The martyrdom of a prophet:
It is winter 1844, and the Prophet Joseph Smith is Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, mayor of the city which has become the largest and most flourishing in all of Illinois, and revelator to the Saints. But he is a man whose time is running out. To Elizabeth Rollins he had confided in the spring of 1844, “I must seal my testimony with my blood.”1 The testament is of no force, Paul said, until the death of the testator.2 The depth of that doctrine is beyond me—why death should somehow be the full glorifying sanction of life; why blood must be shed as the price of freedom and of truth, and most of all of the witness of Christ. But so it is. Joseph taught that principle.
The brethren became anxious about his life, so often did he express the sentiment that they must carry on in his absence. Brigham Young, for one, recalled: “I heard Joseph say many a time, ‘I shall not live until I am forty years of age.’”3 At another time Brigham Young added, “Yet we all cherished hopes that that would be a false prophecy, and we should keep him for ever with us; we thought our faith would outreach it, but we were mistaken.”4
Wilford Woodruff, who conversed with the Prophet just after April Conference 1844, recalled that he later sent ten of the Twelve East on a mission, and that the Prophet seemed to linger in saying goodbye to him. Then, looking him through and through, he said, “Brother Woodruff, I want you to go, and if you do not, you will die.” And he looked “unspeakably sorrowful, as if weighed down by a foreboding of something dreadful.”5
On the other hand, because he had so often escaped the vilifyings and the attacks of his enemies, some believed that he was invincible. In one sermon he said, in response, “Some have supposed that Brother Joseph could not die; but this is a mistake.” He added, “Having now accomplished [my work], I have not at present any lease of my life. I am as liable to die as other men.”6
During that last winter he manifested four dominant anxieties and did all in his power to relieve them, as he had been commanded. The first anxiety related to the temple. He yearned for it to be finished. For example, he with Hyrum went from house to house in Nauvoo in the role, we would say now, of home teachers, and recommitted the Saints to give of time and means to the speedy erection of that building.7 He himself gave sermons and so did Hyrum.8 Hyrum said, “Great things are to grow out of that house.”9 Joseph did some of the physical work himself, quarrying rock with his bare hands.10 Often he would ride out on his horse, Old Charlie, sometimes accompanied by his dog, Major, ride up on the hill, that commanding eminence, to the temple site, longing and praying that the Saints would be able to complete it and receive the blessings to be given therein before they were driven and scattered. For he anticipated and prophesied that they would be driven and scattered.11
Joseph’s anxiety about the temple was compounded by his anxiety concerning the records of the Church, that they be kept, preserved, and accurately transmitted. That was the responsibility of several of his scribes.12 Six men were working around the clock to bring the history up to date. One of them was Willard Richards, a loyal man who often burned candles until midnight, writing with his quill pen. Joseph had said, after a dream, “I told Phelps a dream that the history must go ahead before anything else.”13 To several others he spoke of the necessity of accurate record-keeping, and he lamented in a priesthood meeting with “deep sorrow” that the Church had not kept adequate minutes. He intimated that this was a matter that could offend the Lord, since he had given inspiration which they had not prized enough to record. Then Joseph said, “Here let me prophesy. The time will come when, if you neglect to do this thing, you will fall by the hands of unrighteous men.”14
One might ask, Was it all that important? And one can quickly answer: If all of the Twelve then in Nauvoo had promptly recorded the meeting in which Joseph rolled off the responsibility from his shoulders upon them and charged them, in what he called his last charge, to go forward in building the kingdom, any claim that he intended someone else to succeed to the Presidency of the Church would be completely refuted by contemporary documents. But only one of the Twelve, Orson Hyde, recorded that meeting at the time.15 Most of those present didn’t say much about it until several years later.16 Hence, although the charge that this meeting was a convenient afterthought is a false one, as a Church we would have been invulnerable on this point if proper records had been kept. They would have refuted any possible claim that Joseph did not want the President of the Twelve to succeed him.17
In addition to the anxiety about records, he had a concern to teach in summary all that had theretofore been made known and to make sure that the brethren understood it. To that end he spent much of every day for three months with the Twelve, with others of the Church leaders, and also often in counsel with husbands and wives, sharing, summarizing, reiterating restored truth and ordinances. “You give us no rest,” Orson Pratt said. “The Spirit urges me,” the Prophet replied.18 Wilford Woodruff said: “It was not merely a few hours . . . but he spent day after day, week after week, and month after month, teaching [the Twelve] and a few others the things of the kingdom of God.”19 As the record shows, even though the temple was not complete he administered the higher ordinances of the temple to certain of the more faithful and true. Thus we know of sixty to seventy couples who received temple blessings in the upper room over his store before the Nauvoo Temple was completed.20 By now construction was far along. The temple was, as some said, “up to the square,” and the baptismal font then had been dedicated and was in use for baptisms for the dead.21
To summarize thus far: temple anxiety, record anxiety, teaching anxiety.
