Travels of Joseph Smith: Not a provincial prophet

Joseph Smith expressed a desire to go anywhere for the kingdom of God

Excerpts taken from "Joseph Smith's Journeys," by Richard Lloyd Anderson, Deseret Morning News 2006 Church Almanac, p. 131.

Joseph Smith was not a provincial prophet. There were 26 states in the American union at his death, and he had lived in, or traveled through, half of them, as well as visiting Canada twice.

After his boyhood in Vermont and New Hampshire, he grew to manhood in New York, and also resided in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. He traveled locally to build up the Church in these places, but most of his longer journeys crossed state lines.

Joseph Smith expressed a desire to go anywhere for the kingdom of God, telling the Twelve near the end of his life: "I will meet you at any conference in Maine, or any conference where you are, and stay as long as it is wisdom" (HC 5:368).

This article excerpts a few of the Prophet's travels. Over a half-dozen moves of Joseph and Emma fall within this definition, as well as 22 trips made by the Prophet.

The following are examples of these trips:


Joseph Smith was only 10 when his parents planned to move from Vermont to New York. According to his mother's history, Joseph Smith Sr. resolved to leave New England if his crops were destroyed one more season. In 1816, nature responded with an early fall frost that destroyed the New England harvest. So Father Smith personally investigated western New York, where cheap uncleared lands could be changed into farms.

He sent back a teamster and a wagon to bring his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, and their children some 300 miles on winter roads. But the driver turned out to be irresponsible — spending money trusted to him on drink, and often forcing Joseph, who was still recovering from a severe bone operation, to stumble on snowy roads.

This boyhood journey introduces a redundant theme of hardship in many of the Prophet's travels.


Palmyra farmer Martin Harris offered to be a scribe for Joseph after taking copies of the characters to experts in eastern cities, where he satisfied himself that no scholar could decipher the plates. As is well known, this 1828 translation produced 116 pages, which Martin insisted on showing to his family, but disaster followed. He carried this borrowed manuscript back to Palmyra, but it was stolen (HC 1:20-21).

Not hearing from Harris, Joseph and Emma became uneasy. Joseph rode the stage day and night to a point some miles from his family farm. Lucy Smith's history describes how her son was distraught and weakened by losing his first son to death and almost losing Emma.

An unknown fellow-traveler detected Joseph's overpowering fatigue and went out of his way to escort the stumbling Prophet through the darkness to the parents' farmhouse, where Joseph learned the worst from Martin Harris the next day. Joseph soon returned to his Pennsylvania farm and awaited a new arrangement for full-time translation.


The impact of Joseph Smith's inspired leadership is impressive — within a few months scores of families, numbering about 200 individuals, accepted a command to sell all and follow the Lord's Prophet to Kirtland, Ohio. Joseph and Emma led the way, in company with Sidney Rigdon and possibly Edward Partridge, traveling almost 300 miles and arriving at the beginning of February. Emma symbolizes the unnoted sacrifices of women in the Mormon migrations — she was in the middle of pregnancy on arriving at Kirtland in 1831.

Major priesthood quorums were established at Kirtland, allowing Joseph to travel in order to manage Church finances, testify of the restored gospel, and direct settlements for the saints.

The Prophet made a dozen major trips from Kirtland, many tinged with hardship and danger. Long western journeys were necessary, since for a time members settled in two main places. Many moved to northwest Missouri after revelations stated this was the ultimate gathering place.

Joseph Smith's first visit to Missouri is arguably the most important journey of his life.

Joseph explains that he and key leaders left in mid-June, traveling southwest "by wagon, canal boats, and stages" from the Cleveland area to the Ohio River at Cincinnati. (HC 1:188).

The Prophet's party boarded a river boat to St. Louis, after which Joseph and four others walked across the state of Missouri, the last lap of 260 miles in a total distance of about 900 miles from Kirtland to Independence, near present Kansas City.

In latter July the Prophet arrived in Independence, Jackson County, Mo., greeting Oliver Cowdery and companion missionaries who had labored there since the previous winter.

In leaving, Joseph, with Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery, and over a half-dozen missionaries set out from Independence in canoes, riding the current of the Missouri River east toward St. Louis. They had traveled about 100 miles when treacherous protruding branches nearly capsized Joseph's canoe, after which a revelation said the Lord had allowed them to know the dangers of makeshift river travel, counseling the Prophet that he should safely return by canals or by land, even though future inspiration might dictate traveling "upon the land or upon the waters" (Doctrine and Covenants 61:28).

Accordingly, the Prophet, with his small group, walked some distance to the nearest stage route, jolted about 100 miles to St. Louis, and then boarded other coaches for about 600 swaying miles back to his small family at Kirtland (HC 1:206).


