1809-16 | 1817-32 | 1832-33 | early 1833 | notes
Chapter 1 Timeline
Forward: A Quest for the TruthIN the waning days of December 1833 a tall, good-looking fellow with the unlikely name of Doctor Philastus Hurlbut spoke before an audience gathered together to hear his explanation of the origin of the Book of Mormon. Mr. Hurlbut held his lecture in the Methodist Meeting-House on the high bench overlooking Kirtland Flats, Geauga county, Ohio. Outside, a few yards away, men were straining to lift into place the large stone blocks for a much grander meeting house -- the Mormons' new Temple at Kirtland. Mr. Hurlbut had come to the edge of Mormondom's holy ground to exhibit what a called the original manuscript for that sect's unique sacred scriptures. Holding aloft a thick sheaf of yellowed pages, he proclaimed his quest to be at an end. He had brought back from its long forgotten container in the far off village of Hartwick his own variation on the holy grail -- the Rev. Solomon Spalding's "Manuscript Found."
Or had he?
In his seminal treatise on early Mormon conflicts at Kirtland, Ohio, LDS historian Max H. Parkin made this interesting observation:
The winter of 1833 and 1834 was a particularly threatening period of time for the Saints in Kirtland.... It is unfortunate that more details of the threats [made against the Saints by Kirtland non-Mormons] were not preserved, but according to Cowdery much of the animosity was stirred up by Hurlbut... (1)The winter of 1833 and 1834 was indeed "a particularly threatening period of time for the Saints" -- little-known events of that time brought about a "crisis" among the Latter Day Saints at Kirtland. There may be a reason for the scarcity of detail which Parkin so deplores. It appears that the Church officials responsible for recording the incidents of this crisis period purposefully obscured certain matters in the course of their meeting and overcoming an especially threatening challenge to the Church -- and to their priestly authority. (2)
The 1833-34 turning point in what I call the ongoing "Crisis at Kirtland" has not been outlined in any great detail by previous writers; it is my purpose to raise questions, present possible answers, and open up for discussion a neglected period in Mormon history. The bulk of this report is devoted to an examination of the anti-Mormon "Doctor" Philastus Hurlbut's varied interchanges with the early Latter Day Saints. A contemporary account by Oliver Cowdery suggests that Hurlbut's antagonistic interaction with the Mormons in Ohio presented a significant challenge to the Church. (3) I have made an attempt to follow Cowdery in his understated allusion and have surmised that Mr. Hurlbut's activities and the response they provoked among the Church hierarchy contributed significantly to both the basis and the turning point of that crisis.
Fig. 1. Artist's reconstruction -- based upon 1840s drawing of the Temple
Part 1: Birth and Breeding
Not Even a Closet for the Skeletons:
History has provided but few clues in regard to D. P. Hurlbut's early days. His widow (Maria S. Woodbury Hurlbut) stated to interviewer Arthur B. Deming in 1885, that her late husband, "when a young man" had "attended school in Penn Yan, N.Y. Later he lectured about the country on various subjects" -- however, there is no known record of a young "Doctor" Philastus Hurlbut living near Penn Yan and attending school there during this period. (9)
It is likely that D. P. was a relative of those Hurlbuts who first lived in Chittendon County Vermont and who later migrated to Chautauqua County, New York, where some of them became Methodists. David Hurlbut (mentioned in the previous paragraph) was born in 1770, in Middletown, Connecticut; but he married in Chittendon Co., Vermont and gradually moved westward on a line of travel passing more or less through Yates Co., New York. At least three of David Hurlbut's children took up residence in or near Rushville, Middlesex twp., in Yates Co. One of the three eventually died in the neighboring township of Jerusalem -- this was Clemana Hurlbut Burtch, who married Joel Burtch of Sabintown in about 1827. It is possible -- even probable -- that the young D. P. Hurlbut lived first in Rushville and then relocated with friends or family to Sabintown (within walking distance of Penn Yan) even before Clemana (his step-sister or half-sister?) married Mr. Burtch (see map in Fig. 1, below).
Fig. 1. The Penn Yan, NY Region in D. P. Hurlbut's Day
As the map in Fig. 2a. indicates, Hurlbut pioneers gradually moved westward, through New York, into the lands south of what became the Erie Canal route. They mostly avoided Niagara and Erie counties, but settled in noticeable clusters on the border of Yates and Ontario counties; in Genesee Co., and in CHautauqua Co., just north and west of Jamestown. The tabulations of Hurlbut heads of households in the 1810, 1820, and 1830 Federal Census returns for western New York may contain the names of several of D. P. Hurlbut's relatives.
