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Kirtland through the Eyes of the John and Elsa Johnson Family

by Curtis Ashton

John Johnson Inn

Joseph Smith lived in Ohio from 1831 to 1838. Those seven years were full of progress and blessings for the newly established Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Dozens of missionaries shared the message of the restored gospel, and Church membership grew to include thousands of members. Faithful Saints consecrated their properties to care for the poor and to build up the Church. New revelations were received and published as the Doctrine and Covenants. Some revelations called for service in priesthood offices and quorums in the first stake of Zion, and men were called to fill those positions. Many other Saints gave their time and talents to build a temple, where Church members received glorious spiritual gifts.

These years were also full of challenges for the young Church: the first anti-Mormon book was published, and violence against Mormons in Ohio and Missouri shook the faith of many Saints. Then came an economic downturn that many thought a true prophet should have foreseen and avoided. At a time when many people were joining the Church, many others were choosing to separate themselves from Joseph Smith and his teachings.

Looking back on these seven years, it can be tempting to separate apostates and faithful Saints into opposing, even hostile categories. The story of the John and Elsa Johnson family provides a more complete picture of the way people responded to challenges to their faith, and it demonstrates how family members supported each other through those challenges.

Conversion and Commitment

Nineteen-year-old Lyman was the first of the Johnson family to listen to the gospel message and join the Church. He was baptized in February 1831. Lyman’s enthusiasm after his conversion prompted his parents to study the Book of Mormon. John and Elsa Johnson traveled the 30 miles (48 km) from their home in Hiram, Ohio, to Kirtland to visit with Joseph Smith in person. After discussion and a miraculous healing of Elsa’s arm, both parents believed and were baptized in March 1831. Eventually, as many as 8 of their 10 children became baptized members of the Church.1

John and Elsa Johnson’s 10 children as of September 1831
 
Name Age Residence and Family 
Alice (Elsa) 31 Married to Oliver Olney, mother of six children
Fanny 28 Married to Jason Ryder, mother of four children
John Jr. 26 Married to Eliza Ann Marcy, no children
Luke Samuel 23 Unmarried, at home
Olmstead G. 21 Unmarried, living outside of Hiram
Lyman Eugene 19 Unmarried, at home
Emily Hannah 18 Unmarried, at home
Marinda Nancy 16 Unmarried, at home
Mary Beal 13 At home
Justin Jacob 10 At home

The Johnsons who joined the Church became generous supporters of the Prophet. John and Elsa opened their home in Hiram to the Smith family and Joseph’s scribes from September 1831 to September 1832. Their home became a place of revelation and prophetic leadership.

The Johnson home was a place of revelation from 1831 to 1832.

Father Johnson served on the Kirtland stake high council. He was selected to help manage the Church’s financial assets (see D&C 96:6–9). He and his wife sold their large, prosperous farm in Hiram and turned much of the proceeds over to the Church. Some of the money supported the Missouri expedition of Zion’s Camp—a group that included Luke and Lyman Johnson as well as Marinda Johnson’s future husband, Orson Hyde. These three men were later called to serve together in the first Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation.

Falling Away

In 1837 economic optimism led a “spirit of speculation” to overtake Kirtland and the surrounding area.2 Land prices rose at astonishing rates, and buying and selling on credit was rampant. To increase the supply of cash in the community, pay off debts, and curb land speculation, Church leaders followed a common practice of the time and established their own bank, known as the Kirtland Safety Society. John Johnson Sr. invested heavily in the new bank, purchasing 3,000 shares. In the end, the Johnson family owned more of the bank than anyone outside of Joseph Smith’s family.

Then came a national banking crisis. John Johnson Sr. lost faith in the Kirtland Safety Society and panicked. In May 1837, he redeemed his stock shares for cash and began to sell all the Church property remaining in his hands. While he never publicly identified his reasons for leaving the Church, the bank crisis began a major shift in his loyalty, as it did for many others in the Church.

The Johnson Inn became Church property in 1833 and was given to John Johnson Sr. as a stewardship. John Johnson Jr. bought the property from his father in 1837. The inn burned down in the early 1900s and was reconstructed in 2002.

At a conference on September 3, 1837, several Church leaders were removed from their positions because of their public opposition to Joseph Smith and Church policies. John Sr., Luke, and Lyman Johnson were among them. The two former Apostles were later excommunicated at a conference in Far West, Missouri. John, Elsa, and another son, John Jr., had withdrawn from Church participation, making five Johnsons who were no longer active members of the Church by the summer of 1838.3

Diverging Paths

These five family members were not alone. One historian estimated that 10 to 15 percent of the Kirtland Saints withdrew from the Church between November 1837 and June 1838.4 But the story of apostasy is not the full story of this family or of the other Kirtland Saints.   

John Johnson Sr. remained in Kirtland until his death in 1843. He and Elsa lived near their son John Jr. and their daughter Emily Johnson Quinn. Throughout this time, Emily Quinn continued to worship with other Latter-day Saints still living in Kirtland.5 When she died in 1855, she was buried near her father and her younger sister Mary Beal Johnson.6 After Emily’s death, her mother and brothers left Kirtland for Iowa.

