Twenty-two-year-old Nathan Baldwin was startled when, in the midst of preaching the gospel in Connecticut in February 1834, he felt a prompting to “go west.”Nathan, who was born in 1812 in Augusta Township in Upper Canada’s Grenville County, had been baptized on April 28, 1833, and had spent time since then preaching in the eastern United States. He quickly obeyed the prompting to go west. “I immediately turned my face to the west,” he wrote, “and began to retrace my steps, asking the question at the same time, what shall I go west for?” When he arrived in Oswegatchie, New York, a young man named Reuben Foote told him that the Saints had been ejected from Jackson County, Missouri, in the fall of 1833 and that the Prophet Joseph Smith was planning to lead an expedition to help those displaced Church members. Nathan felt he now understood why the Lord had sent him west—so that he could join the expedition.
The information that he received in Oswegatchie was correct. At about the same time that Nathan felt prompted to travel west, Parley P. Pratt and Lyman Wight had arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, from Missouri to explain to Joseph Smith and the Kirtland high council the plight of the Saints who were now living mainly in Clay County, Missouri. Pratt and Wight wondered how and when Zion would be redeemed, meaning how and when the Saints would regain their Jackson County land. After listening to Pratt and Wight, Joseph Smith declared “that he was going to Zion to assist in redeeming it” and asked for volunteers to go with him.
“Joseph Smith declared 'that he was going to Zion to assist in redeeming it' and asked for volunteers to go with him”
That same day, Joseph received a revelation, now Doctrine and Covenants 103, which instructed him to recruit as many as 500 “of the strength of [the Lord’s] house”—young and middle-aged members of the Church—to go to Zion, where they would reclaim the Lord’s vineyard.A few months earlier, in December 1833, the Lord had hinted at this effort to redeem Zion in the revelation that is now Doctrine and Covenants 101. The revelation contained a parable of a nobleman whose vineyard was overrun by his enemies and who instructed his servant to raise an army to retake his land. In the February 1834 revelation, the Lord designated Joseph Smith as the servant in the parable and appointed him to lead an expedition to Zion.
Nathan Baldwin responded to the call for volunteers. On May 3, 1834, he arrived in Kirtland, just two days before Joseph departed with a contingent of men for Missouri.About 20 other individuals left Michigan Territory on May 5 as well, under the leadership of Lyman Wight and Hyrum Smith. With recruits gathered along the way, the expedition—known at the time as the Camp of Israel and later called Zion’s Camp—eventually numbered about 205 men and approximately 25 women and children.
Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery explained the goals of the expedition in a letter sent to Saints throughout the United States, pleading for support. That letter explained that the group would march to Clay County, Missouri, where Church leaders would petition Missouri governor Daniel Dunklin to call out the state militia, something that Joseph Smith and others believed he was willing to do. The militia would escort the Saints back to their lands in Jackson County and would then be discharged. The members of Zion’s Camp would remain, serving as a protective force to ensure that Church members were not driven out again.
“No one knew, however, just what the reaction of those in Missouri would be when the camp entered the state. ”
No one knew, however, just what the reaction of those in Missouri would be when the camp entered the state. Nathan Baldwin fully expected to fight as a member of the camp, and as someone more inclined to peace, that worried him. “Hardly anything could be more repugnant to my feelings than the display of the instruments of death,” Baldwin recalled, “but I procured a rifle, equipage and ammunition, and tried to school myself to their practice.”
The participants largely paid camp expenses themselves. Church members contributed about $300 to the expedition, but that was not enough. Not long after leaving Kirtland, the members of the camp consecrated their money and created a general fund for expenses. Some members had nothing to consecrate; others, such as John Tanner, contributed as much as $170. Nathan Baldwin felt it an honor to consecrate $14 of his own. The camp was also organized into companies of 12 men each, with each man having a certain responsibility within the company. Nathan was given the assignment of supplying water.
For the next month and a half, Nathan and the rest of Zion’s Camp marched through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois on the way to Missouri. The pace was brisk, as the camp covered as many as 40 miles a day. “As the wagons were mostly filled with baggage, we had to travel on foot,” Nathan later remembered. This resulted in sore feet, blisters, and even “toes so gaulded that our stockings were wet with blood.”Although some in the camp, such as Sylvester Smith, complained throughout the journey, disgusted with the food the camp had to eat and the lack of water, Nathan (along with the majority of the camp) stoically soldiered on without complaining—even when the only thing he had to drink was dew gathered “by scooping a dish suddenly through the grass.”