Finally there was the Prophet’s major concern—that the Saints understand his role and be willing to do what in an extremity they might be required to do.22 Strangely, throughout the days of the last of May and early June 1844 many who were associated with the Prophet exhibited unusual optimism. Among these was his brother Hyrum, who seemed to feel, even down to the time that they were in jail in Carthage, that everything would work out, that this was just one more of the many crises from which they had always emerged. In radical contrast the Prophet had for some time had all kinds of ominous presentiments.23
Now we reach the crisis moment, the tinder box and the trigger. In the Nauvoo period some people’s attitudes were bitter. They joined in league with the underworld. At this time Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois, hence counterfeiters, blacklegs, bootleggers, slave traders, gamblers, and every other disreputable type of person found their way there, trying to exploit the possibilities for dishonest profits, trying to gull recent and sometimes naive converts who had come from far and near. As you walked the streets of Nauvoo it was difficult to know who were the Saints and who weren’t. Because of that underworld, but worse still because of apostates living there who now hated the Church, the Prophet’s life was placed in jeopardy.24
William Law had first wept at the Prophet’s announcement of the principle of plural marriage, and with his arms around Joseph’s neck had pleaded that he not teach it. His son Richard, who said this took place about 1842 and who was present at the time, later related the incident to Joseph W. McMurrin, who summarized his remarks as follows: “William Law, with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, was pleading with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren, Mr. Law predicting that if Joseph would abandon the doctrine, ‘Mormonism’ would, in fifty or one hundred years, dominate the Christian world. Mr. Law pleaded for this . . . with tears streaming from his eyes. The Prophet was also in tears, but he informed the gentleman that he could not withdraw the doctrine, for God had commanded him to teach it, and condemnation would come upon him if he was not obedient to the commandment.”25 In conversation with others of the brethren Joseph said the Lord had told him that keys would be turned against him if he did not obey the commandment. How early did he know that plural marriage would be restored? At least as early as 1832.26 By 1842, ten years later, he had introduced it. (Of that principle, Joseph told the brethren, “I shall die for it.”27) Over that William Law became bitter, and soon he was excommunicated.28 Then Law attempted to organize his own church and began to fight back.29 He and his brother, Wilson, Chauncey and Francis Higbee, and Robert and Charles Foster were the sextet responsible for the publication on June 7, 1844, of the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor.
Written in the most intemperate language, the Expositor vilified the Prophet and attacked the Nauvoo Charter, which had been a protection to the Saints that they had not had in Missouri. Some examples are: “How shall he, who has drunk of the poisonous draft, teach virtue? . . . We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms.” Joseph Smith is “one of the blackest and basest scoundrels that has appeared upon the stage of human existence since the days of Nero and Caligula,” and his followers are “heaven-daring, hell-deserving, God-forsaken villains.” The paper attacked the “pretended” authority of the Nauvoo Charter as “unjust, illegal, and unconstitutional.”30
Concerned at this threat to their liberties and their lives, the citizens were filled with indignation. The city council met. According to their understanding of law, they decided that the Expositor was, by their own charter, a public nuisance, and that they had the authority not only to confiscate any remaining copies of the paper but also to destroy the press.31 Some students of law today would argue that they were perfectly within the law of the times, that there were precedents for it, and that the way they did it was indeed legal. (That was more than could be said of the 1833 mob action against the Saints in Missouri, well remembered by many Nauvoo citizens, when the printing press was pushed out of the second-story window, hundreds of printed copies of revelations were destroyed, the family with its sick child was evicted, the building was reduced to a heap of ruins, and two brethren were tarred and feathered.) But both friends and enemies of the Prophet now agree that the act, legal or not, was unwise and inflammatory and was the major immediate factor that culminated in the Prophet’s death.32
George Laub recorded the following: “Brother Joseph called a meeting at his own house and told us that God showed to him in an open vision in daylight [meaning that this was not something he had just conjured up in dreams of the night] that if he did not destroy that printing press that it would cause the blood of the Saints to flow in the streets and by this was that evil destroyed.”33 Speaking of those who returned to report that they had destroyed the press and other materials, as ordered by the city council, Joseph recorded: “I . . . told them they had done right and that not a hair of their heads should be hurt for it.”34 No doubt, not all believed this. He did not add then, which he could have, that although he had by that act preserved the Saints’ lives for a time, he had done so at the cost of his own. Even before the decision was made, the apostates had provided for it in their hearts. Francis Higbee is said to have remarked on June 10 while the city council was in session: “If they lay their hands upon it [the printing press] or break it, they may date their downfall from that very hour, and in ten days, there will not be a Mormon left in Nauvoo.”35 They threatened much more than they ever did. Among their threats were that there wouldn’t be a stone left on the temple, that they would burn all of Nauvoo, that there would not be one Smith left in the state, and that the Mormons would be killed or driven.36
This was indeed the crisis. Tried on charges rising out of the Expositor case, the Prophet was twice acquitted, as were those charged with him—city council members mainly.37 Because Joseph had avoided a hearing in Carthage, where his life would be forfeit, his enemies were not satisfied. Eventually Thomas Ford, the governor of Illinois, pronounced himself unsatisfied with those legal procedures and insisted that the Prophet go to be tried in the very hotbed of the cruelest opposition in the state, Carthage.38 Why? Ford mentioned it in his letter: to placate the masses.39 But after they had surrendered themselves at Carthage, the governor pledging to protect them, Joseph and Hyrum were charged with treason, and bail was set for Joseph and Hyrum and the thirteen other defendants at $7,500, for which the fifteen men plus several other brethren were able to give surety.40 When their enemies thus found they could not get them in jail legally, they found another way, and the Smith brothers were illegally put in jail.41
May I now back up to some preparatory events in the Prophet’s own inner life. In the King Follett discourse (April 1844) he had spoken of the great secret, the great and glorious truth, both that God himself has become what he is and that man, who is in the image of God, may become like him. It would help us with those to whom this seems to be blasphemy if we worded it more carefully than we usually do, if we said not “we believe that God is like a man,” but rather, “God is like Christ.” No genuine Christian could be offended at that statement. But we must go on to say “and as are God and his Christ, so man may be.”42 That too has offended many. The King Follett discourse, though we have published it more than any of the Prophet’s public utterances, still occasions some difficulty.
