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Craig Paxton

Restoring 'Thomas B. Marsh'S' Good Name

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In recent years, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and David Bednar have each used some obscure remark from a talk given in 1864 by firebrand General Authority, George A. Smith, a man known for his hyperbole, to besmirch the name of Thomas B. March and make him the poster child of the shallow, offended apostate who dares leave the one true church literally over something as petty as spilled milk. Smith claimed and modern day General Authorities have repeated that Marsh had left the church because of a dispute between his wife and other Mormon women over a milk strippings. Although this tale has made its way into Mormon folklore, Smith’s statements are not supported by any contemporary evidence.

Although I am sure that most are familiar with the Marsh Story, I’m going to guess that most are not aware that there is no evidence to support the story…and yet it is repeated on a seemingly regular basis to support some simpleton premise that apostates leave the church for shallow reasons or some simple offence. While it would be nice if it were all so simple…the real reasons members depart are much more complicated…as Thomas B. Marsh’s real story illustrates.

Church history in Missouri was very complicated. Having been told by God that Missouri was theirs, Church members faithfully came to claim what they believe God had set aside for them. Far West, Missouri soon became the new church headquarters, replacing Kirtland, Ohio. This obviously didn’t set well with the local Missourians who were already beginning to possess much of the land church members believed to be their God given right. As the Mormon population began to outnumber the local Missourian population…political tensions began to flare up.

To make matters worse, the church had a growing list of formerly prominent church leaders who had become disillusioned. This included such names as David and John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and W.W. Phelps. Thrown into this boiling brew was a new zealous Mormon organization called the “Danites” led by Sampson Avard. According to Marsh, Avard and his Danite’s swore oaths to “support the heads of the church in all things that they say or do, whether right or wrong”. As with any organization…some men were more committed than others. Apparently two members of the Danites, Jared Carter and Dimick B. Huntington, proposed at a meeting that the society should kill the dissenters. Marsh and other moderates, spoke forcefully against the motion. But on the following Sunday, 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”. For the dissenters this seemed to be the final nail, within a week they fled the county.

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”.

In President Thomas S. Monson’s version of the story, after repeating the Milk Strippings dispute originated by George A. Smith, goes on to state that… “Elder Thomas B. Marsh, who sided with his wife through all of this, became angrier with each successive decision—so angry, in fact, that he went before a magistrate and swore that the Mormons were hostile toward the state of Missouri. His affidavit led to—or at least was a factor in—Governor Lilburn Boggs’s cruel extermination order, which resulted in over 15,000 Saints being driven from their homes, with all the terrible suffering and consequent death that followed. All of this occurred because of a disagreement over the exchange of milk and cream.

The problem with this story is that although it may serve the purpose of casting Marsh as a shallow, petty apostate with an ax to grind for the slight given his wife…it simply does not tell the true story. It also leaves two other false impressions 01. That Marsh’s sworn statement of “Mormons being hostile toward the state of Missouri” was not true…. when in fact it was true and 02. That Marsh’s …” affidavit led to—or at least was a factor in—Governor Lilburn Boggs’s cruel extermination order, which resulted in over 15,000 Saints being driven from their homes, with all the terrible suffering and consequent death that followed. When in reality, Marsh’s affidavit only fanned the flames that were already burning. To state that his statement “led to” the hostilities that eventually befell the Mormon’s is somewhat disingenuous. and to further claim that his motivations for issuing the affidavit were over the mythical milk story...is just plain false.

The truth is that by the time Marsh swore out his affidavit on the 24th October, 1838, the hostilities that eventually forced the church from Missouri, had already been set in place by the actions of the Mormons themselves beginning with Rigdon’s June 17th “Salt Sermon” and gaining fuel with the burning of Gallatin, Missouri by the Mormon’s on October 18th

Marsh was eventually excommunicated from the Church in absentia on March 17, 1839 and lost his place as the president of the 12 apostles. He did eventually return to the church in 1957. At that time and reflecting on the Missouri years he stated that "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'.

