“Exhortation to the churches”

It can be easy at times, when studying the early history of the Church through the lens of the Doctrine and Covenants, to forget that there was a whole life and existence in the Church outside of the main gathering places in Ohio and Missouri.  We spend so much time following Joseph Smith and his companions that the lives of those not immediately around him can fall by the wayside.  Even when studying later periods, it can be easy to forget that there were times during the mid-1800s that the majority of Church members actually lived in Britain rather than the US.  Not that focusing on the Doctrine and Covenants in this way is bad (they are scriptures after all), but at the point in the Doctrine and Covenants where we’re at, we do catch glimpses and reminders that the Church was larger than its headquarters and that the branches outside of those areas needed tending to stay aligned with what was happening at the focal points.

A few examples stand out from the revelations we’ve been studying these past few weeks.  When Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, and Sidney Rigdon were commanded to travel to Cincinnati in an August 12, 1831 revelation (D&C 61), they were told to “lift up their voices unto god against that People,” then “from thence let them Journy for the congregations of their brethren for their labours even now are wanted more abundantly among them then among the congregations of the wicked.”[1]  A few weeks later, another revelation (D&C 63) instructed Newel K. Whitney and Oliver Cowdery to “speedily go with <?visit?> the churches expounding these things unto them,” sharing instructions from the revelations about purchasing land in Zion and then collecting money from those branches of the Church to do so.[2]  On 11 October (D&C 69), John Whitmer was told to “continue in writing & makeing a history of all the important things which he shall observe & know concerning my Church” and to travel “from place to place & from Church to Church that he may the more easily obtain knowledge.”[3]  On January 10, 1832, yet another revelation (D&C 73) instructed the elders of the Church to “continue preaching the gospel and in exhortation to the churches in the reagions round about.”[4]  By this time in Church history, Church leaders had to administer dispersed branches or churches, visiting them to share instructions, collect histories or money for Church projects, and to exhort and preach to members.

Along those lines, the history of the Spafford, New York branch, as seen through Zerah Pulsipher’s eyes, based largely on the three versions of Zerah Pulsipher’s Autobiography, is a glimpse into life on the peripheries of the early Church of Christ.  The earliest contact with the Latter Day Saint movement came in mid- to late-1830 when, according Silas Hillman, “a man by the name of Chamberlain,” visited and spoke about the Book of Mormon, giving a “history of its origin, how it was obtained, and its translation.”[5]  Likely Solomon Chamberlain, an early convert and missionary,[6] Zerah recalled this experiences as follows: “In the summer of 1830 I heard a Minister say in Public that a golden Bible on some ancient Peoples were found in Manches<ter> N.Y. the sentence thriled through my sistem like a shock of Electricity.”[7]  Once residents in Spafford were able to get a copy of the Book of Mormon, it became an item of frequent study and discussion.  Zerah’s son recalled that his father would get together “with the neighbors Elijah Cheney, [Shadrach] Roundy and others would sit and read and talk day and night ’till they read it through and through. They believed it was brought forth by the power of God, to prepare the way for the second coming of the Son of Man—it was just what they were looking for.”[8] Zerah’s wife, Mary, added that they, “read and believed it, but did not know anything more about it. Was very anxious to know more about it.”[9]  Because of these early contacts with Mormonism, there was an interested audience waiting for Jared Carter when he arrived in late 1831.

In relating his missionary efforts, Jared recalled that: “I went on to the west to Spafford[,] a town in york state[,] onondaga County[,] where I commenced laboring in the ministry & the Lord began immediately to bless my labors.”[10]  Carter preached and met with the people of Spafford, quickly leading to the baptism of several individuals.  Zerah and Mary were baptized on 11 January 1832, along with their fourteen-year-old daughter, Almira, and three neighbors.  Ultimately, about 20 people were baptized during the short time that Jared Carter was in the community.[11]  Together, these converts formed a new branch of the Church.

Carter told Zerah that he wanted to ordain him an elder, but Zerah initially refused. After Jared informed Pulsipher that he needed to leave, however, Zerah realized that there was “no church that I knew of nearer <then> two hundred miles,” so he consented and was ordained an elder. As an elder, he functioned as the de facto leader of this new branch of the Church of Christ.[12] When Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith visited in the spring of that same year (during their missionary journey taken in response to the 25 January 1832 revelation, now D&C 75),[13] Zerah recalled that they “gave me the Presidency of the Branch,” recognizing him as the de jure presiding elder or branch president.