At the end of that discourse, he made the now classic statement: “You don’t know me; you never knew my heart. No man knows my history. I cannot tell it; I shall never undertake it.”43 The history of the Church he wrote as he was involved in it, but much of the biography of his inner world he kept locked within. At the end of the speech he said: “When I am called by the trump of the archangel and weighed in the balance, you will all know me then. I add no more. God bless you all. Amen.”44
Many were saying then, as they had in Kirtland and before, that here was a fallen prophet.45 Occasionally, with a twinge of humor, he would say, “Well, I had rather be a fallen true prophet than a false prophet.”46 In the conspiracy to take his life in which the Laws were involved, two young men had been invited to the secret meetings—Dennison L. Harris and Robert Scott. They consulted with the Prophet. He asked them to go and observe. At the risk of their lives they attended these meetings and reported back what they had heard. Prior to the last meeting they reported their expectation that at that meeting everyone present would be asked to come forward and take an oath to be willing to take the life of Joseph Smith.47
The Prophet wept. Now he knew by natural means as well as by his presentiments what was happening. The young men heroically attended the meeting as he suggested, and narrowly escaped with their lives when they were put under pressure to take the oath.
Joseph can be described properly, as he was by B. H. Roberts, as a man who “lived his life in crescendo.” There was no diminuendo in his life, but always increase.48 He gave the last of his discourses in the Grove. After the Laws had prophesied that he would never speak from the stand again, and though the rain at the end shortened his talk, he delivered a masterful discourse on the testimony he had borne from the beginning that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are three separate personages.49 In the final moment of his discourse he said, “Brethren and sisters, love one another; love one another and be merciful to your enemies.” Lucy M. Smith later recalled, “He repeated these words in a very emphatic tone of voice with a loud amen.”50 After that address he said he yearned to preach once more. His subject would have been a passage out of John’s Revelation pertaining to our becoming kings and priests.51
Then came the moment, the discourse before the Legion. Some of our historians have candidly observed that this was Joseph Smith as a man; this wasn’t really the Prophet, it was humanity coming out. He stood “on the top of the frame of a building,” the frame of the unfinished Nauvoo House.52 Before the group, many of them in uniform, he said, as he had twice before, that now the moment had been reached when “I will never tamely submit to the dominion of cursed mobocracy.”53 He summarized how he had been driven as a roe on the mountains54 all his life, that his enemies had given him no rest. When they took away his own rights, he said, he would submit. When they took away the rights of the Saints, he would fight for them. Now he unsheathed his sword and said, “I call God and angels to witness [what I have said].”55
If his language on this occasion seems inflammatory, one should read the journals of some of those who were present. They speak of the Prophet as “calm and deliberate.”56 They speak of him as concerned in love for his brethren.57 He did cry out at one point, “Will you stand by me to the death?” and thousands shouted “Aye!” He responded, “It is well.” Then in a wave of assurance of his own soul he said, “This people shall have their legal rights, and be protected from mob violence, or my blood shall be spilt upon the ground like water.” And again, “I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation.”58
If we can understand what was inside of him in love for his brethren, we will understand why his soul was wounded to the core when men came across the river at Montrose and accused him of cowardice—said that, despite his words about standing up for them, now that trouble had come he was the first one to run.59 That’s when he replied, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.” That was when the resolve was made to return. He had had light in his decision to leave—“It is clear to my mind what to do.”60 We can certainly say that the death of the Prophet was brought on by his enemies. Perhaps we must also say that it was brought on by some of his friends.