I have no problem with church authorities trotting Thomas B. Marsh out as an apostate. But I would only hope that they would be somewhat more forthcoming as to why he really became disaffected with the church….and spilled milk had little to nothing to do with it. As with all who leave the church...reality is always more complicated than some easy explanation such as laziness, being offended or a desire to commit sin.

Isn’t it about time we all just let Thomas B. Marsh rest in peace?

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Maybe they don't know more to the story then the rest of us! Has there ever been a bio done on him? I know there are snippets here and there but any books on him?

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In recent years, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and David Bednar have each used some obscure remark from a talk given in 1864 by firebrand General Authority, George A. Smith, a man known for his hyperbole, to besmirch the name of Thomas B. March and make him the poster child of the shallow, offended apostate who dares leave the one true church literally over something as petty as spilled milk.

I think the spilled milk episode is used as a demonstration of how disaffection can begin. If anyone thinks that Marsh was excommunicated over spilled milk then he doesn't understand anything about the situation. Apparently Marsh was unable to follow the admonition of the prophet and was several times chastised for this. Here is an article that explains more: Thomas B. Marsh

I'm wondering why you are so concerned with clearing up his name, when he himself came back to the church and acknowledged his fault.

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I'm for it. We've forgiven W.W. Phelps. I also don't like the story once I found out the more complicated details.

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I'm wondering why you are so concerned with clearing up his name, when he himself came back to the church and acknowledged his fault.

Why? Because the church uses him as a prop. They tell a distorted story of his disaffection to propagate the myth that apostates leave the church over petty issues. It’s dishonest and disingenuous. Even as a former member, I still hold the church to a high standard of honesty…I would hope that church leaders share that same perspective.

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In recent years, Gordon B. Hinckley, Thomas S. Monson and David Bednar have each used some obscure remark from a talk given in 1864 by firebrand General Authority, George A. Smith, a man known for his hyperbole, to besmirch the name of Thomas B. March and make him the poster child of the shallow, offended apostate who dares leave the one true church literally over something as petty as spilled milk. Smith claimed and modern day General Authorities have repeated that Marsh had left the church because of a dispute between his wife and other Mormon women over a milk strippings. Although this tale has made its way into Mormon folklore, Smith’s statements are not supported by any contemporary evidence.

Although I am sure that most are familiar with the Marsh Story, I’m going to guess that most are not aware that there is no evidence to support the story…and yet it is repeated on a seemingly regular basis to support some simpleton premise that apostates leave the church for shallow reasons or some simple offence. While it would be nice if it were all so simple…the real reasons members depart are much more complicated…as Thomas B. Marsh’s real story illustrates.

For some it is not...for some it is that simple.

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Why? Because the church uses him as a prop. They tell a distorted story of his disaffection to propagate the myth that apostates leave the church over petty issues. It’s dishonest and disingenuous. Even as a former member, I still hold the church to a high standard of honesty…I would hope that church leaders share that same perspective.

What are you privy too that the rest are not...why are you offended?

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I'm for it. We've forgiven W.W. Phelps. I also don't like the story once I found out the more complicated details.

Probably because the one he harmed, hurt, offended (whatever term you like) did, Joseph. BTW in a very gracious manner. Then W.W. used his talents to heal the wound even more. “Praise to the man”.

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I had heard about a Church video (for Seminary?) that portrayed a milk-free version of the Marsh story. This blog post seems to confirm it, and I think I have the Church history DVD at home. I'll check it out.

If They Harden Not Their Hearts is an eleven minute portrayal of the apostasy of Thomas B. Marsh and Lyman Johnson, two of the first apostles called in this dispensation. Elder Johnson is depicted as having turned his heart too strongly toward the possibilities of profiting handsomely from land sales as converts gathered to Kirtland. Thomas B. Marsh is portrayed as conflicting with Joseph Smith over who had authority to send the Twelve on missions abroad.

