Thomas B. Marsh’s Story: A More Accurate Version of Why He Left the Church

April 22, 2007
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In Richard Dutcher’s comments last week about leaving the LDS Church, he mentioned the traditional legend we hear in the church — that Thomas B. Marsh left over a milk dispute between his wife and some else’s.

In my Elder’s Quorum lesson for today, I was asked to teach on Elder Bednar’s recent talk entitled, “And Nothing Shall Offend Them.” (Incidentally, some of you may find it interesting to note that Elder Bednar perpetuates the same myth in this talk as well.)

Anyway, this made me want to read more on Brother Marsh, so I went to his Wikipedia article, and got a pretty good explanation on the events leading to his disaffection. I thought you might enjoy reading it, so here is the part about his falling away:

In April of 1838, Church President Joseph Smith and his first counselor Sidney Rigdon moved to Far West, which became the new church headquarters. Although disfellowshipped, David and John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, W.W. Phelps and other former leaders (who were known as the “dissenters”) continued to live in the County. By early June, some of the more zealous Mormons, led by Sampson Avard, formed a society which came to be known as the “Danites.” According to Marsh, these men swore oaths to “support the heads of the church in all things that they say or do, whether right or wrong” (Document, p. 57). According to Reed Peck, two of these Danites, Jared Carter and Dimick B. Huntington, proposed at a meeting that the society should kill the dissenters. Marsh and fellow moderate, John Corrill, spoke vigorously against the motion (Peck, pp. 22-23). On the following Sunday, however, Sidney Rigdon issued his “Salt Sermon” in which he likened the dissenters to salt that had lost its savor and was “good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men” (Van Wagoner, p. 218). Within a week the dissenters had fled the county.

Although he may have been concerned about these events, Marsh remained in the church until late October. According to his sworn testimony, Marsh claimed that a Mormon invasion of Daviess County and the subsequent looting and burning of non-Mormon settlements, including Gallatin, the county seat, were the acts that caused him to leave. Marsh stated:

“A company of about eighty of the Mormons, commanded by a man fictitiously named Captain Fearnot [David W. Patten], marched to Gallatin. They returned and said they had run off from Gallatin twenty or thirty men and had taken Gallatin, had taken one prisoner and another had joined the company. I afterwards learned from the Mormons that they had burned Gallatin, and that it was done by the aforesaid company that marched there. The Mormons informed me that they had hauled away all the goods from the store in Gallatin, and deposited them at the Bishop’s storehouses at Adam-on-diahmon” (Document, p. 57).

On October 19, 1838, the day after Gallatin was burned, Thomas B. Marsh and fellow apostle Orson Hyde left the association of the Church. Marsh drafted and signed a legal affidavit against Joseph Smith on October 24, 1838, which Hyde also signed. In addition to reporting on the organization of the Danites and on the events in Daviess County, Marsh reported rumors that the Danites had set up a “destroying company” and that “if the people of Clay & Ray made any movement against them, this destroying company was to burn Liberty & Richmond.” He further stated his belief that Joseph Smith planned “to take the State, & he professes to his people to intend taking the U.S. & ultimately the whole world” (Document, p. 57). Marsh’s testimony added to the panic in northwestern Missouri and contributed to subsequent events in the Mormon War.

Because a Mormon attack was believed imminent, a unit of the state militia from Ray County was dispatched to patrol the border between Ray and Mormon Caldwell County to the north. On October 25, 1838, reports reached Mormons in Far West that this state militia unit was a “mob” and had kidnapped several Mormons. The Mormons formed an armed rescue party and attacked the militia in what became known as the Battle of Crooked River. Although only one Missourian was killed, initial reports held that half the unit had been wiped out. This attack on the state militia, coupled with the earlier expulsion of non-Mormons from Daviess County led Missouri’s governor Lilburn W. Boggs to respond with force. On 27 October he called out 2,500 state militia to put down what he perceived as a Mormon rebellion and signed what became known as the “Extermination Order” (Baugh, pp. 108–09).

Marsh was excommunicated from the Church in absentia on March 17, 1839 in Quincy, Illinois.

After Marsh moved to Utah and rejoined the Latter-day Saints, he looked back at his decision to leave the Church with regret. Concerning his actions in Missouri, he wrote:
“ About this time I got a beam in my eye and thought I could discover a mote in Joseph’s eye, though it was nothing but a beam in my eye; I was so completely darkened that I did not think on the Savior’s injunction: ‘Thou hypocrite, why beholdest thou the mote which is in thy brother’s eye, when a beam is in thine own eye; first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, then thou shalt see clearly to get the mote out of thy brother’s eye.’ ”

Years later, in 1864, George A. Smith claimed in a sermon that Marsh had left the church because of a dispute between his wife and other Mormon women over a milk cow.[2] Although this tale has made its way into Mormon folklore, Smith’s statements are not supported by any contemporary evidence.[3]

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58 Responses to Thomas B. Marsh’s Story: A More Accurate Version of Why He Left the Church

  1. Ronan
    April 22, 2007 at 11:34 am

    What’s sad is that we completely ignore the fact that Marsh returned. I find these “stories” regrettable.

  2. Trevor
    April 22, 2007 at 1:39 pm

    I find it regretable that he was slandered, and I find it regretable that he returned to the LDS Church. It is not as though some of these problems that pricked his conscience (and rightly so) did not follow the Church out to the Great Salt Lake. The best thing that ever happened to the LDS Church was its reincorporation into a stronger United States. It isn’t perfect, but we also don’t have Danites running around planning the demise of those who disagree with the leader of the Mormon Church. The few there are who think like this generally find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

  3. jose
    April 22, 2007 at 3:35 pm

    After Thomas returned, Brigham gave a sermon where he compared the much older-looking Marsh to himself. Despite Thomas being only a month older than Brigham, apparently Thomas hadn’t aged too gracefully. Brigham concluded that living the Gospel renews a man’s body.

  4. anonon
    April 22, 2007 at 7:10 pm

    i think it is also sad that people leave and the church ends up being criticized.

  5. Trevor
    April 22, 2007 at 7:16 pm

    On #3

    Or perhaps its proof that it is easier to live high on the hog when you are the absolute theocrat over thousands of people and you have dozens of wives to see to your needs.

  6. April 22, 2007 at 7:18 pm

    I just commented on this at Pilgrim Girl; let me copy that here:

    It’s funny, I was just reading that article today.

    I know that there are serious problems with the general perception among church members, that everyone who leaves the church does so because they’re offended. The old Thomas B. Marsh story, and so on.

    On the other hand, I think there’s a lot of good in the Bednar talk. Take a look:

    “It ultimately is impossible for another person to offend you or to offend me. Indeed, believing that another person offended us is fundamentally false. To be offended is a choice we make; it is not a condition inflicted or imposed upon us by someone or something else.

    . . . We have been blessed with the gift of moral agency, the capacity for independent action and choice. Endowed with agency, you and I are agents, and we primarily are to act and not just be acted upon. To believe that someone or something can make us feel offended, angry, hurt, or bitter diminishes our moral agency and transforms us into objects to be acted upon. As agents, however, you and I have the power to act and to choose how we will respond to an offensive or hurtful situation.”

    That’s actually, I think, really good advice and analysis. It’s unfortunate that the talk then hits stereotypes about the offended ex-member. But a lot of the talk is quite good, and I was very happy to focus on that when I taught the talk (a few months ago).

  7. Lincoln
    April 22, 2007 at 7:41 pm

    In the May 1998 Ensign, Elder Eyring gave a talk “That We May Be One” stating: “We must stand against those who speak contemptuously of sacred things, because the certain effect of that offense is to offend the Spirit and so create contention and confusion.”

    By categorically stating that “being offended is a choice we make” Elder Bednar seemingly transfers the blame for taking offense on the offended person rather than the offensive person. Under this analysis, when the Spirit is offended, he is “choosing” to be offended. This scenario seems unlikely, since the Spirit is part of the Godhead, and by definition, incapable of sinning. Elder Bednar may have opened a can of worms by seemingly transferring blame from the blameworthy party to the innocent party.

    In any case, a person who chooses to be offended requires an offensive party to create the opportunity for a choice. An offensive party cannot be blameless, in spite of what Elder Bednar attempts to teach us.

