Section 111: The Salem Experience
In the summer of 1836, a Brother Jonathan Burgess, a member of the Church from Massachusetts, came to Joseph and told him of a widow lady of Salem, Massachusetts, who was now deceased. Before her death, Brother Burgess had learned that this lady, also a member of the Church, had a treasure chest in her basement filled with gold, silver, jewels, and other precious things. Brother Burgess had spoken with her about her treasures and asked her what she intended to do with them. She told him that she intended to give them to the Church. Thus it seemed that the treasure was available for the taking, if only they could find it. Brother Burgess was the only one who had visited the home and knew of its location. The news of this treasure came at an opportune time, since the Church was struggling with an increasingly serious plague of debts.
Many factors had contributed to this debt. The loss of all church assets in Jackson County, Missouri, was estimated at $175,000. Funds had been raised and spent in support of the displaced Missouri members. The costs of provisioning Zion’s Camp had seriously depleted the resources of the saints who had contributed. The Church was still under divine commandment to raise money to purchase additional lands in Missouri (D&C 105:29). Finally, Joseph had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars to pay the financial demands of building the Kirtland Temple. It should be noted that the debts of the Church during this period were not due to foolishness or mismanagement. Rising land values in the Kirtland area had made it possible to keep securing loans for the Church with church-owned property used as collateral. Thus, the Church was land rich and cash poor. The debt problem was largely one of cash flow rather than of net worth.
So Joseph decided to take a trip to Salem to see if he could locate this treasure. He took with him Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Oliver Cowdery. They traveled first to New York City, where they spent several days with the church’s creditors, and then they continued on to Salem, Massachusetts, arriving there on August 4. They were joined in Salem by Brigham Young and Lyman E. Johnson who were doing missionary work in the area. They rented a house in Salem and began looking for the widow’s house. Brother Burgess met with them briefly and told them all he remembered about the house and its location, and then he disappeared. It seems that it had been some years since Brother Burgess had actually met with this woman, and considerable building had occurred since then, so that locating the house was going to be difficult. The group was in Salem for weeks looking for the treasure. They divided their time between preaching, sight seeing, and looking for the widow’s house. They never found the house or the treasure.
While in Salem, in the house they had rented, Joseph received, in the presence of Brigham Young and Lyman E. Johnson, a revelation—section 111. A copy of section 111 in the handwriting of Willard Richards was included in the Manuscript History of the Church sometime before January 4, 1844. The revelation was first published in the Deseret News (December 25, 1852, 9) and was first included in the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876.
1 I, the Lord your God, am not displeased with your coming this journey, notwithstanding your follies.
verse 1 A classic verse of scripture! Do we sense that the Lord may have had tongue-in-cheek here? What is a “folly” anyway? Perhaps it is best described as an honest mistake or an unwise decision made with good intentions.
In this verse and in subsequent verses, the Lord gives us a great example of how to deal with a folly committed by someone over whom we have responsibility. The Lord could have rebuked his young prophet and not let him off the hook for making this nearly fruitless trip to Salem. This would certainly have been embarrassing for Joseph and damaging to his self esteem. Instead, the Lord points out positive features of Joseph’s trip to Salem and provides encouragement for the “treasure” seekers. How often are we guilty of anger or abuse, both verbal and physical, when we are affected or inconvenienced by a folly of someone over whom we have authority—a child, an employee, or even a friend?
2 I have much treasure in this city for you, for the benefit of Zion, and many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time for the benefit of Zion, through your instrumentality.
verse 2 “I have much treasure in this city for you” The Lord teaches that there is more treasure than just gold and silver here in Salem. This other treasure includes genealogical records (see verse 9).
“many people in this city, whom I will gather out in due time” In addition to the genealogical records, the Lord may be alluding to other potential treasures—contact with influential people, and potential converts.
