Zerah Pulsipher: A Pioneer Day Reflection

In the movie version of the popular Harry Potter series, a father-figure to the titular character tells Harry that: “The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters [henchmen of the main villain].  We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us.”  While a fantasy film, there is a kernel of truth in the statement—we are all complex people, with goodness and evil in each of us.  Whether intentional or not, we have failings and blind spots and we fall short being the best person we could be.  Sometimes it is difficult to realize that to be true within ourselves, but it is also sometimes just as difficult to realize that the same holds true for our heroes and ancestors.  With Pioneer Day this week, I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my own pioneer heritage and wanted to share my journey in coming to understand one of my ancestors in particular—a man named Zerah Pulsipher.

Growing up in the Church, I saw the pioneers as spiritual heroes—unblemished saints who did brave and amazing things in the name of serving God and the Church.  Among my own ancestors, Zerah Pulsipher was pointed out because, as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy, his name made it into the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 124:138) and because some of his early missionary efforts contributed to Wilford Woodruff’s conversion (a story which was featured in Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).[1]  He converted early in Church history, and was there for many of the major events of our history in Kirtland, Illinois, the trek west, and settlement in Utah.  This put him in a position of great respect in our family and led me to regard him very highly.

About eight years ago, I decided to work on researching and writing a biography about Zerah (an off-and-on project that I still dabble in), which led me to learn much more about the man.  In reading his autobiographical sketches, I learned of some of the amazing spiritual experiences he had.  His conversion experience is a prime example—he was raised as a Baptist but was a seeker with some universalist tendencies.  When Solomon Chamberlain visited their town in New York in 1830 and began preaching about the Book of Mormon, Zerah recalled that his remarks “struck me Like a shock of electricty at the same time that it [the Book of Mormon] might be somthing that would give light to my mind upon principles that I had been thinking of for years.”  His family obtained a copy of the Book of Mormon and avidly studied it.  Then, when Jared Carter visited the town late in 1831, Zerah listened to what the Latter Day Saint missionary had to say.  At one meeting in particular, after Carter had “held up the Book of [Mormon] and Declared it to be a Revelation from god,” Zerah got up and remarked that “as the Preacher had sd that he had got his Knowledge from heaven and was Nothing but a man and I the same that I had Just as good a right to obtain that Blesing as he therefore I was determined to have that knowledge for my self.”  After several days of fervent prayer, he received his answer while working in a barn: “[A] Light Came above my head which Causd me to Look up I thought I saw the angels with <the> book of Mormon in their hands in the attitude of sho[w]ing it to me and saying this is the great Revelation of the Last days in which all thing spoken of by the Prophets must be fulfild.”[2]  Soon after this vision, he was baptized and then was made leader of the local branch of the Church.

Zerah continued to offer service in the Church.  Asides from his impromptu mission that led him to baptize Wilford Woodruff, he served a mission to Canada in the late 1830s and was called as one of the First Seven Presidents of the Seventy during that time as well.  In that capacity, he helped organize the Kirtland Camp—a large group of impoverished Latter Day Saints who fled Kirtland in 1838.  After the traumatic experiences of the Missouri-Mormon War and the Nauvoo period, Zerah helped scout out locations for staging point settlements in Iowa in 1846 and led a company of 100 to Utah in 1848.  After settling in Salt Lake City, he served as a city councilor there for several years.  Ultimately, he went to settle with his sons in southern Utah and presided at their small settlement in Hebron for several years, then was ordained a patriarch in the Church.  Learning all of this helped bolster my admiration for Zerah Pulsipher and his dedicated service to the Church.