  8. Phouchg
    April 22, 2007 at 8:02 pm

    Elder Bednar’s talk offends me.

  9. April 22, 2007 at 9:11 pm

    Interesting thoughts Kaimi. This discussion on offense came up today in Sunday School with similar sentiments being offered- that offense is a personal choice. In a one on one relationship, this is perhaps true.

    I think there is another dimension to this notion of being offended/slandered/leaving- and that is reputation. Reputation is the bedrock of a person’s ability to secure employment, demand a wage and, obtain financing, as well as positions of power and trust in a community.

    When reputation is assasined or threatened in a community an individual can be forced out against their will. It isn’t as simple as a choice of being offended. Sometimes an individual must leave the community to preserve a reputation under attack, even if they would prefer to stay.

    From the perspective of preserving the cohesiveness of a community, thinning out fringe members of the flock can promote cohesiveness and unity as well as identity. Often, that is done through character assasination. This is what Warren Jeffs has done in the FLDS community. And in the ultimate twist of reputation slander, the individual cut off is blamed for the separation. It creates fear among those inside considering leaving and reinforces the importance of staying in the group.

    So I would argue that the Marsh story and perhaps even Richard Dutcher (ie Keith Merrill) isn’t about being offended. It’s about reputation and social cohesiveness.

    But I’m just a young kid in his 20’s- not a sociologist.

  10. April 22, 2007 at 9:15 pm

    Lincoln,

    I don’t think that he meant that he was saying that the offender is blameless. I don’t read that at all from his talk. He did mean that we choose to be offended. If someone says something bad about us, we can choose to turn the other cheek and move on with our lives, or we can choose to be offended and cry about it or whatever.

    I think not offending people would probably be a different talk.

  11. Me
    April 22, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    John, I’m a bit baffled at the myth perpetuation you claim to find in Elder Bednar’s talk:

    “Thomas B. Marsh, the first President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation, elected to take offense over an issue as inconsequential as milk strippings (see Deseret News, Apr. 16, 1856, 44)…. In many instances, choosing to be offended is a symptom of a much deeper and more serious spiritual malady. Thomas B. Marsh allowed himself to be acted upon, and the eventual results were apostasy and misery.”

    That is all he said about Marsh in the entire talk. I posted on the myth of the Church’s myth perpetuation Dutcher put forth on the Dutcher thread.

  12. John Dehlin
    April 22, 2007 at 11:15 pm

    Me,

    I’m kinda confused by your question.

    All I’m saying is that:

    –The church has taught for many years that Marsh left over a milk/cow related issue
    –Marsh did not leave over a milk/cow related issue. At a MINIMUM, it was one small factor in many other very large ones that are summarily ignored by the church when discussing his defection.

    In other words, Marsh’s reasons for leaving are trivialized.

    How am I misrepresenting anything?

  13. kittywaymo
    April 23, 2007 at 12:55 am

    Have you ever looked at the RFM board? If these poor folks aren’t bitter, offended,some even hateful and angry, who on earth is?

    In regards to Marsh, my husband, a descendant of Joseph has journals describing what happened. There is a lot more to this story, and because of hearsay, gossip etc. etc. (I refer to human nature in general, although RFM has a great rumor mill going) stories turn into “tall tales” etc..brother Marsh along with many other key brethren came back (including Martin Harris! who gave plenty of revenue etc. and felt very wronged yet never denied his testimony(ies).) to the Church, these men, like many faithful members today, are well-educated original thinkers, not brain-washed neophites as dissaffected members will have you think…

    Forgive the stereotyping, but in my 20 years of writing and studying anti-mormon culture, I am amazed at the “blindness” and one-sidediness if you will, of this particular group of folks.

    We are all just human beings doing the best we can, trying to find happiness etc. Blaming the Church for one’s mistakes, divorce, unhappiness, addictions etc. is a “cop-out” as we say in NY, and like Elder Bednar said, we are responsible for our own feelings and reactions. I left judiasm and I don’t picket and fight with the Orthodox Jews over issues that I’m not happy with or abuses that went on (my dad was a Rabbi, the same problems exist in that religion as in all humankind communities of offensive behavior)… why is it so important to rehash the same old tired anti-mormon stories? So a group of men, calling themselves Danites existed or didn’t exist, the point is the Church doesn’t go around trying to kill people that bad mouth it.. if that were the case we wouldn’t be “blessed” with Lonnie Pursiful and the Street Preachers Association dangling garments from a stick and screaming that mormon women are harlots at General Conference…

    Well, I get emotional, that’s what happens when you’re DNA is Greek and Jewish, just ask Tom Murphy, who has yet to get his Phd in a non-DNA field, anthropology…

    BEst wishes,

    Kittywaymo (shelah:)

  14. April 23, 2007 at 6:40 am

    John, you’re not misrepresnting anything. Me is just baffled, that’s all.

    It’s pretty clear to me in Bednar’s talk that the Thomas B. Marsh legend (which is, academically, the correct genre — not “myth” — although I understand the popular usage here, but as a former folklorist it still makes me cringe just a little) — that the legend is being used as a cautionary tale against the percieved vice of making mountains out of molehills. Jesus didn’t make mountains out of molehills (I think he used mustard seeds), so we should not either. I think that is one of the messages/values this story represents.

    Of course it is regretable (to some) that Brother Marsh isn’t regarded much as a real person. He is simply a character in a story. And, I hate to say it, but I think this story has too deep of roots in the Mormon popular psyche — it is too valuable as a cautionary tale in its validation certain beliefs/values to ever be compleely eradicated.

    So, we can bang the drums and shine the light of truth on it all we want — it’s not going away any time soon. As long as folklore serves a purpose that some people regard as valuable (whether it is this Thomas B Marsh milk story or ridiculous stories about a lack a valiance among pre-existant-blacks) it will continue to be perpetuated — even in this day and age. That’s my two cents at least.

  15. john scherer
    April 23, 2007 at 7:42 am

    Glenn,

    When and where is the lack of valiance theory being perpetuated? I’m still a relatively new member, never lived in very ‘Mormon’ areas. That being said I’ve only seen or heard this theory on LDS blogs. Do you think that using this as a straw man is keeping the theory alive when it should be dead? Like I said, I wouldn’t even know about it if I didn’t visit Mormon Stories and other blogs. Sorry for the threadjack

  16. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 8:32 am

    John,

    My initial comment was in response to your statement that “Elder Bednar perpetuates the same [milk] myth in this talk as well.” Simply, Elder Bednar didn’t say Marsh left over the milk incident; he said he became offended over it. He then, a few “non-Marsh” sentences later, states that Marsh was “acted upon” and eventually left the Church. There is nothing mythic–or legendary, for Glenn :)–about either statement. I can’t find a single primary source that contradicts either statement. Furthermore, Elder Bednar seems to me to be saying that Marsh left because of a deeper and more serious spiritual malady, and not over mere milk strippings–very 180• from the meaning that you imputed to his words that “Marsh left over a milk/cow related issue”.

    As to the idea that the Church teaches or perpetuates the idea that Marsh left over the milk incident, I can’t find that source. I have quite an extensive collection of Church-produced and related materials but I have yet to find that statement, though one may be found. If any of you have a collection of sources that state this, please let me know what they are. I am serious. I always want to get to the sources as much as possible. I’ve only reviewed about 100 passages that mention Marsh, and only a portion mention the milk story). And you can see a fair sample of the way in which the milk incident has been written and spoken of by the Church in my comment in the Dutcher post.

    Let’s be even-handed and factual in our criticisms, not visceral. If lay members in Sunday school lessons state that Marsh left the Church over milk strippings, let’s correct them by pointing out what the manuals and Brethren have actually said.

  17. Last Lemming
    April 23, 2007 at 8:42 am

    It is standard fare among secular counselors to encourage their clients to take responsibility for their own feelings. That is the one thing you have control over–not the actions of those to whom you are reacting. Elder Bednar is doing exactly the same thing–encouraging people to control that which they have control over instead of focusing on things over which they have no control. He is just doing it in a conference talk instead of a one-on-one counseling session.

