Thomas B. Marsh and his wife Elizabeth were baptized on September 3, 1830, and were therefore among the earliest members of the church. (Dan Vogel calculates that they were the 55th and 56th members, preceding all the future apostles save for William Smith and the Pratt brothers). Marsh became an important early church leader and when the Council of the Twelve was organized in 1835, he was called to be one of the original members. Because he was the oldest original apostle, he became the quorum’s first president. And yet today, among Mormons, Thomas B. Marsh (if he is remembered at all) is remembered only in a story where his wife was jealous over the division of some “milk and strippings,” the fallout of which led the couple into apostasy.
History is somewhat different than the fable. Marsh was loyal to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon in the crises of 1837, which saw the collapse of the church in Kirtland, and Marsh led efforts to expel potential troublemakers (Oliver Cowdery and the Whitmers) from their leadership roles in the church in Missouri. However, just a few months later, during the events of the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri, Marsh did voluntarily leave the faith, (along with fellow apostle Orson Hyde who soon returned). As Marsh explained in his October 24, 1838, affidavit, he left because he was alarmed that his fellow coreligionists had formed mobs, expelled all the non-Mormons from Daviess County, stolen their property, and burned their homes and towns to the ground.
Although the Mormons at the time were steeped in Gideon’s mythic defeat of the Midianites (Judges 7-8), where God required only 300 men to defeat 120,000, the danger in escalating the violence — in fighting mobs with mobs and in answering pillaging with pillaging — was extreme. The Mormons were as hopelessly outnumbered as Gideon. As much as the Saints eventually suffered after their defeat, even worse results were quite possible. The massacre at Haun’s Mill might just as easily have been replicated en masse at Far West, and the trial of Joseph Smith and other leaders may well have been a court martial and summary execution, (however illegal).
Whether or not one agrees with Marsh’s conviction that the acts committed by the Saints in northwestern Missouri were immoral and impious , I think we can at least agree that this seed of his apostasy from the faith was no small thing. Rather, it was a big thing. Thus, while the moral the Thomas B. Marsh fable, i.e., that faith can be shattered over something inconsequential, is true enough, it would probably make sense to tell a different, more appropriate fable to illustrate that moral.
Even more unfortunate, the “Milk and Strippings” fable is commonly told to teach a second moral. Because Thomas B. Marsh suffered many personal losses after 1838 — his wife left him, he had a stroke and became prematurely aged, and he became a pauper — he is seen as an object lesson that the fruit of apostasy is bitter. This precept is part of the “gospel of prosperity”: the righteous are blessed (here on earth) and the wicked are punished (here on earth). The problem is that we all know that it rains on the righteous and the wicked alike. It may be comforting when you’re prosperous to believe that prosperity is a sign of your righteousness, but it’s quite another thing when suffering some inadvertent hardship to be additionally burdened by the belief that this is punishment for your wickedness. For every Thomas B. Marsh who left the faith in apostasy and died a pauper, there’s a John C. Bennett who left, lived a successful life, and died prosperous. How many faithful Saints died of hardship, poverty, and disease on the trek west? This teaching is both senseless and pernicious.
Which brings me to Brigham Young. In 1857, Thomas B. Marsh, now infirm, aged, alone, and destitute, made his way across the plains to be reunited with his former fellow apostles and coreligionists. This was potentially an extremely happy reunion. The early apostles Peter and Paul were great rivals with different visions for Christianity. Paul saw a universal religion that transcended Jewish law. Peter’s vision of the church looked back to its origins as a Jewish sect. The two walked different paths but, according to tradition, they both ended their lives in Rome. If Peter’s path had gone astray and if had come to Rome, infirm, destitute, and seeking forgiveness, how do we expect Paul would greet his former rival? Would he have spat in his face? Or would he have played out the role of the father who welcomed back the prodigal son with open arms in the parable of Jesus?
We can’t know what Paul would have done because that scenario never happened, but we can know what Brigham Young did. He invited Marsh to address a large congregation in the Salt Lake City Bowery, gathered on September 6, 1857, and there Marsh made an earnest plea to be forgiven and accepted as a member of the LDS Church. Ascribing his apostasy to his own hubris, jealousy, wrath, and hypocrisy Marsh asked:
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.
After the congregation voted to allow Marsh to be baptized, Young offered this assessment of his predecessor as president of the Quorum of the Twelve:
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.
Despite this uncharitable welcome, Marsh did rejoin the faith. He died a pauper in Ogden nine years later.
 Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols., 5: 368.
 A committee of non-Mormons from Ray County appended their signatures to the affidavit, stating: “The undersigned committee on the part of the citizens of Ray County have no doubt but that Thomas B. Marsh & Orson Hyde, whose names are signed to the foregoing certificates, have been members of the Mormon Church in full fellowship until very recently when they voluntarily abandoned the Mormon Church & faith. And that said Marsh was, at the time of his dissenting, the President of the Twelve Apostles & President of the Church at Far West, and that said Hyde was, at that time, one of the Twelve Apostles. And that they left the church & abandoned the faith of the Mormons from a conviction of their immorality & impiety.”
 Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., 5: 208
 Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., 5: 210