Yet, as I continued to dig into the records, I learned things about him that I didn’t like.  For example, he could be a harsh man with a rough tongue at times.  His son, John, put it politely when he wrote that: “I sometimes thought he was rather hard with the children but when I became older, I was thankful that he never let me go as some of our neighbors boys did.”[3]  People outside of the family were less generous in their assessment of his leadership and words.  Heber C. Kimball was stung so deeply by Zerah’s cold reaction to him when he came home from his first mission to England that he complained about it in a meeting two decades after the event.[4]  Mosiah Hancock likewise recalled that on the trek to Utah, he (Hancock) was a teenager who was overworked to the point “that I was nothing but skin and bones, and mother was afraid that I wouldn’t live thru it.”  When his mother approached Zerah Pulsipher (the captain of their company) about the problem, “he gave her the most insulting language, so we pulled out and went on [with a different group].”  The happy conclusion for Hancock was that: “I did not have to stand guard for that company any more, and I began to mend from that time forth.”[5]  Zerah’s attitude towards his wives’ feelings about polygamy also strikes me as very callous.  As he advised his children at one family meeting: “Some women think if their husband get another wife they cannot love them any more but are under a great mistake for he can love one hundred as well as the sun can shine upon each of them in a clear day if god requrs [requires] u to get them. … A man may love his <wives> Just in protion [proportion] to their acts of kindness to him.”[6]  The statement is disturbing to me on several levels in laying out how he viewed his relationships with his wives.  Facing these aspects of his personality made me confront the fact that I might not have actually liked to live around my venerated pioneer ancestor.

Then there is the issue of him facing Church discipline.  Zerah apparently performed two plural marriages sealings without proper authorization and was called before the First Presidency to face discipline for doing so.  It’s not entirely clear what happened afterwards—a few later historians have assumed that he was disfellowshipped or excommunicated for a brief period and then rebaptized, though contemporary documentation only states that Zerah was dropped from his position as a general authority, required to be rebaptized, and given the option of being ordained a high priest (possibly as a graceful means of releasing him from the Seventies).  He left Salt Lake City for southern Utah shortly afterwards (ostensibly to join his sons).[7]  I have argued elsewhere that Zerah was caught in the crosscurrents of shifting policy and power struggles that he didn’t keep afloat in, but it was disturbing to find out that my hero had been at odds enough with other Church leaders that he faced discipline for actions that Brigham Young called “truely a great Crime & trifeling with the Holy priesthood.”[8]

Through encountering these parts of his story, my view of Zerah became somewhat disenchanted.  He was not the paragon of sainthood that I had imagined him to be at first.  It turns out that he was a guy who had dark inside of him—a perfectly human man who could be a total jerk and who made mistakes that were major enough to cost him his calling and position in the Church.  Perhaps because I had viewed him so highly at first and because I personally bear that legacy on my shoulders as one of his many descendants, these failings stung deeply and left me disappointed in him.

Yet, as I kept researching, I was reminded that he had both light and dark inside of him.  He was still the man who followed promptings of the Spirit to suddenly leave his farm so he could find and baptize Wilford Woodruff, who helped organize and move hundreds of poor Saints in the Kirtland Camp, the man who built five houses for people in Winter Quarters before he built one for his own family,[9] who could say that he sacrificed and suffered “through nearly all the wars and Persecution that the People calld Latter day saints have past through and have not yet found any thing to shake my faith,”[10] and who helped build a grist mill Utah Territory, then refused to gouge prices and worked to give grain to the Saints who needed it most during the difficult early years of settling the area.[11]  Though I had learned to see his darker side, I also had to learn to balance that with his goodness and understand him within his own context.  As a result, I gradually came to see him as more complicated than a venerated and heroic pioneer ancestor.  As he himself said, he “was Nothing but a man.”

Through this journey of getting to know Zerah Pulsipher, I learned to not set expectations for any human being too high, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” but to try and recognize that everyone has both good and bad within them.[12]  This has helped me navigate learning similar lessons about other Church leaders and early members of the Church and how I view myself in turn.  As Paul wrote in a letter to the Corinthians: “We do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord. … For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”[13]  Whether a pioneer or modern day Latter-day Saints, we’ve all got both light and dark inside of us and carry the knowledge of the glory of God in imperfect clay jars.  Yet, knowing that makes the stories of early Latter-day Saints like Zerah inspiring in their own ways, even if it is different from how imagined being inspired by them when I was younger.  As Gary Boatright (the operations manager for Church historic sites) put it in a recent interview: “For me it is amazing to see that the early Saints were a lot like me. Ordinary people doing their best to live a successful life and striving to be faithful to the Lord and to His Church. That is what I am trying to do.”



[1] Our Heritage: A Brief History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1996), 30, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/our-heritage/chapter-three?lang=eng.

[2] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #2, Chad Nielsen typescript, https://zerahpulsipherplace.wordpress.com/2019/09/17/zerah-pulsipher-autobiographical-sketch-2/.  See “Zerah Pulsipher’s Conversion” at The Pulsipher Place (https://zerahpulsipherplace.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/zerah-pulsiphers-conversion/) for more details.