John Johnson is buried near his daughters Mary Beal Johnson and Emily Johnson Quinn in the Kirtland North Cemetery. John’s wife, Elsa, is buried in Iowa, not far from her sons John Jr. and Justin Johnson.

In 1846 Luke Johnson requested rebaptism and rejoined the main body of Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. There he found his sister Marinda still actively involved in Church affairs. He also found the gravesite of his oldest sister, Elsa Johnson Olney, who had died as a faithful Latter-day Saint five years earlier.7 Luke Johnson and Marinda Hyde left Illinois that season, planning to settle in the Rocky Mountains with the Saints. When Luke died at his sister’s Salt Lake City home in 1861, Brigham Young stated, “Since his return to the Church he has lived . . . the truth to the best of his ability, and died in the faith.”8

Lyman Johnson moved to Keokuk, Iowa, across the Mississippi River from Nauvoo, Illinois. He continued his associations with Church members, but he was never able to regain his zeal for the gospel. Brigham Young recalled that Lyman later expressed his anguish over his loss of the Spirit. “I would give anything,” Lyman said. “I would suffer my right hand to be cut off, if I could believe it again. Then I was full of joy and gladness. . . . But now it is darkness, pain, sorrow, misery in the extreme. I have never since seen a happy moment.”9

Landmarks on the Landscape

In 1876, 60-year-old Marinda Johnson Hyde of Salt Lake City, Utah, visited her 73-year-old sister Fanny Johnson Ryder. The Ryders had never joined the Latter-day Saints and had remained in Hiram, Ohio. Since the Ryders and the Johnsons had been neighbors, Marinda would have seen her childhood home during her visit, where her parents had supported a prophet in his divine calling. Thirty miles away in Kirtland, the old Johnson Inn also still stood, and not far away, in the shadow of the Kirtland Temple, were the graves of her father and two sisters.

Today the Johnson home in Hiram, the headstones in the Kirtland North Cemetery, and a replica of the Johnson Inn all stand as reminders of this family—one of many families—who worked with Joseph Smith to establish a stake of Zion in Ohio. And they are reminders of the faith and sacrifice that such work demands.

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Footnotes

[1] Records of baptisms have not always survived from the early days of the Church, so some baptisms in the Johnson family are not confirmed. For example, Fanny and her husband, Jason Ryder, both had siblings who joined the Church, so it is possible that they were also baptized but left the Church shortly thereafter. Mary and Justin, as younger children in the home, may have not been baptized until later. Olmstead G. Johnson met Joseph Smith briefly in 1832 while on a visit home. As Olmstead was making plans to settle in Texas, Joseph Smith recalled, “I told him if he did not obey the gospel, the spirit he was of would lead him to destruction, and when he went away, he would never return or see his father again” (“History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” 204–205, josephsmithpapers.org). It is unlikely he was ever baptized. Olmstead died suddenly in Virginia on February 24, 1834, at the age of 24.

[2] Luke Johnson, “History of Luke Johnson,” Millennial Star, Jan. 7, 1865, 6.

[3] Although John and Elsa’s son John Johnson Jr. chose early on not to stay an active member (see “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1,” 205), it seems he remained friendly toward his Latter-day Saint neighbors (see Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations [Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009], 339). When his father was given stewardship over the Johnson Inn in Kirtland, John Jr. managed the business (see Staker, Hearken, O Ye People, 232).

[4] See Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830–1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 328; see also Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual, 2nd ed. (Church Educational System manual, 2003), 177.

[5] The Kirtland Stake was dissolved in May 1841 to encourage Church members to gather to Nauvoo (see “Letter to the Saints Abroad, 24 May 1841,” in Times and Seasons, June 1, 1841, 2:434; josephsmithpapers.org). However, a branch of the Church continued to meet in Kirtland until at least 1847 (see Reuben McBride letter to Brigham Young, Nov. 1, 1847, Brigham Young Office Files, Church History Library, Salt Lake City). As late as 1854, some Church members from Kirtland traveled to Utah (see “Benjamin Thomas Mitchell company (1854),” Mormon Pioneer Overland Travel database, accessed Mar. 7, 2017, history.lds.org).

[6] When the Smith family moved from the Johnson home to Kirtland, 14-year-old Mary Beal Johnson went with them to help Emma Smith care for her young children. Six months later, young Mary suddenly became ill and died on March 30, 1833.

[7] Elsa Johnson Olney died in Nauvoo on July 16, 1841. Sometime later, her daughter Caroline Olney went to live with her aunt Fanny Ryder in Hiram. Three other children went to live with John Johnson Jr. and his wife, Eliza, in Kirtland.

[8] “History of Brigham Young,” Dec. 1861, in Historian’s Office History of the Church, 1839–circa 1882, 521–22, Church History Library, Salt Lake City.

[9] Lyman Johnson, quoted in Brigham Young, “Discourse,” Deseret News, Aug. 15, 1877, 2.