Zerah’s account demonstrates some aspects of life outside of the main centers of Mormonism was like in the early 1830s. In his case, he had heard about Mormonism once or twice before a missionary came through to preach and baptize converts, only to see that missionary leave shortly afterwards. The converts that remained behind were left with a copy of the Book of Mormon in the community, but otherwise had to rely on their own intellectual and religious resources. In many cases, they probably continued to believe much of the same things they had previously believed (in this case, Protestant Christian primitivism).  The main differences from their former co-religionists were that they believed they had found the true restoration of New Testament Christianity, with the Book of Mormon acting as tangible sign of the nearness of the end times.

Innovations in theology, doctrine and church organization that occurred through revelations and other means in Kirtland or Missouri only gradually filtered out into outlying branches, carried there via visiting missionaries from the Church centers.[14]  Zerah mentioned that when Hyde and Smith visited, he welcomed them with “great Joy and satisfaction” because he “was much in need of instruction.”  Like Jared Carter, however, these missionaries only visited briefly—preaching, baptizing, ordaining, and then moving on. In this case, the missionaries were traveling on a mission tour of the northeastern United States, and, having heard of “a small branch of the Church” they “hastened on to Spafford, NY.”  Zerah recalled that “they preached a number of times [and] Baptised some.”[15]  Hyde and Smith recalled that, “by our ministry [we] added 14 members” to the branch before leaving for Boston, Massachusetts.[16]

Other Mormon missionaries visited the town from time to time. In November of 1832, Orson Pratt, Lyman E. Johnson, Hazen Aldrich and William Snow came to town. This group stayed in Spafford for six days, holding five meetings, “one of which was a Conference <at which there were> eleven Elders present.” After the conference, the missionaries moved on.[17] Reynolds Cahoon and David W. Patten visited in December and baptized and ordained Reverend John Gould—who served as a minister at the Free Will Baptist Church in Spafford.[18]

As a lay leader, Zerah had to grapple with problems associated with differences between what Mormonism was like at its gathering centers and what it was like in the countryside. At times these differences were due to new converts carrying over old beliefs and traditions to the new movement. Later in life, Zerah told his children and grandchildren that they had an advantage over his generation of Mormonism because they had “less Gentile Traditions to over come,” alluding to the fact that it was a process to transition into Mormonism.[19] Parley P. Pratt likewise observed in 1835 that those branches where missionaries did not often visit were “uninformed in the principles of the new covenant.”[20]  On other occasions, convert’s zeal about their new religion and the ideas of renewed spiritual gifts spurred eccentric innovations by individual members. Zerah recalled having difficulties with “one or two Elders there with enthusiastic spirits which led the church into diversion” that ultimately led him on “a journey of 325 miles to get council to settle the difficulty.”[21]

The difficulty was that the elder in question was teaching that “women should have the gift of seeing that they might be able to discover the Mistakes that the Elders might make from time to time and furthermore that they might actually see what was in <their> hearts and if <they> [the elders] had <any> hypocrisy to declare it before the Church.” This elder also “ordained a number of the sisters who made use of this power to the condemning some & satisfying others without any other testimony.” Zerah rejected this idea, and traveled the long journey to Kirtland “in <the> month Dec<ember> to get a council of high Priests that would be able to try the spirits to the satisfaction of all the honest in heart.” Pulsipher rushed across muddy trails until he “arrived at that place the Last of Dec<br>. they immediately Called a conference and sent R[eynolds] Cahoon and D[avid] Patten who came with Leonard Rich and set things in order.”[22]  Presumably, they decided that the elders and their teachings were in the wrong.

The Pulsiphers continued living in Spafford for a few more years, with Zerah presiding over the Church and preaching in the region. He visited neighboring townships and counties, such as Cortland County and Chenango County, New York.[23]  Occasionally, Zerah took it upon himself to leave his home and travel a little further to spread the gospel, much as Jared Carter had done.  Pulsipher later boasted that: “<I had> many small missions in that region of country with success,” adding that: “I do not remember as I ever preached more then one week in a place without establishing a branch.”[24]  Wilford Woodruff was one of the converts from these missionary journeys that Zerah set out on with his neighbor.  In March 1835, however, the Pulsiphers and many other members of their branch decided to move to Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, ending their time at an outlying branch and uniting with the Saints at Church headquarters.[25]  Their story is a reminder, however brief, that there is a whole life and existence in the Church outside of the main gathering places–a reminder that holds relevance both when studying early Church history and for discussing the state of the Church today.