Fig. 2a. The Hurlbuts of Western NY (1810-1830)
One newspaper item shows that D. P. was operating under the name of Hurlbut, near Jamestown, New York in Sept. 1832. He was reportedly baptized a Mormon, under this same name, in Jamestown, as early as 1832. If this was indeed the name he used prior to his move to Jamestown, some record of his early "lecturing" may yet be uncovered in western New York. In fact, it is possible that such evidence has already been found -- while his wife did not say what subject D. P. lectured upon, it is known that he tried to set up a root doctor's practice in Kirtland and he may have had some previous experience in that line of curative salesmanship. A newspaper advertisement from Feb. 23, 1831 provides the following interesting information:
It is perhaps only a coincidence, but "Dr. P. R. Hulbert's Remedy" was sold exclusively through a store in Auburn, New York, only a few miles from Penn Yan, where Doctor Philastus Hurlbut reportedly grew up. The distance between Penn Yan and Auburn was not far, but Auburn was located in a different county and most of the towns residents were presumably not closely acquainted with folks in Yates' County's Sabintown. Auburn was just the sort of place that a young root doctor might have gotten a start, packing and peddling his patent medicines. D. P. Hurlbut was evidently baptized a Mormon in Jamestown, New York in 1832 -- about the same time that the above ad's patent "remedy" seems to have gone off the market. Whoever "Dr. P. R. Hulbert" may have been, he most likely was an adult, which puts his birth date at about the year 1810 or before -- D. P. Hurlbut was reportedly born in 1809.
EARLY YEARS OF D. P. HURLBUT
Part 2: D. P. Hurlbut: New York Methodist
The Mormon Elder Benjamin Winchester published a statement saying that D. P. Hurlbut had once been a Methodist preacher who "resided in Jamestown, N.Y., previous to his embracing the profession of a Latter Day Saint..." Winchester does not say how long Hurlbut lived in Jamestown, Ellicott township, Chatauqua County, New York, prior to his Mormon baptism. One newspaper item shows him to have been there late in 1832, but perhaps he only lived in the area a few months before moving to the Mormon headquarters at Kirtland, Ohio early in 1833. (10)
Disclosure of D. P. Hurlbut's Methodist career first came from Elder Sidney Rigdon, who says: "This said Doctor was never a physician, at any time, nor anything else, but a base ruffian. He was the seventh, son, and his parents called him Doctor; it was his name, and not the title of his profession. He once belonged to the Methodist Church, and was excluded for immoralities." (11) Winchester adds that D. P. "was a member of the Methodist E. Church, and was for some time a class leader, and then an exhorter and local preacher; but was expelled for unvirtuous conduct with a young lady; at length he embraced the faith of the church of the Latter Day Saints..." (12)
"In regard to D. P. Hurlbut... He was excommunicated from the Methodist Episcopal Church for improprieties with the opposite sex and lying... How do I know all these things?... my mother's people were all Methodists, so that I was blessed with seven Methodist preachers as near relatives. Hence the excommunication of said Hurlbut from the Methodist Church was familiar household talk whenever any of them met together..." (Hyram Rathbun Letter of July 17, 1884, printed in the Saints' Herald Aug. 2, 1884).
Hyram Rathbun (or Hiram Rathbone/Rathburn) was born Apr. 3, 1820, in Wayne, Co., Ohio, the son of Robert Rathbun, Jr. (1798-1856) and Hannah Warner (1797-aft.1820). Hyrum's mother was born in Gnadenhutten, Tuscarawas, Ohio. Which among Hannah's "near relatives" were "Methodist preachers," and where they might have crossed paths with D. P. Hurlbut remains unknown. However, there is one possibly significant tie between the Rathbun family and D. P. Hurlbut. As mentioned previously, Benjamin Winchester had an Hurlbut aunt -- this was his father's sister, Sarah Winchester, who married Asel Hurlbut. Their daughter, Maria Hurlbut, married Loren Rathbun in 1848, at Elk Creek, Erie Co., Pennsylvania. Loren Rathbun's great-great-grandfather, John Rathbun, was also the great-great-great-grandfather of Hyram Rathbun. This is a very distant relationship, and it provides nothing to help answer the question of where and when Hyrum Rathbun's mother's family encountered D. P. Hurlbut.
A Preacher with no Frock can't be DefrockedIf D. P. Hurlbut had ever been ordained as a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church, some record of that notable event should have been preserved. Since there is no known record of his ordination, it is doubtful that he ever rose above the rank of a class leader or exhorter. Possibly he was a licensed preacher for a short period -- too short for his name to make it into any historical record. Arthur B. Deming, who investigated Hurlbut's background, had this to say in 1888: "D. P. Hurlbut was a Methodist preacher in Ontario County, N. Y., joined the Mormons, left them and collected evidence for a book published by E. D. Howe, of Painesville, in 1834."
