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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.]

4 Church Life in Canada, 1837-1838

On March 25, 1837—three and a half weeks after Theodore Turley and his wife, Frances, became Latter-day Saints—tragedy struck the life of Parley P. Pratt, the apostle whose preaching helped precipitate Theodore and Frances’s conversion. On that day, Elder Pratt’s wife passed away, but not before giving birth to a son as had been prophesied by Elder Heber C. Kimball when he blessed Elder Pratt before his first mission to the Toronto area. Elder Kimball had also prophesied that from the work begun in Canada, the gospel would spread to England. According to Elder Pratt’s biography, soon after his wife’s death, he “returned to Canada, to visit the Saints, and to confer on the subject of a mission to England.”1

On Monday, April 24, 1837, a conference was held in Churchville, the village in which Theodore and Frances lived. Among the many persons present were Elder Pratt and Elder John Taylor, two men whose lives would remain entwined with the Turleys for years to come. Elder Taylor would later become President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Also present were John Snyder and Joseph Fielding, who would figure in the Church’s first mission to England, and William Law, one of Theodore’s friends, who would eventually rise to prominence as a counselor to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Church’s First Presidency, then plummet to become one of Joseph’s—and the Church’s—arch enemies.

According to a report of the conference published in the Church’s official periodical, “Eld. Pratt was called to preside, and the following persons were ordained: Wm. Law to the office of an elder, Theodore Turley, priest[,] and Jacob Scott, teacher.” The person who filed the report added, “The presence of the Lord was with us; the manifestation of the Spirit was clear and the votes of the members unanimous—and we were led to praise God that he was pleased to call new laborers into his vineyard, and thus facilitate the progress of his work in the coming forth of his kingdom and prepare a people for the glorious advent of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever. Amen.”2

As a priest, Theodore became one of the new laborers in the vineyard. Writing years later, Theodore recounted that he was “ordained under the hand of Elder P P Pratt as Priest” and “went [on] a mission” on which he “Built up a Church . . . of 17 members in 3 wekes[;] among the Number was Elder Mulholand[,] Standing & Mulliner[;] then I was ordained an Elder under hands of P. P Pratt[;] continued preaching till we went up to Kirtland.”3 The three converts Theodore mentioned by name all went on to become prominent in the early Church. James Mulholland became a scribe to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Latter-day Saint city of Nauvoo, and a major street in the city was named after him following his premature death.4 James Standing also became a prominent Nauvoo citizen, and his son Joseph later became one of the Church’s most famous missionary martyrs, being killed by a Georgia mob in 1879.5 Samuel Mulliner became one of two missionaries to introduce the gospel to his native Scotland.6

Theodore baptized Samuel Mulliner on September 10, 1837.7 In the meantime, the prophecy of a mission to England began to be fulfilled. According to Elder Pratt’s autobiography, “Several of the Saints in Canada were English, who had friends in England. Letters had already been sent to them with information of the rise of the Church, and of its principles. Several of the Canadian Elders felt a desire to go on a mission to their friends in that country.”8

Four Canadians were finally called as missionaries. These four, Joseph Fielding, John Goodson, John Snyder, and Turley’s good friend Isaac Russell, joined Heber C. Kimball, Orson Hyde, and Willard Richards to become the first Latter-day Saint representatives in England. Kimball, who led the group, had been personally selected for the mission by Joseph Smith after the Prophet had received inspired direction that a mission to England would revitalize the Church. The call totally surprised Elder Kimball, even though he had been the one to prophesy of an English mission the previous year in his blessing to Parley P. Pratt. The seven missionaries left New York harbor on July 1, 1837, and arrived in England about three weeks later.9 Though Theodore was not included in the first group of missionaries to England, he contributed to the first mission by providing Isaac Russell with a letter to his brother in England.10

Meanwhile, Joseph Smith and his counselor, Sidney Rigdon, spent four or five days in Theodore and Frances’s neighborhood in August 1837, at which time they likely met the two Church leaders.11 Then around October, Theodore traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, the Church headquarters at the time.12

On November 9, 1837, Theodore, who was then in Churchville, wrote a letter to Isaac Russell in England for the purpose of “communicating a few of the feelings and desires of my heart.” After expressing joy at hearing of the success of the missionaries in England and asking Russell to “Excuse the present scraps,” Theodore reminded Isaac of a promise he had made to him before departing for England. “When you left me,” Theodore wrote, “you said I should have a purchaser on the last day. I have sold. The Lord has shown His delivering hand in my behalf to a great extent in preparing my way for the ministry.”

Theodore next reported on his missionary efforts in Canada. “I have endeavored to labor in vineyard ever since your absence,” he wrote Isaac. “The Lord has blessed me in my own soul. I have baptized nine in that neighborhood[;] there are twelve members in that branch doing well. Bro. Law and myself are truly in the possession of the feelings and spirit of brethren.” After Isaac had left on his mission, Theodore had been advanced in the priesthood. “At a meeting of conference in Scarborough,” he explained, “I was ordained an elder.”

