Historical Context and Background of D&C 136

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

Of all the would-be successors to Joseph Smith, only Brigham Young understood what was at stake. He explained that no one could lead the Church without the keys of the holy priesthood which Joseph had received from ministering angels. Joseph had conferred those keys on Brigham and eight other apostles.

Joseph had gathered them three months before his death and said,

It may be that my enemies will kill me, and in case they should, and the keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this dispensation of the fullness of times. Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church hence forth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you. … Thus can this power and these keys be perpetuated in the Earth.

Joseph and his brother Hyrum then confirmed the ordinations of each of the apostles who were present, and Joseph gave them a final charge. “I roll the burthen and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours,” he declared. “Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest.”1

As president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young explained these principles to the Saints on August 8, 1844. Many, including Martha Tuttle Gardner, received a confirming witness from the Lord. She testified that Brigham Young “told the people that although Joseph was dead, Joseph had left behind the keys of the Kingdom and had conferred the same power & authority that he himself possessed upon the Twelve Apostles and the Church would not be left without a leader and a guide.”

Martha had written reverently of witnessing the (capital P) Prophet Joseph Smith, and she now confidently transferred that designation to “the Prophet Brigham Young.” She wrote that he “had the Nauvoo Temple finished” and endowed her with power there early in 1845. Then, under Brigham’s leadership, she and many other Saints fled Nauvoo for peace and safety somewhere in the West.2

President Young led them across Iowa Territory, and they camped for the winter on the banks of the Missouri River. There, in a January 1847 council meeting, the Prophet Brigham Young asked the Lord to reveal “the best manner of organizing companies for emigration.” The Lord answered. “President Young commenced to give the Word and Will of God concerning the emigration of the Saints,” section 136.3 It is concerned with three basic issues: governing authority, camp organization, and individual behavior.4

The key words in the early verses of section 136 are organized and covenant. The Saints were to be organized into companies “under the direction of the Twelve Apostles” (D&C 136:3). “And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord” (v. 4). Like Martha, many of them had recently made temple covenants in Nauvoo. Section 136 tells them how to consecrate their lives to Zion. It reiterates the principles of consecration that pervade so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations. The first principle is agency. Section 136 tells the Saints how to act relative to organization, preparation, property, contention, the commandments to not covet and or take the Lord’s name in vain, alcohol, fear, sorrow, and ignorance. The Lord prescribes specific behaviors for each of these.

Another principle of consecration is stewardship. Free agents act upon stewardships, or what the Lord gives them to act upon. “Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast,” he commands in verse 27, “that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.” Section 136 gives commands that tell the Saints how to act relative to stewardships that include draft animals, seeds, farming tools, widows, orphans, the families of the men who have joined the United States Army, houses, fields, and the Saints who will follow in later waves of migration. He adds instructions for the use of “influence and property” (D&C 136:10) and even for borrowed and lost property.

Another principle of consecration is accountability. Verse 19 declares the consequence of failing to keep one’s covenant to walk in the ordinances of the Lord: “And if any man shall seek to build himself up, and seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power, and his folly shall be made manifest,” suggesting that one’s endowment of power is dependent on keeping the covenants made in the endowment ordinance (D&C 136:4, 19; emphasis added).

The motif of pilgrims in search of a promised land, of exodus as a sanctifying precondition to finding and becoming Zion, is common in scripture and the backbone of section 136. It casts the Saints as a modern Camp of Israel (D&C 136:1), following the “God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob” as they are led through the wilderness by a modern Moses in search of a promised land (vv. 21–22). They are wanderers, exiles even from the United States, upon which the Lord prophesies an imminent punishment for rejecting the Saints’ testimony and killing the prophets “that were sent unto them” (vv. 34–36). In these ways section 136 includes the Latter-day Saints with all the former faithful of past dispensations, those section 45 describes as “pilgrims on the earth” who wandered in search of Zion and “obtained a promise that they should find it” (D&C 45:12–14). 

Finally, section 136 explains Joseph Smith’s martyrdom from the Lord’s perspective. “Many have marveled because of his death,” the Lord omnisciently knows, “but it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned” (D&C 136:39). From the Lord’s vantage, allowing Joseph to die as a testator was a wise move that left an enduring witness of His name even as it delivered the Saints, including Joseph, from their enemies (v. 40). The revelation ends with a poetic covenant in verse 42, promising deliverance on the condition that the Saints choose to diligently keep commandments.

Section 136 resulted in the best organized and executed overland emigration in American history. However, it may be more important for the way it established Brigham Young as a revelator. Saints exercised faith to see in him their (capital P) Prophet, and it required personal sacrifice. Section 136 confirmed the correctness of their choice. There was much outspoken criticism of Brigham before and after section 136. The Saints had other options besides him.5

Apostle Heber Kimball noted in his journal that section 136 was the first revelation “penned since Joseph was killed. … The Lord has given it through the President for the good of this people as they are traveling to the west.”6 Jedediah Grant voiced what many Saints felt. “Since the death of Joseph, [I] have believed that the keys of revelation were in the Church. When I heard that [section 136] read I felt a light and joy and satisfied that the Holy Ghost had dictated the words within.”7

For Saints who had covenanted to literally “walk in all the ordinances of the Lord” up and over the Rocky Mountains as outcasts, section 136 would sustain them in the heat of the day (D&C 136:4). Joseph was gone, but the Prophet Brigham Young was just as much a Moses (D&C 28:3).