Five years later, Erastus Snow and Benjamin Winchester were sent back to Salem. They were given a copy of the Salem revelation and told to fulfill it. They arrived in Salem in September 1841. They preached at public meetings, published a pamphlet, and challenged the notorious Mormon apostate, John C. Bennett, to public debate. Their efforts bore fruit. Within a year there were ninety members in Salem.
3 Therefore, it is expedient that you should form acquaintance with men in this city, as you shall be led, and as it shall be given you.
verse 3 “form acquaintance with men in this city” Joseph’s account of his time in Salem reveals a great deal of public relations work as well as public lectures and sermons. Joseph Smith and his associates visited most of the important people and places in the city, and several newspapers covered their activities while they were in Salem. It appears from all accounts that their visit left the community with a generally positive impression.
4 And it shall come to pass in due time that I will give this city into your hands, that you shall have power over it, insomuch that they shall not discover your secret parts; and its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours.
verse 4 “And it shall come to pass in due time” It seems likely that, even as of today, the whole story of Salem, Massachusetts, and Zion in the latter days has not yet been played out.
“they shall not discover your secret parts” In the Old Testament, this statement is a Hebrew idiom for being thoroughly and publicly humiliated. The Hebrew could be translated more literally “uncover your private parts,” and carries the connotation of being publicly stripped and humiliated (1 Samuel 5:9; Isaiah 3:17). In the context here, it is a promise that the brethren will not be publicly embarrassed or shamed.
“its wealth pertaining to gold and silver shall be yours” It would be hard to make a more explicit reference to financial treasure than this, and there will come a time when the wealth of Salem will be brought to adorn Zion’s fair head.
5 Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them.
verse 5 Two years before, the Lord had given Joseph Smith specific instructions and promises concerning his debts and those of the Church (D&C 104:79-86). The Lord had told Joseph that “in temporal labors thou shalt not have strength, for this is not thy calling” (D&C 24:9). Again, the Lord challenged the leaders of the Church to have faith in allowing him to deal with both Church debt and the redemption of Zion in his own due time. The promise concerning debt has been fulfilled. The promise concerning the physical Zion has not—as yet.
6 Concern not yourselves about Zion, for I will deal mercifully with her.
7 Tarry in this place, and in the regions round about;
verse 7 “Tarry in this place” One might think that Joseph, having learned that his purpose for going to Salem was “folly,” would have wanted to return promptly to Kirtland. But the Lord wanted Joseph in Salem for reasons of his own, and he would show Joseph where to go and what to do.
8 And the place where it is my will that you should tarry, for the main, shall be signalized unto you by the peace and power of my Spirit, that shall flow unto you.
verse 8 The word signalized means made evident, prominent, or eminent.
9 This place you may obtain by hire. And inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city;
verse 9 “This place you may obtain by hire” Joseph’s temporary lodgings on Union Street were acceptable to the Lord to serve as his base of operations in Salem.
“inquire diligently concerning the more ancient inhabitants and founders of this city” The Lord counsels Joseph to begin to do genealogical research. Salem was the county seat of Essex County, and many genealogical records were kept there. It was in that county that Robert Smith, the first of the Smith family in America, settled. Salem was the residence of many of the pioneer immigrants to America whose descendants joined the Church. The Smith family records were there in Salem.
10 For there are more treasures than one for you in this city.
11 Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them. Amen.
verse 11 “be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin” The Lord commands them to summon all their resources to do the Lord’s work and to remain pure. The dangerous “serpent” was prototypical of astuteness and cunning in the ancient world. Therefore, the Lord’s servants, in order to remain safe in the world, need to be “as wise as serpents.”
Brief Historical Setting
The spiritual high of the completion and dedication of the Kirtland Temple was followed by one of the lowest periods of our church’s history. The year following the Temple dedication saw a spirit of apostasy sweep through the Church. This apostasy even involved several members of the Quorum of the Twelve.
In July 1837 the Lord warned Thomas B. Marsh that, as President of the Twelve, he should bring his quorum back into line [D&C 112 -Thomas B. Marsh and the Quorum of Twelve].
- Michael J. Preece