While Isaac was on his mission in England, his family was staying in Kirtland, Ohio, where the headquarters of the Church was then located and where Theodore had recently visited. “I have been in Kirtland and saw your family,” Theodore reported. “Kissed Sammy. They was well. Never saw your wife look so well.”

While in Kirtland, Theodore had an opportunity to inspect the papyrus records from which a book of Church scripture, the Book of Abraham, would later be derived. He also had a chance to meet the Church Patriarch, Joseph Smith, Sr., who apparently gave him a patriarchal blessing, but the Prophet, Joseph Smith, was absent. “I was highly gratified with a sight of the records and the Patriarch,” Theodore wrote. “Bro. Joseph was not at home, being gone to establish eleven more stakes of Zion.”13

Theodore next mentioned his son Theodore’s death, which proved a real trial to him, though one for which he had received strength to endure. “My son Theodore has fallen asleep in Christ,” he wrote. “Dear Brother, I have been tried by the powers of darkness on this account as well as others, but this has never moved me. Oh my heart rejoices in the truths of the Gospel as brought to light in these last days.”

Several experiences convinced Theodore that he was destined to preach the gospel in his native England. “Dear brother,” he wrote Isaac Russell, “it appears by frequent prophecies I have to declare the Gospel to my former brethren as well as in my [patriarchal] blessing and the Spirit’s intimation constantly with me concurring in the same. I wish you to enquire of the Lord whether it is His mind I should come and travel with you till Bro. Law is set at liberty.”14

Meanwhile, he was contributing toward the success of the British Mission by referring the missionaries there to his brother, probably his brother John. “Have you sent the letter to my brother[?]” he inquired. “If you have an opportunity of going to them do as soon as possible.”

Theodore closed his letter by expressing the love of some of the other Church members in the area, sending his and Frances’s affectionate regards, and promising that “Bro. Law will give the particulars of the Church.”15

The following day, William Law indeed wrote to Isaac Russell, reporting on the status of the Church members in the area. Among those on whom he reported were Theodore Turley, Robert Blashel Thompson, and Mercy Rachel Fielding Thompson. Robert Thompson would serve as scribe to the Prophet Joseph Smith from 1839 to 1841. His wife, Mercy, was the sister of Joseph Fielding.16

“Bro. Turley and Bro. Thompson have built up a little branch in the upper part of Chyngassansy of twelve members[;] Mrs. Thompson has resided with us for some weeks; She is very anxious to hear from her brother who went with you.”17

William Law also described the visit they had in August from Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon. “We had the blessing of a visit from Bro. Joseph Smith Jr. and Bro. Sidney Rigdon,” he wrote. “They were here for four or five days, from whom we received much information. . . . Bro. Joseph is truly a wonderful man. He is all we could wish a Prophet to be. And Bro. Sidney, what eloquence is his. And think how he has sacrificed for the truth.”

Toward the end of William’s letter, he spoke of two important events that were yet future. One was an attempted revolution in Canada. The other was the movement of Theodore Turley and his family from Canada. “I believe we will have a rebellion in the lower province and perhaps in this,” William predicted. “I suppose Bro. Turley told you that he sold and will move off next spring.” William concluded his letter, “And that the God of our Fathers may always bless, comfort and deliver you, is the prayer of your brother in the bonds of the Everlasting Gospel of Christ.”18

As Theodore’s and William’s letters demonstrated, the saints in Churchville, Canada, had great love and respect for Isaac Russell. Perhaps it was no surprise, therefore, that when another son was born to Theodore and Frances Turley on November 22, 1837, their eighth child and fourth boy, they should give him the name of Isaac. The first child born to them after joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints thus bore the name of the man responsible for their spiritual rebirth.19

With a rebellion brewing in Canada, and the Church members being encouraged to gather with the body of the saints, it would not be long before Theodore, Frances, and their family would say good-bye to Churchville forever.

