Examining Joseph Smith’s "Rocky Mountain Prophecy"

[Speaking in General Conference on Sunday, October 5, 2008, Mormon Apostle M. Russell Ballard stated that on August of 1842, Joseph Smith prophesied “that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains,” and that some would live to “build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.” Is this statement based on fact, or is this Mormon Apostle promoting Mormon folklore?]

By Lane Thuet

“I prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”

If the above statement, recorded in the Documentary History of the Church (DHC) 5:85 and dated August 1842, can be verified, then it would be impressive that Smith could predict this, for these events are exactly what befell the early Mormons. Salt Lake City has become a major U. S. city, and few would argue that the Mormon settlers have become a “mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.”

Any honest researcher, whether LDS or not, would demand proof that this prophecy was authentic before accepting it as fact. That means there must be undeniable and unquestionable evidence that Joseph Smith uttered, recorded and/or published the prophecy prior to the events it foretells having come to pass.

LDS writer Nephi Morris wrote a book in 1920 defending Joseph Smith’s fulfilled prophecies. He was most impressed with this one in particular. Yet he also wanted proof of its authenticity. While preparing his book, he visited the Church headquarters and requested to see the original manuscript. He writes, “We have not had access to the original record as kept by the Prophet, containing this remarkable prophecy. We have, however, irrefutable evidence which fixes the date of the prophecy some years before the Saints even started west” (Prophesies of Joseph Smith and their Fulfillment, p.139).

Why would the LDS Church leaders refuse to show Morris the evidence verifying such a remarkable prophecy, especially since Morris was trying to defend the Prophet? In their research, Jerald and Sandra Tanner discovered a likely reason why the request was denied. They write, “A photograph of the portion of the original handwritten manuscript containing this ‘prophecy’ has been located at the Visitor Center in Nauvoo, Illinois…. Now that we have a photograph of the page containing this ‘prophecy,’ we can see why it was suppressed for all these years.” The reason, they explain, is that “the part concerning the Mormons becoming ‘a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains’ has been crammed in at the bottom in a smaller handwriting. This would seem to indicate that it was added sometime after the page had originally been written” (Mormonism – Shadow or Reality, p.135).

On page 134 of Shadow, the Tanners provide a reprint of the actual manuscript page, and it is obvious that the information was added—squeezed between the lines amid the dates of Thursday 4 August, Friday 5 August, and Saturday 6 August. The entire portion given as “prophecy” by Joseph Smith is part of this added information.

The handwriting on the page, the Tanners believe, appears to be that of Thomas Bullock, the recorder of the original information on the page. But exactly when he added the extra material cannot be definitely determined. Bullock, as the Tanners point out, worked in the historian’s office in Salt Lake City while this portion of the History of the Church was being worked on in 1854.

The Tanners note that LDS historian Dean C. Jessee researched the History of the Church in detail and showed that the page containing this prophecy had not even been originally written until July of 1845 (“The Writings of Joseph Smith’s History,” BYU Studies, Summer 1971, pp. 456-458, 468-70). Smith died in June 1844. This means the entry itself in the History cannot be accepted as definite proof that Smith made the prediction.

But was the prophecy added to the manuscript before or after the Saints moved to Utah? We cannot know for sure. The possibility remains that the material could have been added to the page after the Church had already settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley. In order to prove the prophecy authentic, we must look to other datable sources.

Morris writes, “The earliest printed publication of this prophecy, known to the writer, is to be found in the Deseret News, in 1852” (Prophecies of Joseph Smith, p.139). Though Morris claims it was printed in 1852, the photograph of the prophecy from that paper which he includes in his book was from the 7 November 1855 issue—more than eight years after the Mormons had already settled in the Salt Lake Valley (see page 132 and footnote.) Morris’ date was in error. According to Jessee, the LDS history books had been packed up in Nauvoo, Illinois, on 4 February 1846 and were not unpacked in Salt Lake City until 7 June 1853. The work on compiling and finalizing the History did not begin in earnest until 10 April 1854 under the direction of the new church historian George A. Smith (The Writing of Joseph Smith History, pp 469-470). The prophecy was printed for the first time in the 7 November 1855 issue of the Deseret News (p.273).

