(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here.) The “Milk and Strippings” story as it relates to Thomas B. Marsh, onetime top LDS apostle turned apostate who came to Utah almost 20 years later a broken, humbled, impoverished supplicant, is one of the pleasant semi-fictions of Mormon history. It probably isn’t completely untrue, but it seems a mostly unlikely fable, which follows: In Far West, Sister Marsh and Sister Harris agreed to share milk and so-called “strippings” in order to make more cheese. Sister Marsh kept too many of the “strippings.” Sister Harris complained to the ward teachers, who decided that Sister Marsh was in the wrong. There was an appeal and the Bishop upheld the verdict. Thomas B. Marsh, the senior apostle, appealed to the High Council, who upheld the bishop’s verdict. Apostle Marsh then appealed to the First Presidency, who upheld the High Council. The story concludes with Marsh so angry over what he perceived as an affront to his wife, that, as Apostle George A. Smith relates, “With the persistency of Lucifer himself, he declared that he would uphold the character of his wife, ‘even if he (Marsh) had to go to hell for it.’” (It bears noting that Smith’s recollections are from the 1850s.)
So, Marsh left the church, filed affidavits that Mormon paramilitary organizations were prepared to attack church opponents. According to authors Richard Van Wagoner and Steven C. Walker, writing in Sunstone, Vol. 6, No. 4, Marsh’s affidavit, which was co-filed by Orson Hyde, an apostle who later returned to the church, contributed to the extermination order of Mormons in Missouri, signed by Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs, and the Haun’s Mill massacre, where 17 Mormon men and boys were murdered.
Marsh’s apostasy was damaging to the church leaders. As A. Gary Anderson, writing for the website 1857massacre.com, notes, Joseph Smith “spent five months in jail as a result of the betrayal of Marsh and the others.”
Both the Sunstone piece and Anderson’s online essay, titled, “Thomas B. Marsh: Reluctant Apostate,” (here but scroll down a ways) rely a lot on the “Milk and Strippings Story” to explain Marsh’s apostasy. Frankly, it seems ludicrous that a dispute over a pint of milk “strippings” would lead to such chaos. But that’s the point of the fable, to point out how something that seems inconsequential can have great ramifications.
But there is a rest of the story to Marsh’s apostasy. He was under a great deal of personal and religious stress. As a senior church apostle, he was confronting rebellions from some of the church’s earliest leaders, including John Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, William E. McLellin, John Boynton, Luke Johnson and Lyman Johnson. In fact, Marsh’s efforts to maintain a church led by Joseph Smith were rewarded with his appointment as “President pro tem of the Church in Zion,” writes Anderson.
A personal tragedy struck the Marsh family in May of 1838. James G. Marsh, the family’s second son, age 14, died. In the boy’s obituary, published in the “Elders Journal,” which Marsh edited, Anderson notes that a revelation the boy had at age 9 was described in detail. It’s difficult to know how much James’ death affected the apostle Marsh, but Joseph Smith kept his senior apostle close to him for much of 1838, even providing a revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants with instructions for Marsh, adds Sorenson in his essay.
Nevertheless, history records that by the end of 1838 Marsh was both an apostate and an enemy to the LDS Church and its prophet, Joseph Smith. Casting aside the “Milk and Strippings” story as more legend than fact, John Hamer, writing in the blog bycommonconsent, offers a reason for Marsh’s apostasy that seems to have more curd in it. Hamer casts Marsh as a church leader very concerned over the young faith’s embrace of “Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8) where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000,” Hamer writes. Hamer argues that Marsh’s concern over Mormons wanting Quixotic battles with far superior enemies that would be waged with God’s help “was no small thing. Rather, it was the big thing.”
Now, the second part of the “Milk and Strippings” fable is that Marsh, nearly 20 years later, returned to Utah a broken man, begged publicly for forgiveness, and was reinstated into the church by a forgiving Brigham Young. Again part of that’s true, but it’s much more complex.
Here, as related by Hamer, is what Marsh said at the Salt Lake City Bowery, on Sept. 6, 1857. “I want your fellowship; I want your God to be my God, and I want to live with you for ever, in time and eternity. I never want to forsake the people of God any more. I want to have your confidence, and I want to be one in the house of God. I have learned to understand what David said when he exclaimed, ‘I would rather be a door-keeper in the house of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’ I have not come here to seek for any office, except it be to be a door-keeper or a deacon; no, I am neither worthy nor fit; but I want a place among you as a humble servant of the Lord.”
And, as Hamer notes, Young offered this ungracious reply: “I presume that Brother Marsh will take no offen[s]e if I talk a little about him. We have manifested our feelings towards him, and we know his situation. With regard to this Church’s being reconciled to him, I can say that this Church and people were never dissatisfied with him; for when men and women apostatize and go from us, we have nothing to do with them. If they do that which is evil, they will suffer for it. Brother Marsh has suffered….
“He has told you that he is an old man. Do you think that I am an old man? I could prove to this congregation that I am young; for I could find more girls who would choose me for a husband than can any of the young men. Brother Thomas considers himself very aged and infirm, and you can see that he is, brethren and sisters. What is the cause of it? He left the Gospel of salvation. What do you think the difference is between his age and mine? One year and seven months to a day; and he is one year, seven months, and fourteen days older than brother Heber C. Kimball. ‘Mormonism’ keeps men and women young and handsome; and when they are full of the Spirit of God, there are none of them but what will have a glow upon their countenances; and that is what makes you and me young; for the Spirit of God is with us and within us. When Brother Thomas thought of returning to the Church, the plurality of wives troubled him a good deal. Look at him. Do you think it need to? I do not; for I doubt whether he could get one wife. Why it should have troubled an infirm old man like him is not for me to say.”
Hamer describes Young as “uncharitable” in his remarks. Perhaps that’s true, but there’s more context to this historical tale, as Van Wagoner and Walker note in their Sunstone article. Prior to the reunion and speeches at the Bowery, Marsh had sent Young what he claimed was a revelation from God. It read in part, as the Sunstone piece records, “Behold I say unto thee Brigham Young! Where is the servant of the Lord, Thomas Marsh, Chief of the 12 to whom the Lord gave the keys of the Kingdon? from whom they have not been taken, who was driven out from among you because of the iniquity of his brethren who hunted for his blood but did not obtain it because his life was hid with Christ in god, because he had made the Lord, who was the God of David, his habitation …”
The letter from Marsh to Young also claimed that God wanted Young, as well as himself, to be part of a “Supreme Council” in which “they shale obtain the word of the Lord through the mouth of Thomas ...”
Brigham Young did not suffer those whom he considered fools easily. Reading the letter, one imagines emotions including contempt, pity and compassion. History does record that he sent for Thomas B. Marsh, and allowed the “prodigal apostle” a place in the church he once abandoned. Young’s tendency to be blunt, one which often extended to cruelty, was also on display on the day the former apostle Marsh addressed the Utah saints.
As for Marsh, after spending time in Springville and Spanish Fork, he eventually moved to Ogden. As Van Wagoner and Walker note, he sometimes wrote Brigham Young, requesting clothes. He died in Ogden in 1867, and is buried in the city cemetery.