Of all the parables of Jesus, none illustrates the precariousness of Christian discipleship more powerfully than the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:3–23). All the seeds in the story start out with great potential for growth, but not all are planted in soil nourishing enough to develop that potential. Seeds that fall into good ground get the nutrients required to develop a deep and extensive root system and thus push aside threats to their growth. Other seeds are not so fortunate. Some fall by the wayside; God’s word is never truly understood, and the wicked one snatches the seeds away. Still others fall on stony ground and, lacking adequate roots, wither in the scorching sun of tribulation. Finally, other seeds fall among thorns. Jesus likens the plight of these seeds to those who hear the word but are choked by the deceitfulness of riches and the “care of this world” (Matthew 13:22).
Doctrine and Covenants 39 and 40 mirror the language of this parable in the telling of the story of James Covel, a Methodist minister who showed intense but fleeting interest in the Church. Covel, like the seeds in the story, started out with great potential. Born the son of a Baptist-minister father and a Methodist mother in Chatham, Massachusetts, in about 1770, Covel became an itinerant preacher in the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1791. He traveled the circuit in and around Litchfield, Connecticut, and eventually married and settled in Poughkeepsie, New York.
Covel was recognized in Methodist circles as a steady and reliable man. By the 1820s, he had become a leader in the Methodist reform movement. (The reformed Methodists arose to contest the worldliness they saw entering their church when mainstream Methodism started to abandon the exercise of spiritual gifts.) Before converting to Mormonism, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and John Taylor, among others, saw themselves as reformed Methodists. In 1826, Covel was named president of the New York Conference of the Methodist Society, a group of dissenting Methodists who brought together a number of small offshoots. He later served as book agent in New York City for the literature published by reformers in the movement.
Covel was preaching in the Richmond circuit, 45 miles east of Fayette, New York, when he attended a conference of Latter-day Saints at Fayette in early January 1831. The Church was on its way out of New York then, the call to settle in Ohio having already come through revelation (see D&C 37:3).
Covel was more impressed with the teachings of the Church than with the call to move. In fact, he seemed poised to convert. He lingered a few days, talking with Church leaders, and covenanted with God to obey the call to repent and be baptized.
On January 5, 1831, a revelation came through Joseph Smith, calling Covel to join the Saints in their move to Ohio. “Thou art called to Labour in my Vineyard & to build up my Church,” the revelation said.Such language would have comforted any Methodist preacher, but the next verse was troubling: “Verily I say unto you thou art not called to go unto the Eastern countries but thou art called to go to Ohio.” For 40 years, Covel had preached east of upstate New York. Now he was being asked to go the opposite direction to preach.
The January 5 revelation warned Covel that in times past he had rejected the Lord. Like the seed that falls among thorns, Covel had let “the cares of the world” choke the seed the Lord had wanted to plant.
Covel must have known that moving west would mean cutting ties with the deep and extensive associations he had built up over his career. Two of his sons were Methodist preachers, and his years spent working in New York City had put him in contact with the movement’s most powerful voices. All the prestige he had accumulated over the course of a lifetime would have to be abandoned. It took Covel less than 48 hours to decide that he would not move to Ohio. A follow-up revelation made clear that Covel had rejected the Lord’s call: Covel, it said, “Received the word with Gladness but Straitway Satan came & tempted him & the fear of persecution & the cares of the world caused him to reject the word.”
After his fleeting interest in the Church, Covel returned to his former position. He preached and gained converts for Methodism in upstate New York until 1836, when he moved back to New York City. He remained there until his death in February 1850. By then the Saints had moved still farther west, beyond the Rocky Mountains to the arid Great Basin.