Historical Context and Background of D&C 103

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

As 1834 dawned, the Saints in Missouri were “exiles in a land of liberty.”1 They sent Parley Pratt and Lyman Wight to seek Joseph’s counsel in Kirtland, Ohio. The messengers probably carried a letter from William Phelps informing Joseph that Missouri governor Daniel Dunklin was willing to help the Saints get their Jackson County lands back, but he would not maintain a militia to defend them indefinitely.2 Would eastern Saints come to the aid of Zion? Joseph counseled with his brethren, resolved that “he was going to Missouri, to assist in redeeming it,” and asked for volunteers to go with him. Sometime in this sequence of events, the Lord revealed section 103 to Joseph. It is not clear whether the revelation motivated Joseph’s actions or affirmed them after the fact.3

Zion depended on the Latter-day Saints. They had been driven by wicked people acting on their own free will. In section 103 the Lord promises to punish them “in mine own time” (D&C 103:2–3). But the Saints were driven “because they did not hearken altogether unto the precepts and commandments which I gave unto them” (v. 5, emphasis added). The Lord offers another chance at Zion by revealing the conditions on which the Saints can prevail against their enemies. First he states these positively (what will happen if they do, verses 5–7), then restates them negatively (what will happen if they do not, verses 8–10). Section 103 reaffirms section 58’s promise that Zion will come “after much tribulation” (v. 12). Even that promise, the Lord qualifies, is conditional. “If they pollute their inheritances,” he says of the Saints again, “they shall be thrown down” (v. 14, cross-reference D&C 84:59).

Beginning in verse 15, the Lord maps out the way Zion will be reclaimed “by power.” Then the Lord evokes section 101, reminding the Saints of his promise to raise up a Moses to lead the modern Israelites. He calls on Joseph to gather an army of Israel. It could get violent, the Lord suggests, perhaps as a test to see who is willing “to lay down his life for my sake” (D&C 103:27).

The Lord appoints eight recruiters, including Joseph, to gather five hundred more men to march to Zion, though he acknowledges that, because they are free agents, “men do not always do my will,” and that relatively few may respond to the call. He forbids the undertaking unless at least one hundred men are willing to consecrate their lives to Zion. The Lord leaves the outcome in the hands of the free agents. “All victory and glory is brought to pass unto you through your diligence, faithfulness, and prayers of faith” (D&C 103:36).

Heber Kimball described the action motivated by section 103:

Brother Joseph . . . sent Messengers to the East and to the North, to the West and to the South to gather up the Elders and, He gathered together as many of the brethren as he conveniently could, with what means they could spare to go up to Zion and render all the assistance that we could to our afflicted brethren. We gathered clothing and other necessaries to carry up to our brethren and sisters who had been plundered; and putting our horses to the wagons and taking our firelocks and ammunition, we started on our journey.4

They were a faltering band, to be sure, but willing to give their lives for Zion. Section 103’s most significant result is the way it tested that resolve. A local newspaper reported on section 103: “In obedience to a revelation communicated to their great Prophet, Joseph Smith, three hundred young men are to ‘go well armed and equipped to defend the promised land in Missouri.”5 The revelation seems purposefully ambiguous, leaving Joseph and his followers uncertain how Zion would be redeemed. “By power,” they knew, but what kind of power? Were they to take the promised land by the force of arms? Would the God of Israel lead them with “a stretched-out arm” (D&C 103:17)? Would they lay down their lives? The revelation raised these questions but did not answer them, making it a suitable test of faith and sacrifice (D&C 101:4–5).

The Camp of Israel, as it came to be known, literally walked in faith, the considerable faith required to kiss one’s family goodbye and march with a small, poorly equipped band to an unknown encounter for the cause of Zion. As a result of section 103, the Lord let many, though not as many as he asked for, pledge their allegiance to him and his cause. Their lives were his. He let them march all the way there before explaining that the power to redeem Zion would come not from a confrontation in Missouri but from an endowment in the House of the Lord back in Kirtland (see section 105).

1. Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830–1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989).

2. William W. Phelps to Dear Brethren, December 15, 1833, in The Evening and the Morning Star 2:16 (January 1834): 127.

3Historical Introduction to Revelation, 24 February 1834 [D&C 103], p. [7], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 12, 2020.

4. “Extract from the Journal of Heber C. Kimball.”

5. “Mormonism,” Huron Reflector (Norwalk, OH), May 20, 1834, [2], italics in original.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

In November 1833, the Saints in Jackson County, Missouri, were driven out of their homes. Most of the Saints escaped to nearby Clay County, where they labored to find adequate shelter and sustenance before winter came. Parley P. Pratt notes, “Hundreds of people were seen in every direction, some in tents and some in the open air around their fires, while the rain descended in torrents. Husbands were inquiring for their wives, wives for their husbands; parents for children, and children for parents. . . . The scene was indescribable, and, I am sure, would have melted the hearts of any people on the earth, except our blind oppressors, and a blind and ignorant community.”1 Lyman Wight recalls, “I saw one hundred and ninety women and children driven thirty miles across the prairie, with three decrepit men only in their company, in the month of Nov[ember], the ground thinly crusted with sleet, and I could easily follow on their trail by the blood that flowed from their lacerated feet . . . on the stubble of the burnt prairie.”2

A conference was held among the Saints in Missouri, who decided to send Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight to Kirtland to inform Church leadership of the Saints’ situation. Joseph received Section 103 the same day that the two men reported on the crisis to the high council in Kirtland. During the high council meeting, Pratt and Wight asked “how and by what means Zion was to be redeemed from our enemies.”3 The minutes of the meeting reveal that “Bro. Joseph arose and said that he was going to Zion to assist in redeeming it.”4 Joseph called for volunteers to go with him, and around thirty to forty of those present offered to go. The council then nominated Joseph to serve as “the Commander in Chief of the Armies of Israel and the leader of those who volunteered to go and assist in the redemption of Zion.”5 It is not known if section 103 was given before, during, or after the high council meeting in which Joseph volunteered to travel to Zion.

Church leadership immediately began acting on the commandments given in section 103. Just two days after Joseph received them, he and Parley P. Pratt left home to begin recruiting volunteers to go to Missouri. In the following weeks, Orson Pratt, Orson Hyde, Hyrum Smith, and Frederick G. Williams all joined in the recruiting efforts. Parley later notes that “our mission resulted in the assembling of about two hundred men at Kirtland, with teams, baggage, provisions, arms, etc. for a march of one thousand miles, for the purpose of carrying some supplies to the afflicted and persecuted Saints in Missouri, and to reinforce and strengthen them, and, if possible, to influence the Governor of the State to call out sufficient additional force to cooperate in restoring them to their rights. This little army was led by President Joseph Smith in person.”6 In records from Joseph’s time, this group was referred to as the “Camp of Israel.” It was later known by the name “Zion’s Camp.”7

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 24 February 1834 [D&C 103].

1. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr., 1938, 102.

2. Lyman Wight, in “Trial of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1843, 264.

3. Minutes, 24 January 1834, p. 41, JSP.

4. Minutes, 24 January 1834, p. 42, JSP.

5. Minutes, 24 January 1834, p. 42, JSP.

6. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt: Revised and Enhanced Edition, 2000, 102.

7. “Camp of Israel,” JSP.