After all that the Saints had received from Joseph, there were some who at that stage could not believe him when he said, “All they want is Hyrum and myself. . . . They will come here and search for us. Let them search; they will not harm you . . . not even a hair of your head. We will cross the river tonight, and go away to the West.”61 But the pot was boiling. Reports were coming in every hour telling of increasing numbers of men who had come from Missouri to join the Illinois mobs; the mobs that were being gathered, the cannons they had available, the threats they were making.62 In the midst of that flood of evidence, Joseph’s statement, “You will be safe,” could not be believed. More than a hundred, Vilate Kimball wrote, had left Nauvoo. Seeing them go, the Prophet said, “Look at the cowards.” Now he himself was called a coward.63 And against the light, he came back. “The light he had was toward the mountains.”64
Porter Rockwell, when asked what he thought should be done, replied to the Prophet in a nineteenth-century phrase—“As you make your bed, I will lie with you.” Said Joseph, “Hyrum, you are the oldest, what shall we do?” Hyrum answered, “Let us go back and give ourselves up.” The Prophet, probably thinking of the governor’s stern, uncompromising letter, said, “If you go back I will go with you, but we shall be butchered.” “No, no,” said Hyrum, “let us go back and put our trust in God, and we shall not be harmed.”65
John Murdock, who watched them row back across the river that day, later said that he felt something in the air; that there was something threatening about this situation.66 Hyrum’s son, Joseph, felt it, and could never quite speak of it for the rest of his life without weeping. Mercy R. Thompson, watching from a chamber window, felt “sorrowful forebodings.”67 The two men’s wives, Emma Smith and Mary Fielding Smith, were not quite so much concerned, because so often their husbands had come back from threatening circumstances, and they, of course, did all they could to soothe them. The Prophet would later write a letter to Emma from the jail. It said in part: “It is the duty of all men to protect their lives and the lives of the household, whenever necessity requires.” He wrote, “Should the last extreme arrive,” then didn’t finish the sentence.68
Having recrossed the river to Nauvoo that last Sunday, June 23, Joseph sent a letter to the governor in Carthage promising to be there the next day. To meet the governor’s deadline they would have to leave very early—a 6:00 a.m. departure at the latest, and they had had no sleep for two nights.
There are little moments in those last hours that are significant and poignantly memorable. I mention only a few.
After the two brothers returned to surrender state arms as ordered by the governor, Leonora Taylor was in the Smith home when the Prophet went again to say goodbye. He pleaded with Emma on that occasion to go with him, even though she did not want to risk getting the ague, chills, and fevers. She was also expecting a child (four months pregnant) and not feeling well. He begged her to come anyway. She said no. And as he turned away, he said, “Well, if they don’t hang me I don’t care how they kill me.”69
It seems likely that Willard Richards overheard that statement and that that is why, in the last moments, he offered—and he meant it—to be hanged in the Prophet’s stead. The Prophet’s statement also tells us that he hadn’t yet been made to know exactly how he would die. There had been threats, one of them published in the newspaper, that his enemies would, as the letter said, “make catfish meat of him.”70 How ruthless some of these men were! They did it with slaves. They encouraged black men to run away from their masters, and they would sell them and pocket the money; then have them run away again, and sell them and pocket the money. They would tell the slave that after the third time, when, as they said, he was “hot,” they would share the money and he would be free. Instead of that they killed him, and cut him up and threw him in the Mississippi. That was making catfish meat of a man.71
There was also the problem of a reward offered by the Missourians. They had placed a price on his head—they would pay a thousand dollars for his delivery, as with John the Baptist, on a platter.72
So he did not know how he would end his life, but he did not relish—who among us would have?—the thought of hanging.
There was a moment with Daniel H. Wells, not yet a member of the Church, who was on a sickbed. The Prophet, not feeling well himself, stopped to see him. “Squire Wells, I wish you to cherish my memory, and not think me the worst man in the world either.”73 Daniel H. Wells had to give up his family in order to join the Church later.74 He could never speak of that last encounter with Joseph without deep feeling, and he became one of our great ones.
