- The “Messenger of the Day of Redemption”Epidemic Cholera, Kingdom-Building, and the Power of Print Narrative
As the forerunner of the night of the end, and the messenger of the day of redemption, the Star will borrow its light from sacred sources, and be devoted to the revelations of God as made known to his servants by the Holy Ghost, at sundry times since the creation of man, but more especially in these last days, for the restoration of the house of Israel.—“The Evening and the Morning Star,” Evening and the Morning Star, June 1832
In June 1832, the recently formed Church of Christ released its first periodical, the Evening and the Morning Star. Church members colloquially referred to it as the Star. The first sentence of the newspaper’s inaugural issue clearly stated its mission: the Star defined itself as “the messenger of the day of redemption.” Contributors and editors devoted themselves to revelations of God and to the restoration of a pure, uncorrupted Christianity. The Church of Christ’s press embodied that mission within the protean borderland of an expanding and seemingly providential American empire. The Star’s editor and publisher, William W. Phelps, rightly claimed to run the printing press farther west than any other in the United States. While that fact likely seemed trivial to some, the members of the Church thought of it as anything but meaningless. According to the Star, God chose its readership as his servants for the prophesized restoration of the House of Israel, which they sought to build near the remote location of Independence, Missouri. The Latter-day [End Page 7] Saints, or the Saints as they often called themselves, sought to build the Kingdom of Zion by gathering together God’s chosen people. In part, the Star’s authors and editors interpreted the changing world for its readers, and they helped form the cultural foundation on which the Latter-day Saints built their movement.1 (See Fig. 1.)
Click for larger view
View full resolution
In 1832, the global cholera pandemic demanded more of the incipient periodical’s attention than any other current event. More than any other disease, cholera brought fear, suffering, and death to the minds and bodies of most early nineteenth-century Americans. Cases of yellow fever and smallpox, which had played that role during the previous centuries, had all but disappeared from the United States. Vaccines brought smallpox under control, and yellow fever regressed from temperate back into tropical regions. The cholera epidemic, though, made its world debut in 1817, infecting thousands [End Page 8] of individuals along pilgrimage and trade routes from India to Southwest Asia. The disease reemerged, causing a second epidemic in 1829. Migrations, pilgrimages, extra-local trade, and military unit relocations spread cholera from Eastern to Western Europe. Transportation revolutions brought on by new technologies, such as the steam engine, accelerated those processes. By 1832, people unknowingly brought the bacteria Vibrio cholera to the Americas, making it a bihemispheric pandemic. The first American outbreak took place in Canada after the pathogen arrived on a boat carrying emigrants from England. It did not take long for the disease to spread to every major city and along every major trade and migration route in North America. While the Saints focused their thoughts on other issues, too, cholera formed a significant—and at times the most salient—concern that they expressed in print. In order to understand the Church of Latter-day Saints’ kingdom-building mission during its formative years, one must consider its relationship to the 1832 cholera epidemic, the disease’s generative effect on culture, and the meaning-making power of the narratives printed on the pages of the Star.2
People victimized by cholera exhibited a horrible spectrum of symptoms, many of which resembled those associated with acute arsenic poisoning. When the disease struck, those who suffered its effects succumbed to incessant attacks of diarrhea, acute spasmodic vomiting...