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“Missouri People Were Not All Mobbers in Those Terrible Days”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 10, 2010

British-born Isaac Russell responded to the preaching of Parley P. Pratt near Toronto, Canada in 1836, part of a group of converts that included John Taylor and his wife, Joseph Fielding and his sisters Mary and Mercy, and other prominent early members. Russell immediately became a missionary himself, helping to convert others who are the progenitors of large Mormon families, before he and his family gathered with the Church in Kirtland in 1837.

Russell was one of that first group of missionaries, led by apostles Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and Willard Richards, who established the Church in England. Some well-known episodes of that significant mission are connected with Russell; I refer you to Scott C. Esplin, “Remembering the Impact of British Missionary Isaac Russell,” in Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint Church History: The British Isles, ed. Cynthia Doxey, Robert C. Freeman, Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, and Dennis A. Wright (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2007), 1-20, for a very readable biography in more detail than is necessary for background to this post.

As explained in that article, Russell was excommunicated in 1839 for reasons that have been disputed almost from the day the excommunication was pronounced. The Russells – Isaac, his wife Mary, and their six children, and dependent extended family members – remained in Far West and later in Richmond, Missouri, after the Saints moved on to Nauvoo.

Whatever the truth of Russell’s accused apostasy, the family had not been spared the horrors of Missouri mob action even after the Saint had left, even after Russell was excommunicated. According to one of his daughters, “The hatred and venom of the mob was especially directed against father.” At one time a mob threatened to kill the Russell family. “Without a word of remonstrance father entered the house, and bringing out a blanket brought the children one by one, and seated them upon it, taking the babe, little Sarah from my mother’s arm last; then facing the mob he raised his right hand to heaven, and said in a voice quiet and calm, ‘There they are – shoot if God will let you.’” In another incident, a mob literally auctioned Russell as a slave. The neighbor who “purchased” Russell, evidently to spare him additional abuse, immediately released him, but Russell worked for the man for six months in order to reimburse him.

Some Church leaders, notably Heber C. Kimball, believed Russell’s sins were not so great as to deserve excommunication except in those tumultuous days. He might have returned to the Church in time, but he died in the early fall of 1844 before there had been time for reconciliation.

Mary Russell and the children lived on in Richmond, Missouri, estranged from the Church for two decades, until in 1861 they emigrated to Utah. Despite their return to the Church and their professions of faith, the Russells didn’t easily win acceptance among their Utah neighbors. Sermons on Isaac Russell’s apostasy were preached – not once, but week after week. They were accused of coming to Utah only because the Civil War was overrunning their old Missouri home. Through all the difficulties, Mary Russell encouraged her children to be patient and demonstrate their faith.

As Esplin explains, some of the Russell children shouldered the burden of lifting the cloud from their father’s name. He was eventually cleared for posthumous temple work. His reputation in Church history remains mixed.

All of that is prologue to the real point of this post: Perhaps because of the unfairness shown toward the returning Russells and the unforgiving attitude of long-time Church members toward a man who had made enormous contributions to the missionary effort of the early Church, and who was never known to have maligned Joseph Smith or the restored gospel despite his excommunication, Sarah Eliza Russell did not tolerate exaggerated claims of the wickedness of other people. That included exaggerated claims of the wickedness of Missourians, under whose own intolerant hands the Russell family had suffered.

Sarah wrote, in an account published in 1902,

I do not remember ever hearing a murmur of complaint fall from the lips of my mother, but often a shadow rested upon her face, which later I learned to interpret as the shadow of care and anxiety, the shadow of the weight of responsibility that rested upon her after the death of my father, of the helpless family looking to her for bread and clothing, and among strangers in a strange land.

Christmas [1846] was drawing nigh and a little corn meal was our only supply. I listened to the conversation of the older ones, and noticed the shadow there, shadows that will come sometimes notwithstanding an abiding faith and trust in God.

In the afternoon of the day before Christmas on looking up the road we saw two negroes coming carrying a large clothes basket. They came up to the door smiling and bowing, and one of them said to my mother, “Miss Mary, Mars Tom (Dr. Thomas Allen) sent you this for your Christmas dinner.”

The basket was emptied and a message of thanks returned to the generous hearted donor. I do not now remember all it contained, but I know there was something for the little stockings next morning, and a good Christmas dinner, and several more good dinners from the contents of that same basket. From that time on the way was opened up before us, so that we did not suffer any more for the comforts of life. Friends were raised up on every hand, sewing was given us from Dr. Allen’s family and others, and we never had to eat the bread of charity. Missouri people were not all mobbers in those terrible days when the Saints were so persecuted and driven, and it gave me the greatest joy to do temple work for some of the noble, kind-hearted ones who were to us friends in need, true friends in deed.

Her fuller account can be read here.



7 Comments »

  1. Great post, Ardis.

    What is it about we humans that we seem to need a villain to accuse? I wish I were exempt from this weakness, tendency, temptation, or whatever one might call it.

    Comment by Stephen Taylor — November 10, 2010 @ 10:10 am

  2. What an interesting story. And how wonderful to read about someone who insisted on making the reader consider a measure of nuance.

    Comment by David Y. — November 10, 2010 @ 10:38 am

  3. Beautiful!!!

    Comment by psychochemiker — November 10, 2010 @ 11:09 am

  4. Lovely, thanks.

    Comment by Moniker Challenged — November 10, 2010 @ 11:14 am

  5. What a treasure to have these stories written down by Sarah Russell.

    This post does remind me, however, that I need to learn more about the Upper Canada converts in my family. So much to do, so little time!

    Thanks for the post, Ardis.

    Comment by Researcher — November 10, 2010 @ 11:46 am

  6. Such things add to the complexities of our narratives and enrich them. Hard to read, even this far removed, of their poor treatment in Utah.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 10, 2010 @ 4:27 pm

  7. Sarah Russell was also clearly one of the “noble,kind-hearted ones” and also a very good writer. She would have made a great novelist.Also how free from self pity they were. Thanks for posting this.

    Comment by aarondavidson — November 12, 2010 @ 5:02 am

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