Neilson, Waite, eds., “Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency” (reviewed by Andrew Hamilton)


Title: Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency
Editors: Reid L Neilson, Nathan N. Waite
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: Documentary History
Year Published: 2017
Number of Pages: 430
Binding: Cloth
ISBN: 978-0-19-060089-1
Price: $45.00

Reviewed by Andrew Hamilton for the Association for Mormon Letters


OKAY, so maybe the LDS First Presidency consisting of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards didn’t quite intonate like Monty Python’s “Knights Who Say Ni,” but they did ask Mormon immigrants who were coming to the Territory of Deseret to bring them a “shrubbery” (p. 284); in fact, over the course of the fifteen epistles covered in “Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel,” they instructed the Mormon pioneers who were struggling to fit as many of their possessions as possible into small wagons and later into tiny handcarts to make room to bring quite a few specialized items with them. Along with bringing “shrubberies” they requested that the incoming Saints make room in their wagons to bring “all kinds of choice seeds, of grain, vegetables, fruits,…trees, and vines…the best stock of beast – bird and fowl of every kind…the best tools of every description, and machinery for spinning, or weaving, and dressing cotton, wool, flax, and silk…[and] all kinds of farming utensils…” (p.284).

Other epistles asked the Mormon converts to make room for “your ploughs and drills, your reapers and gleaners, your threshers and cleaners” (p. 109), “bring models of the most approved machinery, for manufacturing all useful articles ever wanted by man, and choice seeds of every kind” (p. 165). “We want paints, oil, glass, putty, nails, house trimmings, seeds for hedges and all choice fruits, vegetables, and flowers; cotton and wool machinery, and all kinds of labor saving machinery” (p. 178), “brining…your silver, your gold, and everything that will beautify and ennoble Zion, and establish the House of the Lord; not forgetting the seeds of all choice trees, and fruits, and grains, and useful products of the earth, and labor saving machinery” (p. 190); in fact, just about all of the epistles include some sort of request for specialized items that the presidency felt were needed to help to “build up Zion” (see also, for instance, p. 213 and 270).

These numerous lists of requested items are one of the many fascinating details found in the collected epistles in “Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel: The General Epistles of the Mormon First Presidency” that give new life to the study of the Mormon Pioneering period. These request lists help to demonstrate the importance of this book in providing a picture into what life was like in “The State of Deseret” in the 1850’s.

The 14 “General Epistles” (15 counting an extra epistle in the appendix that was issued by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1847) of the First Presidency, as collected by Neilson and Waite, provide a previously unavailable (or at least, only previously available with great difficulty) window into the past and give a glimpse of what life was like in a new and unfamiliar frontier territory. Issued twice yearly between 1849 and 1856, usually in connection with the “General Conferences” held by the Church, these letters were sent to instruct the Saints and missionaries abroad as to both the needs and the teachings of the Church as it established the “State of Deseret” in the western American wilderness. They were published both as standalone items and in the Church newspapers of their day.

In our time, until now, those interested in researching and studying these epistles would have needed to visit wealthy collectors or document repositories and made special requests to gain access. In this volume Reid L. Neilson and Nathan N. Waite have collected the epistles and added useful footnotes, introductions, and historical and contextual information to aid the modern reader. In so doing they have provided an invaluable tool to those who are interested in the early days in “Deseret.” Readers of this book will find that the contents of these epistles highlight what Mormon leaders were thinking and concerned about in their time, that give a glimpse of what needs they felt the Church had, and emphasize their dreams and visions for what they wanted “Zion” to become. For instance, repeated requests for the Saints to bring seeds, machinery, and riches to beautify their new mountain/desert home demonstrated the dream or vision they had to establish a Zion, a great paradise built up with all of the fine things of the earth that the incoming residents were to bring with them. In connection with that they also give a sense for the faith and trust the immigrating pioneers would have needed to obey the instructions. The letters also, at times, for our modern eyes and understanding, provide a snapshot of the humanity, limitations and ignorance of these same leaders (more on that further down).

