Sometimes the minor characters in a story have the most interesting arcs. As I researched the life of Sylvester Smith in early church history it became clear to me that his story is a sort of cautionary tale for members of the Church in these interesting times.
As we are just getting to the parts about Zion’s Camp in the Come Follow Me curriculum, I figure now is a good time to share this story. Parts might be familiar, but I’m guessing not all.
The details of the story were culled from the History of the Church, personal journals, and the Joseph Smith Papers. I’ve done my best to be accurate. All the sources are cited at the end of the article, if you feel like digging in.
First, a little backstory: Sylvester Smith was a young man of twenty-five when he joined the fledgling Church in June of 1831. 1 He was a mere three months younger than the Prophet Joseph (No relation). That October he was ordained a High Priest and by January was called to serve a mission to New England. 2 In 1834 he joined the saints in Kirtland and was appointed a member of the High Council. 3
The Zion’s Camp expedition left Kirtland on Monday, May 5, 1834. 4 The first mention of Sylvester is that very first Sunday where Joseph Smith records, “Sunday 11. Elder Sylvester Smith preached, and the company received the Sacrament of bread and wine.” 5
It wasn’t long before there were some problems with the food supply. “As might be expected, food was a recurring problem for during the march to Missouri. On May 12, George A. Smith, the youngest member of the camp, recorded that for the first time in his life he had bread and uncooked pork for breakfast. Two days later, on the 14th, the supply of bread was exhausted. The commissary had expected to purchase needed supplies in Buchyrus, Ohio, but were unable to do so.” 6
The expedition was only one week in, and they were already short of bread. Sylvester was not happy about it. The Prophet Joseph recorded:
“Wednesday, May 14. We passed on to Belle Fontaine, where we discovered refractory feelings in Sylvester Smith, who expressed great dissatisfaction because we were short of bread, although we had used all diligence to procure a supply, and Captain Brigham Young had previously sent two men ahead to provide supplies for his company.” 4
It wouldn’t be the last time that Sylvester has bread issues…
“Sylvester criticized leaders for failing to prepare for the journey and complained of men and teams being required to pull heavy wagons. The Prophet Joseph Smith learned of his complaints and expressed concern that Sylvester was “sowing the seed of discord.’” 7
A few days later, as Joseph, Brigham and John S. Carter were riding together, Elder Carter asked the Prophet, “Is this thing right?”
“What thing?” Joseph responded.
“Concerning Parley P. Pratt’s asking Brother Sylvester for some bread for supper.”
John then related that “Brother Pratt had asked Brother Sylvester for some bread; that Sylvester had bread at the time, but directed Brother Pratt to someone else, who he said had sufficient; that Elder Pratt called upon that individual, and could not obtain any.” 8
Later Elder Lyman Sherman would explain that “in consequence of Brother Sylvester’s not furnishing him with bread, was deprived of bread that night…Brother Parley did not obtain any bread in consequence of Brother Sylvester not supplying him with it.” 9
Joseph Smith was not pleased and confronted Sylvester the next morning. Brigham Young related the confrontation:
“President Smith told Brother Sylvester that he had not acted right in the matter, that he ought to impart when he had it instead of directing one where he was not certain he could obtain, that by so doing some might be deprived of food at times.”
“He further said, that Brother Sylvester contended he had been right, and justified his own conduct in the matter; that Joseph reasoned with Sylvester to convince him that he [Sylvester] was in fault; but he continued to justify his course till President Smith reproved him sharply.” 9
Joseph would later say that “Brother Sylvester had conducted himself contrary to the principles of Christ; and that his mind was darkened in consequence of this covetous spirit.” 10 (Essentially, thou shalt not covet the bread.)