Mary Ellen Kimball overheard the Prophet say, as the group stopped to ask for a drink of water on the way to Carthage that morning, “Brother Rosenkranz, if I never see you again, or if I never come back, remember that I love you.” She felt that to her soul, and fled and wept on her bed.75
And then there was the pause the group made at the temple, where the Prophet lovingly surveyed that building, the city, the landscape, and then said: “This is the loveliest place and the best people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them.”76
On the road to Carthage the Prophet made some revelatory expressions that are not part of the official history. Isaac Haight recorded that at one point Joseph was so weighed down that he turned to Hyrum and said, “Brother Hyrum, let us go back to Nauvoo, and all die together.”77 Hyrum urged him on. When they were several miles out from Nauvoo he instructed—and that’s the only way he could get them to do so—that many who had ridden that far with him turn around and go back. John Butler recorded: “We were all willing to live or die with them. Brother Joseph spoke to us all and told us that he was like a lamb led to the slaughter. He also spoke to Brother Hyrum and wished him to return home with us. We begged him to let us stay with him and die with him, if necessary, but he said, no, we were to return to our home, and Brother Hyrum said that he would stay with Brother Joseph. For my part, I felt that something great was going to transpire. He blessed us and told us to go. We bade them farewell, and started. We had twenty miles to ride, and we went the whole distance without uttering one word. All were dumb and still, and all felt the Spirit, as I did myself. I cannot express my feelings at that time, for they overpowered me.” He added, “As I turned and as we rode away I felt as I suppose the ancient disciples of Christ felt when he said, ‘I must be crucified.’”78
And then the third expression. They stopped at the Fellows’ farm after being met by a menacing group on horseback from Carthage, and Joseph went in and countersigned Governor Ford’s order for the surrender of all state arms in possession of the Nauvoo Legion. “I am not afraid to die,” he said.79 In the jail the day before his death he said to his brethren: “I have had a good deal of anxiety about my safety since I left Nauvoo, which I never had before when I was under arrest. I could not help those feelings, and they have depressed me.”80
Once Joseph and Hyrum had been jailed, many legal efforts were made in their behalf. None of these availed. Dan Jones went and personally talked to the governor, reporting the threats to the Prophet’s life that he had heard uttered in various groups of men now in Carthage. The governor merely said, “You are unnecessarily alarmed for the safety of your friends, sir, the people are not that cruel.”81 A non-Mormon, Dr. Southwick, claimed that only two days before this a meeting was held that included a representative of every one of the United States. The subject was the political campaign, for Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon had been named respectively as candidates for the Presidency and Vice-Presidency of the United States. There were reasons for this candidacy, one of them being that it enabled five hundred men from Nauvoo to dramatize and teach the gospel in a way they could not otherwise do. Joseph did not, of course, expect to be elected. But now enough support was being generated, and was showing up in the Eastern newspapers, that men in the meeting meant to stop the political career of Joseph Smith. The Missourians present said, in effect, “If you want us to do the job, we’ll do it.” And the others said, “If Illinois and Missouri would join together and kill him, they would not be brought to justice for it. If you don’t stop him this time, if he isn’t elected this time, he will, or likely may, next time.”82 So in this struggle there were political motives as well as others.
The governor was surrounded by mobocrats, and the Saints’ efforts with him failed. John Taylor, a man of great character and spine, saw the situation, was indignant, and said, “Brother Joseph, if you will permit it, and say the word, I will have you out of this prison in five hours, if the jail has to come down to do it.” He planned to go to Nauvoo and raise a sufficient force. But “Brother Joseph refused.”83 Stephen Markham offered to change clothes with the Prophet, to make a switch—the Prophet could then get away on his horse and all would be well. The Prophet turned that down.84 James W. Woods was assigned to go to Jesse Thomas, one of the circuit judges in Illinois, who had assured the Prophet that if he would send responsible Mormons to each community and explain the actions of recent days the citizens would be pacified. Woods was asked to check further into this. He found that hope too to be false, for Thomas and others said, in his presence, “Don’t you think it’s better for two or more men to die than for a whole neighborhood to be in an uproar?”85 Two or three of the Prophet’s non-Mormon friends, one of them a sea captain and one a dentist, were summoned to testify in his behalf. All of them tried, none of them was successful.86
After all these efforts, the only real thing the Prophet had between him and the final scene was a pistol which Cyrus Wheelock had brought him. When Hyrum said, “I hate to use such things or to see them used,” the Prophet replied, “So do I, but we may have to, to defend ourselves.”87
Many anti-Mormon tracts have said that it certainly is no example to the Christian world that a man should be called a martyr for Christ if he used a gun in his last hour. They do not know either the background or the sequel. The background, in a word, is that the Prophet had promised those brethren in the name of the Lord that he would defend them even if it meant giving up his life.88 Had he been all alone in the Carthage Jail, the story might be different, but he was not. He was there with two members of the Twelve, John Taylor and Willard Richards—Willard Richards weighing over three hundred pounds, the largest target (and the only one who would not be injured)—and with his brother Hyrum. He did defend them as he had promised. In fact, we now know from the records that the first man up the stairs that day, anxious and eager, was met by a fist and rolled back down. That fist was Joseph Smith’s.89
Inside the room they had nothing to defend themselves with except two pistols, plus two walking sticks which they used in an effort to divert the rifles. Some of the balls went off in the ceiling. When Jacob Hamblin and James W. Woods visited the room shortly after the martyrdom they counted the pockmarks of the balls that were shot through the door or doorway. There were thirty-six.90 According to Willard Richards, all that shooting occurred in less than two minutes.91 Both Hyrum and Joseph received five balls; John Taylor, four. It was a volley, an explosive volley.