    In another thread, John wonders why LDS Social Services does not offer counseling for those struggling with historical and doctrinal issues. Perhaps one factor is that if Church-employed counselors were to adopt the “take responsibility for your own feelings” tactic, they would be accused of trying to deflect responsibility away from the Church, when in fact they would be carrying out the best practices of their profession.

  18. John Dehlin
    April 23, 2007 at 8:56 am

    Me,

    I guess I can see your point technically, but it feels to me a bit like you’re splitting hairs to avoid the central point.

    The entire context of the talk is centered around folks going inactive. So the placement of Marsh’s story in Bednar’s talk begins from that context. Plus, it’s a fact that Marsh did indeed go inactive.

    So if you add in the “Marsh got offended over milk” part, in the context of the talk, it’s 100% natural for humans to connect those dots.

    Just to illustrate, when I mentioned Marsh’s name in EQ yesterday, several of the guys laughed and said, “That’s the guy who left over the milk incident.”

    So for me, your point doesn’t live in the reality of words, context, and perception.

    Perception is reality, and in my opinion, some perceive a cultural value in dismissing Marsh’s inactivity — it tells a good story. But it really does oversimplify, and in my mind and heart, insult the real person. That’s why I don’t like what we’ve done to the memory of Thomas B. Marsh. For me, it’s sloppy, and it’s slanderous.

  19. capt jack
    April 23, 2007 at 9:13 am

    A simple search at lds.org using the words “Thomas Marsh milk” yields a number of talks, including one by GB Hinckley, that reference the milk incident.

  20. Trevor
    April 23, 2007 at 9:28 am

    I see the “Marsh-‘n’-milk” story as part of a larger strategy of denying history. At the center of this strategy of obfuscation is the image of the beloved prophet Joseph Smith. As a group, LDS people, much like everyone else in regards to their own histories, lives with a fantasy vision of the past. We have black hats like William Law, who were in fact not evil men, and white hats like Joseph, who in fact did many troubling things.

    Then we have men like Marsh who do not fit into either category easily, and whose place in history is trivialized by the milk tale. Marsh, like Law, was horrified by some truly barbarous behavior on the part of the saints, and by the dangerous ambitions of Joseph Smith. As the Church started to reconstruct its past informally, the community wanted to believe in a heroic Joseph who was wronged by an intolerant world. It is not a wholly fanciful image, but it is one that covers a wealth of less than savory realities about his behavior.

    I think John is right. We can nitpick over what Bednar precisely said, but he is operating in a context the informed should easily recognize by now: the legend of the saintly and heroic Joseph Smith who was morally pure and unfailingly forthright and courageous. This is the person who is protected by many legends like the petty Marsh and shrewish Lucy Harris stories. Joseph was the first person to spin his own image, and we have only been to happy to cooperate at the expense of others.

  21. April 23, 2007 at 9:41 am

    There is also the concept of indexicality — it means that whenever the Marsh story came into our consciousness, it did so connected to a number of related issues. As John points out, Bednar uses a reference to Marsh in the context of offense and leaving the church. One of his early points — just going by memory here — is questioning why someone would choose to deprive themselves of the blessings that active membership can bring. Indexically, he associates Marsh as one of those people who did that very thing. In that sense, he is very much keeping the legend alive even if he is not providing the complete narrative.

    And for John Scherer, I am SO happy that you have not come across the “less valiant” folklore in your own experience. I do hope that it dies out. But I do know that it still exists in some families. For an example, listen to John Dehlin’s podcast interviews with Darron Smith. But also keep in mind that just because it lives on in some families continual lore, it doesn’t mean that every Mormon is aware of it or would even believe it if they heard it.

    One final word about Reification:

    “Reification is a fallacy of ambiguity, when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it represented a concrete, real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not one. When people describe natural events (like geyser) or social institutions (like government) as alive, they are committing a reification fallacy.” (Wikipedia)

    So let’s be careful when we talk about “the church” or “the bretheren” as if these abstract ideas could really be treated as a single entity with a single purpose and a single mind. It’s a fallacy. I’m just sayin…

  22. Equality
    April 23, 2007 at 9:49 am

    kittywaymo (#13):

    Other than throwing personal insults out (sniffing snootily at Tom Murpy) and asserting negative cliched overgeneralizations at disaffected members (poor folks who are bitter, etc.), did you have a point?

    BTW, if your husband is a descendant of Joseph, shouldn;t he be the leader of the Community of Christ. (JK).

  23. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 10:57 am

    John,

    I hope you corrected those brethren! One thing I’ve tried to do a little more lately is to be brave enough (and thoughtful enough) to correct factual errors in a non-confrontational way when I hear them expressed in Church classes and other settings. I find having actual quotes or references to historical sources immensely beneficial in such situations.

    Anyway, back to the topic. I don’t dispute that many people in the Church boil down Marsh’s life story to his crying over others’ crying over spilt milk. But, having been one who has been misunderstood by both sides on many topics, and that repeatedly, I don’t see the problem as belonging to the institution of the Church so much as to human nature. We–and I do indeed mean we–tend to the extremes, to uninformed judgment, to rationalization. I see it on both sides of the Morg/ex-Morg debates (I have to admit that it annoys me more on the Morg side, being one of the Morg and knowing the standard the gospel sets for us in this regard).

    But I also don’t see telling the Marsh milk story to point out a simple principle about not becoming offended or not having a criticizing or judgmental spirit as wrong or bad or mean spirited (intentional or otherwise). It’s a story. It happened. It demonstated–and is used today to illustrate–a larger problem that we humans tend to have, as Elder Bednar pointed out.

    So whether the one was offended by accusations of withheld milk strippings or the many are offended at latter-day retellings of milk stories, the meat of the issue is still reaction–Marsh’s in his day, or Dehlin’s or Me’s today.

    I admire Marsh. If others do not, so be it. He is still an example of both what to do and what not to do, according to his own words:

    I became jealous of the Prophet, and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; and then, when the Devil began to lead me, it was easy for the carnal mind to rise up, which is anger, jealousy, and wrath. I could feel it within me; I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, and I thought I saw a beam in brother Joseph’s eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam; but I thought I saw a beam in his, and I wanted to get it out; and, as brother Heber says, I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad. I talked with Brother Brigham and Brother Heber, and I wanted them to be mad like myself; and I saw they were not mad, and I got madder still because they were not. Brother Brigham, with a cautious look, said, “Are you the leader of the Church, brother Thomas?” I answered, “No.” “Well then,” said he, “Why do you not let that alone?”

    Well, this is about the amount of my hypocrisy—I meddled with that which was not my business. But let me tell you, my brethren and friends, if you do not want to suffer in body and mind, as I have done,—if there are any of you that have the seeds of apostacy in you, do not let them make their appearance, but nip that spirit in the bud; for it is misery and affliction in this world, and destruction in the world to come.

  24. John Dehlin
    April 23, 2007 at 11:02 am

    Me,

    I ultimately agree with you, and am very glad you are here — both to keep us (factually) honest, and to represent your viewpoint.

    Thanks for your kind persistence in this regard!!!

  25. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 11:20 am

    I’ve loved your site and your approach–your openness to people and their ideas and feelings–since the day I found it. :) Long live tolerance and understanding–for people like Me and Marsh and everyone else!

  26. Trevor
    April 23, 2007 at 12:04 pm

    Me,

    I hate to press this issue, but I think we have to be careful about what it is that is at issue here. In the end, I am not as concerned about the individual fate of a Marsh of L. Harris as I am of the tendency that Dutcher identified of performing character assassination on ‘wandering souls.’ To a certain degree I think it is correct to say this is a human phenomenon, but its pervasiveness in the LDS world goes beyond the vagaries of uninflected ‘human nature.’

    There is more at work here, and I think it has everything to do with a history of secrecy rooted in the behavior of Joseph Smith himself. Here is a man who relied to no small degree on secrecy to maintain control over his flock. Secrecy about polygamy is only one facet, but it is an easy one to pick out as demonstrating his tendency for duplicity and the use of character assassination as a tool for controlling information.

    Marsh decided to come back into the fold, and in doing so he came to see his own story in a certain light. I would think that in reconciling with people who held almost all of the cards, the shape of this new narrative would be somewhat predictable. To me this does not outweigh the evidence in his original statement.