[1] “Revelation, 12 August 1831 [D&C 61],” p. 103, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-12-august-1831-dc-61/3

[2] “Revelation, 30 August 1831 [D&C 63],” p. [2], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-30-august-1831-dc-63/2

[3] “Revelation, 11 November 1831–A [D&C 69],” p. 122, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-11-november-1831-a-dc-69/1

[4] “Revelation, 10 January 1832 [D&C 73],” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-10-january-1832-dc-73/1

[5] Cited in Rhean Lenora M. Beck, Life story of Sarah (King) Hillman and Her Husband, Mathew Hillman, and Their Children. (independently published, 1968).

[6] See Larry C. Porter, “Solomon Chamberlin’s Missing Pamphlet: Dreams, Visions, and Angelic Ministrants,” BYU Studies 37, no. 2 (1997-98): 113-140; Brent Ashworth, “The John Taylor Nauvoo Journal, January 1845-September 1845,” BYU Studies 23, no. 3 (1983).

[7] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #1.

[8] “John Pulsipher’s History” in In Lund, T., Lund, N. H., Holt, I. L. (1953). Pulsipher Family Book, 47.

[9] Mary Brown Pulsipher, “That We May All, In Glory Dwell,” in Women of Faith in the Latter Days, Volume One, 1775-1820, ed. Richard E. Turley Jr. and Brittany A. Chapman (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 265.

[10] Jared Carter. “Jared Carter Journal, 1831 January-1833 January 20.” MS1441, Church History Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 45-46.

[11] “John Pulsipher’s History,” in Lund, 47.  Shipps, Jan, and John W. Welch, eds. The Journals of William E. McLellin, 1831–1836. (Provo, UT: BYU Studies; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994), p. 70. Another version of Shadrach’s conversion story says that he sought out Joseph Smith while he was at Fayette, New York and was baptized by him following their first interview in January 1831. See History of the Church / Smith, Joseph, et al. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Edited by B. H. Roberts. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1902–1912 [vols. 1–]), 1932 [vol. 7]), 2:298.  Collins, George Knapp, Spafford Onondaga County, New York (Onondaga, NY: Dehler Press, 1917), 48; Journal History of the Church, 26 October 1832.

[12] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #1.

[13] “And again verily thus saith the Lord let my servent Orson Hyde and my servent Samuel [Smith] take their journey into the eastern countries and proclaim the things which I have commanded them and inasmuch as they are faithfull lo I will be with them even unto the end.” (“Revelation, 25 January 1832–A [D&C 75:1–22],” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed July 3, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-25-january-1832-a-dc-751-22/1)

[14] See Jann Shipps, “Joseph Smith,” in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed. Mark G. Toulouse and James O. Duke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997), 215-216.

[15] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch #1.

[16] Journal History of the Church, 22 December 1832.

[17] Journal History of the Church, 26 October 1832.

[18] David W. Patten Journal, 1832–1834. CHL. MS 603, [16] and 17 Dec. 1832; see also LeRoy W. Kingman (ed.), History of Candor, NY, From Our County and Its People, A Memorial History of Tioga County, New York, (W. A. Fergusson & Co., N. Y., 1897), 444.

[19] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch and Family Meeting Notes, p. 34 in Zera Pulsipher record book, circa 1858-1878 MS 753 1, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[20] Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Record, 29 June 1835, 17-18 July 1835. Cited in Terryl L. Givens and Matthew J. Grow, Parley P. Pratt: The Apostle Paul of Mormonism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 78.

[21] Pulsipher, “History of Zerah Pulsipher,” 13.

[22] Zerah Pulsipher Autobiographical Sketch, #1, p. 6.

[23] Pulsipher, “Autobiographical Sketch,” 6.

[24] Zerah Pulsipher autobiographical sketch #3.

[25] In Lund, 47.

5 comments for ““Exhortation to the churches”

  1. Very imformative Chad. Thanks for your efforts in putting that post up. Much appreciated!

  2. Thank you. I used the Pulsiphers’ conversion story for my Primary video last week, told from their daughter Mariah’s perspective. I appreciated reading the added resources you detailed here

  3. Thanks for the supportive comments, everyone.

    Amira, out of curiosity, what resources did you use to look at their conversion through Mariah’s perspective?

  4. I used Mariah’s written recollections, although there wasn’t much to go on since she was young when her family converted. But a 90-second video for kids doesn’t need much detail, and I used Mary’s and Zerah’s memories too.

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