Joseph Smith had set apart Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde for missions to England, and Thomas B. Marsh believed that to be his task. On July 23, 1837, the day that the gospel was first preached in England, Marsh sits across a desk from Smith and receives Section 112 from the prophet’s mouth: “Verily I say unto you, there have been some few things in thine heart and with thee with which I, the Lord, was not well pleased. Exalt not yourselves; rebel not against my servant Joseph; for verily I say unto you, I am with him, and my hand shall be over him; and the keys which I have given unto him shall not be taken from him.” Narration informs us that “President Marsh accepted the Lord’s counsel and labored diligently to reconcile the differences in the quorum. Still he struggled with his own pride and hardened his heart.” Marsh goes to the door of Vilate Kimball to inform her that her husband’s mission, having been undertaken without his direction, will fail. The narrator summarizes “Pride led President Marsh to apostasize.”

Next, Marsh’s return to the saints of Sept. 6, 1857 is re-enacted. His use of his own life as a lesson for the church begins “If there should be any among this people who would apostasize and do as I have done, prepare your backs for a good whipping,” and continues with his relief to be restored to the church. In order to end on a down note, however, the production tracks back to Lyman Johnson addressing the Quorum of the Twelve in Nauvoo, wishing that he could still believe as he once did and walk with them and enjoy the joy and gladness that once was his, but he can’t. The production closes with his lament “I have never since seen a happy moment.”

If a student you know studied the Doctrine and Covenants in seminary this year, this is probably what she learned about Thomas B. Marsh. Never a drop of milk nor anything dealing with Elizabeth Marsh is seen or mentioned.

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Apparently Marsh was unable to follow the admonition of the prophet and was several times chastised for this. Here is an article that explains more: Thomas B. Marsh

This is a great article. I've been struggling over a lesson I have to teach this Sunday in RS, about lessons from our history, and this article just gave me some great ideas, and examples to use. Thanks for posting it.

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I think the worry over the good name of Thomas B. Marsh is misplaced. His apostasy is a fact of history, as is his public confession of fault, repentance and re-baptism. Both have been recounted in Church discourse and literature.

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Why? Because the church uses him as a prop. They tell a distorted story of his disaffection to propagate the myth that apostates leave the church over petty issues. It’s dishonest and disingenuous. Even as a former member, I still hold the church to a high standard of honesty…I would hope that church leaders share that same perspective.

Are you related to him?

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I think the worry over the good name of Thomas B. Marsh is misplaced. His apostasy is a fact of history, as is his public confession of fault, repentance and re-baptism. Both have been recounted in Church discourse and literature.

But every 4 years (more if it's recounted in General Conference), it's reinforced in a dedicated lesson that he left the Church 'cause of those milk strippings. That's the key lesson that keeps getting repeatedly taught in the current curriculum. If you ask most members what they know about Thomas Marsh, if they remember his name at all, they'll often say, "He was that guy who got offended over milk and left the Church. How stupid can you be!"

Often paired with the also historically inaccurate note of Simmonds Ryder leaving over a misspelling of his name. (Mark Staker does a fantastic job debunking that in his book Hearken O Ye People: The Historic Setting of Joseph Smith's Ohio Revelations. )

If they really really want and feel they need a lesson on petty reasons people leave the Church, it would be probably a good reason to use example of individuals who actually left the Church over petty reasons - and not taking complicated issues, and boiling them down into something that leaves an inaccurate impression.

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But every 4 years (more if it's recounted in General Conference), it's reinforced in a dedicated lesson that he left the Church 'cause of those milk strippings. That's the key lesson that keeps getting repeatedly taught in the current curriculum. If you ask most members what they know about Thomas Marsh, if they remember his name at all, they'll often say, "He was that guy who got offended over milk and left the Church. How stupid can you be!"