    The information he provides about Joseph’s political ambitions, for example, is consistent with evidence that goes as far back as the late 1820s, when in a letter Joseph’s own uncle scoffs at his nephew’s desire to have dominion over Palmyra. Joseph very clearly was a kingdom builder, and this could not fail to be at odds with the nascent Republicanism of a young United States and some members of his own church.

    The milk story, in this context, is a bad joke. In his reconciliation narrative, Marsh refers obliquely to his jealousy toward and criticism of Joseph. The vague terms in which he expresses this does not suggest that his former issues were negligible. All it shows is that in returning to the fold, he had to get past whatever issues troubled him at the time.

    Submission to authority is the best way to get back into the good graces of Mormon authority. This is what Marsh delivers. I don’t doubt his sincerity. I only hesitate to vindicate Joseph based on Marsh’s confession, and I do not see that it changes the prevalence of character assassination to control information in Mormon society.

  27. April 23, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Blaming the Church for one’s mistakes, divorce, unhappiness, addictions etc. is a “cop-out” as we say in NY, and like Elder Bednar said, we are responsible for our own feelings and reactions. I left judiasm and I don’t picket and fight with the Orthodox Jews over issues that I’m not happy with or abuses that went on (my dad was a Rabbi, the same problems exist in that religion as in all humankind communities of offensive behavior)… why is it so important to rehash the same old tired anti-mormon stories?

    I agree with you, Kitty, that all human beings are imperfect. That’s why it is important that everyone answer for their actions. The solution to human imperfection is not to shut up but to speak out.

    That applies all the more to people who proclaim to act in the name of God and who aspire to tell the rest of us what to do. To whom there has been given much, much is expected.

    If there is abuse is an institutional and systematic issue in Orthodox Judaism, Kitty, then you probably do have an obligation to speak out.

    What’s the ethical justification to remain silent when children are molested and Church authorities protect the molesters? Who can remain silent when mothers and child protection activists get excommunicated?

  28. The Mighty Richard
    April 23, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I don’t know if this really adds anything to the discussion, but a thought crosses my mind: By continuing to emphasize Brother Marsh’s disaffection while neglecting to mention his eventual repentance and return to the fold, aren’t we (we the Church, not we the individuals posting here) effectively denying him forgiveness for his apostasy?
    It seems to be that those who perpetuate the legend while knowing the facts (as I would think Elder B should) are really doing something a bit more serious than just telling an illustrative story.

  29. The Mighty Richard
    April 23, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    me, not be in my last statement

  30. Doc
    April 23, 2007 at 2:01 pm

    There is a quote by a certain theocratic polygamist that may be instructive if a little less politic here.

    ‘he who takes offense when no offense was intended is a fool, and he who takes offense when offense was intended is usually a fool.’

    People who do wrong things are wrong. I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise. They are arguing that anger, nursing a grudge, etc. are completely unproductive and stifling things. They almost always damage yourself much more than the object of your anger. Anyone who thinks Elder Bednar’s talk means they don’t have to rethink their offensive actions is completely missing the point. Anyone who thinks Elder Bednar is addressing offenders and not offendees is likewise completely missing the point.

    Thanks John, for doing your part to break up some century old folkloric character assassination. However, I have a hard time beleiving this still bothers Brother Marsh at present, wherever he may be. The thing about folklore is that whether its facts are straight or not, it’s message may still have a valid point.

  31. Doc
    April 23, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    I should also note, anyone who thinks that Elder Bednar’s point somehow let’s off those toward whom they currently have unkind feelings because of past actions, I would ask exactly how our forgiveness lets anyone off in the end. Who are we really punishing? Who is it our place to punish?

  32. DavidH
    April 23, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Me:

    Ask a seminary teacher to show you the pages from the teacher’s manual (which I have seen but cannot find online) dealing with Marsh and the strippings. My recollection is that the teacher is instructed to draw on the board an illustrative flow chart showing that the strippings incident caused Marsh’s apostasy caused the affidavit caused the extermination order caused Haun’s Mill.

  33. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 3:40 pm

    DavidH,

    I can get access to those manuals, so I’ll see if I can find it and post it for you. So far I’ve found approximately 120 references total in the last 36 years of Church magazines and current curriculum manuals that mention Marsh. Eleven (just under 10%) of those mentions have to do with the milk incident; the other mentions address his conversion, or presence at an event or location, or work in the early Church, or call the Twelve, or revelations directed to him (in part or whole), etc.

  34. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 3:42 pm

    Oh, and 1 of the non-milk entries refers to his leaving the Church but does not specify any reasons.

  35. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 4:01 pm

    Trevor,

    I agree that character assissination is wrong, no matter who is doing it; I also believe that speaking the truth about someone–revealing someone’s flaws and sins–is ususlly unnecessary and often unwise. But not all discussion or revealing of such information is character assassination. Certainly there are individuals within the Church who do that to both living and dead, whether their target are faithfuls, apostates, or returning prodigals. I don’t, however, think the institutional Church is doing this to Marsh (perhaps in the past it has–I’ll be checking the CD and JD) and I certainly don’t think they are doing or will do it to Dutcher.

    As to whether character assasination is more prevalent or pronounced in LDS circles than in the world generally, I can’t really say; my experience tells me it’s not, but I have no larger pool of empirical evidence to make such a judgment on. But when I consider the hate displayed in word by some and even in action by others in the world, I think we have a fairly mild form of the disease. For instance, compared to some of the bile and vitriolic displays made on RFM, I think mainstream LDS come out looking much less villainous in this regard.

  36. anonon
    April 23, 2007 at 4:11 pm

    john #12
    elder bednar said nothing about marsh leaving, just about the fact that he got offended. there is a difference, and so i don’t think he perpetuated any myth about marsh.

  37. Me
    April 23, 2007 at 4:27 pm

    Trevor,

    I’ve just checked all of the current Seminary and Institute manuals: 87 paragraphs mention Marsh, 14 of which deal with the milk story (all in one lesson, quotes from JD 3:283-284 and 5:206-207). Just to be certain I didn’t miss some instructions about drawing milk on the board, I reviewed all 67 paragraphs dealing with milk. And then I checked strippings and cream, just to be thorough. Current manuals don’t seem to contain the Marsh story as a chalkboard exercise of some kind.

  38. John Dehlin
    April 23, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    Anonon,

    Please see comment #18.

  39. April 23, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    Me,

    I do not want to suggest that there is no value to the statistics you are providing here, but there is a scene in the movie “A Few Good Men” that I used when I taught folklore 101 classes at Indiana University. This scene — to me at least — highlights the undeniable power of folklore in the “official vs. unofficial” human record.

    In the movie, the ever-heroic Tom Cruise is trying to establish the fact to judge and jury that the hazing practice of “Code Red” is very active and alive among the Marines at Gitmo. To counter this, Kevin Bacon asks the witness, Noah Wiley, to show him in the Marine handbook where it talks about Code Reds. The exchange goes something like this:

    Noah: “It’s not in there — it’s just something we do at Gitmo”

    Kevin: “Oh, then you’re in luck, becuase I also have the code of conduct for Gitmo — can you show me in here where it talks about Code Reds?”

    Noah: “It’s not in there either, sir”

    Kevin: “No further questions”

    And as he struts back to his chair Tom Cruise walks by (just walks, no despereate running in this scene) and snatches the two manuals from Kevin’s hands. His exchange with the witness goes something like this:

    Tom: “Could you please turn to the page where it talks about the mess hall down at Gitmo?”

    Noah: “There is nothing in there about the mess hall.”

    Tom: “Are you telling me that in all your years at Gitmo you have never had a meal?”

    Noah: “Not at all Sir. Three squares a day.”

    Tom: “I don’t undertand. If this manual does not say anything about the mess hall, how did you know where to eat?”

    Noah: “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time.”

    And maybe he washed it down with some nice cold TB Marsh milk strippings (just before he got up and left). Nice scene. Thank you Aaron Sorkin.

    I’m not trying to suggest that we should not counter peoples’ misconceptions with a more factual account — I think that is a fantastic approach. And I’m not trying to suggest that every single Mormon follows the crowd to the TB Marsh milk line.

    But the fact that we are having this discussion indicates that this legend is still very much alive and is still very powerful in what it represents (or perhaps misrepresents) as a cautionary tale — a tale that was, without any doubt, nudged along and supported, at least indexically, by Elder Bednar’s reference.