The previous night, the Prophet had had some private conversations. We know that he had borne to the guards his testimony of the Book of Mormon and the Restoration, and later his last testimony to the brethren present.92 No doubt it was the equivalent of what David Osborne had heard him say in 1837: “The Book of Mormon is true, just what it purports to be, and for this testimony I expect to give an account in the day of judgment.”93 We know also that earlier he had pleaded three times with Hyrum for Hyrum to leave him and go back. Hyrum could only say, “Joseph, I can’t leave you.”94 Hyrum, it turned out, was the first to be killed.
How did the Prophet make the decision to leave that room, or to try to leave it, through the window? Films depict Joseph falling off balance out through a large glass plate window. There is no such window. This was a jail. Even the upstairs had walls as thick as two feet. The window was small, and Joseph was a large man, and for him to get through it required considerable effort. Willard Richards used the strangest adverb in his whole account when he said that after emptying the pistol (which misfired a couple of times) the Prophet calmly turned from the door, dropped the pistol, and went to the window.95 Calmly? It is difficult to understand how anybody could have heard the words in such a fracas, but one man, outside the jail, claimed he heard the Prophet cry, “Oh Lord, what shall I do?”96 How fast can a man’s mind work in such circumstances? What was going through his? It was certain death at the door, that was clear. It was certain death at the window, because balls were coming through it, and John Taylor had just been blasted under the bed, writhing in pain with four wounds. Yet Joseph decided to get out—hoping, Willard Richards believed, that it might save the lives of his brethren.97
Whether that was his intent or not, he was hit from behind—twice, maybe three times—but managed anyway to pull himself up and out, and then fell from the window. “He’s leaped the window!” someone shouted, and those on the landing rushed downstairs and outside.98 “Shoot him, — — — him, shoot him!” said Levi Williams, and they shot several times more.99 One account says that the Prophet died with a smile.100 Perhaps he was conscious long enough to know that the promise he had made to Willard Richards had been fulfilled: “Willard . . . you will stand where the balls will fly around you like hail and men will fall dead by your side, and . . . there never shall a ball injure you.”101 Perhaps he knew that John Taylor would become the third prophet, seer, and revelator. Elder Taylor would live long enough to write a hymn, “Oh, Give Me Back My Prophet Dear,”102 and would himself be twice “martyred,” in a measure dying once at Carthage and recovering, and then dying again in exile because he would not compromise the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We return to the prophetic words of that last hymn, “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” It was, in the late days of Nauvoo, the Prophet’s favorite, and it was the last music he heard on earth. The final two lines are:
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me.
For a time the Saints could not be comforted. The mourning, the black miasmic depression that descended upon Nauvoo was overwhelming. When Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum’s wife, after midnight heard the high-pitched voice of Porter Rockwell, riding on a sweaty horse, shouting, “They’ve killed them! they’ve killed Joseph and Hyrum!” she screamed. And young Joseph wept. Soon all Nauvoo knew. Some felt bitter and wanted vengeance. Some who held command positions in the Nauvoo Legion went immediately and asked that they be marshaled. But the leaders had been told by the Prophet to stay home. That was that.
Letters came to Nauvoo from both Willard Richards and John Taylor. To reassure John Taylor’s family, Elder Richards wrote, “Taylor’s wounded, not very badly.”103 And peace prevailed in spite of the anguish. Many of the brethren absent on missions felt forebodings that day, even at the hour of the martyrdom. Only seven days previously the Prophet had sent letters to all the Twelve asking them to return to Nauvoo immediately.104 So it was that the returning Parley P. Pratt walked depressed across the plains of Illinois until he could hardly endure it. Finally he knelt and prayed for comfort; and then it was made known to him that the newspaper headlines he had seen in Chicago told the truth, that Joseph and Hyrum had in fact given their lives for the Lord’s cause, and that he was to go back rapidly to Nauvoo and tell the Saints to do nothing until the Twelve had reassembled.105
Despite the provocation, then, peace and not war came in the aftermath of the Prophet’s death. With their Nauvoo Legion the Saints had power to win in any skirmish had they so chosen. But they who had been stereotyped as warlike and bitter and hostile and filled with vengeance demonstrated that they were not any of those. They were peaceful.106
And now by way of testimony.
I stood years ago with a Church History group outside the walls of the jail in Carthage. It was a dark day, with lowering clouds and some rain. Standing there we were taught in an inspired way the details of the Prophet’s last days.
The Spirit that came upon me there, I pray, will never be obliterated. I can summarize it by saying that the spirit that testifies to the souls of men that Jesus the Christ is the Son of God and that he gave his life willingly for the redemption of mankind is the same spirit that bears witness to the receptive soul that Joseph Smith was a prophet of Jesus Christ. One cannot truly say he knows the one thing and deny the other. No man can come to a testimony of the prophetic mantle of the Prophet Joseph Smith without knowing that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One. And no man can have a testimony that Christ is the divine Savior and Lord without knowing, when he hears Joseph’s name and knows even a little of his life, that Christ had a prophet named Joseph Smith.
