Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Joseph Knight: Friend to the Prophet
[p.5]In 1811 thirty-nine-year-old Joseph Knight, his wife Polly, and their seven children moved to Colesville, New York, a small rural community on the east bank of the Susquehanna River. They cleared the land, planted an apple orchard, and erected a gristmill. By 1826 the Knights were operating four farms, the area’s principal gristmill, and two mills for carding wool.
In connection with these enterprises, Joseph Knight often employed itinerant workers on a seasonal basis. In 1826 Knight’s partner in the grain business, Josiah Stowel, recommended Joseph Smith, Jr., from Manchester in western New York. Stowel had engaged the twenty-year-old youth to dig for an old Spanish mine, rumored to be not far from Stowel’s farm. But after a month of fruitless effort, Joseph had suggested that Stowel give up the hunt and Stowel, conceding the point but reluctant to put Joseph out of a job, referred the young man to Knight.
Joseph proved to be a good worker. Knight later said that he was “the best hand he ever hired.” Also working on the Knight farm were Joseph Knight’s sons Newel and Joseph, Jr., ages twenty-five and eighteen, respectively. Joseph roomed with Newel and Joseph, and they became good friends. So close was [p.6]the relationship between Joseph Smith and the Knight family, that in November 1826 he told them of a sacred event he had experienced at his father’s farm: One night in 1823, he had prayed earnestly for forgiveness and sought to know the will of the Lord regarding himself. In the midst of his prayer, he was suddenly visited by a heavenly messenger who introduced himself as Moroni. He told Joseph that ancient records were hidden in a nearby hill. If Joseph remained faithful, the angel said, and if he succeeded in expunging every thought of monetary gain, he would be privileged to translate the records and bring them to the attention of the world. Moroni would visit Joseph once a year for four years. Joseph reported that three of these visits had already occurred, and the last visit would take place on the next September 22.
By the time the promised day arrived, Josiah Stowel and Joseph Knight had joined the Smith family in Manchester. Unfortunately, word of the hidden plates had leaked out, and some nearby residents hoped to find them first, or steal them later from Joseph Smith.
Arising early on the morning of September 22, Joseph Knight noticed that his horse and wagon were gone. Joseph and Emma, his bride of nine months, had borrowed it to go to the hill because no one would recognize it. Soon the young couple returned. Joseph
turned out the Horse. All Come into the house to Brackfist But no thing said about where they had Bin. After Brackfist Joseph Cald me in to the other Room and he sit his foot on the Bed and leaned his head on his hand and says, well I am Dissopented. Well, say I, I am sorrey. Well, says he, I am grateley Dissopnted. It is ten times Better then I expected. Then he went on to tell the length and width and thickness of the plates and, said he, they appear to be gold. But he seamed to think more of the glasses or the urim and thummim than he Did of the plates for says he, I can see anything. They are Marvelous.
During the ensuing months, Joseph Knight followed the translation of the Book of Mormon with keen interest. He offered moral support and provisions, furnishing a pair of [p.7]shoes, some money, writing paper, a barrel of mackerel, several barrels of grain, “taters,” and a pound of tea.
In late March 1830, Joseph Knight drove Joseph to Manchester, New York, to pick up some copies of the Book of Mormon, which had just come off the press. On the way, the Prophet told him that a church must be organized, and a few days later Knight witnessed one of the most moving events of early Mormonism, the baptism of Martin Harris and Joseph Smith, Sr.
They found a place in a lot a small stream ran thro’ and they ware Baptized in the Evening Because of persecution…. Joseph was fild with the spirrit to a grate Degree to see his Father and Mr Harris that he Bin with so much he Bust out with greaf and Joy and seamed as tho the world Could not hold him. He went out into the lot and appeared to want to git out of site of every Body and would sob and Crie and seamed to Be so full that he Could not live. Oliver and I went after him and Came to him and after a while he Came in But he was the most wrot upon that I ever saw any man. But his Joy seemed to be full. I think he saw the grate work he had Begun and was Desirus to Carry it out.
Joseph Knight thought about being baptized at the same time, “but I had not red the Book of Morman and I wanted to examin a little more I Being a Restorationar and had not examined so much as I wanted to. But I should a felt Better if I had a gone forward.”
Five days later, however, Joseph Knight and son Newel, along with eighteen of their Colesville neighbors, attended the meeting in Fayette where the Church of Christ was organized.
Joseph visited the Knights again in June. This time they were ready to be baptized. A dam was constructed across a nearby stream on Saturday afternoon, but during the night hostile neighbors destroyed it. Oliver Cowdery preached the Sunday sermon and, according to the Prophet’s history, “others of us bore testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon, the doctrine of repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, and laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost.” They repaired the dam and on Monday, Oliver Cowdery baptized thirteen persons, including Joseph’s wife Emma, and Joseph and Polly Knight.
[p. 8]Before the baptismal service concluded, a mob began to gather. The Saints withdrew to the Knight home, but the mob followed, surrounding the house. When they went to Newel Knight’s house, the mob continued to harass them. “We were obliged to answer them various unprofitable questions,” Joseph Smith reported, “and bear with insults and threatenings without number.” As evening approached, other Saints began to arrive for a meeting during which the newly baptized members would be confirmed. Before the service could commence, however, a constable entered the house and arrested Joseph Smith “on the charge of being a disorderly person, of setting the country in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon, etc.”