    I agree with most of what you said in #23, but I am not completely comfortable with this statement:

    “But I also don’t see telling the Marsh milk story to point out a simple principle about not becoming offended or not having a criticizing or judgmental spirit as wrong or bad or mean spirited (intentional or otherwise).”

    My concern is when another person’s experience is taken by others (“hijacked” would be a stronger word) and stripped down to become a powerful little cautionary tale that is thrown around with little regard to fairness or charity towards the real person or his “rest of the story.” Whether it is an historical or contemporary person that becomes a character in a story, I absolutely feel that is wrong and bad (unfair, uncharitable, dehumanizing), and in some cases, not all, can even be mean spirited (character assisinations). Stories are powerful illustrators of abstract ideas — they make those abstraction appear concrete — and therein resides their power — a power that is all too easliy abused.

    Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from Jesus’ use of fictional characters in his parables — stories that get the point across without risking the reputation of a real person. I like that way better.

  40. Trevor
    April 23, 2007 at 7:03 pm

    The Mighty Richard,

    I do not believe that Marsh apostasized. I think he feared for his own and his family’s safety. I think he understood Joseph Smith’s grandiose, reckless, and duplicitous behavior to be the underlying threat. I think he later sought to rejoin the flock because he, like many other good people, still valued the good things in Mormonism, and he was willing to say what it took to make his submission to Church authorities clear.

    I cannot see any sin for which God would hold Marsh accountable. If anything, his original departure showed that he, unlike many others, had some good sense. It is the man who dreamed of ruling over a kingdom from a household full of dozens of wives that we should be concerned about, not Marsh.

    Me,

    I didn’t ask for that information, but thank you anyway.

  41. Mayan Elephant
    April 23, 2007 at 10:25 pm

    Kaimi, (#6)

    Ya know, on the surface I suppose there is something good in the talk. Perhaps you are right. Though, there seem to be little value in generically saying that one cannot be offended without choosing to be offended.

    At another site, a seminary teacher made the same suggestion that Bednar makes. I responded with the following:

    “…….. if someone were to graffiti your house, key your car, shave the New York Yankees logo onto your poodle’s butt, bury used motor oil in your sandbox and leave 78 fish heads, 346 crawfish heads and a pot of rotten cabbage on your doorstep, it would be fine to say, “Hey, this is offensive.” You may wish to reward the person who did it, you may not. You may choose to forgive them, you may not. But, there really is nothing wrong with the conclusion that each of those events are offensive. Also, there is nothing really valiant in finding those events non-offensive. You dont get a special star for saying to your Bishop that you were not offended by oilheadyankeefanvandalizers. Really. You dont get a star for that………..”

  42. April 24, 2007 at 4:43 am

    Last Lemming # 17, thank you for your insight. I agree with you that what you describe is essentially what Elder Bednar is doing in his talk. I never took the talk to mean that all of us don’t need to concentrate on not offending others and I don’t think that Elder Bednar meant it that way either. Rather, it resembles current counsel given in one-to-one sessions “to control that which they have control over instead of focusing on things over which they have no control” as you point out.

    I feel that Elder Bednar only had the best of intentions to help people who were feeling offended at the unknowingly inconsiderate actions of fellow Church members to find a way to find peace. Although I am confident that this was his motivation, I admit that even while sitting listening to the Conference talk at the time he gave it, I could not resist cringing a little. It just didn’t come out very well and it has ironically given major offense to a large number of people. If Elder Bednar became aware of this, I feel that he would feel very sad and humbled about this turn of events.

    John D., I agree that it would be better not to tell the milk strippings story in the context of talks about avoiding inactivity in our testimonies or at all. I believe that in 1864 Elder George A. Smith was not lying when he introduced the milk episode into the discussion about Thomas Marsh’s relationship with the Church, but I recognize it as hearsay long after the fact and would prefer that it be dropped. I much prefer focusing on Thomas Marsh’s conversion story and contributions to the Church, which are actually often the focus of passages referring to Thomas Marsh in Church histories, talks, manuals, and books and articles.

    On the other hand, John, you surely realize the trouble that Thomas Marsh caused for the Church. It would be fallacious to point to milk strippings and illustrate a progression straight from that to Haun’s Mill, of course. But Haun’s Mill did happen, and Thomas Marsh’s affidavit played no small role in that and other persecutions suffered by the Latter-day Saints. I hesitate to blame the victims of Haun’s Mill or the other persecutions over Thomas Marsh and others who assisted in stoking the hatred against Latter-day Saints during that period.

  43. Equality
    April 24, 2007 at 9:51 am

    The legend about Marsh leaving over the milk strippings comes not from Bednar’s talk but from a talk given in General Conference by Gordon B. Hinckley in 1984 (and republished and rehashed in various official church venues many times since). Here is how President Hinckley told the story:

    I wondered, as I read that story so filled with pathos, what had brought him to this sorry state. I discovered it, in the Journal of Discourses, in a talk given to the Saints in this same bowery the year before by George A. Smith. I think, if you’ll bear with me for a minute or two, it is worth the telling to illustrate to all of us the need to be careful in dealing with small matters which can lead to great consequences.

    According to the account given by George A. Smith, while the Saints were in Far West, Missouri, “the wife of Thomas B. Marsh, who was then President of the Twelve Apostles, and Sister Harris concluded they would exchange milk, in order to make a little larger cheese than they otherwise could. To be sure to have justice done, it was agreed that they should not save the strippings (to themselves), but that the milk and strippings should all go together.

    Now for you who have never been around a cow, I should say that the strippings came at the end of the milking and were richer in cream.

    “Mrs. Harris, it appeared, was faithful to the agreement and carried to Mrs. Marsh the milk and strippings, but Mrs. Marsh, wishing to make some extra good cheese, saved a pint of strippings from each cow and sent Mrs. Harris the milk without the strippings.”

    A quarrel arose, and the matter was referred to the home teachers. They found Mrs. Marsh guilty of failure to keep her agreement. She and her husband were upset and, “an appeal was taken from the teacher to the bishop, and a regular Church trial was had.” President Marsh did not consider that the bishop had done him and his lady justice for they (that is, the bishop’s court) decided that the strippings were wrongfully saved, and that the woman had violated her covenant.

    “Marsh immediately took an appeal to the High Council, who investigated the question with much patience, and,” says George A. Smith, “I assure you they were a grave body. Marsh being extremely anxious to maintain the character of his wife, … made a desperate defence, but the High Council finally confirmed the bishop’s decision.

    “Marsh, not being satisfied, took an appeal to the First Presidency of the Church, and Joseph and his counselors had to sit upon the case, and they approved the decision of the High Council.

    “This little affair,” Brother Smith continues, “kicked up a considerable breeze, and Thomas B. Marsh then declared that he would sustain the character of his wife even if he had to go to hell for it.

    “The then President of the Twelve Apostles, the man who should have been the first to do justice and cause reparation to be made for wrong, committed by any member of the family, took that position, and what next? He went before a magistrate and swore that the ‘Mormons’ were hostile towards the state of Missouri.

    “That affidavit brought from the government of Missouri an exterminating order, which drove some 15,000 Saints from their homes and habitations, and some thousands perished through suffering the exposure consequent on this state of affairs.” (Journal of Discourses, 3:283–84.) Such is George A. Smith’s account.

    What a very small and trivial thing—a little cream over which two women quarreled. But it led to, or at least was a factor in, Governor Boggs’ cruel exterminating order which drove the Saints from the state of Missouri, with all of the terrible suffering and consequent death that followed. The man who should have settled this little quarrel, but who, rather, pursued it, troubling the officers of the Church, right up to the Presidency, literally went through hell for it. He lost his standing in the Church. He lost his testimony of the gospel. For nineteen years he walked in poverty and darkness and bitterness, experiencing illness, and loneliness. He grew old before his time. Finally, like the prodigal son in the parable of the Savior (see Luke 15:11–32), he recognized his foolishness and painfully made his way to this valley, and asked Brigham Young to forgive him and permit his rebaptism into the Church. He had been the first President of the Council of the Twelve, loved, respected, and honored in the days of Kirtland, and the early days of Far West. Now he asked only that he might be ordained a deacon and become a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord.

