Why is this thimble missing its top? This particular type of sewing aid is known as a tailor’s thimble and is made without a top to allow the tailor’s thumb to more easily manipulate the fabric. It belonged to a skilled carpenter, community builder, and latter-day prophet—a man some now call an American Moses.1 According to family tradition, Brigham Young took this thimble with him on his first long venture into the wilderness as a member of Zion’s Camp.
In May and June 1834, Brigham Young was among the estimated 200 men, along with approximately 11 women and 7 children, who marched with the Prophet Joseph Smith from Kirtland, Ohio, to Clay County, Missouri. They assembled to protect Latter-day Saints who were planning a return to Jackson County, Missouri, after having been driven out the previous fall. Governor Daniel Dunklin had promised to send military units to escort the Saints back to their properties as tensions still ran high. Jackson County residents considered Mormons’ views unorthodox, resented their insular economic practices, and feared their potential political power, given their rapid influx into the area.2 Attempting to once again occupy such a hostile environment presented risks of further violence, so at the Lord’s command,3 Joseph Smith assembled an army to continue protecting Latter-day Saint settlers once they arrived back at their homes.4
Those who volunteered for the march engaged in military training along the way. They enjoyed learning from the Prophet daily and witnessed miracles of divine protection, revelation, and healing. They also endured unfavorably hot, humid, wet, and muddy conditions; scant, poor food; thirst; blistered, bloody feet; and excessive fatigue. Some members responded to the physical suffering with irritation and aggression toward each other. To add to the camp’s troubles, Governor Dunklin concluded that reinstating the Saints in Jackson County would incite a civil war within his state and withdrew his offer of military support, rendering the objective of Zion’s Camp unfeasible. Ultimately, a deadly cholera outbreak raged through the camp, a scourge Joseph Smith had predicted as a consequence of their quarrelsome conduct.5
The members of Zion’s Camp did not return home victorious in redeeming Jackson County land. As a result, some members lost faith. Yet Brigham Young’s thimble symbolizes the subtle successes, including personal transformation in practical and spiritual ways, experienced by the faithful who marched with Zion’s Camp.
At the outset of the march, Brigham Young was likely more accustomed to woodworking than using a needle, thread, and thimble, but the fact that he carried a thimble among his provisions shows he was willing to develop less-familiar skills. Heber C. Kimball, another member of Zion’s Camp and a future Apostle, related learning for the first time how to wash clothes while on the trek. Having seen women boil laundry, he boiled his shirts and then scrubbed them until his knuckles were raw. He learned that by boiling the shirts first, he had boiled the dirt into them.6 Growing in domestic knowledge and frontier skills was no small benefit to these men, considering the journey Latter-day Saints would undertake in coming years across the Great Plains.
The faithful who marched with Zion’s Camp also grew in spiritual strength, having answered a prophet’s call and weathered a trial of faith when the outcome seemed bleak.7 When the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was first organized to lead the Church in 1835, it included nine men who had marched in Zion’s Camp.
Zion’s Camp proved to be a training exercise not only in domestic skills and religious commitment but also in moving masses of people across the frontier. Brigham Young later said of his time with Zion’s Camp: “I have travelled with Joseph a thousand miles, as he has led the Camp of Israel. I have watched him and observed every thing he said or did . . . for the town of Kirtland I would not give the knowledge I got from Joseph from this Journey. . . . This was the starting point of my knowing how to lead Israel.”8 As Brigham Young marched from Ohio to Missouri alongside a prophet, his steps foreshadowed a larger future role—becoming a prophet himself and guiding the Saints across 1,300 miles to the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1846 and 1847.9
This simple tailor’s thimble, carried during a time of great tutoring in a future leader’s life, reminds us of Brigham Young’s willingness to grow. From mending tents to raising a thriving community from the barren desert, Brigham Young developed abilities that were required to fulfill the work of the Lord.