The map provided in Fig. 3. shows a conjectural route, which might have been taken by D. P. Hurlbut in the months before he showed up at Jamestown, in Chautauqua Co. No attempt has been made to include the uncertain movements of "Dr. P. R. Hulbert," the patent medicine promoter -- so the line of travel passes through Ontario Co. (where Hurlbut reportedly served as a Methodist preacher); then westward along the Genesee Road to Jamestown. His excommunication from the Methodists probably occured prior to 1832, at some place between Canandaigua and Batavia.
EARLY YEARS OF D. P. HURLBUT
Part 3: D. P. Hurlbut: New York Mormon
Mormon missionaries proselytized in Chautauqua County, New York with considerable success in the early 1830s and it was there that D. P. Hurlbut was converted, on some unknown day, prior to the end of 1832. Hurlbut was very likely acquainted with the Ezekiel Johnson (1773-1848) family of Pomfret township in that same county. Although Ezekiel was not a convert, his wife and several of their children became Mormons. Among these were Benjamin Franklin Johnson (1818-1905) and Joseph Ellis Johnson (1817-1882), both of whom got to know D. P. Hurlbut well and later provided accounts of his dealings with the Saints. D. P. Hurlbut probably met the Johnsons in Chautauqua county in 1832; by the following year he was living with them in Kirtland. (13)
Relatives of the same David Hurlbut mentioned above, were then living in Chautauqua County, in and around Pomfret. It seems likely that D. P. first sought out relatives in the area and then met people like the Johnson family members, who introduced him to Mormonism. As already stated, one of David Hurlbut's brothers married Benjamin Winchester's aunt. David's sister Asenath Hurlbut married a man named Elkanah Sherman and lived with him to New York and Ohio. One of their daughters was Electa Elenor Sherman, whom D. P. Hurlbut is said to have courted at Kirtland, after his arrival there in early 1833. Another of Elkanah and Asenath's children was Lyman Royal Sherman, who, on Jan. 16, 1829, married Delcina Diademia Johnson at Pomfret, Chautaqua Co., New York. This couple became Mormons and temporarily moved to the Mormon gathering spot at Jamestown. Their son Albey Lyman Sherman was born at Jamestown Oct. 30, 1832. One possible scenerio for D. P. Hurlbut's Mormon conversion is that he accompanied his relatives, the Shermans, on their move from Pomfret; and, after they arrived in that place, he decided to join the same sect they belonged to.
The particulars of Hurlbut's LDS baptism are not known but one possible officiator could have been Sidney Rigdon. Rigdon was reportedly working with converts in the Jamestown area early in 1833, and he may well have visited that same region at the end of 1832. (14) Perhaps D. P. Hurlbut left his co-religionists in Jamestown at the beginning of 1833 because Sidney Rigdon dispatched the experienced preacher to Kirtland, where he might be best put to use in the interests of the growing church. (15)
In early 1833 a disease which may have been small pox (or, more likely, the less serious disease, variola) struck the Mormon gathering at Jamestown and soon after that the group broke up, with most of the members relocating to Geauga Co., Ohio. Even before the outbreak was publicized, D. P. Hurlbut was almost certainly on his way to Kirtland. Probably he was ordained a Mormon priest at Jamestwon, but the would-be root doctor had greater ambitions. His plan, apparently, was to move to Kirtland and there marry into a prominent family of the sect, rise in the ranks of its priesthood, open a homeopathic medical practice, and enjoy a good life at others' expense.
EARLY YEARS OF D. P. HURLBUT
Part 4: D. P. Hurlbut in Kirtland
Mormon convert "Doctor" Philastus Hurlbut entered the pages of recorded history in about February of 1833, when he passed through Erie County, Pennsylvania on his way to Kirtland. There were at that time in Erie Cunty two congregations of Mormons, an organized branch in Springfield township and a growing number of converts in neighboring Elk Creek township. Hurlbut apparently stopped in Elk Creek (a mile or two northeast of modern Albion) to visit with the local Mormons. Among these were the family of recent convert Stephen Winchester, Sr. (1795-1873). (16) D. P. first met Stephen's young son, Benjamin Winchester, at this time. Benjamin's telling of the Saints' experiences with D. P. Hurlbut was published in an LDS polemical pamphlet printed in 1840.