    It’s hard for me to read that last paragraph and not come away thinking that Hinckley is tying Marsh’s offense over a trifling matter (the milk strippings) directly to his own apostasy (which, true to form, was of course a miserable experience like unto the prodigal son. Aside: has an LDS church leader ever acknowledged the possibility that someone could leave the church and be happier?), to the extermination order and to “all of the terrible suffering and consequent death that followed.” All the bad stuff that happened to the Saints in Missouri is Thomas B. Marsh’s fault, and it all came about because he took offense over a small matter. Lest anyone think I am overstating the case, just read the talk. The whole point of the talk (and the title) is that Small Acts Lead to Great Consequences. Note there is no mention of any other reason for Marsh’s disaffection than that he was upset with the way the Brethren ruled in the milk-stripping case.

    john f. said:

    I much prefer focusing on Thomas Marsh’s conversion story and contributions to the Church, which are actually often the focus of passages referring to Thomas Marsh in Church histories, talks, manuals, and books and articles.

    Au contraire, mon frere. All one need do to put the lie to this assertion is to go to lds.org and do a search for “Thomas B. Marsh.” You’ll see that President Hinckley reprised his slander of Marsh in the September 1992 Ensign. Other members of the Q12 have also piled on.

    From Neal A. Maxwell:

    Once ego is unwisely committed, no cause seems too trivial for some. In a dispute over milk, Thomas B. Marsh soon let himself become offended at the Prophet Joseph.

    Lorenzo Snow, Marsh’s contemporary, said that while he, too, noticed some minor imperfections in the Prophet Joseph, he was grateful that the Lord could use Joseph Smith for so very significant a work. Thus, there might be some hope for him, Lorenzo Snow. Indeed, there was hope for President Snow, who viewed others charitably, as if through the “windows of heaven.”

    From Russell M. Nelson:

    Thomas B. Marsh, once one of the Twelve, left the Church. His spiritual slide to apostasy started because his wife and another woman had quarreled over a little cream!

    Again from Hinckley in a talk in which he also used humiliating examples of real people from the world of sports who dropped the ball or ran the wrong way down the field:

    Thomas B. Marsh, the first President of the Quorum of the Twelve, sided with his wife in an argument over a little cream. He would not let the matter drop and carried it to the highest councils of the Church. He lost his place and never fully regained it. He dropped the ball at a crucial time and has been remembered ever since for what he did.

    Gee, I wonder how in the world this whole legend about Marsh and the milk strippings ever got into the collective Mormon consciousness? Of note is that none of the apostles who talked about Marsh’s apostasy ever mention the Danties or Gallatin. Do you think that’s because it doesn’t fit well with the “don’t get out of line with your leaders in een the smallest thing or you will end up a miserable pathetic apostate like Thomas B. Marsh” meme?

  44. Trevor
    April 24, 2007 at 10:03 am

    “On the other hand, John, you surely realize the trouble that Thomas Marsh caused for the Church. It would be fallacious to point to milk strippings and illustrate a progression straight from that to Haun’s Mill, of course. But Haun’s Mill did happen, and Thomas Marsh’s affidavit played no small role in that and other persecutions suffered by the Latter-day Saints. I hesitate to blame the victims of Haun’s Mill or the other persecutions over Thomas Marsh and others who assisted in stoking the hatred against Latter-day Saints during that period.”

    Ahem. People weren’t just making stuff up about Joseph that made others anxious. He was actually doing many of the things he was accused of. Why is it that we blame Marsh for causing the problem, when surely Joseph should bear the blame of having committed the acts that brought about the fear and disillusionment of others? Let’s see, why not discuss the trouble that polygamy caused? Or secret councils? His anointing as king of the kingdom of God? Or his indulgence of the Danites?

    These things caused some of Joseph’s more powerful followers to turn against him. And frankly I think that they were acting reasonably in doing so. For example, if some guy comes to me and tells me he wants to marry my wife, or some such, I would count it my great good sense to tell him to go to hell. Maybe it is this ‘lack of faith’ on my part places me among the inactive Mormons. If so, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  45. John Dehlin
    April 24, 2007 at 10:50 am

    John F,

    You make good points, and I really do appreciate them.

    I agree w/ your thoughts about both President Smith and Bednar. These are tough issues, and I do think that the brethren are doing their best — and are honest men.

    I actually wasn’t trying to pile on them/Bednar w/ this post — as much as I was trying to clarify a bit that there was more to Marsh’s story than we thought (I had no idea until I actually read the wikipedia article).

    I totally agree that Haun’s mill was a horrible thing. It’s true that former Mormon loyalists did things that fanned the flames of persecution in Missouri. I imagine that some of them were bitter, angry and spiteful, and others were simply concerned about how things were “getting out of hand”, so to speak, w/ church leadership. It reminds me a bit of the predicament many in the U.S. face today w/ the Iraq War–how do you patriotically support the troops, but oppose the war? Very tough stuff to navigate. All sides deserve our empathy and understanding, before any judgment takes place.

    The Missouri era was clearly a really hard time for Mormonism — plain and simple. Wherever possible, I do think it’s healthy for us to eliminate the caricatures we’ve painted of these men, and make the effort to see them as complex, and simultaneously heroic and tragically flawed people. I’d say this about BOTH Joseph and Thomas — and all the others for that matter. There were no white hats (not even Joseph’s), and no black hats (not even Thomas’) in Mormon history.

    Anyway, I’m grateful for the contributions to this thread. Few things makes me happier than to see opposing sides carry on thoughtful, informed, respectful dialogue. I think that much good can come from the productive tension that is in play here.

    Thanks to all contributors for making this possible.

  46. April 24, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    John:
    Thanks for a great summary. This has been a great thread with a fairly balanced portrayal of the isolated incident concerning Thomas Marsh. I guess the question for me remains: what was the right thing to do for him – and whether there is a lesson for me to learn in the whole process.

    I don’t know what was in Thomas Marsh’s affidavit. I assume that if it was anything like William Law’s stance (as has been indicated by many in this series of posts) then it was largely true, albeit scandalous.

    The weight of an affidavit in my profession is only the value of the deponent’s character.

    Were the Danites legal, worthy of support or righteous? I say no. I would consider it my obligation to report it, let justice be done in its own imperfect manner. I think this is particularly important when lives and property are conspired against. I think Batman Begins had a lesson about what happens when good people do nothing. I think Thomas Marsh did the right thing – and courageously too.

    That being said, no one is blameless in a conflict like Missouri. What alternatives did the church have to protect its lives and property? I don’t think that militias are the way to solve anything, but then again, I don’t live in the wild west. There is some justification here that starts with the phrase “when in the course of human events . . .”

    I think I have really grown from this discussion. Just like when I read, “In Sacred Loneliness” and realized that for good or ill polygamous women were heroic regardless whether they remained faithful or left the church entirely.

    Thanks again for this forum!

  47. DavidH
    April 24, 2007 at 12:38 pm

    The Marsh affidavit is located at http://www.tungate.com/TBMarsh.htm

    I do not know how much in it is true, how much is hearsay on Marsh’s part, and how much is false (and that Marsh knew was false).

  48. DavidH
    April 24, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    Me:

    I found the teacher’s manual online. The flow chart on page 193 directly attribute’s Haun’s Mill to Marsh’s apostasy. On page 194, the teacher is advised to read George Albert Smith’s recounting of the milk stripping incident as the reason for Marsh’s apostasy.

    http://www.ldsces.org/inst_Manuals/DCChrchHistTch34591000/Lessons/DCChrchHistTch34591000_19.pdf

    The point of the lesson seems to be that if we are ever critical of a leader we may well cause another Haun’s Mill massacre. Maybe I am misreading the point of the lesson; what do you think it is?

  49. Equality
    April 24, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    Interesting read, DavidH. Thanks for providing the link. This may be getting a little further afield, but I notice that one of the signatories to the affidavit is Henry Jacobs. I didn’t realize he had been involved in that. I had always heard that he was just fine with being cuckolded by Joseph (and later by Brigham). He served missions after his young bride was married to Joseph, and he went with the Saints out west.