As I read “Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel” I was reminded of the time that I spent on my LDS mission in the early 1990s. I served my time just before the internet broke onto the scene. In those days just before email, instant messaging, and constant status updates, we missionaries “out in the field” were always anxious for a bit of news from home. P-days and “snail mail” letters from friends and loved ones were always looked forward to. Also eagerly awaited were our monthly “zone conferences” where we would receive our copies of “The Ensign” magazine which always contained the latest “First Presidency Message” and the four most recent issues of “The Church News” insert that is published every Sunday by the Church-owned “Deseret News”. It was always a welcome thing to read the latest messages from the leaders who we revered as prophets and to learn what was going on back home.

As much as we looked forward to those messages, reading this book really made me realize that we were never that cut off, even though we lacked the current innovations of technology. We still had fairly regular news updates and when anything truly important happened, such as when Ezra Taft Benson died in 1994, the information was passed to us within a few hours. But in a time when none of our modern forms of communication existed except for the printed word, a letter received every six months that was seen as carrying both prophetic instructions and news updates about family, friends, and descriptions of life in what was to be your new home, would have been a priceless and greatly awaited treasure.

And for researchers and other interested parties today, reading the letters in “Settling the Valley, Proclaiming the Gospel” is a priceless treasure as they inform and teach us about the life and times of the early Mormon settlers.

There were several things really grabbed my attention as I read the epistles in this book that I would like to highlight here in no particular order of importance. I think that any of these items would provide material for an interesting anthropological study of the Mormonism of the 1850s. First, as I read these letters, I realized that Brigham Young and the First Presidency of his day believed that the end of the world was *VERY* close. In my lifetime I have heard my local leaders and teachers in the LDS Church try to teach the idea that early Church members and leaders may have believed that they lived in the “Latter-days” but they did not really believe or teach that they lived in the very “Last days” and that they did not believe that the end of the world would come in their lifetimes. The most common “evidence” given for this is a statement made by Richard L Evans in 1950 that he *attributed* to Wilford Woodruff, “I would live as if it (the second coming) were to be tomorrow—but I am still planting cherry trees!” This unproven quote that was supposed to have been uttered by Woodruff may have made it sound as if he and others of his time believed that the end of the world/return of Christ was far enough off to plant and harvest fruit from slow-growing trees, but these epistles that were actually written by the First Presidency remove all doubt that the Latter-day Saints of the 1850’s were being prepared for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ that their leaders believed would come in the very near future. Neilson and Waite state as much in footnote number three to the First Epistle:

“As ‘premillennialists,’ Latter-day Saints believed that in the relatively near future, Jesus Christ would return to the earth and usher in the Millennium, a period of peace when Satan was to be bound. Preceding his second coming would be much wickedness and tumult” (p. 63-64. They also discuss this ‘premillennialist’ belief in their introduction to the book, see pp. 17 and 28 ).

This idea that the “Millennium” was very close is written all throughout these epistle starting with the very first:

“Since the General Epistle of the Twelve Apostles, from Winter Quarters, December 23d, 1847, many events have transpired interesting in their nature as pertaining to the advancement of the Church, preparatory to the coming of the Son of Man…” (p. 63)

While I realize that statement all by itself is not necessarily explicitly stating that the return of Christ was supposed to be close, it is just a start for many repeated statements that build up to the idea that his coming was to be expected very soon. I’ll share a few examples:

“Hundreds of thousands have believed and yielded obedience to the heavenly message, and are patiently waiting the second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ; who, ere long, will set his foot again on the mount of Olivet, and make himself manifest unto Israel…The gathering of Israel has already commenced; Judea is receiving its ancient inhabitants, and the Holy City is re-building: which is one prominent sign of the near approach of the Messiah (p. 119, see also fn 3 on the same page).

“The saints have gathered from various parts of the earth, unto Zion; to America…in these last days…and honorable men of the earth of all nations…who are disposed to seek refuge therein, when the overflowing scourges of God’s wrath shall destroy the nations, and depopulate the earth on account of the … abominations of the inhabitants thereof. – The unparalleled spread of the Gospel…and the rapid gathering of the Saints, is another token of the Messiah’s near approach.” (p. 120)

The next two paragraphs of the above quoted epistle, the Fifth, go on to list “convulsions of the nations,” wars, threats, plagues of new diseases, “fearful sights and strange signs,” noises, general corruption, abominations, and many more signs that are a “fulfillment of the prophecies” and are a part of the “multiplied signs” that “confirm the approach of the millennial day” (see pp. 119-121). At the conclusion of the same epistle they conclude that “they will not have time to preach to all nations before all flesh will be seized with fear and trembling in view of those things which the Almighty is about to bring to pass” and he purifies the earth “by fire” (p. 132).

