King Follett biography
Ep 193 – King Follett pt. 1 The Man
On this episode, we begin our series about King Follett and the discourse named after him. Who is he? What discourse did he write? Why does every Mormon know the name but not the guy? Very little documentation of his life survives to this day, however, fragmentary evidence has been pieced together to form a biography of King Follett which follows him through the life and times of the Follett family in the early Mormon church under Joseph Smith’s leadership. This series will discuss the man behind the discourse and the theological treatise given at his funeral known as “The King Follett Discourse”. Part one examines the lives of the Folletts from birth, to joining the church, to their life in Missouri, ending with King Follett locked in a Missouri jail while his family made the trip to Quincy, Illinois through the winter of 1838-39.
The Man Behind the Discourse: The Biography of King Follett by Joann
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Few who know anything about Mormonism haven’t heard of or read the King Follett discourse. What is it? What does it mean? Is it King Fawllet or King Fowlett?
To put it simply, the King Follett discourse was one of Jo’s final sermons before his death. It marked the culmination of many aspects of his 14-year evolving theology. Aspects of Mormon-Christian theology that are uniquely Mormon are found only within the King Follett discourse when absent from Jo’s revelations and scriptures. God once being a human, infants on thrones, philosophies of men mingled with scripture, and plenty more deeper levels of Mormon theology are present only in this discourse.
If you’ve listened to this show before, you know I like to take my sweet time with big issues in Mormon history. Who would’ve thought that John C. Wreck-it Bennett could turn into a 10-part series, or that Mark Hofmann needed over 8 hours of airtime to begin to scratch the surface? We’ve done nearly 13 and a half hours on just the topic of psychedelics in early Mormonism. So, yeah, I like to take my time on stuff because understanding the history living at the bedrock upon which the correlated believing narrative and the so-called anti-Mormon popular history are built takes time and diligence to exhume.
We’re going to take our time with King Follett, the man and the discourse. Surprisingly, there is a biography of King Follett, which will serve as the basis of today’s episode. While the discourse itself is only related to King Follett himself tangentially, I think it’s good to give him some air time because he’s one of the lesser-known Mormon elites who didn’t live to emigrate to the Salt Lake City basin and help build the kingdom there. Then, next week, and probably the week after, we’ll go through the discourse from top to bottom. Marie and I read through it on My Book of Mormon, but I didn’t do much prior research to draw thematic parallels of theology. So that’s what we’re doing in this series. We’ll get into possible source materials for some of Jo’s very late theology, what’s unique, what’s derivative from other theology, and from where in his earlier theology the 1844 King Follett discourse theology evolved.
Let’s get started.
King Follett was born on July 1788 in Winchester, New Hampshire the son of Hannah Alexander Follett, who was the second wife of John Follett. Both of King’s parents were descendants of Salem Massachusetts European immigrants and John Follett fought in the revolutionary war. Although John Follett never received the formal designation of Captain, his headstone and some documents about him list him as Captain Follett. King grew up in a family of 14 kids from 2 mothers. The family was comfortable from John’s industry. When John died, his probate file was judged to be over $1,500, which was quite substantial in 1829 money. There are also a bunch of land deed records revealing John Follett was quite into land speculation and making a quick buck from it. However, the probate judge determined that his assets couldn’t outweigh his liabilities which leads one to believe that the Follett family lived comfortably, even if some of that comfort was only possible through lines of credit. King Follett grew up with his 13 siblings in Winchester New Hampshire.
From the biography of King Follett, written by a descendant, Joann Follett Mortensen titled The Man Behind the Discourse:
King and his brothers learned early to work on the family farm and help provide the necessities of life. Every family grew grains and vegetables for home use and to feed livestock. Berries grew wild and most families kept an apple orchard, using the fruit for food and for liquor, which was consumed or sold. The young men of each family spent long hours each day tending crops and animals, for it required everyone’s labor to meet daily needs.
Clothes were entirely made at home from flax grown on the property and wool sheared from the family sheep. These items were usually left to the natural color or dyed in dark colors like browns, blacks, greens, and blues. Perhaps once a year the average farmer would go to Boston or another large market town where he would trade surplus from the family farm for items that could not be raised, grown, or produced at home.
Eventually, King met his wife to be, Louisa Tanner, who was ten years his junior and also from 17th-century immigrant stock. Her father also served in the Revolutionary War. The Follett family were Universalists while the Tanners were Presbyterians.
Let me quickly voice an issue when it comes to lesser-known Mormon elites. We’ve discussed this before but it bears quick mention when we talk about King and Louisa Follett. Very little documentation actually survives about them and almost nothing from them. They didn’t keep journals. Letter correspondences in their hands have best lost to history as neither of them were important enough to have scribes to copy every letter and save every scrap. Joann Follett Mortensen, who wrote King Follett’s biography, relies almost solely on a scant few official church publications and mentions in other people’s journals for any information on King, Louisa, or their 9 children. This is a common restriction historians run into when writing biographies or even genealogies of people who just weren’t that notable with respect to the larger movement of which they were a part.
King purchased a lot in St. Lawrence county, New York in 1811 where he and Louisa met and were married in 1815. He was 27, she 16 or 17, not uncommon age pairings for the day. Upon his move to St. Lawrence county, New York, King Follett became interested in politics and town affairs. He attended town meetings and became the overseer of the highway system in the county. His job was basically to decide when and where a road might be built as well as maintaining the current roads in his assigned area. King also opened up a liquor store and ran it for a while, although the annual license wasn’t renewed so there’s no evidence he continued to sell alcohol beyond his purchasing the license in 1813. King also served jury duty and a few other affairs necessary of any good citizen of early frontier America.