  50. Trevor
    April 24, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    I would like to clarify the point I have been trying to make in the course of the Marsh discussion. It is my understanding that the predominant LDS treatment of Marsh’s departure wrongly trivializes his reasons for leaving and swearing that affidavit. My reason for taking up this issue is not to dismiss Joseph Smith as a prophet, but to argue that we should recognize that people like Marsh could have been reasonably disturbed by what they were experiencing, indeed, enough to get out.

    It continues to trouble me that informed LDS people are willing to give a pass to Joseph Smith for having done highly questionable things, and at the same time they are willing to distort unfavorably the memory of men like Marsh. Joseph Smith was a man, he made big mistakes, and arguably these mistakes led to his death. This does not preclude the possibility that he was also a prophet.

    Marsh was a good man, and he undoubtedly made mistakes too, but I should think that under the circumstances we could have some sympathy for his fear and the actions he took. Personally, I see nothing in the affidavit he swore out that is entirely inconsistent with other evidence. The picture it paints may be one-sided, but it may also faithfully represent where Marsh was at the time, and I sincerely doubt that it was motivated by evil.

    The way we treat the memory of a Marsh or a Lucy Harris has consequences in the now. I find it consistent, albeit less pronounced, with the way less active or departing Mormons are treated. Yes, people do imagine that those who leave committed some big sin, or that they desired to commit some sin, that led them to depart or quit participating. Those of us who fall into the category of inactives or departing members chastise ourselves for once having thought the same way. Now we know that issues of conscience, reason, etc. can also motivate a person to leave the LDS Church.

    The fact that we are often still connected to the Church by family, friends, and geography means that the way we are perceived by the LDS community after we leave does make a difference to us. The implication that we were weak, particularly sinful, deceived, especially prideful, etc., is not only damaging to us, but it also colors our perception of the Church we once belonged to.

    If you are concerned about the bitterness you see over at RfM, perhaps it would be useful to ask why that bitterness exists. I agree that the bitterness at RfM is often over the top. I have quickly grown tired of the hyperbole. Still, I think it is a mistake to attribute all of that bile to the faults of the individuals who post there or to the truth of the restored gospel. It would be much more productive to seek practical reasons and real solutions. My guess is that the smack on the back of the head they receive on the way out the door is among the reasons some are bitter.

  51. April 25, 2007 at 4:55 am

    I wonder whether discussion of the milk strippings story could really be considered slander. Slander is defamation by means of verbal communication. To be slander, a statement must be false and it must be communicated without privilege to do so. (Truth of the fact underlying the statement is, of course, an absolute defense to accusations of slander.)

    Opinions can also be slander if they implicitly assume or expressly state a false underlying fact about a person. But if the expression of opinion is on a matter of public concern, it has traditionally been considered privileged as “fair comment” and therefore not slander. “The [fair comment] privilege extended to an expression of opinion on a matter of public concern so long as it was the actual opinion of the critic and was not made solely for the purpose of causing harm to the person about whom the comment was made, regardless of whether the opinion was reasonable or not. According to the majority rule, the privilege of fair comment applied only to an expression of opinion and not to a false statement of fact, whether it was expressly stated or implied from an expression of opinion.” (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 566 cmt. a (1977).)

    In 1864, Elder George A. Smith commented on the milk strippings episode with Thomas Marsh’s wife. Elder Smith claimed at that time that Marsh stated that “he would sustain the character of his wife even if he had to go to hell for it.” If the milk strippings episode as described by Elder Smith really happened, then it is not slander to repeat it publically in 1984 or at any other time. Incorporating the episode into a publically stated opinion about the possible consequences of small things, or the causes and results of apostasy, or combining the episode with other facts about a person to present an opinion about ultimate causes and results relating to a matter of public concern likewise does not constitute slander. The persecution of the Latter-day Saints during the period in question, including the Haun’s Mill massacre, the Extermination Order, and the repeated forced expulsion and ultimate forced migration of the Latter-day Saints is a matter of public concern. Elder Hinckley’s 1984 discussion of the milk strippings episode and Thomas Marsh’s personal contribution to the persecution of the Latter-day Saints during the period are fair comment on a matter of public concern. (As a caveat, Thomas Marsh later stated his actions were motivated by jealousy of Joseph Smith.)

    In any event, there can be no defamation of deceased people. (Restatement (Second) of Torts § 560 & cmt. a. (1977) (“The interest of the descendants or other relatives of a deceased person in his good name is not given legal protection by the common law.”).)

    In his 1984 statement and at other times, Elder Hinckley and other Church leaders have mentioned their opinion that the milk strippings incident was an element of Thomas Marsh’s ultimate decision to leave the Church. After leaving the Church, Thomas Marsh did things that contributed at least to some small degree to the Extermination Order. In 1984, Elder Hinckley included the milk strippings episode as a “factor” in the ultimate Extermination Order. Although syllogistic, this could be shown to be a fallacy of composition provided that the premises are shown not to relate.

    Several valid approaches exist to debating Elder Hinckley’s analysis of the place of the milk strippings episode either in Thomas Marsh’s decision to leave the Church or in the ultimate Extermination Order that resulted from the climate toward the Latter-day Saints that Thomas Marsh in part helped to foster after leaving the Church:

    (1) One could argue that the milk strippings episode never happened and that George A. Smith was lying about it. This seems the only scenario in which Elder Hinckley could conceivably be accused of slandering Thomas Marsh by talking about milk strippings, affidavits, and persecution of the Latter-day Saints. However, since he is merely quoting George A. Smith and then building his analysis of later events on George A. Smith’s account of the milk strippings episode (i.e. Elder Hinckley himself didn’t make up the milk strippings episode), then any accusation that Elder Hinckley is slandering Thomas Marsh would depend on establishing negligence on Elder Hinckley’s part. That would be a separate analysis.

    (2) One can argue that Elder Hinckley is wrong that the milk strippings episode played any role whatsoever in Thomas Marsh’s leaving the Church.

    (3) One can argue that Elder Hinckley can reasonably follow George A. Smith’s statement and conclude that the milk strippings episode played some part in Thomas Marsh’s decision to leave the Church but that Elder Hinckley should also discuss other possible contributing motivations such as the alleged burning of Gallatin and dissatisfaction with the ad hoc formation of a group of Danites. (If this argument is made, then in addition to these things, Elder Hinckley should also quote Thomas Marsh’s own words that jealousy of Joseph Smith is what caused him to leave the Church.)

    (4) One can argue that Elder Hinckley’s opinion is illogical or wrong that the milk strippings episode can be linked in any way, much less in a direct causal chain, to the Extermination Order and other persecutions.

    Many other possible arguments also exist, but the first or derivatives/variations of it seem the only plausible route to accuse Elder Hinckley of slander.

    None of this, by the way, approaches the underlying point, which at all times remains valid, that we should try to avoid taking offense where possible and in every case we should forgive those giving offense. These principles are very much in line with Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times.

    My preference would be to drop the story of the milk strippings as support for discussions about leaving the Church, although I am not sure we should excise it altogether from our consciousness (assuming it actually happened). It might work better as support for not taking offense at small things without being tied in to discussions about leaving the Church.

    As for Thomas Marsh’s broader tale, I feel that it remains a valid morality tale along the lines of the prodigal son and can stand apart from the milk strippings episode. This is along the lines of what Ronan is saying in comment # 1. We can applaud Thomas Marsh for repenting and coming back to the Church and be amazed at the humility that such an action required. That can teach us something about the attitude of humility, repentence, and forgiveness that we need to adopt to obey Christ’s teachings.