[Next issue: “Gathering with the Saints, 1838”]

Draft of 17 March 1996
© 1996 by Richard E. Turley, Jr. (Reprinted with permission.)
Originally published in the April 1996 Theodore Turley Family Organization Newsletter

  1. Parley P. Pratt, [Jr.], ed., Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1980), 166-67, 462.
  2. Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 3, no. 8 (May 1837): 511-12. For information on the life of John Taylor, see B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons, 1892); Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia, 4 vols. (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Co./Andrew Jenson Memorial Association, 1901-1936), 1:14-19; Samuel W. Taylor, The Kingdom or Nothing (New York: Macmillan, 1976); Francis M. Gibbons, John Taylor: Mormon Philosopher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985). For information on the life of William Law, see Lyndon W. Cook, “‘Brother Joseph Is Truly A Wonderful Man, He Is All We Could Wish a Prophet to Be’: Pre-1844 Letters of William Law,” Brigham Young University Studies 20 (winter 1980): 207-18; Lyndon W. Cook, “William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter,” Brigham Young University Studies 22 (winter 1982): 47-72; Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem: Grandin Book, 1994). On Theodore’s friendship with William Law, see, in addition to the letters mentioned in this article, William Law to Isaac Russell, May 12, 1837, in Cook, “Brother Joseph,” 210 (“I this day had the pleasure of hearing from you by Mr. Turley”); William Law to Isaac Russell, Jan. 17, 1839, in Cook, “Brother Joseph,” 214 (“Tell Father Scott to write me and tell Bros. Mulholland and Turley, and all my old friends who are writers to write me”); William Law to Robert B. Thompson, Mar. 27-29, 1839, in Cook, “Brother Joseph,” 217 (“Tell Brothers Turley & Snider to write me”).
  3. 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. Theodore’s account can be read to suggest that he was ordained on March 1 and left on a mission March 2, 1837. However, the portion of his written description that gives the month of his mission has the letters “Ma” followed by a line that could be an “r” or the beginning of a “y,” after which the edge of the page is broken off, making it impossible to tell for certain. I have gone with the date of April 24 for his ordination because of the report published in the Messenger and Advocate shortly after the ordination occurred. The account can also be read to suggest that he went immediately on a mission and made the mentioned converts within three weeks thereafter. Samuel Mulliner, however, was not baptized until September, making this reading of Theodore’s account incorrect.
  4. Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 1 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1989), 230-31, 265-67, 281 n. 1; Dean C. Jessee, The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol. 2 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 211, 288, 301-33, 334, 336 n. 1; David E. Miller and Della S. Miller, Nauvoo: The City of Joseph (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1974); Howard C. Searle, “History of the Church (History of Joseph Smith),” Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 647. This James Mulholland should not be confused with James H. Mulholland, who was excommunicated from the Church for forgery in 1849. See Danny L. Jorgensen, “Conflict in the Camps of Israel: The 1853 Cutlerite Schism,” Journal of Mormon History 21 (spring 1995): 47 n. 39.
  5. Jenson, 2:713-14, 3:719-21; Shirley Butler Woodruff, The Standing Family History (Salt Lake City: Woodruff Printing Co., 1988), 61, 73, 87-93; John Nicholson, The Martyrdom of Joseph Standing (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1886); B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1965), 5:558-67; James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, The Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 397.
  6. James B. Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, and David J. Whittaker, Men with a Mission, 1837-1841 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), 130-31, 162-65, 199; Richard L. Evans, A Century of “Mormonism” in Great Britain (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1984), 75.
  7. Evans, 75.
  8. Pratt, 167-68.
  9. Allen, Esplin, and Whittaker, 1-54; Pratt, 168; Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2d ed., 7 vols., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948-53), 2:489-99; Stanley B. Kimball, Heber C. Kimball (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), 40-69; James B. Allen and Thomas G. Alexander, eds., Manchester Mormons: The Journal of William Clayton, 1840 to 1842 (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1974), 4-11.
  10. Theodore Turley to Isaac Russell, Nov. 9, 1837, MS 6066, HDC. This letter has been published in “Isaac Russell Letters Given to Church,” Deseret News, Sept. 11, 1937, Church Section, 5-6.
  11. Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 42; History of the Church 2:502-3, 508.
  12. See descriptions of this visit below.
  13. Turley to Russell, Nov. 9, 1837. Joseph Smith left Kirtland with Sidney Rigdon on September 27 and returned on December 10. History of the Church 2:513-28.
  14. Turley to Russell, Nov. 9, 1837. Theodore Turley’s patriarchal blessing is not among those stored and indexed in the Church Historical Department. Apparently, it was not entered into the patriarchal blessing record books, a common oversight in the early days of the Church.
  15. Turley to Russell, Nov. 9, 1837.
  16. Cook, “Brother Joseph,” 211. On Robert Thompson’s service as scribe to Joseph Smith, see, e.g., Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 465-67, 472-78, 480-87, 489-95, 686-88.
  17. William Law to Isaac Russell, Nov. 10, 1837, Church Historical Department. This letter has been published in Cook, “Brother Joseph,” 211-12, and in “Isaac Russell Letters Given to Church,” Deseret News, Sept. 11, 1937, Church Section, 5-6.
  18. Law to Russell, Nov. 10, 1837.
  19. According to a family group sheet in my possession, Theodore and Frances’s eighth child and fourth son, Isaac Turley, was born Nov. 22, 1837, in Churchville, Peel, Ontario, Canada.