When early Church members began their 1,000-mile journey in 1838 from Kirtland, Ohio, to Missouri, they were not simply fleeing their neighbors' hostility, according to Joseph F. Darowski.
"They were in fact belatedly doing what they had always intended: Gather to Zion," said Brother Darowski, a historian and editor with the Joseph Smith Papers Project at the Church History Department in a presentation June 7 at the Mormon History Association Conference.
"Narrative histories have amplified the theme of saints fleeing in the dark of night from impending doom," he observed. "Accounts unsurprisingly indentify 'the anti-Mormon persecution and internal dissention' as root causes."
Yet, he added, "As accurate as these and other assessments of Kirtland's final days as Church headquarters may be, the trail of events that unfolded over a seven-year period reveals an additional, oft-overlooked dimension to the story."
Beginning with the revelations identifying Jackson County, Mo., as Zion, the Prophet Joseph Smith strove to gather the saints there, he said. But at the same time, a revelation given Sept. 11, 1831, identified Kirtland as a stronghold of the Church for the next five years.
Mobs eventually drove the saints from Jackson County, and a military expedition, Zion's Camp, failed in its objective to restore them to their lands.
Yet Joseph continued to promote the gathering. Despite continued political, economic and social setbacks, and despite falling short of their goal to reach Zion by the fall of 1836, they were in Missouri in substantial force by mid-1838.
"This occurred despite, not because of, dissension and persecution," Brother Darowski said.