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Theodore Turley: A Biography
Richard E. Turley, Jr.

[This is another in a continuing series of newsletter articles that together will make up the first rough draft of a biography of Theodore Turley. The draft will undergo considerable revision before being published in book form. I invite all family members to read it critically, make suggestions, and offer additional information for possible inclusion. Feel free to e-mail me.]

3 Joining the Latter-day Saints, 1837

Theodore Turley had been a deeply religious man since at least 1818 when, according to his own account, he “comenced Preaching Methodism” in England. After emigrating to Canada, he “continued in that cource . . . until P. P. Pratt came to Canadia.”1 Parley Parker Pratt was an apostle in what would soon be named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a church organized by young New York prophet Joseph Smith after receiving heavenly instructions to restore the church that Jesus Christ founded. Joseph had been led to an ancient record written on gold plates that he translated and published as the Book of Mormon. Based on the book’s name, members of the new church were nicknamed “Mormons,” though more formally known as Latter-day Saints, or just saints.2 The missionary preaching of Parley P. Pratt would begin a chain reaction of conversions that would include Theodore and Frances Turley and forever alter their lives.

One evening in April 1836, Parley lay awake trying to decide whether to start on a church mission or stay home, support his family, and work to pay off his debts. A knock interrupted him. Answering the door, he found fellow apostle Heber C. Kimball and others, who proceeded to bless Parley and his ailing wife, Thankful. Heber prophesied that Thankful would bear a son, told Parley to “go forth in the ministry, nothing doubting,” and promised the Lord would provide them abundant means.

In blessing Parley, Heber specified where he should go to preach and foretold the outcome of his efforts:

Thou shalt go to Upper Canada, even to the city of Toronto, the capital, and there thou shalt find a people prepared for the fullness of the gospel, and they shall receive thee, and thou shalt organize the Church among them, and it shall spread thence into the regions round about, and many shall be brought to the knowledge of the truth and shall be filled with joy; and from the things growing out of this mission, shall the fullness of the gospel spread into England, and cause a great work to be done in that land.3

Portions of Heber’s prophecies surprised Parley and Thankful. In nearly a decade of marriage, they had been childless, and having Parley leave Thankful sick at home so he could serve a mission seemed an unlikely solution to their money problems.

They recalled the faith of the Old Testament prophet Abraham, however, and with Thankful’s consent, Parley embarked on his mission a few days later. He traveled northeast by coach from his home in Kirtland, Ohio, to Niagara Falls. Crossing westward into Canada, he soon came to the city of Hamilton on the far western bank of Lake Ontario. There he found steamers that could carry him along the lake to Toronto in just a few hours.

But steamer fare was two dollars, and the penniless Parley began to wonder if he would have to make the journey on foot instead. Pondering what to do, he retired to the forest and prayed for money to cross the lake. He then returned to Hamilton. “I had not tarried many minutes,” Parley’s history records, “before I was accosted by a stranger, who inquired my name and where I was going. He also asked me if I did not want some money. I said yes. He then gave me ten dollars and a letter of introduction to John Taylor, of Toronto, where I arrived the same evening.”4

John Taylor and his wife, Leonora, received Parley hospitably but showed little initial interest in his mission. The next morning, Parley visited the local clergymen to secure a place to preach, but they each in turn refused him. He next asked the sheriff for permission to use the courthouse, and when the sheriff turned him down, he petitioned unsuccessfully for a room in the marketplace in which to preach. Having exhausted his store of ideas, he retired to a nearby grove to pray again for help. Still despairing after his prayer, Parley went back to the Taylors’ house to retrieve his bags before leaving the city for good.

As Parley was picking up his bags, Isabella Russell Walton, widow of Toronto’s first lord chamberlain, dropped by the Taylors’ on her way across town to visit a sister. Leonora Taylor received Isabella in the room next to that in which Parley was standing and told her about him. “He has applied in vain to the clergy and to the various authorities for opportunity to fulfill his mission, and is now about to leave the place,” Leonora said. “He may be a man of God; I am sorry to have him depart.”5

Isabella had felt inspired to visit the Taylors’, and she now knew why. “Tell the stranger he is welcome to my house,” she said to Leonora. “I am a widow; but I have a spare room and bed, and food in plenty. He shall have a home at my house, and two large rooms to preach in just when he pleases.”6 Later, Isabella Walton sent her son John to the Taylors’ to bring Parley back, and in the evening, she gathered her friends and relatives in her parlor to hear the missionary speak. Parley continued to hold meetings at the Waltons’ and soon gathered many followers.