Epistle Six starts out with a similar theme in the first four paragraphs by listing signs that the second coming is close, including that “signs and wonders, and false Christs” have already appeared (p. 136) but that the whole earth shall soon be illumined by the light of “the Son of Righteousness” making “his appearance” (p. 137). Epistles Seven and Eight, while not as explicit in language about the near coming of Christ, do contain several references to how the Saints will be afflicted with sorrows and tribulations including “famine” and being “hedged by the sword” (p. 177) if they do not join the gathering out of the world to the Zion that they are establishing and join it soon. Epistle Nine lists many ways in which the world was going to “grow worse and worse” until Christ returned and revisited the idea that the earth was about to be depopulated as a precursor to the second coming (see p. 180, 187-188).

Epistle Ten starts with similar language, Epistle Eleven discusses once more that the earth is about to be depopulated by war and famine to where the earth would be “made empty” of everyone except the “saints in Zion” (see p209) and discusses it as if this were a near event. This epistle continues by telling the Saints that “the day draweth nigh” when the “ancient of Days” would “sit in judgement” and God would cause all wickedness to be taken from the earth (see p. 210). Epistles Twelve, Thirteen, and Fourteen also make reference to the near start of the millennial day including statements about the coming calamities and the nearness of the return of the “bridegroom” (see pp. 274-275).

All of this would make an excellent foundation for a study on attitudes and beliefs about the Millennial reign of Christ among early Latter-day Saints or as a starting point for a study on the evolving beliefs of the Latter-day Saints about the timing of the return of Christ.

A second thing I noticed was that Brigham Young and his counselors must have really been worried that a large scale exodus of Church members to the gold fields in California would take place because the first four epistles really go out of their way to make it sound like anyone who left to look for gold would only be met with sorrow and disappointment. The First Epistle (April 1849), Second epistle (October 1849), Third Epistle (April 1850), and the Fourth (September 1850) all spend time discussing how the true use for gold is for the building of Zion, including such mundane things as “the paving of streets” and “covering houses and making culinary dishes” (p. 85), and how the Saints need not go for gold because God will give them riches if they stay, or that they will be met with trials and disappointments if they go (see pages 77, 85, 99, 100, 106, and 114 which speaks of a “great failure of the gold dust” in California that season).

A third thing that stuck out to me was that Brigham and his counselors were not above using generous helpings of fear, guilt, and some intimidation to try and convince the Saints still abroad of the need to come to “Zion.” The Sixth Epistle lays a pretty heavy guilt trip in stating that the Temple block would be more complete than it was if only more Saints had come and paid their tithing (p. 138). It also states that converts who do not journey to Zion soon after their baptisms will find themselves on “enemy ground,” that their “enemies” will have “power over them” because of their disobedience, and implies that this could endanger their lives, testimonies, and their very salvation (pp. 143-144).

It also pretty much tells the Saints who are not willing to come by handcarts that they love the world more than God and that their eternal salvation is at risk (pp. 150-151). Many of the other epistles include, and often end with, language that states that converts who are slow in coming to Zion will be afflicted. This includes the Seventh (pp.0165-166), the Eighth (p. 177), the Tenth, which warns the Saints to obey the call to come to Zion or they would receive divine “chastenings” and implies that such chastening in the past has led to the death of disobedient saints (p. 195). Epistle Eleven comes right out and says that if they do not travel to Zion that they will “suffer loss, the natural consequence of disobedience” to God (p. 204), and the Twelfth, which tells them to “‘gather to Zion’ without unnecessary delay” or they would face suffering by “‘fire and by sword, by pestilence, famine, and tempest” (p. 235). Even the most obedient of Saints might have felt a twinge of guilt with how heavy handed some of these letters were.