In bearing that testimony I add to it the witness that we too, somehow, someday, must reach the point at which we hold our physical life cheap, or our eternal life dear, even to the point of being willing to lay our life down in the image and pattern of the Lord Jesus Christ. “Blessed are ye,” said the Lord to the Prophet early on, “even if they do unto you even as they have done unto me, . . . for you shall dwell with me in glory.”107 In 1843 the Prophet recorded the Lord’s words addressed to him: “I seal upon you your exaltation, and prepare a throne for you in the kingdom of my Father, with Abraham your father.”108 In that same revelation the Lord said: “Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph, . . . for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands.”109
Like many of the prophets of ancient times, the prophet of the last dispensation was martyred for the Lord’s cause. “Many have marveled because of his death,” the Lord told Brigham Young, “but it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned.”110
If we do not know them now, each of us will at some time come to know these twin truths: Jesus is the Christ, and Joseph is his Prophet. I bear this witness in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Truman G. Madsen, Richard L. Evans Endowed Professor and BYU professor of philosophy, delivered eight lectures on the Prophet Joseph Smith at BYU Education Week in August 1978.
© 1989 Truman G. Madsen. ℗ 2003 Deseret Book Company. All rights reserved.
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1. Journal of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, p. 7.
2. Hebrews 9:16–17.
3. JD 18:361. Mother Smith recollected that when he was leaving Kirtland for Missouri, Joseph said in a council meeting: “One thing, brethren is certain, I shall see you again, let what will happen, for I have a promise of life five years, and they cannot kill me until that time is expired” (History of Joseph Smith, p. 248). On July 28, 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded Lyman Wight saying that while they were in Liberty Jail in 1839 Joseph told him that he (Joseph) would not live to see forty years, but that he was not to speak of it until Joseph was dead (excerpt from Wilford Woodruff’s journal in HC 7:212). Mother Smith remembered also that in Missouri she received a promise “that in five years Joseph should have power over all his enemies.” She did not anticipate his premature death. But when it occurred she wrote: “The time had elapsed and the promise was fulfilled.” (History of Joseph Smith, p. 325.) Lucy Walker quoted him, “I have the promise of life for five years, if I listen to the voice of the Spirit.” But she said this was in June 1844, just before Joseph crossed the river to Montrose. Was this a promise of five more years? Or a slip of memory on the time of the statement? Or did she misunderstand? (See sketch of Lucy Walker in Walker and Stevenson, comps., Ancestry and Descendants of John Walker, p. 31.)
4. JD 3:364.
5. See Cowley, Wilford Woodruff, pp. 204–5.
6. TPJS, p. 216; WJS, p. 112.
7. John Bushman wrote: “The Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum were fond of visiting or calling on the saints in their homes. In this way the people became more intimately acquainted with them and loved them for the great interest they took in the people. The leaders were very anxious to have the work on the Temple pushed to completion.” (John Bushman: Utah-Arizona Pioneer 1843–1926, p. 6.) William Adams recalled how the Prophet worked with the men and encouraged them “not to slacken their hands,” and asked the Saints to pay their tithing faithfully (diary of William Adams, p. 11). On March 7, 1844, Joseph announced, “We can put the roof on this building this season. By turning all the means of the Nauvoo House and doubling our diligence, we can do it.” (WJS, p. 322.)
8. See HC 6:236; 250–52; 363–65.
9. HC 6:298. The First Presidency had issued a call for the building of the Nauvoo Temple in April 1841, saying that “on its speedy erection great blessings depend” (HC 4:339). This was repeated in later settings. See, for example, Hyrum Smith’s remarks on March 7, 1844: “The object of the meeting is to stir up your minds by way of remembrance. It is necessary to have a starting-point, which is to build the Temple. . . . Much depends upon it for our endowments and sealing powers; and many blessings depend upon it.” (HC 6:236–37.) In a conference talk on April 6, 1844, Hyrum said: “I cannot make a comparison between the House of God and anything now in existence. Great things are to grow out of that house. There is a great and mighty power to grow out of it. There is an endowment. Knowledge is power. We want knowledge. . . . We are now deprived of the privilege of giving the necessary instruction; hence we want a house.” (HC 6:298–99.)
10. See journal of John Pulsipher, p. 6.
11. See, for example, this entry: “I rode with Emma to the Temple for the benefit of her health” (HC 5:182). “I would to God that this temple was now done, that we might go into it and go to work, and improve our time, and make use of the seals while they are on earth” (WJS, p. 318). “My only trouble at the present time is concerning ourselves, that the Saints will be divided, broken up, and scattered, before we get our salvation secure” (TPJS, p. 331; WJS, p. 319).