Sometime in 1818 or 1819, King and Louisa Follett moved to Portage County, Ohio to a little town called Shalersville, roughly 33 miles from Mentor, Ohio. Mentor, Ohio is the town to which Hingepin Sidney Rigdon moved and began making a name for himself as a preacher in the early 1820s. At this time, the Folletts were members of the Methodist Episcopal church in the little frontier town. There was a bit of selection bias for this label as it was the only church in the area; but such was very common for early American settlers who didn’t have cars to travel tens of miles every Sunday to attend their preferred denomination. They lived with King’s brother, Alexander who died in 1826 at the age of 33 and a member of the local Masonic Lodge, leading me to believe that King was also inducted into the society while here in Portage County or possibly during his days in Lawrence County, New York.
King’s father, John Follett IV, died in August of 1829 at the age of 77 when King was 41 years old. King’s mother, Hannah, would spend the remaining 9 years of her life likely living with her children. King was probably still selling strong apple cider and running his small farm while his wife, Louisa, continued to have more children. This was the era of roaming preachers in an area experiencing radiant heat from the Burned-over district. Joann Follett Mortensen reprints an anonymous history of the area where it discusses these roaming preachers at the end of chapter 3 of her excellent biography of King Follett.
The settlers had to depend upon the stray crumbs that fell from the table of the Lord for their spiritual sustenance. Occasionally some hardy old Methodist circuit rider, or some missionary of the Connecticut Society of Home Missions would come along, but their visits were very infrequent, yet when they did come the occasion was one of great joy and satisfaction. The preacher was well taken care of, and if it was a Sabbath when he preached, the entire township would turn out to hear the word. Denomination, sect and particular belief were all dropped; immersion and sparkling were not thought of, and the rigid Predestinarian and the absolute Free-Willer clasped hands round the Altar of the Lord, beneath the overarching branches of some grand old oak, or at the humble cabin of the pioneer.
This is the time and place where Hingepin Sidney Rigdon was gaining social prominence as one of these roaming preachers. They would have their home base where they lived and would preach the majority of the year, but then would travel for weeks at a time and preach in churches of different congregations or even just in some person’s house. Preachers in the late 1700s and early 1800s were rock stars and people came from all over to attend their sermons. Why? Because Catholicism and the Anglican Church didn’t have much power in America. These were people who had recently emigrated from Europe or were the immediate descendants of folks who’d emigrated where religious freedom was a new liberty ripe for experimentation. Throwing off Britain again during the War of 1812 brought those freedoms to the front of everybody’s mind again and the occupation of preacher experienced a renewed invigoration in the American jobs market. The Folletts and anybody in small towns became subject to, and interested in, this new marketplace of religious ideas. So did Joseph Smith. While Sidney Rigdon was in his late 20s and early 30s making a name for himself, Joseph Smith was in his teens and early 20s experimenting with religion. Similarly, the Folletts were seekers, although on the consumption side of the equation, not the production side like Rigdon and Jo.
Unfortunately for the historical record and those of us who consume it piecemeal today, there really isn’t much available about when and why King and Louisa Follett joined the church. The only available record simply states that King was ordained an elder in 1831, then the highest-ranking position available in the church. Understandably, the Follett family likely adhered to Rigdon’s theology which has many similarities to Mormonism in regards to communalism, universal salvation, and a few other points. They lived close enough to many of Rigdon’s parishioners through the late 1820s. Once P-cubed Parley Parker Pratt joined the church and returned to Kirtland with a Book of Mormon, thereby convincing Hingepin Rigdon to convert, over 100 Rigdonites joined Mormonism in a month at the end of 1830. Rigdon returned from his trip to meet Jo and the Smith family and Jo tagged along, calling Kirtland, Ohio his new home. It was likely around this time in early to mid-1831 that King and Louisa Follett were caught up in the baptism fire that burned through many of Rigdon’s loosely confederated congregations.
The next autumn of 1831, Jo and Emma moved to the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio, just a short 9 miles from the Follett home. During this period, King and Louisa would have had an opportunity to hear Jo speak in person during Sunday discourses, sharing the pulpit with the Follett’s well-known preacher Hingepin Rigdon.
Here, King Follett first makes his appearance by name in a journal of Mormon leadership; that of Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith. Hyrum, just like Jo, resolved to keep a journal in the year of 1832. And, just like his younger brother, Hyrum only kept it for a little while and then just kind of forgot to keep up the way I and I’m sure many of you keep your journals. Well, for a brief moment, we see in Hyrum Smith’s journal 3 separate mentions of a brother folet. Luckily for us, Hyrum Smith was a terrible writer in 1832 and he wrote many things phonetically, including the name of King Follett, which leads me to believe it’s Fowlett, not Fawllet. Hyrum’s interactions with King Follett are rather fascinating in that they reveal something we’ve never discussed on the show, at least as far as I can recall. Books of Mormon were traded as a commodity. King Follett purchased Books of Mormon from Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith and gave him sheep in exchange.
From Joann Follett Mortensen’s book chapter 4
March Sold 5 Books to Brother folet of Shulersvill and left 2 more at his hose for to Be Sold.
June th 2D went to Parkmen with Brother Parley Pratt and preached the 3D and Baptised three and Confirmed them from there to the town of Hiram and from thence to the town of Mulersveil and Buayt 19 Sheep Of Brother follet and paid Eght Books which is 10$ and paid 10$ Towoward the Cows that I bought of Him.”
June the 27 finished paing for the Sheep and Cow herd of Brother follet.
The fact that King traded sheep for copies of the Book of Mormon and purchased other copies suggests that he was also engaged in missionary activities.
Yes indeed, Books of Mormon were used as a commodity when the Smith family and the small church in New York was having trouble selling them. What this does illustrate is that King and Louisa Follett were fully in and had fully hitched their wagons to the misadventures and wiles of the prophet of Mormonism. Although records are really squishy concerning their whereabouts, the Folletts moved with their young family of 5 by 1832 to Jackson County, Missouri, the location Jo had declared as Zion when he visited in July 1831 and dedicated the temple lot. According to Joann Follett Mortensen, no county, city, or state records exist of the Folletts purchasing property in Jackson County. So, either they didn’t have the means to acquire land of their own and simply lived with another family, or they did purchase land and the deed has long since been lost to history.