1. Declaration of the apostles, circa September 1844 to March 1845, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

2. Testimony written by Martha Tuttle Gardner, in possession of the author.

3. “At 4:30 PM the council adjourned. At seven, the Twelve met at Elder Benson’s. President Young continued to dictate the word and will of the Lord. Council adjourned at ten P.M., when President Young retired with Dr. Richards to the Octagon and finished writing the same.” Journal History of the Church, January 14, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

4. Richard E. Bennett, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846–1848 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 70.

5. Bennett, We’ll Find the Place, 69.

6. Heber C. Kimball, Journal, January 19, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

7. As quoted by Willard Richards, Journal, January 15, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

After the long and difficult journey across Iowa, the Saints sought refuge along the banks of the Missouri River. Their primary settlement, simply named “Winter Quarters,” became a temporary base of operations as the Saints searched for a new permanent home for Church headquarters. Several thousand Saints gathered and suffered together at Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846–47. They had arrived in the Nebraska wilderness without a firm idea of their next destination. In the squalid conditions of the camps along the Missouri, death and disease tested the limits of their faith and endurance. Yet for all its privations, this period in Church history witnessed the genesis of new organization, new direction, and new leadership for the Saints.

From the outset, Brigham Young and the other leaders of the Iowa trek knew the banks of the Missouri were not the ideal location to spend the winter. Leaders had hoped to press on to Grand Island that winter and send a party to the Rocky Mountains to identify a new refuge for the Saints. Brigham’s hopes evaporated amid the hardships and delays of the journey across Iowa. Concerns for refugees still fleeing Nauvoo led Brigham to conclude that it was time to regroup and reorganize before pushing further west.

The Saints’ location near present-day Florence, Nebraska, was not ideal. Fragile relations with the surrounding Indian nations, the swampy environment, and the onset of winter contributed to anxiety in the camps. Nevertheless, a settlement for the Saints was carefully plotted, and the plans included twenty-two wards organized with bishops appointed to look after the poor and needy. Available manpower for the settlement was strained when Brigham Young encouraged the recruitment of five hundred men for the Mormon Battalion.

In Winter Quarters, as well as in the string of temporary Latter-day Saint encampments along the Iowa trail, sickness prevailed. Louisa Barnes Pratt recalled, “The shaking ague fastened deathless fangs upon me [and] I shook till it appeared my very bones were pulverized. I wept, I prayed, I besought the Lord to have mercy on me.”1 Thomas L. Kane, a non-Latter-day Saint who observed the plight of the Saints, broke down and openly “sobbed like a child” when he saw the terrible conditions of the camps.2 Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal, “I have never seen the Latter-day Saints in any situation where they seemed to be passing through greater tribulations or wearing out faster then at the present time.”3 It is estimated that 723 deaths occurred in a population of 8,750 Saints, or a mortality rate of one in twelve.

The extreme adversity led many to question the judgment and leadership of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve. Prominent Church leaders within the camps, most notably George Miller, opposed the route of the exodus, the destination in the West, and the management of the camps. James J. Strang, an apostate claiming to be the rightful successor to Joseph Smith, offered an alternative to disaffected Saints. Strang’s followers pointed to the suffering at Winter Quarters as evidence of Brigham Young’s folly.

To the faithful, however, there was no folly. On January 14, 1847, Brigham Young received a revelation titled “The Word and Will of the Lord concerning the Camp of Israel” (D&C 136). The revelation provided answers to some of the difficult questions raised at Winter Quarters, such as the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. The Lord asserted, “It was needful that he [Joseph] should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned” (D&C 136:39). The Lord specified that the westward trek was to take place “under the direction of mine apostles,” which left no doubt as to who was the Lord’s anointed (D&C 136:3). The Lord also declared, “My people must be tried in all things” and that they must “covenant and promise to keep all the commandments of the Lord” (D&C 136:2). The revelation directed the Saints to “praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving” (D&C 136:28).

Hosea Stout recorded in his journal that the revelation was “to me a source of much joy and gratification,” and he added, “this will put to silence the wild bickering and suggestions of those who are ever in the way and opposing the proper council. They will now have to come to this standard or come out in open rebellion to the will of the Lord.”4 George Miller and other opponents of Brigham Young disparaged the revelation. Most of the Saints heeded its counsel and looked forward to spring when they could organize themselves into companies for the westward trek. Section 136 was first included in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants by Orson Pratt, acting under the direction of Brigham Young.5

View the earliest copy of Doctrine and Covenants 136.

1. Richard E. Bennett, Mormons at the Missouri, 2004, 132.

2. Matthew J. Grow, Liberty to the Downtrodden: Thomas L. Kane, Romantic Reformer, 2009, 61.

3. Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 1983–84, 3:95–96.

4. Hosea Stout Diary, January 14, 1847, as cited in Juanita Brooks, On the Mormon Frontier, 2009, 1:227–29.

5. Robert J. Woodford, Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants, 1974, 3:1806.