In late July 1836, Joseph Smith Jr., Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery, and Hyrum Smith started traveling from Kirtland, Ohio, to the eastern United States. In the weeks before their departure, worries about the temporal affairs of the Church weighed heavily on Joseph’s mind. In Missouri, the Saints held on to the titles to lands they had been driven from in Jackson County as a sign of their commitment to building Zion, but they had no foreseeable way to return. At the same time, the Church was weighed down with debts after the construction of the Kirtland Temple. What could be done?
These concerns likely continued to occupy Joseph Smith’s thoughts as his small group traveled to New York City and Boston.According to a later account, Joseph and other leaders had been told about a hidden treasure in Salem, Massachusetts, and hoped to find it. Both the hope for financial relief and worry over Zion were key parts of the context for a revelation the Prophet received in Salem on August 6, 1836.
“Concern Not Yourselves”
In the revelation, the Lord comforted Joseph and his companions: “Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them. Concern not yourselves about Zion, for I will deal merciful[ly] with her.”The revelation indicated that there were many treasures to be found in the city “for the benefit of Zion.” These would include both financial resources and the spiritual blessing of converts, “whom I will gather out in due time.” The treasures might also include important knowledge connected with “the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city.”
Joseph and his three companions followed the direction in the revelation to “tarry in this place”and spent several weeks in Salem, preaching and visiting historic places while hoping to obtain money to help pay Church debts and redeem Zion. But no documents exist indicating that they saw this revelation fulfilled in any way by the time they returned to Kirtland.
“No documents exist indicating that they saw this revelation fulfilled in any way by the time they returned to Kirtland.”
What the Lord accomplished through their trip to Salem remains unknown. Some people have assumed that the trip was simply not a success. Others have speculated that perhaps the revelation’s instruction to “inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants of the city,”which included some of Joseph’s ancestors, might have helped prepare him to receive vital revelations on proxy work for the dead. But the historical record reveals nothing about what Joseph, Oliver, Sidney, and Hyrum felt about the revelation when they left Salem.
“The Due Time of the Lord”
And yet the revelation was not forgotten. Five years later, at a Philadelphia Church conference in July 1841, Hyrum Smith and William Law of the First Presidency left instructions for Elders Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester about Salem. These instructions included a copy of the August 1836 revelation and expressed the First Presidency’s belief that “the due time of the Lord had come” for the revelation to be fulfilled and the people of Salem to be gathered into His kingdom.
“These instructions included a copy of the August 1836 revelation and expressed the First Presidency’s belief that ‘the due time of the Lord had come.’”
Erastus Snow was initially reluctant. He had been serving since April 1840 in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other areas on the East Coast with much success and had planned to return to Nauvoo in the fall of 1841. He prayed to know the will of the Lord, and the Spirit “continually whispered to go to Salem.”He also had business to attend to in Nauvoo, though, and had hoped to return there. It may have been difficult for him to distinguish between his own practical desires and the Lord’s promptings.
Following a biblical practice, Elder Snow decided to draw lots to determine where he should go: Nauvoo or Salem. He drew the ballot for Salem—twice—and resolved to go as soon as possible.He arranged for his wife and daughter, who had been traveling with him, to stay with his brother in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, until he could find somewhere in Salem for them. His brother was not a member of the Church but “seemed to take an interest in the work” as Erastus preached in the area, and he hoped that his brother might embrace the gospel.
“Strangers and Alone”
On August 31, 1841, Erastus Snow left his family in Rhode Island and traveled to Boston, where he waited until September 3 for Benjamin Winchester to arrive. The two men then traveled to Salem. “We arrived, Strangers and alone,” he wrote, “but trusted in God to direct our course.” That night the two missionaries prayed earnestly “that God would open the hearts of the people that we might obtain a hearing.”The next day they went forward in faith.
Day and night they preached in Boston and Salem, but without success. After a week, Benjamin Winchester left for Philadelphia and Erastus continued the work in Salem alone, preaching where invited during the week and in a rented Masonic hall on weekends. Despite his efforts and the large crowds who attended, few seemed truly interested in his message. He wrote, “Though I advertised in the papers and circulated gratis a large quantity of our addresses through the city, yet it was a long time before I could get people to take notice of me more than to come and hear and go away again.”
The first sustained attention Erastus Snow received was negative. Reverend A. G. Comings, a Baptist minister and editor of a local paper, published articles opposing the Church and refused to print Elder Snow’s responses. Eventually, however, Reverend Comings agreed to a series of debates between himself and Elder Snow to take place in November.Lasting six nights, the debates turned public opinion against Comings, since his arguments were “chiefly epethets and insults.” Elder Snow wrote that “the chief good which resulted from that discussion was it caused many to investigate the doctrine who otherwise would have thought it unworthy of notice. My meetings afterwards were much better attended than before.”
“The First Fruits”
On November 8, 1841—about five months after Hyrum Smith and William Law wrote to Erastus Snow about Salem—he “reaped the first fruits of [his] labours” as a few individuals made baptismal covenants there. The work progressed rapidly through the winter. By early February there were 36 members in Salem.In a report to Hyrum Smith and William Law, Elder Snow reflected, “Had I not known that Jesus had many sheep in this city, I think I should have been dishearted and not tarried to reap where I had sown, for this is the only place in which I ever preached so long without baptizing.”
Erastus Snow organized the Salem branch on March 5, 1842, with 53 members.By June 1842 the branch had increased to about 90 members, some of whom moved to Nauvoo and other areas. The faith of these Saints was great, and miracles of healing were among the spiritual gifts they experienced. At a conference in Boston in February 1843, the Salem branch had 110 members. Erastus Snow had also been instrumental in organizing smaller branches in other areas of Massachusetts, including the Georgetown branch, which had 32 members at the 1843 conference. When Elder Snow and his family left New England in the fall of 1843, 75 members from “Boston and the eastern churches” traveled with them to Nauvoo.
“More Treasures Than One”
In the revelation on Salem given on August 6, 1836, the Lord had said the city had “more treasures than one”to help build up the kingdom. While the full extent of that promise may yet be unrealized, the people who joined the Church through Erastus Snow’s mission had a lasting impact. They helped build up the Church in the Salem-Boston area, which served as a vibrant and historically significant Church area in the 1840s. Many of these converts gathered to Nauvoo, made important contributions there, and then moved west to help settle the Rocky Mountain region and raise the next generations of Latter-day Saints. Erastus Snow’s mission in Salem—like many missions—has had ripple effects of service and faith that continue to bless the world today.
Like the four Church leaders who traveled to the East in 1836, we don’t know exactly what treasures the Lord intended to come from Salem. But for Hyrum Smith and Erastus Snow, it was enough to trust in God’s words and become, in His due time, instruments in helping His promises be fulfilled.