Saints without Halos
Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton
Lyman Wight: Wild Ram of the Mountains
[p.20]The four Mormon missionaries from New York could hardly have hoped for a more receptive audience than Sidney Rigdon’s congregation at Kirtland, Ohio. Hoping for a return to biblical Christianity, they had already formed themselves into a common-stock “Family” patterned along New Testament lines and responded enthusiastically to the missionaries’ proclamation of the restoration of Christ’s true church on earth. Sidney and many of his followers were soon baptized.
Among the number were Lyman and Harriet Benton Wight—baptized on 14 November 1830. Six days later Lyman and one of the missionaries, Oliver Cowdery, went into the woods about half a mile “and placed ourselves behind a large oak tree. After most solemn prayer he [Oliver] intended to ordain me a priest but he ordained me an elder. He afterwards told me he done it in conformity to a vocal voice.”
In a few days Oliver and his companions, Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson, and Peter Whitmer, Jr., resumed their mission to the Indians. In December Sidney and one of his former parishioners, Edward Partridge, traveled to Fayette, New York, to meet Joseph Smith. There the Prophet received a revelation for each of them, converted and baptized Edward, and received [p.21]another revelation commanding the Saints to gather at Kirtland in the spring. In January Sidney and Edward returned to Kirtland with Joseph Smith, where the prophet received a revelation appointing Edward the first bishop of the Church.
The Colesville and other New York Saints began to arrive in May 1831, and in June a conference was held at which, according to the prophet’s history, “the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood was manifested and conferred for the first time upon several of the Elders.” Lyman Wight, who was present, recorded, “I saw the Melchisidek Priesthood introduced into the Church of Jesus Christ as anciently; whereunto I was ordained under the hands of Joseph Smith and I then ordained Joseph and Sidney, and sixteen others such as he chose unto the same priesthood.” Among the sixteen others Lyman “ordained to the high Priesthood” were Joseph Smith, Sr., Parley P. Pratt, Thomas B. Marsh, Edward Partridge, Martin Harris, and John Whitmer.
The following day the prophet received a revelation calling Lyman Wight and many others to move to Missouri. Lyman was warned that “Satan desireth to sift him as chaff” but was also promised, “he that is faithful shall be made ruler over many things” (D&C 52:7, 11-12). Lyman left almost immediately; Harriet and their three children joined him in September.
In 1832 he served a five-month proselyting mission to Cincinnati, where he built up a branch of more than one hundred Saints, many of whom returned to Missouri with him.
The influx of large numbers of Mormons disturbed the older settlers. They believed the Mormons were “deluded fanatics” and “the very dregs of … society.” Mormon revelations were “blasphemous;” their anti-slavery attitude threatened the peace and security of the slave-holders; and, “they declare openly that their God hath given them this country of land, and that sooner or later they must and will have possession of our lands for an inheritance.” Fear was so deep and wisdespread that in July several hundred Jackson County residents signed a document expressing their intention “to rid our society, ‘peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must,'” of the Mormons. On July 20 they demanded The Evening and [p.22]the Morning Star be discontinued; and when the Saints refused, a mob destroyed the press and nearly all of the Book of Commandments which was being printed. Bishop Partridge and others were tarred and feathered. When the mob reassembled three days later threatening further violence, the Mormon leaders, including Oliver Cowdery, Edward Partridge, W. W. Phelps, and Lyman Wight, promised to leave Jackson County by the first of January 1834, to encourage the other Saints to do likewise, and to cease publication of the Star.
In September Lyman and nine others were appointed “to watch over the ten branches of the Church in Zion.” In early November word spread through the Mormon settlements that a mob was gathering to storm the jail at Independence, where several Mormons were being held. Lyman, who at the age of seventeen had fought in the War of 1812, quickly assembled a hundred Saints and hurried toward the jail. A mile west of Independence, he was met by Colonel Pitcher of the Missouri militia who demanded their arms. Lyman “agreed that the Church would give up their arms provided the said Colonel Pitcher would take the arms from the mob. To this the Colonel cheerfully agreed.” Unfortunately, the mob was not disarmed. The very next day, according to Lyman, they went “from house to house in gangs of from sixty to seventy in number, threatening the lives of women and children if they did not leave [Missouri] forthwith.”
The Missouri River was soon lined with twelve hundred Saints fleeing Jackson County. Lyman reported seeing “one hundred and ninety women and children drive thirty miles across the prairie … with three decrepit men only in their company; the ground was thinly crusted with sleet, and I could easily follow on their trail by the blood that flowed from their lacerated feet on the stubble of the burnt prairie.”