In Missouri, the Folletts enjoyed all the delights of consecrating all their property to the bishop’s storehouse, administrated by Algernon Sidney Gilbert, who would become a casualty of the ill-fated Zion’s Camp in 1834. This was the communalistic effort the church made under Jo’s leadership requiring all members to transfer all their property to the church to create a community pool that people could then withdraw items from the pool according to their need. The system quickly collapsed but it didn’t stop people like the Folletts from giving everything they owned to the church and ending up losing everything they owned because of it just like thousands of Mormons did throughout Jo’s life.
King and Louisa Follett also attended church under the presidency of D-Day David Whitmer. David Whitmer, John Goebbels Whitmer, and William Wines Double-Dub Phelps comprised the presidency of the Missouri stake of the church which was repeatedly subdivided as more Mormons immigrated to Missouri throughout the early to mid 1830s.
The Folletts were in Missouri to experience the initial uprising of tensions between the Mormons and Missourians. We’ve talked about it to death on the show but it’s a crucial issue that much of Jo’s life centers around. The Missourians hated the Mormons for some legitimate and plenty of illegitimate reasons. It all came to a head when Double-Dub Phelps started printing Jo’s revelations talking about a Native American uprising and the Mormons consecrating the property of the non-Mormons to the bishop’s storehouse. When the Missourians found out about the revelations it broke the camel’s back and they burned down the printing press and called out the local militias. The Mormons formed their own militia to combat the Missourians which resulted in a small battle known as the Battle of the Big Blue. King Follett likely participated in this fight as one of the settlements that was directly impacted was the one where the Follett family lived.
From his biography:
The Missourians, in addition to threatening Christian Whitmer physically, began to destroy his home located on the east end of town. David Whitmer led his [militia] group, including King Follett, from the west toward Christian’s home. A group from the Colesville Branch under Caleb Baldwin’s leadership, advanced on the mob from the south armed with pitchforks. Someone in the mob yelled, “Give them hell,” and fired. Whitmer’s men returned fire. Two of the Missourians were killed and at least one was wounded. One Church member, Andrew Barber died, and at least four men were wounded. The members of the mob fled, pursued for a short distance by the Saints. These events apparently reached their climax in the evening.
As a result of this aggression, the citizens of Independence, Jackson County, Missouri formed a coalition and signed a resolution to force the Mormons out of Jackson County. With the help of Governor Daniel Dunklin, the Mormons were removed from the county through the end of 1833 and into the spring of 1834. Governor Dunklin apportioned a reserve of land in Clay County, just north of Jackson, for the Mormon resettlement. The Mormons resettled there and in the adjacent Caldwell County. Daviess County would be formed in 1836 as another Mormon county.
The loss felt by the Follett family during this first exodus was quite immense. While her husband languished in a Missouri jail in 1839, Louisa King signed an affidavit valuing her family’s loss of property of $170 for land, improvements on the land, and lost crops. This, of course, was created in the wake of the Missouri-Mormon war of 1838 when the Mormons were forced completely from the state of Missouri.
During the interim period of 1834 to 8, the Follett family largely remained in the Mormon Missouri counties. Just like almost every Missouri Mormon, the result of this first exodus from Jackson County left them largely destitute. The family wealth they’d built up for 2 decades of their marriage, King and Louisa found themselves in the throes of poverty thanks to their association with the new fanatical American religion. Once again from the biography:
Those Saints who fled… found themselves in very nearly the same miserable condition. Some lacking bedding took shelter in caves from the rain and bitter winds. David Pettegrew recalled, not only the suffering of his own family, but also “the privations and sufferings of the Saints. They suffered not only from anguish of heart at the loss of home, property, stock and provisions… [but also because] no comfort, no relief, could be procured for them constantly exposed to the inclemency of the weather… These were the beginning of days of great trial to us.”
It sucked for these people. The worst part of it all was this was only really the beginning of their suffering in Missouri. The Follett family suffered along with the over 1,000 Mormons who were driven from Jackson county in 1833 to 34 beginning in November and seeing completion by April. On a brief somber note, the Folletts made this exodus with little baby Alexander in Loiusa’s arms for the journey. The Follett’s had experienced the deaths of 3 children prior to their move from Ohio to Missouri and the young family was slowly growing even amidst all of these trials.
What the Folletts did or where they went specifically is a matter of historical mystery as so little about the family has survived. They were most likely among the large contingent of Mormons who believed they would be able to return to their land in Jackson County at some point. Jo had given the Missouri Mormons a revelation that they shouldn’t sell their lands in Zion because it was such an important site for the church. That directive only ensured deep and unending poverty for the Mormons settling in Clay and Caldwell counties as they would have absolutely no means to purchase lands. The majority of Missouri land was owned by the government due to the Indian Removal Act so people could just go to a chunk of land and put in crops and a build a cabin and the government would give them a deed. However, because so many Mormons thought they’d eventually be granted passage back into Jackson County where they could continue to live on the land they’d done that with over the previous 4 years, many Mormons didn’t make earnest efforts to build another cabin and put in more crops, which only exacerbated the starvation and general destitution of the population.
The only answer for these outrages, in Jo’s eyes anyway, was a military campaign. He formed a militia of over 200 men, calling for 2,000 men, to march from Ohio to Missouri and reinstate the Mormons on their Jackson County land. This was the ill-fated Zion’s Camp as it actually didn’t involve any true military action with the exception of a drill skirmish among the camp itself which resulted in a guy getting shot in the hand. Zion’s Camp departed in May of 1834 with a loose plan of what exactly they would do. Messengers and eager enquirers approached the camp multiple times asking who they were and what they were doing, only to be given non-answers by the Mormon militia. Even so, the pressure of Zion’s Camp bearing down on the Missouri non-Mormons caused an extreme amount of trouble for the Mormons and Missourians alike.
