In 1833, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were spread across the north-east and mid-west of the United States, with the greatest concentrations being in Kirtland, Ohio and Independence, Jackson County, Missouri. The latter locale had been identified as Zion, a promised land, and increasing numbers of the saints were gathering thereto.
The Saints had suffered persecution from the Church's inception and even before, but the level of persecution had reached new depths of depravity in Missouri, where armed mobs drove the Saints from their homes. Continual news of mobbings, burnings, and rapine reached the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland, culminating in the report of Lyman Wight and Parley P. Pratt, who arrived in Kirtland seeking counsel as to the relief and restoration of the saints to their lands in Jackson County. Joseph made the persecutions a matter of earnest supplication to the Lord, and on February 24, 1834 received a revelation (D&C section 103) from which we will quote but three verses: 29-31:
It is my will that my servant Sidney Rigdon shall lift up his voice in the congregations in the eastern countries, in preparing the churches to keep the commandments which I have given unto them concerning the restoration and redemption of Zion.
It is my will that my servant Parley P. Pratt and my servant Lyman Wight should not return to the land of their brethren, until they have obtained companies to go up unto the land of Zion, by tens, or by twenties, or by fifties, or by an hundred, until they have obtained to the number of five hundred of the strength of my house.
Tellingly, the Lord added a gentle reminder, portending, perhaps, the events to come. "Behold this is my will; ask and ye shall receive; but men do not always do my will."
Although the Lord directed that a body of 500 men be raised, He indicated that the expedition could go forth with three hundred or even one hundred men. If one hundred men could not be recruited, they were not to go.
As the Lord had decreed, Sidney Rigdon went east to recruit. Missionaries helped raise funds and gain other recruits. Letters were written. Volunteers began to gather to Kirtland. And on May 1, 1834, the first company of Zion's Camp left Kirtland with four baggage wagons. The first leg of their journey was to New Portage, Ohio, there to await the remainder of Zion's Camp.
The Prophet and the remainder of Zion's Camp left Kirtland on May 5 and two days later joined the first company. Zion's Camp was fully organized with 130 men and twenty baggage wagons on May 7.
Zion's Camp was set up as a quasi-military unit. Joseph Smith was the Commander-in-Chief. The camp was divided into several twelve-man companies, each containing two cooks, two firemen, two tent men, two watermen, one commisary, one runner, and two wagoners/horsemen. Each company elected one of its members Company Commander, this service in addition to his other duties. At least one man was said to have performed blacksmithing duties while another was called an armorer or gunsmith.
Zion's Camp took it's leave of New Portage on May 7, and proceeded in a south-westerly and then westerly direction. They crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri on June fourth and fifth of 1834. Hyrum Smith and Lyman Wight had been sent to Michigan to raise another group of volunteers, and on June 8, 1834, their force met and merged with Joseph's group at Salt River in Missouri. Zion's Camp now consisted of 205 men and twenty-five baggage wagons.
Zion's Camp met with opposition along the way. This varied from passive, such as refusal to sell them supplies, to threatening, to actual resistance. Typical was that of one James Cambell of the Jackson County mob. Upon learning of Zion's Camp's approach, Campbell adjusted his pistols in their holsters and swore, "The eagles and turkey buzzards shall eat my flesh if I do not fix Joe Smith and his army so that their skins will not hold shucks before two days are passed."
Campbell led about fifteen of his mob to a ferry where they attempted to cross the river after dusk. The boat sank in the middle of the river and Campbell and six others drowned. Campbell's body became lodged in a pile of driftwood and Campbell's prophetic prowess was proved as he was, indeed, eaten by the eagles and turkey buzzards... along with crows, ravens, and other lesser scavengers.
More troubling, perhaps, than external opposition was murmuring, dissent, and near mutiny by some members of the camp. Sylvester Smith, for example, manifested a spirit of rebellion on several occasions. Once, while having bread sufficient to eat and to spare, he refused to share with the commisary or even with individual hungry supplicants. On another occasion, he loudly and publicly disagreed with the Prophet while Joseph was preaching at Sabbath Services. Horses were lost due to negligence and malfeasance. This internal opposition reached a point where Joseph warned the camp, in the name of the Lord, that unless repentance was forthcoming, the Lord would scourge the camp. When repentance was not manifest, an outbreak of cholera overtook the camp and some sixty odd members of the camp were made ill.
At length the camp approached Jackson County. Tensions rose as the Missourians prepared to utterly drive out the Saints or kill them all, and Zion's Camp, assured of the Lord's support, prepared to reinstate the Mormon settlers at all costs. Certain death on both sides seemed inevitable. A series of minor altercations took place as either side jockeyed for position or advantage.
But the climactic battle was not to be. The Saints in Missouri had not proven themselves worthy to take posession of and build up Zion. On June 22, 1834, Joseph received a revelation (D&C 105) portions of which are excerpted below:
Behold, I say unto you, were it not for the transgressions of my people, speaking concerning the church and not individuals, they might have been redeemed even now.
But behold, they have not learned to be obedient to the things which I required at their hands, but are full of all manner of evil, and do not impart of their substance, as becometh saints, to the poor and afflicted among them; And are not united according to the union required by the law of the celestial kingdom; And Zion cannot be built up unless it is by the principles of the law of the celestial kingdom; otherwise I cannot receive her unto myself. And my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer.
And speaking more directly of Zion's Camp, the Lord continued: "I do not require at their hands to fight the battles of Zion; for, as I said in a former commandment, even so will I fulfil—I will fight your battles." And again: "a commandment I give unto you, that as many as have come up hither, that can stay in the region round about, let them stay; And those that cannot stay, who have families in the east, let them tarry for a little season..."
Negotiations were begun with Cornelius Gillium, the sheriff of Clay County and others of the county. On June 25 Zion's Camp broke up into small bands with a three-fold purpose. First they would not appear so threatening to the citizens of Missouri. Second, if violence occurred, they would be able more quickly to respond, even if not with as great a force. Third, to reduce contagion of cholera which had recurred in the Camp.
On the third of July 1834, the Prophet authorized Lyman Wight "to give a discharge to every man of the Camp who had proved himself faithful, certifying that fact and giving him leave to return home."
Zion's Camp was effectively ended. Joseph's enemies, then and now, claimed that he was a fallen or false prophet, that God did not bring to pass that which Joseph had foretold. But a close reading of the prophecies show that they were always conditional and they seldom specified a time. The saints will yet return to Zion. They will yet build the Great Temple of Zion (actually a complex consisting of twelve temples). And the world will yet acknowledge Joseph Smith, Jun. as the Great Prophet of the Latter-days.
So what good came of Zion's Camp? It must be remembered that at that early date in Church History, we had no Apostles or Quorum of the Twelve. We had no Seventies nor Quorum thereof. Scarcely a year later, in accordance with the revealed Word of God, these Quorums were organized composed of those who had proven themselves worthy during the time of testing known as Zion's Camp.