Did Joseph Smith Correctly Predict the Civil War?
By Bill McKeever
According to 15th President Gordon B. Hinkley:
"Finally, what of Joseph Smith's prophecies? There were more than a few, and they were fulfilled. Among the most notable was the revelation on the Civil War. You are familiar with it; it was spoken on Christmas Day, 1832. There were many high-minded men and women who deplored the institution of slavery then common in the South, and there was much talk of abolition. But who but a prophet of God would have dared to say, thirty-nine years before it was to happen, that ‘war [would] be poured out upon all nations,' beginning 'at the rebellion of South Carolina,' and that 'the Southern States [would] be divided against the Northern States'? (D&C 87:1-3.) This remarkable prediction saw its fulfillment with the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor in 1861. How could Joseph Smith have possibly foreseen with such accuracy the event that was to come thirty-nine [sic] years after he spoke of it? Only by the spirit of prophecy which was in him." ("Praise to the Man," Ensign, Aug. 1983, p.6)
The War Between the States, otherwise known as the Civil War, had its official beginning on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces opened fire on Fort Sumter. It was at 4:30 a.m. that the first round of cannonballs screamed toward the fort located at the mouth of Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Some 4,000 shells were hurled at the lonely garrison from what seemed like every direction. Thirty-six hours would pass before Major Robert Anderson would be forced to surrender. The South had its first victory.
Three days following the attack, President Abraham Lincoln called for 75,000 men to enlist in what many people thought would be a very short conflict. Four years and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the Civil War would be over and President Lincoln would be dead.
Mormons contend that section 87 in the Doctrine and Covenants proves that their founder and first prophet, Joseph Smith, was called of God. Otherwise, how could Smith have possibly foretold this national tragedy as far back as December 25, 1832?
To assume that difficulties between the Northern and Southern states could not have been sensed long before Fort Sumter would be to assume incorrectly. Bruce Catton, a Civil War historian, states, "There had been many woeful misunderstandings between North and South in the years that led up to the Civil War" (The Civil War, pg.59).
As far back as 1832 rumblings of secession had threatened the Union. John C. Calhoun, a senator from South Carolina, feared Northern interference in the affairs of the southern states. Although he opposed secession, Calhoun did argue that the southern states could protect their interests by nullifying acts by the Federal government they considered to be unconstitutional.
Joseph Smith was aware of this discontent and mentioned it in the History of the Church (vol. 1, pg.301). He wrote, "The people of South Carolina, in convention assembled (in November), passed ordinances, declaring their state a free and independent nation...President Jackson issued his proclamation against this rebellion, called out a force sufficient to quell it, and implored the blessings of God to assist the nation to extricate itself from the horrors of the approaching and solemn crisis." On Christmas day, 1832, Smith claimed he received his "prophecy on the war of the rebellion."
Despite these warning signs, some insist that as early as 1832 no one but Joseph Smith could have known that the United States could be plunged into a civil war. The fact is, not far from Smith's Kirtland, Ohio headquarters, a newspaper called the Painesville Telegraph printed a story from the New York Courier and Enquirer entitled "The Crisis." The article spoke of the "probabilities of dismemberment" stemming from discontent in South Carolina and Georgia over states rights. It is interesting to note that the date of this article is Friday, December 21,1832, just four days before Smith received his alleged "prophecy."
Since nothing came about from this incident, some people might argue that Joseph Smith either jumped the prophetical gun or is predicting the wrong rebellion. Mormons, on the other hand, insist that Smith was a prophet because war eventually broke out about 29 years later.
A close look at Smith's prophecy discloses many problems. For one, Smith predicted that "war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place." Twice this phrase is mentioned in verses two and three of section 87. This prophecy never occurred. He also predicted famine, plague, earthquake, and a "chastening hand of an Almighty God, until the consumption decreed hath made full end of all nations" (vs.6).
Certainly Smith's contemporaries believed this prophecy dealt with the Civil War. Two days after the bombing of Fort Sumter, Heber C. Kimball said, "In this country the North and the South will exert themselves against each other, and ere long the whole face of the United States will be in commotion, fighting one against another, and they will destroy their nationality" (Journal of Discourses 9:55). He then went on to blame this turmoil on the fact that the United States had not treated the Mormons properly.
On July 28, 1861, Brigham Young said the Civil War would not end until the work is accomplished and the "land is emptied" (Journal of Discourses 9:142,143).
Smith did say that the South would call upon Great Britain for assistance (vs.3) and that it, in turn, would call upon other nations for help. Although England did provide some supplies, it did not involve itself in the actual fighting. And England never had to call upon other nations for help in its defense.
Interestingly enough, Smith's prophecy might have come to pass had Great Britain followed through with a contract to provide the South with a number of ironclad ships. Says Catton, "...if these had been delivered they might have changed everything...the United States government plainly meant to go to war with Great Britain if they were actually delivered, and in the end the British government saw to it that they were kept at home" (The Civil War, pg.176).
This incident with the ironclads was not the first one that almost involved Great Britain directly in the conflict. On November 8, 1861, an American ship stopped at a Cuban port on its return from a tour of duty along the African coast. While in port Captain Charles Wilkes heard that two southern emissaries had evaded the blockade and were about to set sail from Havana on a British ship for England. Wilkes fired two rounds at the ship, boarded her and arrested the two. England was furious and dispatched 11,000 troops to Canada as well as put her navy on war alert. After an apology was made the incident was soon forgotten. You might say skilled diplomacy on the part of Washington and London prevented the fulfillment of Smith's prediction.
Catton believes that, had General Robert E. Lee been successful with his invasion of the North, England would have granted recognition of the Southern states and independence would have been forthcoming. However, this momentum took a drastic turn at Sharpsburg (Maryland) with the Battle of Antietam. A Southern victory could have occurred had not a copy of Lee's orders fallen into the hands of Northern General George B. McClellan. Between the dead and wounded, both sides lost approximately 12,000 men in a battle that ended in a draw.
Within days President Lincoln would issue his Emancipation Proclamation, officially making slavery (not just the preservation of the Union) an issue in the war. From then on, things looked bad for the Southern cause for no western country would oppose another country fighting against slavery. England would never give the South the recognition it needed.
In order to maintain the integrity of the Mormon prophet, some Latter-day Saints insist that this prophecy stretches beyond the Civil War and actually includes both world wars. To suggest such an interpretation shows how futile and frantic Mormon apologists can become. The prophecy clearly states these "wars" will begin with the rebellion of South Carolina. To say these world wars had any connection whatsoever with the rebellion at South Carolina defies reasoning.
Clearly, Doctrine and Covenants section 87 is another case of Joseph Smith boasting in his own strength and setting at naught the counsels of God (D&C 3:4).