Apparently, that chastening did not sit well with Sylvester. Just few days later, on Friday, May 16, Joseph recorded the following – you might have heard this part – “the horse story.:”
“This evening there was a difficulty between some of the brethren and Sylvester Smith, on occasion of which I was called to decide in the matter. Finding a rebellious spirit in Sylvester Smith, and to some extent in others, I told them they would meet with misfortunes, difficulties and hindrances, and said, “and you will know it before you leave this place,” exhorting them to humble themselves before the Lord and become united, that they might not be scourged. A very singular occurrence took place that night and the next day, concerning our teams. On Sunday morning, when we arose, we found almost every horse in the camp so badly foundered (painful hoof condition) that we could scarcely lead them a few rods to the water. The brethren then deeply realized the effects of discord. When I learned the fact, I exclaimed to the brethren, that for a witness that God overruled and had His eye upon them, all those who would humble themselves before the Lord should know that the hand of God was in this misfortune, and their horses should be restored to health immediately; and by twelve o’clock the same day the horses were as nimble as ever, with the exception of one of Sylvester Smith’s, which soon afterwards died.” 4
Lesson learned? Nope.
It appears that Sylvester’s disagreement with Joseph festered, until two weeks later when Joseph recorded this, “Sunday June 1 – While at this place, Sylvester Smith rebelled against the order of the company, and gave vent to his feelings against myself in particular. This was the first outbreak of importance which had occurred to mar our peace since we commenced our journey.” 11
A more familiar story involved Joseph, his dog and Sylvester occurred on June 1st. Since it is widely recorded, I’ll sum it up as saying simply that Sylvester threatened to kill Joseph’s dog, and Joseph was not too happy about it. 12
Probably a good time to remember that Sylvester Smith was, at this time, a member of the High Council and was one of the leaders of one of the companies. Lyman Wight had been appointed “General” of the expedition, although the Prophet was still the de facto leader.
This next story is the one that makes me sit back and whistle softly. It happened on Tuesday, June 17, as written by Joseph: (I bolded the amazing part.)
“At noon we crossed the Wakenda; it being high, we had to be ferried over. We were informed here that a party of men were gathered together on the Missouri river with the intention of attacking us that night. The prairie ahead of us was twenty-three miles long without any timber or palatable, healthy water.
“Some of the brethren wished to stop near the timber, and were about making arrangements to pitch their tents. We had but little provisions. I proposed to get some wood and water to carry with us, and go on into the prairie eight or ten miles. My brother Hyrum said he knew, in the name of the Lord, that it was best to go on to the prairie; and as he was my elder brother, I thought best to heed his counsel, though some were murmuring in the camp. We accordingly started.“
When Lyman Wight crossed the river he disapproved of our moving on to the prairie, upon which Sylvester Smith placed himself in the road, turned back all that he could by saying, “Are you following your general, or some other man?” and twenty staged behind with Lyman Wight.” 13
The General? Lyman Wight. “Some other man?” The Prophet.
It’s an amazing visual: a man – a member of the High Council – literally standing in the road, turning people back from following the Prophet.
Another man’s view of the same event, “Elder Luke S. Johnson said, in relation to a circumstance that occurred on the twenty-five mile prairie in Missouri, that by a direction from the leader of the camp he had been back to inspect the crossing at a certain creek; that when he came up with the camp he found it moving, and as he was behind, he went on till he came up with Brother Wight’s and Sylvester’s company, and found them out of the road building a fire to cook supper. As the teams passed on Brother Sylvester called to the leaders of companies (those who were yet behind) and asked them whom they were following: whether General Wight or some other man. Some hesitated a little and went on.” 9
Not only did Sylvester stop following the prophet, he encouraged everyone else to do the same. About twenty of them did.
Eventually – after supper – the men straggled in to join the main company. Joseph continued, “About eleven o’clock Lyman Wight arrived with the company that had remained with him. I called them together and reproved them for tarrying behind, and not obeying my counsel, and told Lyman Wight never to do so again. He promised that he would stand by me forever, and never forsake me again, let the consequence be what it would; but Sylvester Smith manifested very refractory feelings.” 14
(Refractory: stubborn, unmanageable, resistant.) 15
Those “refractory feelings” were also verbalized: Records also show that Sylvester accused Joseph “of being possessed of a heart as corrupt as hell.” 16
Not how one would normally describe a prophet.
