations and the Revelations of Heaven concerning him, until he was ready to be overthrown by the first adverse wind that should cross his track, and now he has fallen, Lied and sworn to it, and was ready to take the lives of his best friends. Let all men take warning by him and learn that he who exalteth himself God will abase
Marsh spent nearly 20 years outside of the Church. It was a period of suffering and loss leading him to yearn for a return to the company of the saints. As he contemplated his return, he wrote to Heber C. Kimball in Salt Lake City: “The Lord could get along very well without me and He has lost nothing by my falling out of the ranks; But O what have I lost?!”
Before returning, Marsh tried to set things right with the husband of Lucinda Harris, the woman from whom Marsh’s wife had held back the milk strippings. Marsh wrote that he had “met with G W. Harris and a reconsiliation has taken place with us.”
After his arrival in Salt Lake City, Brigham Young allowed him to address the saints. His words are an instruction and warning to each of us about how apostasy begins and how to avoid it. He said:
I have frequently wanted to know how my apostacy began, and I have come to the conclusion that I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart.
The next question is, “How and when did you lose the Spirit?” I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, … I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad.
In the same address, he said:
Many have said to me, “How is it that a man like you, who understood so much of the revelations of God as recorded in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, should fall away?” I told them not to feel too secure, but to take heed lest they also should fall; for I had no scruples in my mind as to the possibility of men falling away.
It is interesting to wonder whether in saying this he had in mind that early revelation from Section 31 verses 12 and 13: “Pray always, lest you enter into temptation and lose your reward. Be faithful unto the end, and lo, I am with you.” In light of the later events in the life of Thomas Marsh, sections 31 and 112 are strikingly prophetic: Revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness. Be steadfast. Be humble. Rebel not against my servant Joseph. Pray always and be faithful to the end. This was not only important counsel for Thomas Marsh, but it is important for anyone who wishes to remain strong in the gospel and to avoid the pain and heartache that comes from falling away.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
A. Gary Anderson, “Thomas B. Marsh: Reluctant Apostate,” Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: Missouri, ed. Arnold K. Garr and Clark V. Johnson (Provo, Utah: Department of Church History and Doctrine, Brigham Young University, 1994).
Lyndon W. Cook (1980) “I Have Sinned Against Heaven, and Am Unworthy of Your Confidence, But I Cannot Live without a Reconciliation”: Thomas B. Marsh Returns to the Church,” BYU Studies Quarterly: Vol. 20 : Iss. 4 , Article 8.
Ronald K. Esplin, “‘Exalt Not Yourselves’: The Revelations and Thomas B. Marsh, An Object Lesson For Our Day,” in Sperry Symposium Classics: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Craig K. Manscill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 275–294 (citing Thomas B. Marsh to Heber C. Kimball, May 5, 1857, Heber C. Kimball Papers, Church Archives. Thomas B. Marsh to Heber C. Kimball, May 5, 1857, Heber C. Kimball Papers, Church Archives).
Drew S. Goodman, The Fullness of Times: A Chronological Comparison of Important Events in Church, U.S., and World History (Eagle Gate: Salt Lake City, 2001).
Joseph Smith Papers, “Thomas Baldwin March.”
Joseph Smith Papers, “History, 1838–1856, volume B-1 [1 September 1834–2 November 1838]”
Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886), 5:207-09.
Kay Darowski, “The Faith and Fall of Thomas Marsh,” Revelations in Context.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Thomas B. Marsh.”
Thomas Marsh “History of Thomas Baldwin Marsh (Written by himself in great Salt Lake City, November, 1857.)” Millennial Star, No. 26. June 25, 1864. Vol. XXVI. p. 406.
Steve Densley, Jr. is the Executive Vice President of The Interpreter Foundation. He is also a Utah attorney (J.D., Brigham Young University). He graduated with University Honors from BYU with a combined B.A./M.A. in public policy and political science. He has published articles in the Utah Bar Journal, the Journal of Law and Family Studies, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, and Meridian Magazine. He was the Executive Vice President of FAIR from 2013-15, recipient of the John Taylor Defender of the Faith Award, and was a producer of FAIR’s podcast when it twice won the People’s Choice Award for Best Podcast in the Religion & Spirituality category.