The reasons Jo organized this militia force were to essentially escort the Mormons forced from Jackson County back to their homes and provide protection once the reinstatement had been completed. It was a spectacular failure resulting in “more smoke than fire” and a cholera outbreak which afflicted 68 and killed 14 among the camp. Also, the lead negotiator for getting the Mormons money for their Jackson County property, Algernon Sidney Gilbert, contracted it and died, severely reducing the bargaining power and negotiation rapport the Mormons had built up over the previous 7 months. His death made it so instead of the Jackson county Missourians paying double the market value for the Mormon’s property, they paid nothing. Zion’s Camp returned to Ohio empty-handed and with fewer men than they left with. Beyond that, the majority of the Camp didn’t actually return. Jo and his closest advisors returned to Ohio, but the camp had drained their resources completely dry on the journey out there and over a hundred of the men just stuck around in Missouri, only further exacerbating the starvation and destitution problems. King and Louisa Follett were among these Missouri Mormons who suffered greatly as a result of these repeated debacles by the Mormon leadership.
After Zion’s camp, a little policing was necessary in the various Mormon branches in Missouri. As background, when the church was operating in Kirtland, Ohio under Jo’s leadership, the Missouri church operated as essentially a separate church under the Whitmers and Phelps. Letters took weeks to transmit between the two centers of leadership and obviously a fair number of disagreements arose about the best way to run the church. These disagreements eventually came to a head when Jo fled the Kirtland church in early 1838 and excommunicated the Whitmers, Cowdery, and Phelps and gave them 3 days to leave town or get a visit from the Danites. Those disagreements were just beginning to manifest in 1834 and 35 and to bring the congregations into conformity with the Kirtland leadership, various disciplinary councils were held for members practicing Mormonism in unapproved ways. For a snapshot of this, I’m going to read a pretty sizeable portion from the King Follett biography and we’ll discuss it afterwards. As a preface, David Whitmer called a disciplinary council for the Hulet Branch of the church in Missouri, the branch the Folletts attended. The guy leading the branch was apparently engaging in the usage of “gifts” in unapproved ways which led to his giving prophecies and a woman named Sally Crandall interpreting his prophetic tongues. Sally’s prophecies are absolutely fascinating to me. Additionally, the person who administered the ordination and gifts in the unapproved manner had their elder’s license taken away while retaining their membership. The early church operates very differently from the church today. The verdict came from D-Day David Whitmer that their usage of gifts was of the devil. Bear with me as we get through this council concerning members of the branch the Folletts attended.
By July of 1834 problems involving doctrine and procedure in the Hulet Branch were brought to the attention of the newly formed high council of the Clay County Stake… King Follett and Nathan West both appear prominently in the only record of these events—the minutes of high council meetings beginning on July 31 and continuing on August 1 and 6. On July 31, the first charge made by Nathan West [was] read by John Whitmer:
Know ye that, where as, Br. [Samuel] Brown an high priest of this Church of Christ did on the last week come into this Branch [the Colesville branch] and taught certain of the brethren & sisters things much the reverse of what we had by encouraging them in practising gifts.
And where as said Brown did in an underhanded, (and as we conceive) clandestine manner ordain Sylvester Hulett to the office of high priest; insisting that he had obtained a witness from the Lord for the same, which witness he said was the promise of performing the ordination on receiving the gift of tongues; which gift he said he had never received before but afterwards said he had been in possession of the same gift for the space of a year.
And whereas, said Brown seemed to undervalue the authority or at least the righteousness of the high Council by charging me not to say any thing that would tend to prejudice their minds that they might not judge righteously.
I therefore, as an Elder of the Church of Christ, do earnestly solicit the attention of the council in considering the same.
Testimony was given on July 31 and on August 1 by Leonard Rich, Charles Rich,… [etc.]. Each testified that they had either had conversation with Brown about the events outlined in the charges or had overheard others speak about them, and that Brown had asked them not to say anything about it. Sylvester Hulet confirmed that the ordination had taken place, although he had told Brown that he [Hulet] “had made application to the Council for an ordination some time since and was rejected.” Hulet further testified that Brown “seemed to talk to me in such a manner that understood him to sensure the heads of this Church in some things.”
The “charges were sustained by the testimony” and President David Whitmer announced the decision and told Brown “therefore, if you confess all the charges which have been alleged against you to be just, and in a spirit that we can receive it, then you can stand as a private member in this Church, otherwise we have no fellowship for you; and also, that the ordination of Sylvester Hulet, by Samuel Brown, is illegal and not acknowledged by us to be of God, and therefore it is void.” Based on the decision “Brother Brown confessed the charges and gave up his license, but retained his membership.” Though King [Follett] is not mentioned as being present at these proceedings, ti is logical he might have been (if the high council meeting was open to anyone other than those who testified) because of his involvement in the continuing issue of the Hulet Settlement regarding the practicing of gifts, a charge that was considered at the next meeting of the high council.
On August 6, the council met again and Nathan West brought another charge, this time against the entire Hulet Branch,… stating that branch members had “imbibed certain principles concerning the gifts that are thought not to be correct by the greater part of the rest of the Church, which principles seem to have a tendency to cause a split and disunion in the church.” This was technically a charge against his in-laws, the Folletts, as they were members of that branch. Charles English gave testimony and explained that branch members would not “proceed to their temporal business without receiving the word of the Lord” and that “they would not receive the teachings of ordained members even br. Joseph Smith jr. unless it agreed with their gifts.” Typically, this “word” came through the gift of tongues with Sylvester Hulet speaking and Sally Crandall interpreting. English stated that the branch members believed that they “had come up to their privileges more than the rest of the Church. They thought they were right but if they could be convined that they were wrong, they would retract.” Sally Crandall was the wife of Daniel Crandall. The family had moved to Jackson County in 1832 and resided in the Prairie Branch near the Hulets. Daniel’s wife, (Sally), was though by some to be a “visionary woman.”