Sylvester didn’t stop there. It appears that when Zion’s Camp returned to Kirtland, he hurried ahead and beat the company back. As soon as he got there, he began to spread lies about the Prophet. It was reported that Sylvester said, “that President Joseph Smith, Jun., has abused him with insulting and abusive language, and also in injuring his character and standing before the brethren while journeying to Missouri; that he further cast out insinuations concerning President Joseph Smith’s character, which was also an evil and malicious design to injure President Smith’s standing in the Church.” 17
Sylvester continued to rail against the Prophet even after Joseph returned to Kirtland. Joseph wrote that upon his return, “I was met in the face and eyes, as soon as I had got home, with a catalogue of charges as black as the author of lies himself, and the cry was Tyrant—Pope—King—Usurper—Abuser of men—Angel—False Prophet—Prophesying lies in the name of the Lord—Taking consecrated monies—and every other lie to fill up and complete the catalogue.” 18
I found it sad that this brouhaha messed with Brother Joseph’s head. In a letter he related what had been happening and said “and in consequence of having to combat all these I have not been able to regulate my mind so as to write to give you counsel and the information that you needed.” 9
As I mentioned earlier, Zion’s Camp was rough for Sylvester Smith. He began as a volunteer, and member of the Church High Council, and by the time he returned home, he was calling out the prophet for being corrupt. He went as far as to bring the Joseph up on charges in a Church council.
Unfortunately, we can’t see his thoughts, but we can see his actions. It seems that Sylvester’s first issue was that he did not think those who in charge of the food weren’t doing a very good job.
Guess what? He was right! (And that is an important point.)
Then, when he was called out by the Prophet for his attitude and for hoarding bread, rather than humbly accept the rebuke, he got angry and argumentative.
From there, he was willing to pick a fight about anything: dogs, camp sites, etc.
It wasn’t a very far leap from there to vocally criticizing the prophet and calling on others to join him in open rebellion.
Could that happen nowadays? Is it possible to get hung up over an action, concept or leader that we don’t agree with, that we let it fester until it becomes a breeding ground for criticism of God’s leaders and even open rebellion?
Sadly, it happens all the time.
This seems to be a good place to interject that one of Lucifer’s titles is “The accuser of our brethren.” 19 Probably a good idea to check the company we keep.
We see this play out when there is disagreement and contention even among members of the Church. The choosing of sides on issues, the accusations, the vocal, public disagreeing with the brethren, the fixation on the negative (which can canker the soul) is on display everyday.
What happens next? Something beautiful. After Joseph was acquitted of the charges brought by Sylvester, it has his turn. A council was held to review what had happened. Witnesses were brought forward to counter Sylvester’s lies.
It took until August for Sylvester to back down and apologize. He reluctantly published his apology to the Prophet in the newspaper as a condition of the disciplinary council. 20 Amazingly, he retained his membership in the Church, but was released from his position on the High Council.
From there, Brother Sylvester had a good run. He was called to be a member of the Seventy, and one of the Presidents of the Seventy. 21 He served as Joseph’s scribe for a time and was closely involved in miraculous spiritual manifestations surrounding the building and dedication of the Kirtland Temple. 22
It demonstrates Sylvester’s willingness to change, and Joseph’s (and God’s) mercy and willingness to forgive.
Sadly, it didn’t last. In 1838 Sylvester left the Church and eventually moved to Iowa. He didn’t accompany the Saints on their westward trek. He lived in Council Bluffs until his death in 1880. He was survived by a wife and eight kids – none of whom were members of the Church. 1
This little-known cautionary tale gives me pause. A believer, a leader, with faith enough to follow the Prophet on a difficult journey, winds up standing in the middle of the road, turning people away from following that very prophet.
His reasons? Do they really matter?
I first stumbled upon this story when I was a kid, reading my parents multi-volume History of the Church. I’ve always been surprised that it is not more familiar. I feel that it has great application for the Church in our day – as well as personal application.
For me? I just want to make sure I am not an “accuser of our brethren,” nor standing in the path of those who are trying to follow the Prophet as we tread a very difficult path.
- D&C 75:23-26
- Levi Ward Hancock Autobiography and Wilford Woodruff Journal, as cited in James L. Bradley, Zion’s Camp 1834: Prelude to the Civil War (Logan, UT: James L Bradley, 1990), 62–63.
- Rev. 12:10
- https://en-academic.com/dic.nsf/enwiki/7889698). He received a beautiful setting apart blessing from the Prophet Joseph, himself. ((https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-1/183