The Saints found refuge in Clay County, and on the first of January 1834 held a conference with Bishop Edward Partridge presiding. Lyman Wight and Parley P. Pratt were delegated to see Joseph Smith in Kirtland and obtain his advice. When Lyman and Parley arrived at Joseph’s home in late February, they reported to him and the newly organized high council that [p.23]the Saints were “comfortable” in Clay County, “but the idea of their being driven away from the land of Zion pained their very souls, and they desired of God, by earnest prayer, to return.”
Joseph received a revelation which declared that the Saints would “begin to prevail against [their] enemies from this very hour. And by hearkening to observe all the words which I, the Lord their God, shall speak unto them, they shall never cease to prevail until the kingdoms of the world are subdued under my feet, and the earth is given unto the saints, to possess it forever and ever.” Lyman and Parley were commanded not to return home until they had raised a company of men to “redeem Zion.” Zion’s Camp, with the cooperation of state authorities, was to recover the land in Jackson and provide security for the Saints. Joseph himself would lead the camp. Two days later Joseph and others left to enlist volunteers among the Saints. Lyman and Sidney Rigdon joined them a couple of weeks later in New York.
On the first of May the volunteer army began its trek across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. In June Hyrum Smith and Lyman joined the camp with 18 volunteers from Michigan, bringing the total to 205, including 10 women, who served as cooks and washerwomen. Lyman was elected general and made second in command to Joseph.
Soon after they arrived in Missouri, the governor withdrew his pledge of cooperation, and on June 22 Joseph received a revelation that Zion would not be redeemed yet due to the failure of the Church to observe the law of consecration and to support the camp sufficiently.
Included in the revelation was the statement that “I will soften the hearts of the people, as I did the heart of Pharaoh, from time to time, until my servant Baurak Ale [Joseph Smith, Jun.] and Baneemy, whom I have appointed, shall have time to gather up the strength of my house, and to have sent wise men, to fulfill that which I have commanded concerning the purchasing of all the lands in Jackson County that can be purchased … for it is my will that these lands should be purchased; and…that my saints should possess them according to the laws of consecration which I have given [p.24]them.” According to a letter Lyman Wight later wrote to Wilford Woodruff, Joseph Smith had “blessed and ordained” him “to the office of Baneemy” in Kirtland. The identification of “Baneemy” as “mine elders” was inserted by Orson Pratt in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, when the claims of Lyman Wight no longer seemed relevant. Originally the term appears to have been applied uniquely to Lyman Wight. Lyman believed he had received a specific calling to help lead the Saints to Jackson County at some later date.
In late June a cholera epidemic took several lives. The Saints gathered at Lyman’s home near Liberty where Joseph told them that “if they would humble themselves before the Lord and covenant to keep His commandments and obey my counsel, the plague should be stayed from that hour, and there should not be another case of the cholera among them. The brethren covenanted to that effect with uplifted hands, and the plague was stayed.”
The next day the leaders again met at Lyman’s home where Joseph organized a high council with David Whitmer as president, and W. W. Phelps and John Whitmer as assistant presidents. Lyman Wight, Thomas B. Marsh, and Parley P. and Orson Pratt were among the twelve councilors. Lyman and the other members of Zion’s Camp had been tried, tested, and found worthy of important responsibilities.
In the summer of 1834 Lyman contracted to build a large brick house for a local resident. Wilford Woodruff was among those who helped Lyman make the 100,000 bricks needed.
In the fall of 1835 Lyman returned to Kirtland, where he attended the School of the Prophets for two and a half months and received his washings arid anointings prior to the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. He also received a patriarchal blessing from Joseph Smith, Sr., which warned him that Satan would “try to lift thee up in pride and make thee think much of thy self for thy eloquence;” but he was also promised that if he remained faithful he would have power to prevail; he would call thousands into the fold and would live to see “many people visited with the wrath and indignation of the most High, because they reject the fullness of the gospel.”
[p.25]Lyman’s home was situated at the foot of a hill which in May 1838, the Prophet named” ‘Tower Hill’ … in consequence of the remains of an old Nephite altar or tower that stood there.” Nearby Spring Hill he renamed Adam-ondi-Ahman because “it is the place where Adam shall come to visit his people.” Lyman’s home served as headquarters for the surveying teams and early settlers of Adam-ondi-Ahman. When a stake was organized, Joseph called Lyman to be President John Smith’s second counselor.
As Latter-day Saints began arriving in large numbers, the old-time settlers became apprehensive and tensions mounted. In mid-October Mormon homes at Adam-ondi-Ahman and elsewhere in Daviess County were burned. As a colonel in the Missouri militia, Lyman immediately raised a force to disperse the mob. Members of the mob claimed that Lyman was leading a “Danite” band that burned their homes and committed other depredations, but Lyman insisted the Missourians had burned their own cabins in order to discredit the Saints.