As one example, Sally Crandall claimed that she could “know and see men’s hearts.” According to Philo Dibble, a member of Hulet Branch, she had seen “the heart of King Follet that it was not right” while Nathan West contributed the mystifying statement that “Sally Crandle saw his heart and that it was full of eyes, also saw eyes in other hearts some had few and some many.” After further testimony, David Whitmer ruled that “as for the Hulet branch the devil decieved them and that they obtained not the word of the Lord as they supposed they did, but were deceived; and as for the gift of seeing as held by the Hulet branch, it is of the devil saith the Lord God.”
Y’all know from my research how I interpret this. I think the gifts and ordinations they practiced were very much physical objects causing people like Sally Crandall and Sylvester Hulet to have incredibly visions and prophecies. Their usage of these gifts required reining in by the president of the Zion stake, David Whitmer, who denounced it as them being deceived by the devil. What does it mean when Sally said she could see men’s hearts and they were full of eyes? I find all of this particularly remarkable because all of this makes sense within the context of psychedelics in early Mormonism and notably, Joseph Smith was not here to keep the gifts under his control. He was running the church in Kirtland at this time preparing for the Kirtland Temple dedication. I believe it is reasonable to interpret this as members of the Hulet branch searching mysteries and seeking prophecy and the gift of spiritual sight without top-down direction, which has the ability to inspire division and insurrection, thus, David Whitmer had to bring the practice to an end. King Follett may have attended this council and witnessed the disciplinary actions first-hand. He remained a member with his entire family.
A short time after this council, King Follett made his journey to Kirtland, Ohio. It was a journey of over 1,000 miles, most likely purely on foot. The reason he made the journey? It was time for the Kirtland Temple to be dedicated. His name even merited mention in the official History of the Church entry for November 4, 1835 where it simply states “King Follet arrived today from Zion.” This was an ecstatic time for the Kirtland church as the finishing touches were being placed on the temple. It wasn’t simply the dedication ceremony where visions and endowments occurred; for months prior to the March dedication, crazy stuff happened all over Kirtland, particularly at prayer feasts. King Follett attended one of these and his name was recorded in the journal of William Wines Double-Dub Phelps for December 16, 1835, which I’m reading from the Follett biography.
I attended a feast at the house of Bro. Zera S. Coles; about sixty guests were present, a number of whom were blessed by Father Joseph Smith, among them being Elijah Fordham, King Follett and Jesse Hitchcock. This was the first and greatest blessing feast I have ever attended. The greatest solemnity and harmony prevailed. The vituals were good and the affair was orderly and enjoyable, though many of those present were young.
During the very next month, King Follett finally received his very own anointing.
A week later on January 28, the elders, presumably including King, met to “receive their anointing.” Joseph moved from group to group, at one point going “to the quorum of Elders in the other endo f the room” where he “assisted in anointing the conselors of the president of the Elders and gave them the instruction necessary for the occasion and left the President and his councilors to anoint the Elders, while I should go to the adjoining room.” After the quorum presidency was anointed, “President [Alvah] Beaman anointed twenty four Elders… and the Lord poured out his spirit, and some spake with tongues and prophesied. Oh the wonderous blessings of the God of Israel.” King Follett was one of the twenty-four elders anointed that day.”
As an immediate result of this new anointing, King Follett was inducted into the second quorum of Seventy and notice of this was published in the Kirtland-based Messenger and Advocate in July of 1836. From that time forward, King Follett was officially a recognized General Authority of the Mormon church under Jo’s leadership.
After the Kirtland Temple dedication ceremony in March of that year, instead of heading home to Missouri, King Follett made an unexpected visit to New York, most likely to settle business related to the recent death of his mother-in-law. He returned to Kirtland soon after and was given the task of taking a wagon of supplies to the Whitmers in Missouri. He arrived there sometime probably in May or June of 1836.
Upon his arrival, the constant tension between the Missourian non-Mormons and the Mormon settlers in the state was continuing to grow. Eventually the Missouri citizens gathered with the support of Daniel Dunklin and signed a petition to form a new county to be the Mormon county. Where the Mormons had initially settled after being removed from Jackson County was to Caldwell and Clay counties. However, those counties had old citizens there and the Mormons made terrible neighbors. This new petition formed Daviess County and established an area near Shoal creek as the county seat, which would eventually be termed Adam-Ondi-Ahmen. The Follett family, in accordance with the Missouri-citizen petition and at the direction of the Missouri Stake leadership, D-Day David Whitmer, moved to the newest Caldwell County settlement that would become the new Missouri headquarters of the church, Far West.
Tensions in Kirtland boiled over as a result of the Fanny Alger scandal, the collapse of the KSS anti-Bank, and the defection of Martin Harris, among many other issues. Joseph Smith was removed from the Kirtland stake of the church as the leader. He, Sidney Rigdon, and the majority of the Quorum of Apostles were forced to flee under the cover of night, arriving in Far West, Missouri in February of 1838. King Follett was one of the landowners who purchased land from the government in the newly formed Daviess County in February of 1837. After losing money to the law of consecration, giving nearly every spare penny to the church as tithing, and being removed from his home 3 times because of his attachment to the church, King Follett was finally, once again, a landowner. Things were beginning to look up. Beyond that, the prophet had chosen to relocate the church headquarters to the city where Follett owned his land, making it prime real estate for the coming influx of members caught up in the exodus from Kirtland to Missouri.
It wasn’t a situation which would last long. The tensions building with Missouri over the previous 5 years rose to a boiling point. Joseph Smith also excommunicated the Missouri Stake leadership of the Whitmers, Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery, the leadership the Follett family had been following for those 5 years. During the excommunication, King Follett voiced his support for David Whitmer to remain in the Missouri leadership, but his support fell on the deaf ears of the newly sustained presidency, Jo, Rigdon and Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff Smith. The Folletts decided to remain with their wagon hitched to the Far West Mormon movement, come hell or high water.
