Learning to Love
Doctrine and Covenants

Section 31: Thomas B. Marsh By Michael J. Preece

Section 31: Thomas B. Marsh

This is a general revelation to this new convert to the Church received at the close of the conference of the elders of the Church in September 26, 1830, in Fayette. It was received at the same time as section 30.

Born in Massachusetts November 1, 1799, Thomas Marsh was six years older than the Prophet. In his early twenties he joined the Methodist Church. However, on comparing its doctrines with scripture, he was unable to make them correspond. Thus he withdrew from all organized religion. He expected and, indeed, predicted the rise of a new church which would promulgate the pure truth.

At age 29, in 1829, he was moved by the Spirit to make a journey west during which he heard of the Book of Mormon. He then traveled to Palmyra and met Martin Harris at the office of E. B. Grandin. He was given some proof sheets containing sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. On studying these few pages, he and his wife Elizabeth received a testimony of the Spirit.

He was a obviously one of the Lord’s elect, prepared for the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of Joseph Smith, “Here indeed was a man called to greatness by the Lord” (HC, 1:117). He later met Oliver Cowdery and remained with him two days, receiving from him the full story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

After returning to his home near Boston, he kept up a correspondence with the Prophet and Oliver for the next year. Upon learning of the organization of the Church, he moved to Palmyra in September of 1830 and stayed for a while with the Smith family in Manchester. He was baptized by David Whitmer in Cayuga Lake, one of the Finger Lakes near Fayette, on September 3, 1830, and “in a few days” was ordained an elder by Oliver Cowdery. This ordination must have taken place before the September conference began, since Thomas B. Marsh was listed as one of the elders in attendance. His family accompanied him to Palmyra and joined the Church some time later.

He will be ordained an apostle April 25 or 26, 1835, at Kirtland, Ohio. In August, 1838, a year of tragic apostasy in Kirtland, he became disaffected and turned traitor to his brethren. At that time he had been president of the Quorum of the Twelve for more than three years.

In August 1838 the oft-quoted “cream strippings” incident occurred. Strippings are the last extra-rich bit of milk pressed from the cows udder when milking. Thomas’s wife, Elizabeth, and George W. Harris’s wife, Lucinda, desired to make cheese, and, as George A. Smith explained, “neither of them possessing the requisite number of cows, they agreed to exchange milk. . . . It was agreed that they should not save the strippings, but that the milk and strippings should all go together. . . . 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” (JD, 3:283). From small beginnings the issue over the strippings escalated. Eventually a church trial was held. The bishop concluded that Elizabeth had defrauded Lucinda. Thomas appealed to the high council. When their decision affirmed the previous decision, he appealed to the First Presidency of the Church, who affirmed that Elizabeth was guilty. George A. Smith said that “Thomas B. Marsh then declared that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it” (JD, 3:84). The Lord sought to change the course that Thomas was pursuing by giving him a revelation: “In it God told him what to do, and that was to sustain Brother Joseph. . . . But no, he took a course to sustain his wife and oppose the prophet of God, and she led him away.” After leaving the Church Thomas and Lucinda went to Richmond, Missouri, and, as Joseph Smith wrote, “made affidavit . . . to all the vilest slanders, aspersions, lies and calumnies towards myself and the Church that he could invent. . . . Now he has fallen, lied and sworn falsely, and is ready to take the lives of his best friends” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 7 vols. [Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51], 3:167). Among other things, Marsh made an affidavit to the effect that the “Mormons” had a company called “Danites,” organized for the purpose of murdering “enemies”—a statement he certainly knew to be false. He was eventually cut off for apostasy, at Quincy, Illinois, March 17, 1839. After that he became a vagabond, without resting-place, without peace, for many years.

In 1857, after the death of his wife Elizabeth, for whose sake he had left the Church, Thomas was rebaptized at Winter Quarters in Florence, Nebraska. He never again was restored to his standing among the Twelve. He then traveled to Salt Lake City, and asked forgiveness and reinstatement in the Church. President Young introduced him to the audience in the Bowery, on the 6th of September. He told the congregation that he had suffered greatly during his absence from the Church, but that he acknowledged the hand of the Lord in the chastisement he had received. He made the following significant remark concerning the beginning of his apostasy:

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. 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. 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 was about the amount of my hypocrisy. I meddled with that which was not my business” (JD, 5:207).

At the conclusion of his address he was by unanimous vote received into full fellowship as a member of the Church. Had Thomas Marsh remained faithful after 1838, he would have been senior to Brigham Young and might have succeeded Joseph Smith as President of the Church when the Prophet was murdered in 1844 (see D&C 112).

1 Thomas, my son, blessed are you because of your faith in my work.

verse 1 The Lord commends him for his uncommon faith. From the moment he had read just sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon, he had evidenced his willingness to do whatever it took to join with the saints become a worker in the kingdom.

2 Behold, you have had many afflictions because of your family; nevertheless, I will bless you and your family, yea, your little ones; and the day cometh that they will believe and know the truth and be one with you in my church.

verse 2 “Behold, you have had many afflictions because of your family” The reference here is probably to Thomas’s extended family rather than his immediate family, for at this time his wife was an enthusiastic believer in the restored gospel, and their children were still quite small and unlikely to offer their parents much affliction.

