Trouble in Paradise: Thomas Marsh Takes a Stand

By Sharon Lindbloom
6 July 2016

Thomas B. Marsh was the President of the Quorum of the Twelve [LDS] Apostles in 1838. Over the years, he had proven himself a loyal and faithful supporter of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Joining the Mormon Church in 1830 and called as an apostle in 1835, Marsh stood with Joseph Smith through thick and thin — through the financial fiasco in Kirtland, Ohio in 1837, and through the following discipline of dissenters in Missouri. But in 1838 Marsh became so concerned over the violence and militarism he witnessed among Mormon leaders as they clashed with their non-Mormon neighbors in Missouri, Marsh and his family left both their home in Far West and their increasingly violent church.

Gallatin Election Day 1838On October 24th of that year Thomas Marsh, “at the request of a committee of the citizens of Ray county” swore out an affidavit detailing “the recent movements, plans, and intentions of the Mormons” in that state. His affidavit included information about Mormons burning and looting non-Mormon properties and forming a “company” of men for the express “purpose of burning and destroying.” He mentioned the Danites, a Mormon group whose members had “taken an oath to support the heads of the church in all things that they say or do, whether right or wrong.” And he revealed a decision that he was told had been reached at a recent meeting in which “they passed a decree that no Mormon dissenter should leave Caldwell county alive; and that such as attempted to do it, should be shot down.” (see Document containing the orders, correspondence, etc. in relation to the disturbances with the Mormons; and the evidence given before the Hon. Austin A. King, Judge of the fifth Judicial circuit of the State of Missouri, at the court house in Richmond, in a criminal court of inquiry, begun November 12, 1838, on the trial of Joseph Smith, Jr., and others, for high treason and other crimes against the State,” 57-59. Hereafter: Document)

As if that wasn’t enough, Thomas Marsh also revealed what he knew of the Prophet Joseph Smith — that the Prophet was protected from the reach of the law in Caldwell county; that he intended to take over first Missouri, then the United States, then the world; and that Joseph Smith taught (and Mormons believed) that “Smith’s prophecies are superior to the law of the land.” Furthermore,

“I have heard the prophet say that he should yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; that if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation, and that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean; that like Mahomet, whose motto in treating for peace, was ‘the Alcoran, or the Sword,’ so should it be eventually with us, ‘Joseph Smith or the Sword.’ These last statements were made during the last summer.” (Document, 58-59)

In a recent “Defending the Faith” article for Deseret News, LDS Professor Daniel Peterson looked at Thomas Marsh’s accusations against Joseph Smith and concluded,

“A secondhand allegation by a hostile witness is an awfully slender thread upon which to base a serious accusation against Joseph Smith and his character.”

According to Dr. Peterson, given the tensions in Missouri at that time, it is possible that Joseph Smith may have “engaged in exaggerated rhetoric” in an effort to “intimidate Missouri’s anti-Mormons” so they would leave the Saints alone; however, he wrote, “It’s much more likely, though, that the statement is false, wholly or in part.” In spite of corroboration by four additional witnesses who reported their similar recollections of Joseph Smith’s statements, Dr. Peterson thinks Thomas Marsh’s allegations should be dismissed.

As supporting evidence for this dismissal, Dr. Peterson first cited a 1971 article in which the Mormon authors suggested (without providing any evidence of their own) that Joseph Smith’s stated threat of violence was “quite probably” made up by the disaffected man.

Next Dr. Peterson cited Orson Hyde, another LDS apostle who swore out his own affidavit in 1838 stating that “The most of the statements in the foregoing disclosure of Thomas B. March [Marsh], I know to be true, the remainder I believe to be true” (Document, 59). Upon seeking reconciliation with the Mormon Church in the following year, Mr. Hyde changed his story. No longer swearing that he knew or believed all of Thomas Marsh’s affidavit was true, he now said that some (unidentified) parts of the affidavit had been invented by Marsh. This begs the question: Was Orson Hyde being dishonest in his sworn affidavit, or was he being dishonest in his revision of the facts? At some point he was not telling the truth.

Next Dr. Peterson cited an entry in Joseph Smith’s journal in which the Prophet mentioned that “apostates from the church” had been spreading false stories and statements against the Mormons. As this complaint was written in early July of 1838, it could not have had anything to do with Thomas Marsh’s specific accusations made several months later, in October. Thomas Marsh was still fully supportive of Joseph Smith in the mid-summer of 1838.

Finally, Dr. Peterson’s apologetic for rejecting Marsh’s accusations cited Thomas Marsh himself. Eighteen years after his 1839 excommunication, Thomas Marsh repented and sought re-entry into the Mormon Church. Dr. Peterson explained,

“‘I became jealous of the Prophet,’ Marsh himself remarked around the time of his 1857 Utah rebaptism (a rebaptism that’s difficult to explain if he really considered Joseph Smith a bloodthirsty aspiring dictator), ‘and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil. … I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, and I thought I saw a beam in brother Joseph’s eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam; but I thought I saw a beam in his, and I wanted to get it out; and, as brother Heber says, I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad’ (see ‘Journal of Discourses,’ Vol. 5:207).”

What’s really interesting about the remarks Thomas Marsh made on September 6, 1857 is that he did not renounce any part of his 1838 affidavit. What he did in 1857 was confess to having questioned the Prophet — something he came to realize he should not have done. Following the portion of Marsh’s confession quoted by Dr. Peterson, Marsh continued,

“I talked with Brother Brigham and Brother Heber, and I wanted them to be mad like myself; and I saw they were not mad, and I got madder still because they were not. Brother Brigham, with a cautious look, said, ‘Are you the leader of the Church, brother Thomas?’ I answered, ‘No.’ ‘Well then,’ said he, ‘Why do you not let that alone?’ Well, this is about the amount of my hypocrisy — I meddled with that which was not my business.” (Journal of Discourses 5:207)

Thomas Marsh then pledged his allegiance to and confidence in “God’s mouthpiece,” the prophet of the LDS Church. Questioning what the leaders of the Church were doing in 1838 was where he went wrong; he should have trusted them and followed them, and never tried to intervene for the safety of dissenters and non-Mormon Missourians. If Joseph Smith, under God’s direction, would take the world by force, it was not Marsh’s place to question. As he confessed regretfully, “I meddled with that which was not my business.”

Considering all the evidence Dr. Peterson provided in his “Defending the Faith” article, my conclusion differs from his. I don’t see anything in his argument that persuades me to dismiss the allegations in Thomas Marsh’s affidavit. Indeed, four corroborating eyewitness accounts of the Prophet’s specific threats of violence, the well-documented intimidation and threats made toward Mormon dissenters, the actual Mormon aggression that unfolded in the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, and the long history of Joseph Smith’s militant proclamations and activities grants great weight to the allegations made by Thomas Marsh. If history itself portrays Joseph Smith as (in Dr. Peterson’s words) an “unprincipled would-be tyrant,” so be it.