Historical Context and Background of D&C 111

Video Overview

Brief Synopsis by Steven C. Harper

The revelation of section 111 on August 6, 1836, reoriented Joseph and his companions. They had been preoccupied with paying their debts to the point of pursuing an unwise strategy. The revelation taught them to think of treasure in terms of human lives (“people . . . whom I will gather”) and to not be overly concerned about their debts (D&C 111:2, 5). It is a comforting revelation.

Just as the Saints in Missouri were being asked to leave another county there, Joseph and the Saints in Ohio finished the House of the Lord in Kirtland at great expense. The resulting blessings far surpassed the value of every penny, but the process left Joseph indebted around $13,000, with more expenses looming.

Under these circumstances Joseph took a risk. A man named Jonathan Burgess had told him that there was a lot of money buried in the cellar of a house in Salem, Massachusetts. He said he knew where it was, and that he was the only living person who did. Joseph, his brother Hyrum, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon set out for Salem in July, planning to meet Burgess, locate the house, and hopefully find the treasure. They eventually found the house, but it was not for sale or rent, and they left Salem without getting access to it.1

Church historian B.H. Roberts wrote that “while in Salem the Prophet received a revelation in which the folly of this journey is sharply reproved.”2 Elder Roberts may have been overly sensitive to the emphasis antagonistic writers placed on Joseph’s youthful treasure-seeking (see Joseph Smith—History 1:55–57).3 The Lord does not sharply reprove Joseph in section 111. He says, in fact, that he is not displeased with the prophet, despite his follies, by which he meant “a weak or absurd act not highly criminal; an act which is inconsistent with the dictates of reason, or with the ordinary rules of prudence.”4

In this and other revelations that respond to Joseph or other Saints being in anxious, high-pressure situations, the Lord’s response is cool and in control. Joseph is overwhelmed with debt to the point of taking unsound risks. The Lord replies that he will gather Salem’s treasures and souls for Zion in due time. Joseph and his companions responded by seeking out the place the Lord wanted them to stay, a house on Union Street not far from where Nathaniel Hawthorne was writing tales of buried treasure in Salem and the local newspaper was reporting similar rumors.5 They visited from house to house and did some preaching. On August 19 they visited the East India Marine Society Museum, comparatively relaxed in their efforts to obey the revelation and stop being too concerned with their debts and with things they could not control in Zion and focus instead on souls both past and present.

These efforts led to some of the “treasures” the Lord mentioned in verse 10. Returning from another trip to Salem in 1841, Hyrum Smith met with Erastus Snow, gave him a copy of section 111, and urged him to go there and harvest the “many people” the Lord promised to gather in due time (D&C 111:1). At great sacrifice to himself and his family, Elder Snow went. He and Benjamin Winchester started the harvest and others followed. In 1841 the Salem Gazette announced that “a very worthy and respectable laboring man, and his wife, were baptized by immersion in the Mormon Faith.” Six months later the Salem Register noted that “Mormonism is advancing with a perfect rush in this city.”6 The Church has inquired into Salem’s early inhabitants too. The early records of Salem and surrounding areas have been preserved and are accessible for genealogical research leading to the sacred ordinances of the House of the Lord.

With section 111, the Lord transformed folly into treasures in his own due time.

1. “Letter to Emma Smith, 19 August 1836,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed November 25, 2020.

2. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1: 410–11

3. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 328–29.

4. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary, s.v. “follies.”

5. David R. Proper, “Joseph Smith and Salem,” Essex Institute Historical Collections 100 (April 1964): 93. On the day section 111 was revealed, the Salem Observer reprinted a Long Island Star article on rumors of treasure buried by Captain Kidd and unsuccessful efforts to find it.