I’ll mention two more things that caught my attention in the epistles, one on the negative side, and one that is very positive; I hope this balance will avoid the idea that I’m coming across as being too negative about the content of the letters or my perceived intent of the epistle writers. As I mentioned earlier, these letters sometime betray the humanity of Young and his counselors. Most of the language that they use about Native Americans is stereotypical, degrading, patronizing, or otherwise negative (see for instance pp. 96, 126, 140-141, 194, and 239). They also have a tendency to blame sicknesses, food shortages, fights with the Natives, and other problems that they experience on the visiting and passing through non-Mormon wagon trains and visitors, and absolve themselves of all guilt (see pp. 90 and 132 for two examples).

Finally, and this is a little amusing, they had some funny ideas about the climate and conditions that they were experiencing in the Salt Lake area that we now know are scientifically unsound. This includes reports that the Saints were frequently hearing “volcanic eruptions” taking place in the mountains around Salt Lake City (see p. 98) and reports of July temperatures in Salt Lake reaching 127 degrees fahrenheit (p. 168. The highest recorded temperature in Salt Lake City is 107, recorded in 1960 and 2002, see fn 1, p.168, and the editors’ discussion of weather in the introduction to the book, p, 5).

To end this section of my review on a positive note, so I do not leave anyone with the impression that I think that Young and his counselors were awful men who were always saying mean or uninformed things, these epistles show over and over again the great concern they had for the poor and the obligation that they felt that the Church had to assist them. Discussed frequently is the “Perpetual Emigrating Fund” that was created to give all who wanted to come the chance to gather with the Church (see for instance pp. 51-52, 55, 87-88, 90-91, 112-114, 129, 174, 187, 202, 208, 232, 242-244, and 258). There are also repeated calls such as these: “It is the duty of the rich to relieve the suffering poor” (p. 211), “Let the Saints abroad…devote all that they have for the spread of the gospel, the gathering of Israel, and helping the poor” (p. 234), and “The cry from our poor brethren in foreign countries for deliverance is great…Shall we turn a deaf ear to their appeals…Let this question be answered by your acts…for it is worthy of your most active benevolence” (p. 243).

I realize that I have already been longwinded about my thoughts on the contents of the epistles, but I want to give a few thoughts on the work and contributions of the editors before I finish this review. First and foremost, while this book is not as likely to excite the world of Mormon studies nearly as much as the Joseph Smith Papers Project or some of the other recent historical publications of LDS historical documents and information, the compilation of these important and heretofore hard to find epistles by Neilson and Waite provides priceless access to very important documents that, as I have previously stated, give important access to the thoughts and views of the Brigham Young First Presidency in the 1850s and shed new light for many people on the conditions and experiences of the time. These editors should be commended and thanked for their efforts. Second, the two introductory essays and the footnotes are a great help in understanding these epistles, the language and terms used therein, and the context, history, and events occurring when they were written.

With this well-deserved praise in place, I do have a few minor quibbles with the work of Neilson and Waite. As mentioned, the book starts with two essays, the second of which is titled “‘To The Saints Scattered throughout the Earth’: The Tradition of Mormon Apostolic Epistles.” Overall I enjoyed this document and found it to be very helpful, but there was one thing about it that I didn’t like — the introductions to *all* of the fourteen epistles were included together, in this one document, instead of at the beginning of each epistle. Neilson and Waite state very clearly *why* they did this. They felt that by putting all of the introductions together at the beginning of the book, they would provide a greater overall historical context for the eight years during which the epistles were written (see p. 49). While some context is linked and provided by how they put the introductions together, I found it a bit annoying to have to flip back and forth in the book to link the introductions with the matching epistles. I’m not saying that their editorial choice to do this was bad or wrong, or that everyone’s experience will be like mine, I just would have preferred the introductions to be with each epistle.

While I found most of the content added to the book by Neilson and Waite to be good and helpful, there were a couple of places where I felt that they were either inaccurate or unclear in what they were writing.

Near the end of their introduction they state that in 1857:

“Alfred Cumming was appointed governor of the Territory of Utah, displacing Brigham Young. On July 18, the Tenth Infantry, which was leading the expedition against the Mormons, began marching from Fort Leavenworth to Utah” (pp. 29-30).