“the day cometh that they will believe and know the truth and be one with you in my church” Thomas is promised that his children would eventually join the Church although, like most such blessings, this was conditioned upon Thomas’s continuing faithfulness (see 58:31-33).

3 Lift up your heart and rejoice, for the hour of your mission is come; and your tongue shall be loosed, and you shall declare glad tidings of great joy unto this generation.

verse 3 “and your tongue shall be loosed” Brother Marsh was a powerful speaker. At the time of the troubles in Clay County, Missouri, in 1836, he was a member of a committee selected to lay grievances of the saints before the authorities of the state. On one occasion at a meeting at the city of Liberty, he spoke of the persecution the saints had suffered, so eloquently that General Atchinson, in attendance at the meeting, and others wept. The meeting passed resolutions to assist the saints in finding a new location.

“glad tidings of great joy” The good news of the gospel.

4 You shall declare the things which have been revealed to my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun. You shall begin to preach from this time forth, yea, to reap in the field which is white already to be burned.

verse 4 “You shall declare the things which have been revealed to my servant, Joseph Smith, Jun.” Thomas is reminded of the difference between what had been revealed to Joseph Smith and what had not. Certainly the Lord hoped to avoid another Hiram Page affair.

“already to be burned” This phrase should be understood as “all ready to be burned.” We might expect to read, “already to harvest” (D&C 4:4), but shortly after the harvest comes the burning of the fields to remove all the leftover stubble and chaff. Thomas was to harvest those who would listen to the gospel so they will not be burned with the stubble and other useless debris (see D&C 86:7: Matthew 13:24-30).

5 Therefore, thrust in your sickle with all your soul, and your sins are forgiven you, and you shall be laden with sheaves upon your back, for the laborer is worthy of his hire. Wherefore, your family shall live.

verse 5 “your sins are forgiven you” When a covenant individual in the Lord’s kingdom is earnestly striving to overcome his natural self and obey the commandments, the Lord will regularly justify (remove the penalties of sin) and sanctify (burn out of his soul—as if by fire—increments of the natural self and reveal to his heart increments of his attributes—gifts of the Spirit) him.

“you shall be laden with sheaves upon your back” The “sheaves” of grain are the people Thomas would “harvest” through teaching them the gospel.

“Wherefore, your family shall live.” Thomas Marsh is promised that though he was to spend his time in missionary service, his family would be provided for. Those who labor full time for the Lord deserve and will receive appropriate compensation for their services, whether in form of money or compensating blessings or both.

6 Behold, verily I say unto you, go from them only for a little time, and declare my word, and I will prepare a place for them.

verse 6 “go from them only for a little time” Marsh’s family was dependent upon him for their support, hence he was not required to be gone from them for very long.

7 Yea, I will open the hearts of the people, and they will receive you. And I will establish a church by your hand;

verse 7 “I will establish a church by your hand” That is, establish a branch of the Church.

8 And you shall strengthen them and prepare them against the time when they shall be gathered.

verse 8 “prepare them against the time when they shall be gathered” The concept of the literal gathering was taken seriously by the early Church. In 1832, Marsh led a group of saints from Kirtland, Ohio, to Jackson County, Missouri, as part of that literal gathering to Zion.

verses 9-13 The Lord gives special instructions to Brother Marsh. The Lord knows the spiritual dangers facing Thomas Marsh, and warns him of them.

9 Be patient in afflictions, revile not against those that revile. Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast.

verse 9 “revile not against those that revile” To adopt Satan’s methods, even in opposition to Satan, is to leave holy ground and fall under Satan’s power. The end does not justify the means, and those who serve the Lord must employ the Lord’s methods in doing so. Reviling and contending are Satanic behaviors, even when done in defense of the Church.

“Govern your house in meekness, and be steadfast.” Thomas Marsh did neither. It was largely his inability to govern his household that led to his apostasy between 1838 and 1857 (see D&C 112).

10 Behold, I say unto you that you shall be a physician unto the church, but not unto the world, for they will not receive you.

verse 10 Brother Marsh was, at one time, a grocer. In those days a grocer was a dealer in herbs, spices, and wort (a liquid which is fermented to make beer). He had apparently acquired some skill in using herbs to treat some of the common illnesses of his day. His ability as a physician by today’s standards would be considered sadly lacking, but in his day the person who could use herbs skillfully to bring about healings was highly respected in his field. In this verse he is admonished to be a spiritual physician to the Church. In his sojourn in the Church he solved problems, resolved conflicts, and answered many questions for the members of the Church. When he was faithful, he had a reputation for receiving frequent and specific revelations in answer to his prayers. His calling as “physician unto the Church” was primarily to help heal the hearts, minds, and spirits of the members rather than their bodies.

11 Go your way whithersoever I will, and it shall be given you by the Comforter what you shall do and whither you shall go.

12 Pray always, lest you enter into temptation and lose your reward.

verse 12 If an individual fails to maintain regular communication with the Lord, his relationship with him will inevitably diminish over time.

13 Be faithful unto the end, and lo, I am with you. These words are not of man nor of men, but of me, even Jesus Christ, your Redeemer, by the will of the Father. Amen.

- Michael J. Preece