Joseph Knight employed two lawyers who successfully defended Joseph in the South Bainbridge court the following day. Within an hour of his release, however, Joseph was arrested again—this time on a warrant from neighboring Broome County. Again the two lawyers succeeded in clearing him, although it was after 2:00 A.M. when the defendant was finally released.
Returning with the prophet, Joseph Knight found that neighbors had vandalized his property. Under cover of darkness, they had overturned wagons and piled wood on them, sunk other wagons in water, propped rails against the doors, and sunk chains in the millstream. Nevertheless, Joseph Knight, Jr. reported that when the prophet arrived, “the house was filled with the Holy Ghost which rested on us It was the greatest time I ever saw.”
Colesville became the site of the first branch of the Church. Joseph Knight and his family attended the first Church conferences in June and October 1830. In the fall, Joseph Smith called his brother Hyrum to serve as the Colesville branch president. Hyrum lived for a time with Newel Knight, preaching and baptizing throughout the Susquehanna Valley. In December Orson Pratt, a newly ordained elder from Canaan, New York, was sent on his first mission to labor with Hyrum and Newel in the Colesville area. Among those they baptized was Martin Harris’s brother Emer. Emer Harris was [p.9]the great-grandfather of Franklin Harris, president of Brigham Young University (1921-1945) and of Utah State University (1945-1950); he was also the great-great-grandfather of Dallin Oaks, president of Brigham Young University (1971-1980).
At the third conference of the Church, held in Fayette, New York, on 2 January 1831, Joseph Smith announced a revelation which declared that all members of the Church—now numbering nearly two hundred—should move to Kirtland in northeastern Ohio. Joseph Knight and the other Colesville members decided to move as a group. They sold their homes, loaded their belongings into three baggage wagons, climbed aboard eleven ox-drawn passenger wagons, and set out for Ohio. At Ithaca, New York, they boarded canal boats and traveled through Cayuga Lake into the Erie Canal. Arriving at Buffalo on 1 May 1831, they were detained by a cold wind which blew ice into the harbor. The party was soon joined by eighty more Church members from Fayette and Waterloo, New York, traveling under the direction of Joseph Smith’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith. Together they resumed their journey on an excursion boat to Fairport, Ohio, where they were met by the Prophet Joseph and other Church leaders.
The Colesville group settled sixteen miles northeast of Kirtland on a thousand-acre farm donated by Leman Copley. Joseph Knight and the others consecrated their property, and the bishop assigned stewardships of land, livestock, implements, and other property according to family needs. Those who earned a surplus were asked to consecrate it to the bishop’s storehouse to provide for those whose needs exceeded their own resources and to finance community enterprises.
After two months, however, Copley apostatized and sued for the return of his land. The courts, favoring individual property rights, supported Copley’s demand, and the Colesville Saints were forced to move.
In twenty-four wagons they traveled to western Missouri, near present-day Independence. As one in the party wrote, “People all along the road stared at us as they would at a circus or a caravan…. We most truly were a band of pilgrims started out to seek a better country.”
[p.10]Polly Knight’s health had been failing for some time, but according to Newel, “she would not consent to stop traveling; her only, or her greatest desire was to set her feet upon the land of Zion, and to have her body interred in that land.”
The Colesville branch arrived in Jackson County on 25 July 1831 and began cooperatively to sow grain and build fences and houses. Polly died in just a few days, the first Latter-day Saint to die in Missouri. The Prophet preached her funeral sermon.
Joseph Knight and his son Newel slept in a hen coop while their homes were built, and Newel served as branch president. The Prophet was so impressed with the spirit of unity and service among the Colesville Saints that in 1832 he called them together “and sealed them up to eternal life.”
But the same qualities of industry, unity and cooperation which earned them the blessing of the Prophet, aroused the hostility of the “old settler” Missourians. On 1 December 1833 the Mormon settlers were expelled from their homes and farms. Through the winter the Colesville branch huddled together on the Missouri bottom lands of Clay County. Not until 1836, when they were forced farther north to Caldwell County, did the Colesville branch suspend its practice of the Law of Consecration and Order of Stewardships.
Eventually the Knights moved with the rest of the Saints to Illinois, where they helped build Nauvoo, only to leave it a few years later in the great exodus to the Salt Lake Valley. Joseph and Newel Knight died in Winter Quarters during the winter of 1846-1847. Newel’s son Jesse, an important Utah entrepreneur, became one of the Church’s most noted benefactors. He employed hundreds of Saints, and his contributions helped save Brigham Young University and the Church itself from financial ruin in the 1890s.
Joseph Smith indicated the great respect he had for Joseph Knight and his family in an 1842 entry made in the Book of the Law of the Lord: “My aged and beloved brother, Joseph Knight, Sen., … was among the … first to administer to my necessities while I was laboring in the commencement of the bringing forth of the work of the Lord…. For fifteen years he [p.11]has been faithful and true, and even-handed and exemplary, and virtuous and kind … He is a righteous man … [As] a faithful man in Israel … his name shall never be forgotten.” As for his sons, Newel and Joseph, Jr., the Prophet added, “I record [their names] in the Book of the Law of the Lord with unspeakable delight, for they are my friends.”