Hell came. The Missouri-Mormon war caused a galvanization of the Mormons and vilification of their Missouri citizen aggressors, as the Mormons saw it anyway. Due to now being elevated to the presidency of the second Quorum of Seventy, King Follett was likely a member of the Mormon militia. The 1838 Mormon militia is kind of a tough issue to work with. Jo had organized the Danites as the secret underground enforcement squad and the Army of Israel as the public militia. Although historians have drawn lines between these two organizations today, it’s pretty hard to actually see those distinctions from the scant extant records. A reasonable assumption is that the majority of the Danites were also soldiers in the Army of Israel but not every soldier in the Army was a member of the Danites. However, just about any church leader ranking as high as King Follett did being in the presidency of the third-highest ranking leadership body, it’s no stretch to believe he was a Danite as well as an officer or captain over a division of the Army of Israel. He was also 51 at this time so his age would carry with it a certain degree of wisdom and authority these militias needed to feel and look legitimate. However, no surviving record explicitly states that King Follett was actually a member of either or both of these militia units.
Where the Follett family figures into the Missouri-Mormon conflict is hard to nail down. One thing is certain. One of the primary catalysts which set off the Missouri-Mormon war of 1838 was the Gallatin election day fight between Missourians and Mormons. Go back to Episode 44 of the show for a refresher of what happened then. Suffice it to say, the Missourians didn’t want the Mormons to vote, and the Mormons weren’t happy about it. One of the leading men during that brawl was John L. Butler.
From Stephen Lesueur’s excellent historiography of the Missouri-Mormon War:
“You are a damned liar. Joseph Smith is a damned imposter,” Weldon [said].
Weldon then began striking Brown [a Mormon]. When other Mormons attempted to restrain Weldon, fiver or six Missourians jumped into the fray. John L. Butler, a large and powerful Mormon, rankled at the abuse heaped upon his people. “The first thing that came to my mind was the covenants entered into by the Danites to the effect that they were to protect each other, etc,” Butler recalled, “and I hollowed out to the top of my voice saying ‘O yes, you Danites, here is a job for us.’” When Butler gave the Danite signal of distress, about ten more Latter-day Saints ran to the defense of their brethren. Seeing this, forty or fifty Missourians stepped in to battle the Mormons.
“I had witnessed many knock-downs in my time, but none on so grand a scale,” wrote Joseph McGee, a non-Mormon observer of the fight. The participants used no guns, but struck at one another with whips, clubs, rocks, and knives. The Mormons rallied behind Butler, who wielded a large wooden club he found in a nearby pile of wood. “When I called out for the Danites a power rested upon me such as one as I never felt before,” Butler later wrote. “… I never struck a man the second time, and while knocking them down, I really felt that they would soon embrace the gospel.”
John Butler was singled out as the primary Mormon aggressor in this election-day brawl. The Missourians were immediately on the hunt for him and Jo called out the Danites for security in response. Back to Joann Follett Mortensen’s biography of King Follett for the Folletts’ role in the immediate aftermath of this fight that lit the powder kegs that exploded into the Missouri-Mormon War.
After speaking with John Butler about threats against him personally, the Prophet instructed him to “go and move them [his family] directly and do not sleep another night there.” Butler obediently “started on to far West and my wife folow’d me the next day. We stopt on the west side of far West and went into Follets farm to live.” John left Far West the next day to join a group of men on their way back to Daviess County. Though King [Follett] had not been at Gallatin for the election, he may have been in the “Mormon possee” or may have gone there with John, leaving both the Butler and Follett families at King’s farm. At the least, King and his family willingly gave shelter to the Butler family.
King and Louisa Follett agreed to harbor a fugitive at Jo’s direction in the immediate aftermath of the Gallatin election day brawl. A cold war of sorts was the inevitable result. What soon followed was the Battle at Crooked River. This battle happened because the Missouri militia had taken 3 Mormons prisoner who’d previously robbed a supply train of the militia which included 45 rifles. As the militia was carrying back the prisoners toward Richmond to stand trial, the Danites attacked. King Follett was among them.
Participants in the Battle at Crooked River made their escape after a few of the Mormons had been slain and a small number of the Captain Bogart’s Missouri troops had been wounded. This escalated tensions and became the justification for Governor Lilburn Boggs to sign the Extermination Order, forcing the Mormons out of the state. Far West and Adam-Ondi-Ahmen, the twin Mormon cities, were put under siege from the Missouri state militia and General Lucas forced the Mormons to surrender with his superior force. 4 days after the surrender, King Follett with 3 others who participated in the battle at Crooked River were arrested and taken to Richmond for the November court of inquiry that resulted in the internment of the prophet and 5 others in Liberty Jail and dozens of other Mormon leaders in jails throughout Missouri.
During the November Court of Inquiry, Reed Peck testified that “King Follet was not in that expedition; but he was Captain of 12 men in Far West, under the Danite order, as I understand, as he was neither an officer nor private of militia, and was known and called under the fictitious name of Captain Bull, and his company was called the Regulators.” Captain Bull of the Regulators has a certain ring to it. This testimony is the only explicit document that links King Follett to the Danites and it’s merely witness testimony which contradicts other research that puts King Follett at the battle of Crooked River. What matters, however, is that this testimony exonerated Follett from participation and he was released after the November Court of Inquiry, only to be rearrested in March or April of 1839 as the majority of the Mormons were making their way through the snow to Quincy, Illinois.
One of those people who immediately fled Missouri for Illinois was Bishop Edward Party-Boy Partridge, who’s since departed our historical timeline due to his death in May of 1840. As Bishop and a leader of the Danites, Partridge’s life was in danger upon his release because of vigilante justice. He fled, leaving his family behind in the care of King Follett. His wife, Lydia, and two daughters, Eliza and Emily, were cared for by the Folletts. Apparently Eliza Partridge wrote that “King Follet proved a true friend” and assisted them in every way. The Follett family farm became a haven for Mormons in Far West preparing for the journey to Quincy, Illinois. King Follett probably helped with some of the organization and logistics of this third mass-exodus of the Mormon population but was again arrested in spring of 1839 and taken to Richmond to be interred with around 48 other Mormon leaders. The majority of them were let free, but King Follett was interred with Morris Phelps and Parley P. Pratt in the Columbia jail.