On October 27 Governor Boggs ordered the Missouri militia to treat the Mormons as “enemies” who “must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary for the public good.” Three days later, two hundred militiamen attacked the tiny Mormon settlement of Haun’s Mill and massacred seventeen inhabitants. The next day, the militia advanced on Far West and demanded the Saints surrender. On the pretext of negotiating a peaceful settlement, Colonel George Hinckle lured Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Parley P. Pratt, and George W. Robinson into the militia’s camp and promptly arrested them. The following day Hyrum Smith and Amasa Lyman were taken prisoner. When one of the militia’s generals tried to induce Lyman to testify against Joseph, he reportedly replied, “You are entirely mistaken. … Joseph Smith … is as good a friend as you have got. Had it not been for him, you would have been in hell long ago, for I should have sent you there, by cutting your throat, and no other man but Joseph Smith could have prevented me, and you may thank him for your life. And now, if you will give me the boys I brought from Diahman yesterday, I will whip [p.26]your whole army.” Informed that he would be shot at 8 A.M., Lyman declared, “Shoot and be damned.”
Fortunately, General Alexander Doniphan indignantly refused to carry out the execution order, calling it “cold-blooded murder.” Instead, the prisoners were taken to Richmond where they were tried on charges of high treason, murder, burglary, arson, robbery, and larceny. At the end of November Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Alexander McRae, and Caleb Baldwin were remanded to the jail at Liberty.
For four and a half months Lyman and the others languished in their twenty-two-foot-square prison. The upper room was dimly lit by two small windows while the dungeon had no light at all. The food was “so filthy we could not eat it until we were driven to it by hunger.” The inhumane conditions seemed to bond Lyman to Joseph Smith. He was one of the five who signed the inspiring letters later canonized as Sections 121-123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. He was also present when Joseph Smith III was brought to the jail and the Prophet blessed his six-year-old son. Finally, the case became such an embarrassment to the state that the prisoners were allowed to escape in April.
When Lyman arrived in Illinois, he settled his family temporarily in Nauvoo, served a mission to the East, and then in 1839 moved to Augusta, Iowa, where he served as a counselor to stake president John Smith.
At the April 1841 conference, Sidney Rigdon nominated Lyman to fill the vacancy in the Council of the Twelve caused by the death of Elder David W. Patten. Nine of the Twelve were in England at the time and did not learn of the appointment until they returned in the summer. In the meantime, Lyman was assigned to “travel and collect funds” for the Nauvoo Temple.
He was also appointed a member of the three-man committee responsible for building the Nauvoo House. The revelation calling him to the position promised that the Lord would “bear him as on eagles” wings; and he shall beget glory and honor to himself and unto my name. That when he shall [p.27]finish his work I may receive him unto myself.” Lyman returned to his activities with renewed energy. In 1842 he rebaptized two hundred Kirtland Saints and brought many to Nauvoo.
In 1843 he was appointed to head a Wisconsin logging operation that would provide lumber for the temple and Nauvoo House. While he was there, Joseph and the Twelve considered alternative sites to Nauvoo for settlement. Lyman and George Miller recommended Texas. Joseph authorized Lyman to lead a company to Texas; but before the expedition could be arranged, he and other members of the new Council of Fifty were sent east to campaign for Joseph Smith as president of the United States.
Lyman, Brigham Young, and Heber C. Kimball campaigned in Saint Louis, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. William Smith, Lyman, and Heber petitioned government leaders in Washington, D.C., for remuneration of the Church’s losses in Missouri, and visited Wilmington, Delaware, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, William Smith’s home.
In Philadelphia Lyman found nearly two hundred Saints, “out of which number many have commenced sickening, and were growing faint at the many false reports in circulation, fearing that the Prophet had fallen and the Twelve were in transgression. … We shall call on them to know whether they intend to gather with the living and sustain the cause of God … or die in Philadelphia. If they should choose the latter, we shall attend to the funeral ceremonies, and leave them to rest with the dead, and we will go our way among the living.” Two days later the Philadelphia branch voted to sustain the First Presidency and the Twelve, as did the Wilmington conference, which also voted to “go whithersoever the Presidency, Patriarch and Twelve want, should it be to Oregon, Texas, or California, or any other place.”
Lyman was in Baltimore when he heard the news that Joseph and Hyrum had been murdered. He met Brigham and Heber in Boston; they were joined in Albany by Orson Hyde, Orson Pratt, and Wilford Woodruff. Lyman hurried on to Nauvoo, arriving on July 31, a few days ahead of his brethren.