Thomas B. H. Stenhouse, once a faithful Mormon, later wrote an expose called the Rocky Mountain Saints. On page 146 he wrote, “As early as 1842, he [Smith] prophesied that the Saints would remove to the Rocky Mountains, and in the spring of 1844, while troubles were increasing upon him, he selected a company of men to explore that unknown region, prophesying at the same time that within five years from that date, the Saints should be located there beyond the influence of mobs.” Stenhouse accepts one of Smith’s diary entries as proof in this case. Yet the entry cited does not mention the Rocky Mountains. Instead, it records that Smith sent out men to scout throughout “the localities, California and Oregon” to find a suitable settling place.

Mormon historian Davis Bitton sums this matter up well, stating, “There is no such prophecy in the handwriting of Joseph Smith, or published during the prophet’s lifetime, but it was referred to in general terms during the trek west. After the arrival in the Salt Lake Valley the prophecy became more specific as time went on” (Changing World of Mormonism, p.406, emphasis mine).” The only definite conclusion that can be reached is that this prophecy cannot be shown to be authentic.

Morris suggests that several people had early knowledge of this prophecy. He cites, among other things, an entry from the journal of Heber C. Kimball on 31 December 1845 concerning the move of the Saints to the west (Prophecies of Joseph Smith, p.137). Examination of that journal entry, however, shows that Kimball did not know where the Saints would settle. According to the journal entry, Brigham Young was “examining maps with reference to selecting a location for the Saints west of the Rocky Mountains….” This indicates no knowledge of Smith’s prediction.

The Tanners note that Brigham Young had written a letter just 13 days before this journal entry, which definitely indicated that he was planning to have the Saints migrate to Canada “on Vancouver’s Island” (Shadow or Reality, p.135). That is well outside the “midst of the Rocky Mountains.” J. H. Beadle informs us that “at a conference held before they left Nauvoo, to determine their destination, Lyman Wight had strongly urged Texas, John Taylor proposed Vancouver’s Island, many were in favor of Oregon and Brigham Young insisted upon California”(Polygamy, or the Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism, p.118, emphasis mine). Beadle goes on to say that “they finally fixed indefinitely upon ‘some valley in the Rocky Mountains.'”

But in a circular letter to the Church printed in October of 1845, Brigham Young stated that the leadership intended to move the Church to a “far distant region of the west.” He closed the circular by stating, “There are said to be many good locations for settlements on the Pacific, especially at Vancouver’s Island, near the mouth of the Columbia” (available on-line at: http://library.byu.edu/). The aforementioned BYU web page also notes, “It is apparent that in the fall of 1845 their final destination was the Pacific coast not the Great Basin. It would not be until late January 1846 before the decision was made to settle ‘in the neighborhood of the Rocky Mountains.'” As we shall see, the date of January 1846 is also questionable.

The same day the Saints left Nauvoo for the west, 238 additional Church members departed from New York on the ship Brooklyn to sail around Cape Horn for the Pacific Coast of California. Led by Samuel Brannan, the plan was to meet Brigham Young near present-day San Francisco. Around this time several Mormon men were enlisted in the Mormon Battalion to fight for America in the Mexican War. This fits perfectly with plans held by Young at that time, since the Battalion was to be discharged in California. Mormon historians James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard note that Brigham Young complied with the government’s request for 500 troops since their pay would “help transport their families west” and “help the Saints reach Upper California” (The Story of the Latter-day Saints, p.226).

In his book titled Brigham Young, M. R. Werner, writes on page 206, “Finally, in 1846 they began their trek to the West…. Just where in the West they were going, the Mormons did not know, but Oregon and California were in the mind of Brigham Young.”