“The pace was brisk, as the camp covered as many as 40 miles a day.”
In early June 1834, the camp crossed the Mississippi River into Missouri.On June 7, they reached the Salt River, where a branch of the Church was located. On June 8, the Kirtland contingent was joined by the Michigan Territory group, and, after reorganizing, on June 12 the camp continued the journey toward Clay County.
On June 19, Nathan remembered, the group “encamped on an eminence between two forks of Fishing River, near a Baptist meeting house, built of hewn logs.”As the party prepared the camp for the evening, “several armed men” approached and told the group they would “see hell before morning.” A large group of men—Nathan remembered it as 1,600, but others placed it around 500—waited to attack the camp when the sun had set. No sooner had this threat been made, Nathan recalled, than “a small black cloud appeared in the west and increased in size until shortly the whole blue arch was draped in black, presenting a vengeful appearance, while the rain descended in torrents, the winds bellowed and such vivid flashes of lightning and such peals of thunder are seldom seen and heard.” Hail fell as well, some “as big as tumblers,” breaking off tree limbs and splintering fence rails. The great storm caused the river to become “wonderfully swollen, so that [they] could not advance, neither could [their] enemies reach [them] if they had a mind so to do.”
“Nathan and other members of the camp perceived the storm as evidence of God’s protection”
Nathan and other members of the camp perceived the storm as evidence of God’s protection, as it prevented the group of men from attacking the camp. “The Lord had previously said He would fight the battles of His saints,” Nathan stated, “and it seemed as though the mandate had gone forth from His presence, to ply the artillery of Heaven in defense of His servants.”
Two days after the storm, a group of men representing Ray and Clay Counties entered the camp and told Joseph Smith that the camp’s approach had enraged the majority of western Missourians. Indeed, some newspapers reported that a large contingent of men had gathered in Jackson County, ready to shed blood, in case the camp crossed the Missouri River. The representatives from Ray and Clay Counties told the camp “what course would be policy for [the camp] to pursue in order to secure” the “favor and protection” of western Missourians.Joseph Smith also learned that Missouri governor Daniel Dunklin did not wish to call out the state militia at that time, meaning that there would be no militia guard to accompany the Saints back to their Jackson County lands.
On June 22, Joseph held a council “to determine what steps” the camp should take.During the council, he dictated what is now Doctrine and Covenants 105—a revelation that, according to camp participant Joseph Holbrook, “show[ed] the mind of God concerning the redemption of Zion.” The revelation instructed the camp that the participants were no longer required to redeem Zion at that time, emphasizing that God would fight Zion’s battles and that the elders of the Church needed to be endowed with power before Zion’s redemption could occur. The revelation also reassured participants that the Lord accepted their offering of time and money to Zion’s cause. For Nathan Baldwin, this revelation “was the most acceptable to [him] of anything [he] had ever heard before, the gospel being the exception.” Other members of the camp did not share his view. Nathan recalled that some apostatized from the faith because they were upset at not being allowed to fight.
“The revelation also reassured participants that the Lord accepted their offering”
With the camp no longer required to redeem Zion, it began to disband. The discharge was hastened when an outbreak of cholera hit the camp at the end of June. Thirteen camp members died, as well as two members of the Church who were living in Missouri. “Some of the best men in camp” were killed in the epidemic, Nathan recalled. Nathan and those other participants who did not suffer from the disease were pressed into service to take care of those who did.
On July 1, 1834, Nathan received his official discharge from the camp, as well as his portion of the consecrated money that had not been spent. He was due $1.16 but received only one dollar because they did not have exact change. He traveled back to Kirtland over the next several weeks with only that single dollar to sustain him.
Though he experienced privations and difficulties on the trip, Nathan Baldwin’s time with Zion’s Camp laid a foundation for the rest of his life. He soon had the privilege of participating in the School of the Elders in Kirtland with Joseph Smith and other pupils. He was also among those camp members called to serve in the first Quorum of the Seventy. He would always remember what the Lord had declared in section 105 about the camp’s participants: “I have heard their prayers, and will accept their offering.”