...he embraced the faith of the church of the Latter Day Saints, and soon started for Kirtland, Ohio; ostensibly to cultivate an acquaintance with the brethren there. On his way, he passed through the place in which I resided; he was not ordained at this time; while at Kirtland he was ordained to the office of elder.... (17)
Official LDS records state that D. P. Hurlbut was ordained an elder in Kirtland by Sidney Rigdon on March 18, 1833. Prior to this he reportedly spent part of a day visiting there with the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith, Jr., on March 13th. (18) Allowing Hurlbut sufficient time to travel from Pennsylvania to Ohio, it is likely that Benjamin Winchester first met D. P. Hurlbut no later than during the first week in March. Because Hurlbut seemingly travelled alone and without any known specific command to gather with the Kirtland Saints, his purpose in proceeding to Kirtland during the first weeks of 1833 has remained open to conjecture. Elder Joseph H. Johnson was confident that D. P. moved to the Mormon headquarters, in order to "investigate the truth of Mormonism." Whatever merits Johnson's assertion may have, his recollection of these events is marred by his next avowal: "Claiming to be satisfied, he was baptized and became a member in full fellowship." (19) This conflicts with Benjamin Winchester's more likely report that Hurlbut, while in living in Chautauqua County, New York "embraced the faith of the church of the Latter Day Saints, and soon started for Kirtland, Ohio; ostensibly to cultivate an acquaintance with the brethren there." (20)
D. P. Hurlbut: Would-be Root Doctor (Mar.-Apr. 1833)Benjamin Winchester's remembrance of Hurlbut's going to Kirtland "to cultivate an acquaintance with the brethren there," is probably a correct one. Joseph H. Johnson corroborated Winchester's statement by saying that, while in Kirtland, Hurlbut "made an effort to get into a good practice of medicine, sought position in the Church, and was ever stirring to make marital connection with any of the 'first families.'" (21)
It is likely that Hurlbut's motive for moving to Kirtland early in 1833 was self-promotion and advancement into the top ranks of Mormonism. Having learned of Frederick G. Williams' impending elevation to the third highest position in the LDS hierarchy, D. P. must have found the prospect of making a "marital connection," with the Williams family an appealing one. According to one account, "He courted Dr. Williams' beautiful daughter, and told her he had a revelation to marry her; she told him when she received a revelation they would be married. Everybody about Kirtland believed he had left the Mormons because she refused him." (22)
Elder Joseph H. Johnson says that, while in Kirtland, Hurlbut "made an effort to get into a good practice of medicine." (23) The type of medicine Hurlbut hoped to practice in Kirtland must have been herbal medicine, as the Latter Day Saints of that era had little use for regular physicians. William R. Hine's statement saying that D. P. Hurlbut "courted Dr. [F. G.] Williams' beautiful daughter" is rendered even more significant by the fact that F. G. Williams was a botanic physician as well as high-ranking Mormon. In fact, few months after Hurlbut's expulsion from the Saints, Elder Burr Riggs married the daughter (Lovina), maintained close ties to Williams and eventually became his partner in the lucrative root doctor business. (24) "Doctor" Philastus Hurlbut's plan to marry into a prominent Mormon family and thus insert himself into the leaders' social circle soon went greatly awry, however. Within a few days of his arrival in the Mormon capital he was turned on his heels and sent out to plod the cold and gritty missionary pathways of rural Pennsylvania. This setback in Hurlbut's plans can probably be attributed to his failing to make an especially favorable impression upon the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr.
Hurlbut Meets The Mormon ProphetElder Joseph H. Johnson's claim that D. P. Hurlbut came to the Mormon headquarters at Kirtland in order to "investigate the truth of Mormonism," does not fit well with other information gleaned from those who knew the convert at the time. It may be that Johnson's late assertion in this regard was colored by his having heard Joseph Smith, Jr.'s own 1834 avowal:
On the 13th of March A. D. 1833, Doctor P. Hurlbut came to my house. I conversed with him considerably about the book of Mormon. He was ordained to the office of an elder in the Church under the hand of Sidney Rigdon on the 18th of March in the same year above written. According to my best recollection, I heard him say, in the course of conversing with him, that if he ever became convinced that the book of Mormon was false, he would be the cause of my destruction, &c. (25)
Smith's claims of what Hurlbut reportedly said during his March 13, 1833 interview are rendered suspect by several conflicting considerations, most of which center around the fact that original Mormon records regarding D. P. Hurlbut are in obvious disorder. (26)
Episode 2 -- Chapter 2
(1) Max H. Parkin "The Nature and Cause of Internal and External Conflict of the Mormons in Ohio Between 1830 and 1838" Masters thesis, Brigham Young University, 1966, p. 258).
Addendum: Hurlbuts in Western NY
Hurlbuts in Western NY (1820 Census)
Hurlbuts in Western NY (1830 Census)