10 Questions with Matt Godfrey

We’re happy to have an other of our co-posts with Kurt Manwaring. This is 10 questions with Matt Godfrey. Matt Godfrey is the editor of Zion’s Camp: 1834 March of Faith and is also a general editor of the Joseph Smith Papers. He has a doctorate in American history from Washington State University. Before working on the Joseph Smith Papers project he was president of Historical Research Associates, a historical and archaeological consulting company. He previously won the Smith-Petit Award from the Mormon History Association for Religion, Politics, and Sugar: The Mormon Church, the Federal Government, and the Utah-Idaho Sugar Company, 1907-1921.

Zion’s Camp was an expedition that Joseph Smith put together in 1834 to follow instructions given to him in revelations that became Sections 101 and 103 in the Doctrine and Covenants.

The Saints had been driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, and Joseph wondered how they would regain their lands. Section 101 provided a parable in answer to that question. The parable detailed how a nobleman’s lands had been overrun by an enemy, leading him to appoint a servant to call up the strength of the Lord’s house to reclaim the land.

Section 103 explained that Joseph Smith was the servant. So Joseph and others recruited individuals to travel with them to Missouri.

The plan was that after reaching Missouri, the group would ask Missouri Governor Daniel Dunklin to call out the state militia to restore the Saints to their Jackson County lands. Once the state militia had disbanded, the members of Zion’s Camp would remain in Missouri to protect church members from being driven out again. The camp would serve as a protective and defensive force, not as a group that would go on the offensive.

I find this portion of Mormon history so fascinating. It’s a key event in the Missouri War although the Missouri War proper was four years later. Missouri holds this key place both in our history but also our theology and scripture. This idea of reclaiming the property has, until fairly recently, been a strong component of Mormon identity. There are also obvious parallels to the yearning of Zionists who hoped to reinstate the state of Israel prior to 1848. There are also obvious differences of course. Not the least being Mormon had only been in Missouri for a rather short period. Yet even among the early Mormons one can’t help but see echoes of the Jewish diaspora in their descriptions.

At the time the expedition occurred, and for several years thereafter, the camp was known as the Camp of Israel. This was based on Section 103, which stated that Joseph Smith would lead the expedition “like as Moses led the children of Israel” (D&C 103:16).

When Heber C. Kimball wrote his account of the expedition in 1840, he called it “the camp of Zion.”

Wilford Woodruff used the term “Zion’s Camp” in an 1845 letter published in the Times and Seasons. After the Saints departed Nauvoo for the Great Basin in 1846 and 1847 in what was called the Camp of Israel, the name “Zion’s Camp” seems to have come into use more frequently.

One problem in studying Zion’s camp is the paucity of records.

Unfortunately, there are not an abundance of contemporary records about the Camp of Israel, although we do have some letters, revelations, and other documents that touch on it. Many sources related to the Camp of Israel are reminiscences from the participants.

One contemporary document that I find particularly intriguing is a financial account for the camp, which lists how much each member of the expedition contributed to the general fund that was used for camp supplies, food, etc. This account was published in Documents, Volume 4, of the Joseph Smith Papers and is available on the Joseph Smith Papers website.

About 170 individuals are listed as contributing to the general fund, so that gives us a good list of the majority of participants in the camp (which numbered about 230 men, women, and children).

While Zion’s Camp is fairly well know thanks to various lessons that get regularly taught at Church, many people have misconceptions about it’s intentions.

I think the biggest misconception about Zion’s Camp is that the group was supposed to march into Jackson County, Missouri, and take the Saints’ lands back itself.

This was not what it was intended to do.

Instead, the group believed that Governor Dunklin would call up the state militia and restore the Saints to their land. Once that had been done, Dunklin would be unable to keep the state militia mustered solely to protect the Saints, so the members of Zion’s Camp would remain in Jackson County to keep church members from being expelled again.

Because this was the true purpose of the camp, it disabuses another misconception of the camp—that it was an unrealistic folly on the part of Joseph Smith. Joseph really did believe Dunklin would call out the militia (officials in Dunklin’s administration had hinted at this, although the governor himself had never communicated it), so he was acting under that assumption.

The camp developed Joseph’s character a fair bit.

Remember that when the expedition occurred, Joseph was only 28 years old and would continue as the leader of the church for another ten years. So this was at the relative beginning of his leadership.

I think he very much enjoyed associating with the members of Zion’s Camp, some of whom he did not really know before the expedition, and I think it gave him a good sense of who he could trust. It also gave him experience with dealing with individuals, such as Sylvester Smith, who were recalcitrant, and I think that helped him later in his life.

I was surprised to find that many women and even children accompanied the group. That’s not something usually mentioned in the church lessons on it.

There were not many women or children who went with the group, but Andrea [Radke-Moss] does a wonderful job of explaining who they were and some of the challenges and difficulties they faced both on the expedition itself and in their later lives.

One woman who I think deserves more recognition is Jane Clark. Jane was likely a single woman, and she appears to have been living in the Eugene, Indiana, branch. When the Camp of Israel came through Indiana, Jane contributed $50 to the expedition, which was a significant sum at the time. Only John Tanner, who gave $170, and Ruth Vose, another single woman from New England who gave $150, contributed more to the camp. Jane has largely been lost from the historical record, but her generosity should be remembered.

Was Zion’s Camp a failure? Many see it as such, but while the Saints didn’t have their lands restored those participating didn’t see it as such.

Instead, they depicted it as a formative event in their lives where they clearly saw God operating on their behalf and where they were able to see Joseph Smith’s leadership up close. At least for most participants, the expedition was not a failure but a period of spiritual growth for them.

This seems a key facet. I think it fair to say that Brigham Young and many other apostles learned their leadership from Joseph during this period – for both the better and worse. There also developed a distrust of bickering and lack of faith, due to some of the problems in the camp. A storm and hail storm that kept a mob of 200 who wished to engage with the camp became seen as divine providence. (Perhaps in large part due to Heber C. Kimball’s recollections published in Times and Seasons in 1840) A cholera outbreak, frequently mentioned in Church lessons, became viewed as both a trial of faith but also the power of priesthood when some were healed by blessings. The infamous “Zelph the Lamanite” discovery was also part of the march. Even the move to Utah became seen in many ways as an image of Zion’s Camp.

Read the full interview at 10 Questions.

1 comment for “10 Questions with Matt Godfrey

  1. Michael 2
    May 26, 2019 at 2:43 pm

    I believe a similar purpose is served by youthful church members going on missions sometimes in adversity. One of the most obvious benefits is the young man or woman learns about self.

    Zion’s Camp technically failed, but then, so did Adam and Eve. And yet another purpose is fulfilled, one that may well have been the greater purpose.

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