Sunday arrived and Parley decided to forego a Sunday sermon, since it would likely arouse opposition from local clergymen. Instead, he went to a nearby chapel with a friend who introduced him to the preacher after the meeting. The preacher invited Parley to dinner and then to a study group meeting at the home of a wealthy government official named William P. Patrick.7 The Patrick study group, which included John and Leonora Taylor, as well as Isabella Walton, had been meeting twice each week for about two years.

During the meeting, the discussion turned to the subject of divine revelation, but the participants in the discussion were unable to reach a consensus on the matter. Toward the end of the meeting, the preacher who had invited Parley to the meeting stood and introduced him. Parley, who had remained quiet during the discussion, took advantage of his introduction to inform the people that he was “prepared to speak on the subject at some length.” Learning this, the group arranged to meet again in the evening to hear Parley’s discourse.8

That evening Parley spoke to a large crowd for two or three hours about revelation in the ancient church. The following evening he preached again, citing biblical prophecies of “a new dispensation revealed from heaven; by the ministration of angels, and sustained by the marvelous power and gifts of God.” On the third night, he concluded his discourse by relating the “visions, manifestations and many of the details of the organization and movements of the Church of the Saints.”

When William Patrick discovered that Parley was advocating Mormonism, he rejected him, and therefore subsequent meetings had to be held at the Waltons’. Soon Isabella Walton and her household were converted to the new faith, as were John and Leonora Taylor.9 Parley baptized Isabella in Toronto Bay and then took the yet unbaptized John Taylor to Charleton Settlement, ten miles West of Toronto, where Isabella had arranged for Parley to meet her brother, Isaac Russell.

Isaac was a chorister and class leader in the local Methodist church. Parley preached a sermon at the home of Isabella’s and Isaac’s sister, Frances Russell Dawson, after which Isaac declared, “This is the Gospel I have been looking for and am ready to live and die by.” Soon thereafter, Parley baptized Isaac in Black Creek, a half mile west of the settlement, and ordained him to be an elder in the church. Parley also met and converted several others in Isaac’s neighborhood, including Joseph Fielding and Joseph’s sisters, Mary and Mercy.10

After his baptism, Isaac Russell began proselyting in nearby towns and villages, including Churchville, where he would preach the new-found gospel to Theodore and Frances Turley.11 Theodore later recorded that Isaac “came to my house & Said he had been notified in a Dreem that he must Come to my house & preach.”12 Like other Latter-day Saints, Isaac believed “in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.”13

A Protestant preacher who encountered Isaac Russell in the Churchville area left record of a solemn testimony Isaac bore to him about spiritual gifts:

I asked him, “did you mean to say that you yourself have had a revelation from heaven?” [H]e replied that he had, and proceeded to tell me of one in particular. He said that one morning as he was meditati[ng], he saw the heavens opened and the glory of God, and, I think he added, he saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God, and he heard a voice saying to him “Follow thou me.” This he told me in a serious and solemn strain.14

Neither Theodore nor Frances left a record of what Isaac Russell preached at their house, but it probably bore some resemblance to what Parley P. Pratt had been teaching. One of Parley’s Canadian converts, Joseph Fielding, described Parley’s missionary preaching as follows:

I soon discovered that he had the Spirit and Power of God and such Wisdom as none but God himself could have given to Man, by which he could explain those prophecies of which the Preachers of the Day were ignorant, showing the great design and connection of the Scriptures throughout. He also spoke of and introduced the Book of Mormon. . . . He at the same time [said] that the angel made known the record . . . . He spoke also of the present State of the Gentile Church, saying that they were in a fallen condition, that they had all departed from the Truth, that there were none with whom the Lord was well pleased; that they had transgressed the Law, changed the Ordinances and broken the everlasting Covenant, and it was necessary that the Covenant should be renewed before a pure Church could be built up, to have the Ordinances, Gifts and Blessings of the Church of Jesus Christ as established by himself; also that the Day of the Lord was nigh at hand, . . . even that the present Generation should not all pass away until all these things should be fulfilled. Elder Pratt laid before us the Ordinances of the Gospel, which were very plain, being perfectly in accordance with the Scripture, being still more clearly expressed in the Book of Mormon.15

