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Some of the Church’s darkest hours happened in Kirtland, with financial failures and large-scale apostasy. But this was also one of the greatest periods in early Church history for outpourings of revelation and miracles.
This is the fifth episode in a series providing insights from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
Short clips from this episode are also available on TikTok and Instagram.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 5: Blessings of Kirtland
Joseph Smith, Sr: Thus saith the Lord God, "I will lift up my hand to the gentiles, and set my standard to the people, and they–"
Man 1: Clear this room!
Man 1: We’ll be asking you to leave in a peaceable manner, as we have business to attend to.
Joseph Smith, Sr: As do we.
Warren Parrish: We asked you to leave.
Joseph Smith, Sr: Will! [meaning William Smith]
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of The Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox, and we are joined again today by Dr. Gerrit Dirkmaat. Gerrit, I would like to go more in-depth on the blessings of the Kirtland era. We hear a lot about what went wrong. What went right during that time?
Gerrit Dirkmaat: So much of what we understand about the gospel, and the revelations that Joseph Smith received are all happening in this Kirtland era. You look at the Doctrine and Covenants that you have today; I mean about HALF of the revelations we have are coming in Kirtland. Like Doctrine & Covenants Section 76, which explains the understanding of the kingdoms and the degrees of glory. Doctrine & Covenant Section 93 which talks about our nature and our relationship to our Heavenly Father. I mean, so much of what we believe today comes from this time period.
And then, of course, you have so much more conversions that occur in the Church; when Joseph and the Saints moved from New York, there’s dozens of them. When they leave from Kirtland, there’s THOUSANDS of them. And that’s in the space of just seven years. They are going to finish and complete the Kirtland Temple, and people are going to have this miraculous experience surrounding the temple dedication, and of course, Latter-day Saints really see as central to their belief, that in that temple, not only does Joseph, you know, see Jesus again, he’s seen Jesus MULTIPLE times, which is, in and of itself, amazing, and incredible. But there they’re also going to have further keys of the Restoration restored to them from Moses and Elias, and Elijah, the sealing power that’s really going to become a focal point of what a Latter-day Saint believes.
If you were to ask someone today, ‘What’s some of the most important parts about what you believe?’ A Latter-day Saint very often will say, ‘We believe that families can be sealed together, we believe that marriages can.’ Well that’s all coming out of this, the revelations in the Kirtland era.
This is when the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles is first called. All that structure began unfolding in the Kirtland era. And the Apostles are going to gain more and more power and authority as the Lord gives them more responsibilities.
CBF: That’s awesome. It seems like it was the best of times and the worst of times.
GD: It really does seem like that, and honestly, when you’re studying it as a historian it just seems like, you seem to just vacillate from, ‘Hey things seem like they’re going pretty well,’ to gigantic catastrophe. Now they’re doing a little bit better again; gigantic—there are certainly things that make our church what it is today because of the blessings, the miracles, the manifestations, the translations that occur in that Kirtland era of the Church.
CBF: So we talk about a lot of the hard things that the Saints went through, we know that so much of our personal growth comes from going through struggles, how did that time of the Church’s history change Joseph Smith?
GD: While he’s in the thick of trying to translate the Book of Mormon; while he’s dealing with all the financial and physical realities of the persecution that exists while he’s trying to translate it, that’s when Emma loses their first baby, and he nearly loses Emma herself.
Emma: Why is this happening, Joseph?
Joseph: I don’t know. I’m not sure I understand anything right now.
GD: That’s the beginning of the question that all believers have at some point in their life and that is, ‘God, why did you let this happen to me?’ And this is going to be something that will recur over and over again. When in 1833 the Saints are violently driven out of Jackson County, Joseph’s going to write a letter to the saints there, and you can almost feel the tears falling on the letter as he’s writing it. He asks that question: "Why?"
It’s the natural response of people to say, "God, if you’re with us, why can’t you just get rid of the mob in Missouri?" But for whatever reason, that’s not how God generally tends to manifest Himself. And it does seem like, though, people who go through these very severe persecutions, they tend to develop an even stronger testimony. I can think of the Colesville Saints, for instance, you know, they gave up everything because Doctrine & Covenants Section 37 and 38, those two revelations command the Church to leave New York and move to Ohio, and these people are giving up everything. And the revelation even says, "them that have farms that cannot be sold, let them be rented or left." So you go from being a middle-class or well-off person—
CBF: To nothing.
GD: —To having nothing. THAT is a pretty big ask. And in fact, a non-Mormon newspaper commented on it because they thought it was so ridiculous, that all these people were just going to, just going to LEAVE, and leave all their stuff. It commented and said that this revelation was first resisted by such as had property, but after a night of fasting and prayer, they all determined they would do as the revelation directed, and they began to move. Of course, the newspaper was making fun of this, ‘How could you POSSIBLY give up everything for this?’
GD: But, what did it do for those Saints? Well those Colesville Saints, when it came time to move again —
CBF: They were ready to go.
GD: They’d already given up everything. Once they’ve already made the decision that they’re going to give up everything, well the next trial that comes isn’t the worst trial. It’s just another trial. And I think that many of the saints in that Kirtland era come to that conclusion. Brigham Young did NOT immediately join the Church. It took him a LONG time before he finally came to terms with the Church and some of its teaching. But when he put his hand to that plough, he didn’t ever look back. And that’s the case with Wilford Woodruff, and John Taylor, and other—the leaders that we think of in early Church history, they are all coming out of that Kirtland era of these both blessings and difficulties.
CBF: Interesting. I think it’s fascinating how many times we see, like you mentioned, people losing everything, and how that brings them to God. I’ve seen that in my life. It seems like the less people have, the more you HAVE to turn to God because, what other choice do you have?
GD: That’s all you have left!
CBF: I think in a sense, it can be a little bit of training, you know we learn; Okay, you have nothing. You turn to God. You have nothing again, you turn to God, so that hopefully when you’re blessed with more, you still remember to turn to God.
GD: It’s the great problem of mortality, right, is that the kingdom that Jesus is preaching about is not of this world. And yet, everything around us says this is the only thing that matters. And so having the faith to sacrifice what is valuable now for what will be eternally valuable is really, really difficult, but that’s what makes you a Christian, is BELIEVING that there is a kingdom that’s greater than this one. That eventually all of our losses will be made up to us. That, I think, is what drives true faith.
And by the time the saints get to Salt Lake, there’s just not a whole lot of casual Mormons. ‘Casual Mormon’ was six burned-down houses and 2,000 miles ago, you know? If you believed to the point where you gave up everything, and you left the country, and you went to Mexico, and you settled in the middle of this wilderness with, you know, ‘Hey there’s a body of water, oh wait — it’s SALT.’ I mean, if you believed to that point, then you understand why they were willing to make some of the sacrifices, because, their earlier trials had prepared them for that. And those Colesville Saints who’d given up everything, in 1830 and ‘31 to move to Ohio? They gave up everything again to move to Missouri, and again in Missouri, and again to Nauvoo, and again from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters and Winter Quarters to Salt Lake. And so, something about that sacrifice welded them to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
CBF: It’s amazing. I am grateful that I have not yet been asked to do that, and make that kind of sacrifice.
GD: Me too. Yeah, it’s a lot easier to just talk about sacrifice actually.
CBF: It’s a lot easier to admire THEM for making it.
GD: Talking about other peoples’ sacrifice, I’m REALLY good at that.
CBF: Well thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.