In my view the wording of these sentences shows a Mormon bias. Wording the first to say that Cumming was “displacing Brigham Young” makes it sound like Young was forced out, deposed, overthrown even. In reality, Young’s term expired and he was replaced as governors often are. He was not forced out; the President of the United States just decided not to keep him in office. Also, the purpose of the Utah Expedition was not to march “against the Mormons.” Rather, the purpose of the Expedition was to escort and protect the new governor, Alfred Cumming, and to make sure that order was restored and enforced in the Utah territory as the government had received word that Utah was in a state of rebellion and would not allow the new governor to take his place in office.

Then, in the introduction to Epistle Thirteen, Neilson and Waite make the following statement:

“(In) the summer of 1855…The Endowment House was completed and dedicated, allowing church members to perform the highest church rituals for the first time since they abandoned Nauvoo, Illinois, nearly a decade before” (p. 58). I suppose this could depend on just how they are defining “highest ordinances.” Endowments and sealings were performed in the Council House after it was completed in 1852. Also there is a record of Addison Pratt receiving his endowment on Ensign Peak and of Brigham Young performing sealings in his office. Those two ordinances are what are usually thought of as the “higher” ordinances. Latter-day Saints rarely speak of “Second Anointings” due to their sacred nature within the Church. I do not know if they were performed between 1846 and 1855 when the Endowment House was finished. So Neilson and Waite *may* be referring to second anointings without naming them, but that would be an unusual reference.

I want to end this review with two positive things about Neilson and Waite’s writing to balance out my criticisms. First, while I did think that they were at times biased in the favor of Brigham Young and were soft on some controversial events, they also had no problem calling out times that the Epistles were untruthful or inaccurate. For instance, on page four of the introduction they list several statements from the epistles that talk up how great, prosperous, and safe life in Deseret Territory was supposed to be. Then they state, “In reality the situation in the Great basin was at times far more bleak and dire than the First Presidency permitted to reach print.” Later on in the introduction they spend several paragraphs discussing the “cryptic silence” about polygamy in the epistles (see pp 10-11). Then they write, “Another element missing from the epistles is any detail regarding scarcity or hardships” and then they continue on discussing how the epistles are at times “a form of religious boosterism” that go so far as to make wild claims about how people seldom got sick or died in the valley (see pp. 11-12). They also discuss how women are largely ignored in the epistles (pp. 13-14). So much credit is to be given to them for being willing to point out problems in the writings of those whom their religion has considered to be prophets, seers, and revelators.

One other thing that I really liked about these introductory essays and footnotes was that I was very glad to see Neilson and Waite quote and cite a number of excellent scholarly books on Mormonism as they wrote. Some of these quoted essays and books would have, at one time, been shunned by employees of the LDS Church for not always painting every moment of the Church’s history in a “faithful” light; it was very nice to see them included in this book. Examples of these works cited (all of which are worth acquiring and reading) include “You Nasty Apostates Clear Out: Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850’s” (Polly Aird, “Journal of Mormon History” 30:2 129-207), “Things of Heaven and Earth: The Life and Times of Wilford Woodruff” (Thomas Alexander, Signature Books, 1993), “Building the City of God” (Arrington, Fox, and May, Deseret Book, 1976), “Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch” (Bates and Smith, U of I Press, 1996), “Polygamy on the Pedernales: Lyman Wight’s Mormon Villages in Antebellum Texas, 1845 to 1858” (Melvin C. Johnson, USU Press, 2006), and “The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power” (D. Michael Quinn, Signature Books, 1994). The effort that is being made by “official” LDS Church historians and employees to be more open-minded, to examine differing interpretations and understandings of historical events, and to explore and discuss events and ideas that have been considered embarrassing or damaging to the LDS Church in the past, is very welcome and refreshing.

Let me state again, my disagreements and quibbles with Neilson and Waite are small. This is an excellent and important book. While the audience for it may be smaller than some recent works, it deserves an audience. I hope that it is purchased by researchers and parties interested in the history of Mormonism in the 1850s. Those who do study it will find it to be an invaluable tool that will contribute greatly to their knowledge and research.

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