These men eventually devised an escape plan to be affected during the town’s July 4th celebrations. Each had a job for the escape and the plan was when the jailer delivered their dinner that evening, they’d request the inner door be opened so as not to spill the coffee pot by handing it through the food window. King Follett’s job during this escape was to grab the door out of the jailor’s hands and pry it open as far as he could, when Morris Phelps would attack the jailor and subdue him, allowing all three to escape. Then they would mount horses that had been left outside by their coconspirators to allow them to get out of town as quickly as possible. Joann Follett Mortensen expertly reconstructs these events from 3 sources, 2 of which were eyewitnesses.
When the prisoners heard the approaching footsteps, they got in place to receive the food with King in front to jerk open the door so that Morris could stun the jailer and run downstairs with Parley following and King third. As usual, the jailer handed the food through the window but yielded to their persuasion to open the door enough to hand in the coffeepot without spilling it. Parley’s version included elaborate allusions to characters from John Bunyon’s masterpiece, Pilgrim’s Progress:
No sooner was the key turned than the door was seized by Mr. Follett with both hands; and with his foot placed against the wall, he soon opened a passage, which was in the same instant filled by Mr. Phelps, and followed by myself and Mr. Follett. The old jailer strode across the way, and stretched out his arms like Bunyan’s Apollion, or like the giant Despair in Doubting Castel, but all to no purpose. One or two leaps brought us to the bottom of the stairs, carrying the old gentleman [the jailer] with us headlong, helter skelter, while old Luman sat and laughed in his corner of the prison, and Mrs. Phelps exclaimed, “O Lord God of Israel, thou canst help.” Old Mrs. Gibbs looked on in silent amazement, while the jailer’s wife acted the part of the giants despair’s wife, Diffidence, and not only assisted in the scuffle, but cried out so loud that the town was soon alarmed.
Laura Phelps, who was watching from the kitchen, heard the jailer call out. His wife, who weighed about two hundred pounds, rushed up the stairs. Mary Ann Phelps related the exciting sstory she heard from her patrents: “The jailer had father clinched, but father jumped down two pairs of stairs, six steps each, with the jailer’s wife hanging onto one of his arms. He would get rid of her when he jumped, but she would clinch him again when she again reached him. She could make better progress than he because the jailer held on to him, and in that condition they got down to the kitchen. Here Parley Pratt and Mr. Follet made their escape, and left father in the hands of the jailer.” This setback was only momentary. Phelps immediately broke loose and rushed outside. He, Pratt, and King ran toward the grove where Orson and John were waiting with the horses.
The town immediately reacted and gathered around the jail with guns and pitchforks to attempt a recapture of the men. Morris Phelps and Parley Pratt made their escape and flew off in different directions to avoid recapture. However, because King Follett was required to ride Laura Phelps’ horse for his escape, her side saddle proved a hindrance and the mob caught up to him.
Laura Phelps waiting at the jail, heard a “shout of triumph” from the woods, indicating to her that at least one of them ahd been captured by the quickly forming posse. As Parley later wrote, presumably based on the details she related, she heard the men laughing and cursing, accompanied by the threat: “We’ve catched one of the damn’d Mormons and we’ll roast him alive over a slow fire, damn him.” At first she was told it was her husband [Morris] that had been captured and that they were going to “kill him on the spot.” Soon she recognized that the prisoner was Kign Follett “on whom they were venting their rage, as if he would be torn to pieces.” King was riding sidesaddle on her horse, making it impossible for her to pretend that she had not been involved in the jailbreak.
They dragged him off the horse, threw him back in the jail, and chained his feet to the floor and his arms to the stove flu. Laura was chastised by the jailer but eventually told to leave with some stern words. According to P-cubed Parley Parker Pratt, after the excitement had cooled off, they unchained King Follett and allowed him to stay in the upper apartment of the jail instead of being confined and chained in the basement dungeon.
As Parley continued his narrative, the daring escape, though thwarted, had actually aroused the Missourians’ admiration: “They now laughed with him [King Follett] about his adventure, praised him for his bravery, and called him a good fellow. The truth of the matter was, they had no great desire to take the lives of any but those whom they had considered leaders; and since they had discovered that Mr. Follett and Mr. Phelps were not considered religious leaders among our Society, they were in no great danger, except they should happen to be killed in the heat of excitement or passion.
Laura Phelps’s travel arrangements were made for her return to the new Mormon settlement in Quincy, Illinois. She made the journey with a mail carrier for security and eventually broke away from him when she hit the Missouri river. As light faded and she became more tired, not knowing which direction to go to find a place to stay the night and continue the journey, King and Louisa Follett’s son, stumbled across Laura’s path and said “I wonder if you’re the woman I’m looking for.” Word had likely reached Loiusa Follett about the failed escape attempt of her husband and she’d sent 19-year-old John to find Laura and bring her safely back to Quincy.
Just like the best laid plans of mice and men failed to bring King Follett his escape from the Columbia jail, our best-laid plans to cover the life of King Follett for episode number one of our King Follett discourse series has likewise failed. Instead of making this a three-hour episode only a tithe of you will actually listen all the way through, I’m going to break up the biographical sketch of King Follett into two episodes. We’ll pick up next week with him continuing to languish in the Columbia jail next week and walk through the Illinois era of King Follett’s life until his death. I guess that’s what happens when I try to pack an over 600-page biography of one person into a single episode, it just grows and grows until, like a cellular division is necessary to get through everything. I really thought about packing his 5 years of Illinois life into one and a half pages of script but the guy is so interesting that I think we all deserve a bit more time with him to get intimately acquainted.