Often paired with the also historically inaccurate note of Simmonds Ryder leaving over a misspelling of his name. (Mark Staker does a fantastic job debunking that in his book Hearken O Ye People: The Historic Setting of Joseph Smith's Ohio Revelations. )

If they really really want and feel they need a lesson on petty reasons people leave the Church, it would be probably a good reason to use example of individuals who actually left the Church over petty reasons - and not taking complicated issues, and boiling them down into something that leaves an inaccurate impression.

As I recall, such discussions are cast not as the individual leaving the Church over petty reasons, but rather, the individual letting petty things impact his testimony, even if they weren't the immediate cause of his leaving the Church. It's a valid point, as apostasy rarely happens in an instant but grows and festers over time.

It's worth mentioning that Marsh himself, though he did not mention the cream incident in his public confession, freely acknowledged that he let a spirit of pride overcome him, necessitating his being humbled through adversity.

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Are you related to him?

I was going to ask this...trying to figure out what triggered the thread, with such passion.

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But every 4 years (more if it's recounted in General Conference), it's reinforced in a dedicated lesson that he left the Church 'cause of those milk strippings. That's the key lesson that keeps getting repeatedly taught in the current curriculum.

Are you referring to the Gospel Doctrine curriculum? Cause I can't find it in there.

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Are you referring to the Gospel Doctrine curriculum? Cause I can't find it in there.

On the new lds.org, the teacher's manual for the course on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History is not present. Neither is the one for the Book of Mormon. I'm guessing the Church is phasing out the current manuals and will be introducing new ones for an upcoming cycle.

(That's only a guess, so don't quote me on this as though I'm giving authoritative or definitive information.)

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I was going to ask this...trying to figure out what triggered the thread, with such passion.

I am going to assume he is until he says otherwise, just because the whole thread is kind of silly if he isn't.

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On the new lds.org, the teacher's manual for the course on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History is not present. Neither is the one for the Book of Mormon. I'm guessing the Church is phasing out the current manuals and will be introducing new ones for an upcoming cycle.

(That's only a guess, so don't quote me on this as though I'm giving authoritative or definitive information.)

Found it!

“Be Not Deceived, but Continue in Steadfastness”

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I'm with Scott Lloyd on this.

He publicly confessed and let President Young chastise him even a little more in a Bowery address. Seems he signed on to be a poster boy for arrogance and repentance, and his position in the doctrine and teachings of the Church has become secure for the larger edification of the kingdom.

Just like Peter's story of denying the savior. Sure, he's like to take that back, but he can't and the world is better for it.

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Milk stripping stories aside, the Church does a pretty poor job whenever they attempt to identify the actual reasons why apostasy occurs.

Having too much "Pride" and getting "Offended" might cause inactivity, but not apostasy.

Actual apostasy (according to the definition of the word) is caused by factors never discussed in any church manual or Sunday school class.

Why? Because talking frankly about apostasy has the unfortunate side-effect of causing further apostasy!

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I'm for it. We've forgiven W.W. Phelps. I also don't like the story once I found out the more complicated details.

Who says we haven't forgiven Thomas B. Marsh. I, for one, rejoice in his repentance and return to the fold and look forward to meeting him one day.

As for Phelps, his erstwhile treachery is still very much a part of our annals (see the CES text Church History in the Fulness of Times, for example), even though we honor him for his subsequent conduct.

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Milk stripping stories aside, the Church does a pretty poor job whenever they attempt to identify the actual reasons why apostasy occurs.

Having too much "Pride" and getting "Offended" might cause inactivity, but not apostasy.

Actual apostasy (according to the definition of the word) is caused by factors never discussed in any church manual or Sunday school class.

Why? Because talking frankly about apostasy has the unfortunate side-effect of causing further apostasy!

I agree........

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I taught this lesson a few years ago and the emphasis was on small steps leading to apostasy. And yes it often begins with pride. The milk incident wasn't the reason for the excommunication but it was an example of how such things can begin if a person doesn't watch himself.

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