Whatever Isaac actually preached to Theodore and Frances affected them powerfully. Theodore would write, “I received the truth the first time I heard it & my Wife allso was baptized the 1 of March 1837.”16 March 1, 1837, became a watershed date for Theodore and Frances Turley. From that day on, their lives would never be the same.

And the prophecies of Heber C. Kimball on the head of Parley P. Pratt eventually came to pass. Parley was able to pay off his debts, his wife bore him a son, and the people in the Toronto area accepted the gospel, which spread into the regions round about.17 Theodore Turley would contribute to its dissemination in the area and would later help fulfill the last portion of Heber’s prophecy, that “from the things growing out of this mission, shall the fullness of the gospel spread into England, and cause a great work to be done in that land.”18

[Next issue: “Church Life in Canada, 1837-1838”]

Draft of 1 October 1995
© 1995 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the January 1996 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. Theodore Turley, Autobiography (ca. 1840), MS 13176, fd. 1, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, hereafter abbreviated as HDC. Consistent with scholarly practice, I have retained the original spelling of the sources quoted in this article.
  2. For a brief sketch of Parley’s life and a list of biographical sources, see Larry C. Porter, “Pratt, Parley Parker,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 1116-17. For a canonized account of key events related to the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, see “Joseph Smith—History” in The Pearl of Great Price: A Selection from the Revelations, Translations, and Narrations of Joseph Smith, First Prophet Seer, and Revelator to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981), 47-59.
  3. Parley P. Pratt, [Jr.], ed., Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 130-31.
  4. Pratt, 131-35.
  5. Pratt, 135-36; “Laying the Foundation in Canada,” Deseret News, July 31, 1937, Church Section, 1.
  6. Pratt, 136.
  7. Pratt, 136-39; Lethbridge Stake Historical Committee and Melvin S. Tagg, A History of the Mormon Church in Canada (Lethbridge, Alberta: Lethbridge Herald, 1968), 9.
  8. Pratt, 142.
  9. Pratt, 143-51.
  10. “Laying the Foundation,” 1; Isabella Russell Johnson, History of Isaac Russell, 2-4, Brigham Young University Library, Provo, Utah; Joseph Fielding, Journal, vol. 1, pp. 5-7, HDC; Pratt, 151-52.
  11. “Laying the Foundation,” 1; Johnson, 6.
  12. Turley, Autobiography.
  13. “The Articles of Faith,” no. 7, in The Pearl of Great Price, 60. Although these articles were not published as such until 1842, they are a good restatement of Church beliefs about spiritual gifts before that time.
  14. Typescript of Christian Examiner 11 (Dec. 1838): 355, HDC. The Christian Examiner was a monthly publication of the Presbyterian Church in Canada.
  15. Fielding, 6-7.
  16. Turley, Autobiography. This account is the only one in Theodore’s own hand to relate his conversion, but it is rather ambiguous in some of its details. Theodore wrote that “Elder P. P. Pratt came to Canadia baptized Elder Isac Russell he came to my house & Said he had been notified in a Dreem that he must Come to my house & preach I received the truth the first time I heard it & my Wife allso was baptized the 1 of March 1837 Confirmed & ordained under the hand of Elder P. Pratt as Priest.” There is no question that Parley P. Pratt ordained Theodore to be a priest weeks later (see next newsletter article). Some persons have apparently assumed that Parley also performed the baptisms and confirmations, but he apparently was not in Canada on March 1 when the baptisms occurred. Pratt, 158-67. Although it is possible Theodore and Frances were baptized on March 1 and confirmed much later, it seems more likely they were confirmed shortly after being baptized, and the most likely candidate to have performed both ordinances is Isaac Russell.
  17. Pratt, 165.
  18. Pratt, 131.