6. Salem Gazette, December 7, 1841. Salem Register, June 2, 1842.

Additional Context by Casey Paul Griffiths

From Doctrine and Covenants Minute

Late in summer 1836, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon traveled to the eastern United States, visiting New York City, Boston, and Salem, Massachusetts before they returned home to Kirtland in September. Joseph Smith received Doctrine and Covenants 111 on August 6, 1836, as the group stayed in Salem. Other than a letter Oliver wrote to his brother Warren and a letter Joseph wrote to his wife, Emma, there are no contemporary documents that state the reason for the trip to Salem. However, it is likely the trip was at least partially motivated by concerns about the finances of the Church. The cost of finishing the house of the Lord in Kirtland, combined with the persecutions suffered by Church members in Missouri, led to an increasing financial burden for the Church. The Lord directly addresses the anxiety felt by these Church leaders in the revelation (D&C 111:5–6).1

Two individuals who were not directly involved in the journey declared that the trip was connected to a search for lost treasure. An 1843 pamphlet, written by James C. Brewster, briefly spoke of a “house that was rented in the city of Boston, with the expectation of finding a large sum of money buried in or near the cellar.”2 Brewster was disfellowshipped from the Church in 1837 when he was just sixteen years old, and he later wrote the pamphlet accusing Church leaders of treasure seeking. In 1889, fifty-three years after the Prophet’s trip, Ebenezer Robinson wrote a more detailed account of the journey. Robinson worked closely with Joseph Smith while the Prophet was living in Kirtland, but he left the Church after Joseph Smith’s death. Robinson wrote his account as the editor of the Return, a publication associated with David Whitmer’s Church of Christ.3

According to Robinson’s account, “A brother in the Church by the name of Burgess, had come to Kirtland and stated that a large amount of money had been secreted in the cellar of a certain house in Salem, Massachusetts, which had belonged to a widow, and he thought he was the only person now living who had knowledge of it, or to the location of the house. We saw the brother Burgess, but Don Carlos Smith told us with regard to the hidden treasure. His statement was credited by the brethren, and steps were taken to try and secure the treasure.”4 Robinson’s story fits with some documents from the time. A promissory note to Jonathan Burgess dated August 17, 1836, was published as part of the Joseph Smith Papers,5 and Joseph Smith mentioned “very luckily and providentially” finding the house of a “Brother Burjece” in a letter he wrote to Emma from Salem.6

Parts of Robinson’s account are questionable and should be read with care. For instance, Robinson stated that Joseph rented the house in question and failed to find any treasure. But in Joseph Smith’s letter to Emma Smith, Joseph indicates that he was unable to rent or even gain access to the house. The letter was written two weeks after the group arrived in Salem, and they left shortly after the letter was sent, indicating that the group never gained access to the house, as Robinson asserted.7 It should be noted that Robinson’s account was written many years after the events took place and that Robinson eventually left the Church in part over temporal concerns.8

In the revelation, the Lord assures the elders that “there are more treasures than one for you in this city” (D&C 111:10) and counsels them to “inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city” (D&C 111:9). If seeking treasure was what motivated Joseph Smith and his associates to visit Salem, they never followed up on the concern, though Joseph wrote to Emma that he believed they could access the house in a few months.9 Whatever their motivation for the journey, the Prophet and his companions returned to Kirtland soon after, facing a growing financial and spiritual crisis in the Church in Kirtland.

See “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 6 August 1836 [D&C 111].

1. “Historical Introduction,” Revelation, 6 August 1836 [D&C 111], JSP.

2. Revelation, 6 August 1836 [D&C 111], fn. 7, JSP.

3. See Revelation, 6 August 1836 [D&C 111], fn. 8, JSP.

4. Donald Q. Cannon, “Joseph Smith in Salem: D&C 111,” in Studies in Scripture Volume 1: The Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Robert L. Millet and Kent P. Jackson, 1989, 435.

5. See Promissory Note to Jonathan Burgess, 17 August 1836, JSP.

6. Letter to Emma Smith, 19 August 1836, JSP.

7. Letter to Emma Smith, 19 August 1836, JSP.

8. See Craig J. Ostler, “Treasures, Witches, and Ancient Inhabitants (D&C 111),” in You Shall Have My Word: Exploring the Text of the Doctrine and Covenants, ed. Scott C. Esplin, Richard O. Cowan, and Rachel Cope, 2012.

9. Letter to Emma Smith, 19 August 1836, JSP.