  52. Equality
    April 25, 2007 at 8:20 am

    My dear friend, john f., thank you for educating us all on the law of slander. However, I think you are looking a little past the mark here. Slander in common usage can be defined simply as “a malicious statement or report.” What you refer to is the legal definition of slander and the elements one needs to prove in order to obtain relief in a civil action. As you know, words that have one meaning in common parlance often have a different meaning in a juridical context. Had the folks here who used the term been discussing the potential for legal action against those who perpetuate the milk-strippings legend, you might have a point. For clarification purposes, I assure you and the gentle readers of Mormon Stories that I had no such intention in my use of te word slander. When I used the word, I was thinking of the common definition “malicious statement or report.” So, I stand by the use of the word as I think it applicable to the situation. President Hinckley and the other leaders of the Church who continue to spread this (at best) half-truth about Thomas B. Marsh do te man’s name and reputation a severe disservice, scoring cheap points in a rhetorical game designed to augment their own authority and command absolute loyalty from their followers. By omitting key details about Marsh’s disaffection, they also show a disregard for truth. They do the same thing when relating details about the translation of the Book of Mormon, the murder of Parley P. Pratt, the Mountain Meadows Massacre, the events leading to the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and on and on. The way LDS Church leaders relate the Marsh story is thus emblematic of the way they relate Church history generally–culling details and anecodtes that serve their particular agenda while ignoring or suppressing details that might put the church in a disfavorable light.

    john f. said:

    None of this, by the way, approaches the underlying point, which at all times remains valid, that we should try to avoid taking offense where possible and in every case we should forgive those giving offense. These principles are very much in line with Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek and to forgive seventy times seven times.

    I disagree with this. I think there are some offenses given for which no forgiveness is required and for which forgiveness might actually be an immoral act. To the extent that Jesus said this, he was wrong. If I were the parents of Danielle Van Dam, for instance, I would not forgive Paul Westerfield for kidnapping, molesting, killing, and burying her in the desert. If there’s a God who wants to forgive her, that’s fine, but I can think of no reason why forgiveness should be extended by the parents of the murdered little girl to her attacker and murderer. If you are talking about forgiving small offenses and breaches of etiquette and the like, sure, we should all be more forgiving. But there are limits to the principle. I don’t think every offensive act ought to be forgiven.

  53. Equality
    April 25, 2007 at 8:23 am

    Sorry about the spelling errors in the last post. Obviously, in the third-to-last sentence it should read “If there’s a God who wants to forgive him” not her.

  54. Trevor
    April 25, 2007 at 8:27 am

    First, I would like to apologize to John and the rest of you for contributing to the death of the “A First Draft of An Essay” thread. To revisit where the post began and the spirit in which the comments ended makes me feel very sad. I will endeavor to do better here.

    Now to respond to john f. Respectfully, I do not find the legal definitions of slander or defamation of much interest in the present discussion, at least personally. In my view, the more pertinent issue is the conflict between the many ways people use history.

    The Hinckley take on Marsh’s departure is not illegitimate. Certainly, people habitually construct or parse morality fables in past events. A better question is whether Hinckley’s take on Marsh is truly beneficial in the end. As long as people remain relatively uninformed about the past, I think the Hinckley Marsh fable is at least effective.

    No one wants to be seen as the silly ‘Marsh character’ (and I use the term character on purpose) who in a pique turned on everything he loved and caused death and destruction to boot. I can imagine that those who buy into this analysis would find in it a reason to monitor their own thin-skinned responses in the LDS community. So there we have it, a powerful cautionary tale.

    As I said, I think such historical fables serve a purpose.

    I would also recommend, as I think Dutcher did, a re-examination of such fables for the unintended consequences they have. For those who see Marsh in someone else, rather than in themselves, it may serve as an invitation to trivialize the faith issues of others. In either case, what is almost completely overlooked in the story is the dangerous, confusing environment in which all of these events unfolded.

    I prefer the approach of examining the episode in its context with as much detail as possible. It is a more difficult endeavor, but I think that in the end it repays much more handsomely. For me, seeing the turmoil of the times helps me have greater sympathy for both Thomas Marsh and Joseph Smith.

    I have a great deal of admiration for Joseph Smith, but I also accept that his choices were as much responsible for the disastrous events that struck the early Church as it was the opposition of men like Marsh and Law. Whatever we make of Smith, it is clear that many within and outside the Church were not ready for him or his ideas. I think we can have some compassion for everyone involved.

    For the people who loved Joseph, and those who love him today, the people who ‘just did not get it’ and who openly opposed Joseph Smith at one time or another can seem demonic. I see in them human beings who struggled to do what they thought was right. At the same time, I can understand why the LDS tradition is much harsher on them.

    In the end, what I would like to see is an end to the mutual demonization of people who have differing relationships with Mormonism, be they faithful members, ex-Mormons, or anything in between. I don’t think that discussions like this will change this unfortunate phenomenon overnight, but I think it is important that we keep talking to each other so that we do not lose touch with each others’ humanity.

  55. April 25, 2007 at 8:43 am

    I disagree with the assertion that Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness and turning the other cheek is wrong although I agree that these behaviors can be some of the most challenging and difficult that we as human beings will ever face, even if God does expect them of us. Luckily, we can rest easy that he follows his own counsel and forgives us of falling short of fully adopting these behaviors required by Jesus.

  56. April 25, 2007 at 10:19 am

    Well said Trevor! I guess it is the 10 year antagonist in me that hopes that members can acknowledge who Joseph Smith was (and the uncertainty of all our knowledge about him for good or ill) and to extend this tolerance.

    I realize that I am still missing the point. I need to focus on what I need to do, and stop proselytizing change in members that are frankly and obviously not interested in a changed perspective.

    Leading and learning by example is such a drag! It doesn’t have the fireworks, alienation and tension that forcing my beliefs carries. :)

  57. May 11, 2007 at 4:09 pm

    BTW — I wrote the bulk of the Wikipedia article that you’re quoting back in 2005 when I was actively composing Latter Day Saint history articles for Wikipedia. Prior to my re-write, the article had erroneously cited the Milk-cow incident as the reason Marsh left Mormonism.

    Prior to my re-write, the text read:
    “An almost petty occurrence in August or September of 1838 would have lasting effects on Marsh’s involvement in the LDS Church. His wife and a Mrs. Harris fell into an acrimonious dispute over the exact division of shared cream from a group of cows. Resolution of the argument was taken from the lowest level of church leadership, through several layers, to the Prophet Joseph Smith. When judgment against Mrs. Marsh was confirmed at all levels, Marsh is quoted by George A. Smith as saying that he would uphold the character of his wife ‘…even if he had to go to hell for it.'”

  58. August 30, 2007 at 6:47 pm

    I missed the discussion here when it came out but I will say that the Millennial Star blog gave it some good coverage. With due respect to Wikipedia’s tireless collaborators, I believe there is contemporary evidence the milk-stripping incident did happen. It may depend on how one defines contemporary, but I discovered two mid 1840 sources [1][2]. Wikipedia’s source for “no contemporary evidence” is tertiary and gave the impression that Ludlow, who was quoting Smith and Sjodahl, who were reliant upon George A. Smith, actually made such a claim.

    It appears to me some of this discussion may have been conducted under some false assumptions and I worry about people stumbling onto it from an internet search and becoming misinformed. Hence my belated posting.

    [1] see “Richard Dutcher leaves church” by Ivan Wolfe especially my comments therein (87,92,99) on the Millennial Star Blog posted 4/13/2007
    [2] See “Church Video on Thomas B. Marsh’s Apostas ” by John Mansfield Millennial Star Blog posted 4/24/2007
    [3]The Journal of Henry William Bigler microfilmed in US/CAN film #465. I didn’t have enough time to verify, but this entry is near the start of the journal which was began during Bigler’s Mormon Battalion excursion according to his biographer. The entry reads:

    While in Far West I was at the trial of Sister Marsh the wife of Thomas B. Marsh, he was the President of the Twelve, for skimming milk[.] Several sisters in Far West had agreed to unite in make[-]ing cheese by putting their milk together, each one promising not to skim their milk. The trial was before Bishop Edward Partridge where it was [?] that she had not kept her promise and was about to withdraw the hand of fellowship[.] [T]he Bishop and others plead with her to make things right and offered to give her time to do so, but no [?] she called on God and angels to witness her innocence[.] [A]t this the Prophet jumped up and said “Sister Marsh if you say that you lie like the devil.” This remark from the Prophet at that time made me [stare? startled?], However on a little reflection, I [sure?] got over it.

    [4]The first recorded telling by George A. Smith of the Thomas Marsh apostasy that I am aware of was recorded by William Clayton in Heber C. Kimball’s diary on Dec. 21, 1845:

    Sometimes mere trifles, destroy the confidence which each ought to have in the other, this prevents a union of faith & feeling[.] The apostacy of Thomas B. Marsh was caused by so small a thing as a pint of strippings and his oaths brought the exterminating order which drove us all out of Missouri[.]

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