[p.28]On Wednesday, August 7, Lyman and seven other apostles met at John Taylor’s house in Nauvoo, where they found him recovering from the wounds he had received at Carthage Jail. Later that afternoon Sidney Rigdon called upon a group of leaders to accept himself as “guardian” of the Church, but they sustained Brigham Young’s declaration that the Twelve should lead the Church. The procedure was repeated the next day at a general meeting of the Church membership.
Lyman addressed the Saints on Sunday about taking a company “into the wilderness.” On Monday the Twelve voted “that Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and Willard Richards … manage the general affairs of the Church; that Lyman Wight go to Texas as he chooses, with his company.” But the following Sunday, August 18, Brigham Young condemned the “disposition in the sheep to scatter, now the shepherd is taken away …. There is no man who has any right to lead away one soul out of this city by the consent of the Twelve, except Lyman Wight and George Miller, they have had the privilege of taking the ‘Pine Company’ where they pleased, but not another soul has the consent of the Twelve to go with them. … I tell you in the name of Jesus Christ that if Lyman Wight and George Miller take a course contrary to our counsel and will not act in concert with us, they will be damned and go to destruction.”
On August 24 the Twelve counseled Lyman to “go north instead of going south.” He returned to Wisconsin and prepared his camp for the move to Texas. He wrote relatives that he wanted to go to a land that would never be “defiled by Gentile customs and practices.”
Lyman’s camp spent the winter in tents. When spring arrived, they started down the Mississippi River in four homemade boats. Impoverished, they were forced to sell some of their clothes, including Lyman’s only coat, to buy food. In April 1845 the Twelve wrote, counseling them “in the name of the Lord … not to go west at present. We desire, dear brethren, that you should take hold with us and help us to accomplish the building of the Lord’s houses. Come brethren, be one with us, and let us be agreed in all of our exertions to roll on the [p.29]great wheel of the kingdom.” But Lyman would not abandon his dream, and continued on through Iowa and Kansas. In August W.W. Phelps wrote a newspaper article that identified Brigham Young as “The Lion of the Lord” and—just as appropriately—Lyman Wight as “The Wild Ram of the Mountains.”
On November 10 Lyman and his hundred and fifty followers crossed the Red River into Texas, first settling in the ruins of old Fort Johnson (Georgetown). In the spring of 1846 they moved south to Austin, but it was “settling fast,” Lyman’s son recalled, “and it was soon feared that we would be crowded and that, too, by slave holders.” So in 1847 the colony moved eighty miles west to a site on the Pedernales River where they began a communitarian settlement called Zodiac. The following year they were joined by George Miller and a few others.
Lyman published a lengthy justification of his independent course entitled An Address by way of an Abridged Account and Journal of My Life from February 1844 up to April 1848, emphasizing his ordination “from him who then stood, and who now stands at the head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” and insisting he had not forfeited his right “to a seat with the Twelve, neither with the Grand Council [Council of Fifty].” He longed for the day that God would call for the building of the temple in Zion, Jackson County, Missouri, for then the “Grand Council of heaven” would launch “a mighty mission in the earth,” and bring forth “their thousands and their tens of thousands to the help of Zion.”
Brigham Young sent representatives to persuade Lyman to come to Salt Lake City. But, they reported, he told them that “nobody under the light of heavens except Joseph Smith or [Patriarch] John Smith, the president of the Fifty, could call him from Texas to Salt Lake City, and that he had as much authority to call one of the Twelve, or rather Eleven, to Texas, as they had to call him to Salt Lake City.”
In December 1848 Lyman was disfellowshipped and later excommunicated. His followers built a “temple” at Zodiac and performed foot washings, body washings, anointings, and baptisms for the dead. They practiced a form of consecration [p.30]and stewardship, and plural marriage. Later they recognized William Smith (Joseph’s younger brother) as president of the Church with Lyman as his counselor until Joseph Smith III became leader of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
When a flood washed out the mill dam, the colony moved to Hamilton’s Creek, then to the Medina River, and finally, to Mountain Valley (1854). Defections steadily reduced the colony’s numbers. In 1858 Lyman gathered the straggling remnant of his colony and started for Jackson County, but died in central Texas.
Lyman Wight’s movement quickly collapsed. Mormonism in the West was following pragmatic leaders who were determined to build up Zion in the Rocky Mountains while scattered Saints in Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri were starting to band together in what became the eminently respectable but scarcely apocalyptic Reorganization. Mormonism’s wild ram was fortunate in dying when he did, true to his own guiding vision, his eyes fixed on the alabaster walls of the New Jerusalem.