The Story of Thomas B. Marsh, Faith, Loyalty and Apostasy

I don’t really have anything definitive to say about Thomas Marsh. I have a tenuous knowledge of Mormon church history. Too many years have passed between college church classes and today’s date. I’m not so attentive in Sunday school I’m afraid. I am reading Rough Stone Rolling, but I’m not positive Marsh will get much attention. He’s not a major historical figure, so I’m not sure how much there is to learn about Thomas Marsh.  Recently, though, I came across this article that I think makes some important points which I will get to. Here’s the church’s story on Marsh.

The first article is written by John Hamer, a historian and member of the “Community of Christ church, the second article is written by Kay Darowski, also a historian a member of the Mormon church and of course its an article posted on the official church website.

The major difference between the two accounts is in each’s assessment of why Thomas Marsh left the church. Darowski references the controversy of the cream strippings:

Also contributing to his deepening dissatisfaction was the infamous “cream strippings” incident, which occurred in August or September 1838, involving Marsh’s wife, Elizabeth, and Lucinda Harris, wife of George W. Harris. According to George A. Smith, the women had agreed to exchange milk from their cows for making cheese. But counter to their agreement, Elizabeth allegedly kept the cream strippings—the richer part of the milk that rises to the top—before sending the rest of the milk to Lucinda. According to Smith, the matter went before the teachers quorum, then the bishop, and then the high council, all of whom found Elizabeth to be at fault. Marsh, not satisfied, appealed to the First Presidency, who agreed with the earlier decisions. Further offended by this chain of events, the already frustrated Marsh was said to have declared “that he would sustain the character of his wife, even if he had to go to hell for it.”

If you click on the reference you’ll find where this comes from:

The only full account of this oft-repeated story was given by George A. Smith in a discourse in Salt Lake City on April 6, 1856. Smith prefaced it by saying “sometimes it happens that out of a small matter grows something exceedingly important.” See Journal of Discourses, 3:283-284 for cream-stripping story.

Again, I’m not a historian, but a story repeated almost 20 years after the incident from one person’s memory with no verifying document is not considered reliable, in an academic sense at least. I think this is why John Hamer calls this a “fable” in his writing of the story.

Both accounts agree, though, of a more likely cause of his apostasy, although notice how the language is different in each telling:

Hammer:

Although the Mormons at the time were steeped in Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8), where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000, the danger in escalating the violence — in fighting mobs with mobs and in answering pillaging with pillaging — was extreme. The Mormons were as hopelessly outnumbered as Gideon. As much as the Saints eventually suffered after their defeat, even worse results were quite possible. The massacre at Haun’s Mill might just as easily have been replicated en masse at Far West, and the trial of Joseph Smith and other leaders may well have been a court martial and summary execution, (however illegal).

Darowski:

Within a few months, Marsh, as had many others, fell prey to a spirit of apostasy. He was among several Latter-day Saints who became disturbed by the increasingly violent relationship between Church members and their Missouri neighbors.

I think it’s obvious that Hamer is more sympathetic than Darowski. This is also interesting because this story gets repeated again and again. In a recent General Conference, Elder Bednar uses it to make the point that we shouldn’t let person offense get in the way of active church participation.

I’m not sure if the cream stripping story happened or not. It’s very possible it happened and it may have been a contributing factor in Thomas Marsh’s apostasy. But I think it’s safe to say that it wasn’t the central, driving reason. The church was going through a difficult time in what is now referred to as the Missouri Mormon war. The Mormons wanted to settle in Missouri, the people residing in Missouri didn’t want them there. Mormons were victimized by mob attack, but they also resorted to mob attack in retaliation. This retaliation was the concern for Marsh, Wikipedia:

Thomas B. Marsh, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the church, and fellow Apostle Orson Hyde were alarmed by the events of the Daviess County expedition. On October 19, 1838, the day after Gallatin was burned, Thomas B. Marsh and fellow apostle Orson Hyde left the association of the Church.[63] On October 24, they swore out affidavits concerning the burning and looting in Daviess County. They also reported the existence of the Danite group among the Mormons and repeated a popular rumor that a group of Danites was planning to attack and burn Richmond and Liberty.[

This was a big thing, a huge thing. In many ways it’s understandable that Marsh left the church. But Marsh’s actions did hurt the church, caused it additional problems, and contributed to additional suffering to the church and its leaders. It’s also understandable that Joseph Smith felt betrayed by a friend. It was not easy being a Mormon during those times. Those who stayed true and faithful deserve our respect. Those who chose to leave deserve our sympathy.

I guess my point is historical truth is more nuanced and complicated than often times we realize. Usually, neither side is blameless. I understand why Elder Bednar makes the point he does. The cream stripping is a more concise, easier to tell story and more easily fits the larger point he’s trying to make. The real story is more difficult, nuanced and would overwhelm a pretty short talk.

But there are interesting lessons to be learned from the real story:

Being a member of a church community can be difficult. It takes loyalty and devotion, and sometimes this can be painful, devastatingly so. Thomas Marsh had valid concerns and these concerns led him to leave the church, but perhaps there were other ways he could have dealt with these concerns? But I also think the real story should serve as a cautionary tale for those of us who stay faithful to the church. We should be careful before inflicting a harsh judgment on those who decide to leave it. As Elder Uchtdorf counsels here:

Sometimes we assume it is because they have been offended or lazy or sinful. Actually, it is not that simple. In fact, there is not just one reason that applies to the variety of situations.

Some of our dear members struggle for years with the question whether they should separate themselves from the Church.

We all have individual journeys and none of us really knows what it’s like to be another person. Thomas Marsh is a sympathetic person. He had real challenges. He suffered.  I think he’s someone who tried to do the right thing in the face of severe difficulties. He is one to emulate and learn from. His life was incredibly difficult and on the whole, I believe he endured it well. I think through it all, God loved Him and accepted Him as His own. I think Marsh’s life is a life to be revered.

One interesting postscript. Thomas Marsh was the president of the quorum of apostles when he left the church. Brigham Young took his position. If he hadn’t left, Marsh likely would have been the second prophet of the church and the responsibilities of the westward migration and building up the church in Utah would have been on his shoulders. This is an interesting alternative history. I’m not sure he could have done it as well.

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