In 1832, the Prophet's party took three weeks to get to Independence, but it took over twice that time for the Prophet and Bishop Whitney to return to Kirtland. They left Independence by stage on May 6, accompanied by Sidney Rigdon, but a risk of the road intervened.

They took careening coaches from St. Louis and neared Louisville, Ky., a little over halfway back to Kirtland. But at Greenville, Ind., the horses panicked and ran with the lurching stage, and Joseph said the bishop "caught his foot in the wheel and had his leg and foot broken in several places; at the same time I jumped out unhurt" (HC 1:271).

President Rigdon went on to report the accident at Kirtland, while Joseph faithfully nursed Bishop Whitney four weeks at a roadside inn at Greenville. "Martin," no doubt Martin Harris, arrived with news of their families from Kirtland, and Joseph wrote to Emma halfway through the recuperation period, telling her he longed to converse and to take his year-old Julia "on my knee."

Joseph also wrote of hours spent in prayer and reiterated his loyalty to God and the Restored Church: "I have given my life into his hands(.) I am prepared to go at his Call(.) I desire to be with Christ(.) I count not my life dear to me onlly to do his will." (sic)

About June 20, Bishop Whitney was barely able to travel, and the pair faced the remaining 400 miles to Kirtland. They took a wagon to the Ohio River, ferried across to a Louisville landing, and a river boat brought them within 80 miles of Kirtland, a distance they covered by stage and a slow wagon (HC 1:272).


The Prophet took a mission to strengthen the Church in the area of Toronto, Canada, where the restored gospel had been introduced by Parley P. Pratt the year before.

Near the end of July 1837, Joseph, Sidney Rigdon, and Thomas B. Marsh went through Painesville, next to Fairport, accompanied by Brigham Young and others who planned to take the same ship as far as Buffalo, N.Y.

Brigham describes how the Prophet was arrested six times that day on trivial charges. After this frustrating experience, the group returned to Kirtland for the night, and the next day were taken by wagon 25 miles past Fairport to another landing, where they boarded their lake steamer in late afternoon without challenge (HC 2:502-503).

The Prophet and friends took the cheaper deck passage, and Brigham said they reclined that night in the open air: "I gave the Prophet my valise for a pillow, and I took his boots for mine."

Parting from Brigham and others at Buffalo, Joseph's party traveled to Toronto, their base of operations for most of August 1837. Apart from local travel, this whole journey was a round trip of about 500 miles.

How Joseph and Sidney arrived from Canada is a story of danger and determination.

Devout Mary Fielding Smith heard Joseph tell the story of his return, probably on Sunday morning in the temple. She reported that he and Sidney were in a carriage and nearing Kirtland, when a mob surrounded them and took them back to Painesville.

Some sort of trial was planned, apparently attended by Joseph's attorney, when the two presidents were let out the back door and evaded their pursuers by crossing fields and fences parallel to the road leading to Kirtland, about 10 miles away.

The night was black, but their enemies on the road carried torches that gave the fugitives their sense of direction. About halfway to Kirtland the torches disappeared, and the muddy and exhausted presidents safely plodded along the highway, arriving home about 3 a.m.


Joseph spent the winter of 1838-1839 in Missouri jails, and in the spring was indicted by a grand jury in Daviess County, above Far West, and granted a change of venue to Boone County, in the center of the state.

On their way, Joseph, Hyrum, and three others escaped and made their way to the main Mormon group at Quincy, Ill., and Joseph rejoined Emma, who lived a few miles from the city.

In his last letter to her from Liberty jail, he expressed love for their four young children and said of Emma: 'I would gladly walk from here to you barefoot, and bareheaded, and half naked and think it great pleasure, and never count it toil." That sentence nearly describes what happened.

On April 12, 1839, the captives were entrusted to the sheriff and four deputies, and about 20 miles down the road, their guards looked the other way while the five Mormons left with two horses, after which the fugitives alternately walked and rode over 100 miles to the Mississippi ferry opposite Quincy.

Joseph told of blood oozing into his boots on the way. Dimick Huntington saw Joseph walk off the boat on April 22 in ragged clothing and tattered boots. He asked the travel-worn Prophet whether to stop in town to see his parents, but Joseph declined at that moment, telling his friend: "take me to my family as Quick as you can."


The Prophet settled in Nauvoo soon after escaping from Missouri, worried about how to help thousands of exiles who suffered collective damages exceeding $2 million. Church councils appointed him to lead a delegation seeking reparation at the nation's capital, since Missouri officials and legislators had done little, and courts were only available to Mormons rash enough to risk

their lives in their old neighborhoods.