Of course, the primary source for this episode was Joann Follett Mortensen’s The Man Behind the Discourse; you’ll find a link to it in the show notes. It’s an excellent biography/historiography of Follett and early Mormonism and I obviously left out a lot so I encourage you to pick up a copy for yourself.
I want to leave everybody with some parting thoughts in light of our subject matter today. King Follett is an interesting and enigmatic figure of Mormon history. He’s just enigmatic enough that we can take some lessons away from his story and speculate on his thoughts as he experienced crucial events during Joseph Smith’s Mormonism. King Follett strikes me as a rather reasonable guy. He wasn’t a Wild Ram of the Mountain Lyman Wight or Captain Fearnought David W. Patten rushing into battle to build the Mormon empire nor does Follett strike me as a coolheaded and calculated tyrant like Bloody Brigham Young waiting for his moment to seize power. King Follett strikes me as a useful marker by which to measure the general Mormon populous throughout these events. He wasn’t wealthy. He wasn’t particularly skilled in a unique way that Jo would have snagged up and elevated to the anointed quorum. He wasn’t somebody who unflinchingly followed the tides and forces of the radical movement… at least until push came to shove; and I think that’s a really interesting shift.
You see, King Follett was close friends with the Whitmers and he advocated on their behalf when the tribunal was held to remove them from the presidency. He went against Jo, Rigdon, and Bloody Brigham during their coup of the Missouri Stake presidency. Yet, he wasn’t so loyal to the Whitmers that he defected along with the dozens who did when they were excommunicated. Instead, he went with the party vote and stuck with the prophet. Where did it land him? Getting shot at, run out of his home by state militias, robbing gentile settlements to have enough food to survive the winter, and it all culminated in leaving his family without a father during a bitter-cold winter trek of over 500 miles, and left him in jail for months, chained to the floor without bedding and barely enough food to remain conscious. He made a series of small decisions, or refused to make enough small decisions that at the end of 7 years’ association with the radical faction of the Joseph Smith church, King Follett was branded a traitor to the United States, feared for his life at the swift hand of the law and when the law was unable to convict him he was in legitimate danger of vigilante justice taking his life.
This doesn’t happen overnight, right? King Follett didn’t just wake up one morning, apropos of nothing, and decide “Hey, I’m going to raid the local towns for foodstuffs and livestock”. He joined the wrong party and found himself on the wrong side of history but he’d invested so much time and money into that party that it would have been a departure from everything he’d known and lived for over half a decade to turn back now. Then the worst part of this is how his situation could be justified in his mind. He was in jail because he was being persecuted, not because he’d committed treason by attacking a state militia. He was hated by the Missourians because this was the one true church and the scriptures tell us the true disciples of Christ will be persecuted. The fact he was in jail for following the one true prophet PROVED he was a true disciple of Christ.
He landed himself in jail because he was wrong. He was there because he’d broken laws and his party wasn’t powerful enough to acquit him of clear and objective violations of law. Missouri wasn’t Nauvoo and the Mormon leadership like King Follett were still beholden to the system of laws we all follow until they had complete and total power in Nauvoo. I find it remarkable that otherwise law-abiding and good citizens can find themselves wrapped up in an escalation beyond their comprehension and never gain the wherewithal to see what’s happening until it’s too late. The Folletts seem like good people but that series of small decisions put them in immediate harms way, they voted and supported people who were never actually working in their best interest, and what did they have to show for it? King in jail awaiting a capital offense conviction while the rest of the family was once again destitute, starving, and freezing while trying to find a place to live in a swamp nobody wanted. They did this to themselves and they suffered the consequences. But, once again, if you asked them why these things happened, they would be happy to trot out the propaganda they were sold, it’s all religious persecution. Their very minds had been coopted and controlled for years by a malevolent force that used them for exclusively the growth of its own power. Good, everyday citizens who were rendered incapable of impartial judgement of the situation because they’d so deeply swallowed the pill of balkanization, dogmatism, and sectarian factionalism; the Folletts were victims of a system beyond the scope of their understanding. Rational people driven to the fringes of irrationality by mind control.
That’s what I mean when I say the Folletts can provide a useful marker by which to judge the majority of early Mormon membership throughout this Kirtland and Missouri era of early Mormonism. At the end of the day, the legacy of King Follett is marked by an era of Mormon theology so if that’s a marker of success maybe somebody can say all his sacrifices were for a larger purpose and worth it. But when I look back at the life of King Follett I see a tired old man, stripped of everything he ever owned, brainwashed to swear fealty to a system that never had his interests in mind, and somebody who repeatedly chose party over morality and suffered the consequences because of it. What’s even more incredible is he and the rest of the Folletts got out of it before the most radical era of Mormonism. He died before the schism crisis and before he was forced to decide which self-declared prophet to follow. He missed the supremacy and anti-government Mormonism that built the great basin kingdom under the tyrannical rule of Bloody Brigham. He died before witnessing the bodies of Hyrum and Joseph Smith being carried into Nauvoo full of bullets from vigilante justice that was too little and a decade too late. Even so, had he not been crushed by a bucket of rocks in March of 1844, I’m satisfied that his autonomy and free will had so long been stolen from him by Joseph Smith that he would’ve marched to the end of the earth to maintain Jo’s tyrannical rule. People who’ve been beaten and abused for over a decade rarely break the mold they’re forced into and King Follett was just as much a victim of that spine-crushing mind control as the thousands of others who called Jo their prophet, priest, and king. He is the messenger of manifest destiny to bring about the kingdom of god and anything Jo does can’t be wrong because it’s in the public interest of building that kingdom. King Follett fell perfectly in line with the goosestep march toward global Mormon supremacy which makes him complicit in every crime Joseph Smith committed. Instead, he’s venerated as a patriot of Zion and his name rings throughout Mormon households synonymous with Jo’s greatest theological sermon. King Follett seemed perfectly pleased with being a puppet of the master and only rarely tugged back on the controlling strings. No matter what we learn about our leaders, whoever they may be, I hope we may all be bestowed with the power to tug on those strings.
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