[3] https://sites.google.com/site/thezerapulsipherproject/autobiographies/john-pulsipher-autobiography?authuser=0.

[4] “H.C. Kimball said this made me think of the time when I returned from England. Joseph [Foster?] /was presidet [sic-present]/ and the presidency of the Seventies /they/ had met with a seer stones to see what they could see. When I went in they treated me vary Cool Z. Pulsipher said dont be excited Brother Kimball is Nothing but a man. They treated me vary [sic] Cooly & I went home and wept.” Wilford Woodruff Journal entry 23 February 1859, in Waiting for the World’s End, ed. by Susan Staker (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993), 225-226.

[5] Mosiah L. Hancock autobiography, Church History Library, MS 8175, https://history.churchofjesuschrist.org/overlandtravel/sources/4567/mosiah-l-hancock-autobiography-undated.

[6] Pulsipher family meeting, in Zerah Pulsipher record book, circa 1858-1878 MS 753 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah, pp. 29-30.

[7] See my discussion of the event “The Zerah Pulsipher Trial”, The Pulsipher Place, 23 March 2014, https://zerahpulsipherplace.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/the-zerah-pulsipher-trial/ for the details and sources.

[8] Entry on 12 April 1862 in Frederick Kesler Diaries, 1857—1899 (Salt Lake City: Special Collections Department, University of Utah, 1972), 100.  Again, see my discussion of the event “The Zerah Pulsipher Trial” for one version of my argument about him being caught in political and procedural shifts during this trial.

[9] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #3, https://sites.google.com/site/thezerapulsipherproject/autobiographies/zerah-pulsipher-autobiographical-sketch-3?authuser=0.

[10] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #1, https://sites.google.com/site/thezerapulsipherproject/autobiographies/zerah-pulsipher-autobiographical-sketch-undated?authuser=0.

[11] See the 1850 section of Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #2, https://sites.google.com/site/thezerapulsipherproject/autobiographies/zerah-pulsipher-autobiographical-sketch-2?authuser=0.

[12] Romans 3:23, NRSV.

[13] 2 Corinthians 4:5-7, NRSV.

3 comments for “Zerah Pulsipher: A Pioneer Day Reflection

  1. Thanks, Chad. I, too, am a descendant of Zerah (or Zera, depending on which headstone you believe). Two of his daughters, Mary Ann and Eliza Jane, married my great-great-grandfather Thomas Sirls Terry. Eliza Jane was my great-great-grandmother. Pat Holland is descended from the older daughter, Mary Ann. My father grew up in Enterprise, as did Pat. One of my dad’s sisters lived in Enterprise until she died, but in 2009, before she passed away, she took us out to the old Hebron cemetery where Zerah is buried (and has three headstones, all with different birth dates). It’s not easy to find if you’re not a local, but someone had fixed it up pretty nice with a large stone marker and had enclosed it inside a fence. Hebron died out, and most of the residents moved east to Enterprise or other locations. If you want the photos I took when I was there, shoot me an email at my BYU Studies address.

  2. Yeah. The spelling wasn’t standardized, so I tend to stick with the version used in the KJV and the one he used when signing the Kirtland Camp constitution.

    I’m descended from Charles Pulsipher’s daughter. I’ve wanted to make it out to Enterprise and Hebron, but haven’t been able to justify the drive (I think my ancestors moved more towards central Utah, possibly after the earthquake, etc., so I don’t know anyone living down that way). I’ll reach out to you soon for those pictures.

  3. Thanks for your article! I’m a descendent too and grew up hearing lots of Zera stories from my dad, who was a proud great-great-great-grandson through a direct line of oldest sons named John. I feel like I have been learning over the past several years that seeing both church leaders and ancestors as human and fallible is the only way to a long term, mature faith. While it’s tempting to think that it is easier to have faith in perfect, squeaky clean versions of people past and present, I believe we do ourselves a dis-service when we approach them this way. It actually deepens my faith in Christ to discover that He can use imperfect people, even jerks and control freaks (like Zera… or me), to do His work and to try to bless His children. Learning of mistakes and imperfections in pioneers and church leaders makes them real and can, somewhat ironically, lead to a strengthening of both humility and hope for ourselves.

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