Joseph left at the end of October 1839, accompanied by Sidney Rigdon, Elias Higbee, and Porter Rockwell. He faced an 1,800 mile round trip, plus another 300 miles to Church branches around Washington, D.C. He would not see his family for four months, returning early in March 1840.

Joseph wrote Emma from Springfield, the Illinois capital: "It will be a long and lonesome time dureing my absence from you and nothing but a sense of humanity could have urged me on to so great a sacrafice but shall I see so many perish and not seek redress(.) no I will try this once in the name of the Lord." (sic)

President Rigdon fell ill on the way, and the Prophet and Judge Higbee went ahead in order to reach the capital for the beginning of Congress. In fact, one account tells of congressmen riding in Joseph's stage as the Prophet made a dramatic entrance to the Washington area (HC 4:23). On the road from Wheeling, W. Va., the driver evidently left his four-horse team unsecured, and Elias Higbee soon wrote about the result: "The horses ran away with the stage; they ran about three miles; Brother Joseph climbed out of the stage, got the lines, and stopped the horses, and also saved the life of a lady and child. He was highly commended by the whole company for his great exertions and presence of mind through the whole affair" (HC 4:41-42).

They reached Washington Nov. 28, and the next day made their single call on President Martin Van Buren at the White House. They wrote that he read their introductions and expressed inability to act, closing with candor; "I can do nothing for you! If I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri" (HC 4:40).

It took a civil war and a century of legal developments to bring about Joseph's vision of a national government powerful enough to protect the rights of all citizens.


Joseph's last major journey was made in the heat of a midwest summer.

For a year, Emma had longed to visit her older sister, Elizabeth Wasson, who lived near Dixon, on the Rock River, more than 150 road miles from Nauvoo. And on June 13, 1843, Joseph, Emma, and the four children, 10 and under, set out in a new carriage to see the Wassons, and after about three days of riding, arrived safely.

Yet, a thunderstorm was on the horizon.

Deputies, posed as Mormon missionaries, accosted Joseph by the Wasson house and hustled him into their carriage at gunpoint, with little explanation but an avalanche of threatening oaths.

Arriving in Dixon, they tried to hide Joseph, with immediate plans to get horses and run to a Mississippi riverboat. But townsmen blocked this plan, insisting that the Prophet should be able to test his arrest in court before he was jailed again in Missouri (on the revived extraordinary accusation of treason, issued from Daviess County, Mo.).

In the meantime, Loren Walker, a trusted member of Joseph's household, drove Emma and the children back to Nauvoo.

Joseph filed actions for abuse of process against the two lawmen, who could not give the required bail and therefore were escorted under arrest by the sheriff of Lee County.

Joseph and his escort reached Nauvoo 10 days after arrest, on June 30. Emma and Hyrum were in the forefront of the welcoming crowd at the outer edge of the city, after which Joseph and Emma headed a parade of riders and carriages, accompanied by a band and the cheers of thousands who lined the way.

But the personal story that day was the profound commitment of the first couple, captured in the journal of William Clayton, who knew their trials and tensions:

"Pres J left the buggy and mounted old Charly. he called for sister Emma & his brother Hyrum who when they came up took him by the hand(.) all wept tears of joy. Such a feeling I never before witnessed when the Pres. took hold of the hands of his partner in sorrow & persecution."

Joseph Smith's travels — none convenient by present standards — are part of his intense efforts in bringing about new scriptures, and restored ordinances, and a remarkable expansion of the Restored Church within the brief space of 17 years.

From receiving the plates in 1827 to publication of the translation in March 1830, he traveled over 1,000 miles. And in the 12 months after Church organization in April 1830, he traveled another 1,300 miles in building the branches in New York and then moving to Kirtland. While residing in northern Ohio during the next seven years, he made 12 major trips on missionary work and/or Church business, totaling about 13,000 miles in a period when travel was only partly mechanized.

Then the Prophet traveled another 1,200 miles to move to Missouri, and then to make his escape to Illinois. From Nauvoo he journeyed more than 2,000 miles in seeking national assistance for his people and security in Illinois for himself as their leader.

Joseph's major trips and moves total more than 18,000 miles.

The distance of Joseph's travels is impressive for that time, but his message is equally impressive. In his travels there were many missionary opportunities, when he regularly declared he had been instructed and authorized by God and His angels.

Joseph Smith explained this deepest motivation in an 1840 letter commending the Twelve for personal sacrifices in their group mission to the British Isles:

"Love is one of the chief characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone, but ranges through the whole world, anxious to bless the whole human race" (HC 4:227).

Joseph Smith's travel teachings merge with his last Nauvoo discourses, which stress that he had seen God and that He declared a restored plan of salvation for the exaltation of all who would fully receive it.

Sorry, no more articles available