Major Howard Egan was in the first company of Mormon pioneers to travel West with Brigham Young. In his diary it is noted that “the family moved with the general exodus of the Saints about the 1st of March, 1846… At that time there was no definite plan as to the future destination of the people. There had been vague ideas afloat of Oregon, Vancouver and Upper California as probable places of refuge.” The editor of Egan’s diary inserts that there were “undefined plans” from Joseph Smith of migrating to the midst of the Rocky Mountains, but this editorial comment was added when Pioneering the West: 1846 to 1878—Major Howard Egan’s Diary became a book in 1917, well after the Mormons were already settled in the Great Salt Lake Valley. The prophecy had been widely published by that point.

A hymn written by John Taylor also gives the impression that the Mormons were headed for the northern Pacific Coast. The Mormons sang it often on their journey across the plains and Rocky Mountains:

The Upper California, Oh that’s the land for me!

It lies between the mountains and the great Pacific Sea;

The Saints can be supported there,

And taste the sweets of liberty.

In the Upper California, that’s the land for me!

In an article titled “Correct Placing of the Monument, Pioneer View” (Improvement Era, 1921), Elder W.W. Riter, a man who had traveled with Brigham Young to the Salt Lake Valley, stated, “You will remember that when our people started from Nauvoo they only followed the setting sun. They did not know where they were going. There was an indefinite idea that they were going to California; for you may remember that in some of the old editions of our hymn book there is a hymn: ‘In Upper California—Oh, that’s the land for me!'” While it can be argued that “Upper California” at that time also included the area known today as Utah, it is difficult to prove that this particular area was in mind when Taylor penned the words to this hymn.

While many Mormons had already left Nauvoo on their way to the west, other leaders of the Church had been discharged to England. An idea of where the main body of the Church would be going was sent along with them. Oliver B. Huntington, one of the missionaries who went to England, recorded in his journal on 16 October 1846 that a council meeting was appointed and that “it was the intention of the Twelve, here, or the authorities of the Church in England to petition the [English] government, to cede to us as her subjects a part or the whole of the Island of Vancouver, on the western coast of America; and also ship us there. This was given as the intended course to be taken by the Church” (Journal of Oliver B. Huntington 1:34).

The evidence tells us that Young had no firm intentions of settling in the Great Salt Lake Valley until after the Mormons had left Nauvoo. He even said as much in a sermon he gave in 1857: “When I was written to in Nauvoo by the President of the United States, through another person, enquiring, ‘Where are you going, Mr. Young?’ I replied that I did not know where we should land. We had men in England trying to negotiate for Vancouver’s Island, and we sent a shipload of Saints round Cape Horn to California” (Journal of Discourses 5:230-231).

Given the fact that Young had a propensity to do all he could to validate Smith’s role as a prophet, his indecisiveness tends to prove that he was not privy to an alleged prophecy to settle in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. Had he known, he would have followed the revelation to the letter. All this tends to disprove the notion that Young had made up his mind in January of 1846.

As the Saints journeyed west, Young contracted Mountain fever, a sickness that is accompanied by fever, chills, and aching muscles. It was while he was in this condition that his wagon train reached the Great Salt Lake Valley. Upon seeing it, Young decided that this was where they would stop. In a speech commemorating their arrival to the valley, Wilford Woodruff made the following comment: “Forty-one years ago this day I passed through Immigration Canyon with President Brigham Young. He was taken sick on East Canyon Creek, and I made a bed for him in my carriage. When we came upon the bench, where we had a fair view of the valley before us, I turned the side of the vehicle to the west, so that he could obtain a fair view of the valley. President Young arose from his bed and took a survey of the country before him for several minutes. He then said to me, “Drive on down into the valley; this is our abiding place. I have seen it before in vision. In this valley will be built the City of the Saints and the Temple of our God.” (Collected Discourses 1:163-164).

It could very well have been his illness that decided the matter for him. It is quite possible that he would not have wanted to continue the difficult and uncomfortable journey in that condition. By his own account, Young was unable to even get out of the carriage and view the Great Salt Lake Valley when they arrived. When exactly Young made the decision to settle in Utah may never be known. One thing is certain: there is no concrete evidence to suggest that Joseph Smith predicted that the Saints would settle in what is known today as the Salt Lake Valley.


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