12. Joseph had a total of twenty-six scribes at different times. Several failed him. “There are but few subjects that I have felt a greater anxiety about than my history, which has been a very difficult task, on account of the death of my best clerks [Robert B. Thompson, for example] and the apostasy of others [Oliver Cowdery, Warren Parrish] and the stealing of records by John Whitmer, Cyrus Smalling and others” (HC 6:66). Among the able record keepers at Nauvoo were William W. Phelps, James Sloan, William Clayton, Wilford Woodruff, and Willard Richards. On January 20, 1843, the Prophet gave instructions to William W. Phelps and Willard Richards about “uniting in writing the history of the church” (“President Joseph Smith’s Journal,” kept by Willard Richards, p. 140). The background of loss and interruption gives greater weight to Joseph’s comment on Richards. “I have been searching all my life to find a man after my own heart, whom I could trust with my business in all things, and I have found him. Dr. Willard Richards is the man.” (Journal History, November 21, 1841.) Richards was one of the two members of the Twelve he did not send away in the final weeks of his life. To him and John Taylor we are indebted for the most careful records of those final weeks.
13. HC 5:394.
14. HC 2:199. About this irretrievable loss he expressed deep sorrow in the Kirtland days, saying that if minutes had been kept, they “would decide almost every point of doctrine which might be agitated.” Further, because of this neglect, he said, “We cannot bear record to the Church and to the world, of the great and glorious manifestations which have been made to us with that degree of power and authority we otherwise could.” (HC 2:199; TPJS, p. 72.)
15. Wilford Woodruff recorded this meeting shortly after. Others wrote their summaries later. See, for example, letter of Orson Hyde to John S. Fullmer, September 27, 1844. Also Elder Orson Hyde said: “We were in council with Brother Joseph almost every day for weeks. Says Brother Joseph in one of these councils, there is something going to happen; I don’t know what it is, but the Lord bids me to hasten and give you your endowment before the temple is finished. He conducted us through every ordinance of the holy priesthood, and when he had gone through with all the ordinances he rejoiced very much, and says, now if they kill me you have got all the keys, and all the ordinances and you can confer them upon others, and the hosts of Satan will not be able to tear down the kingdom, as fast as you will be able to build it up; and now, says he, on your shoulders will be the responsibility of leading this people right, for the Lord is going to let me rest a while.” (As cited in Grant, A Collection of Facts, Relative to the Course Taken by Elder Sidney Rigdon . . . , pp. 24–25.)
16. See Journal History, March 12, 1897. This is a late statement—fifty-three years later—of Wilford Woodruff, who added in this letter to Elder Heber J. Grant that Joseph’s charge was still “ringing in my ears.”
17. See Benjamin F. Johnson’s testimony regarding these matters in The Benjamin F. Johnson Letter, pp. 10–11, 21–22.
18. Journal of Wandle Mace, p. 168.
19. JD 13:164.
20. Three trusted men “fitted out” the room in “the upper part of the brick store.” “He [Joseph] told us that the object he had for us was to go to work and fit up that room preparatory to giving endowments to a few Elders, that he might give unto them all the keys of power pertaining to the Aaronic and Melchisedec Priesthoods.” (See affidavit of Lucius N. Scovil, Dimick B. Huntington, and Shadrack Roundy in The Deseret News, February 15, 1884.)
21. See diary of Reuben McBride. The font had been dedicated on November 8, 1841. See journal of William Clayton.
22. Dissention was already at work. In his last discourse in the Grove, given on June 16, 1844, he said this was a purging process. “I have reason to think that the Church is being purged” (WJS, p. 380).
23. Even on the next to last day of their lives, June 26, “Hyrum encouraged Joseph to think that the Lord, for his Church’s sake, would release him from prison” (HC 6:592).
24. See John Taylor’s description of the fomenting forces in Appendix 4 of Roberts, Rise and Fall.
25. See Joseph W. McMurrin’s report of his interview with Richard S. Law in IE 6 (May 1903): 507–10.
26. Brigham Young and Joseph F. Smith, among others, assert that the Prophet understood as early as 1831 that the principle of plural marriage would be reestablished in modern times. See Journal History, February 17, 1882; The Deseret News, February 17, 1882; Widtsoe, Joseph Smith, p. 237.
27. According to a recollection of Brigham Young, unpublished discourse of October 8, 1866, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
28. The Laws and Robert D. Foster were excommunicated in April 1844. A few days later they organized their own church, making Law its president. They had been holding secret meetings that plotted against the Prophet since March of 1844. See HC 6:341, 347.
29. See in D&C 124:88–107 the extent and dignity of William Law’s standing in 1841. It is an irony that he was called in January of that year to declare the gospel “with great joy, as he shall be moved upon by my Spirit, unto the inhabitants of Warsaw, and also unto the inhabitants of Carthage,” yet within three years he was a primary factor in the lethal opposition that was generated in those two Illinois communities. Apparently the excommunication and the public denunciation of Law and others were factors in their violent spirit of revenge. See, for example, journal of James Palmer, p. 78.
30. See Prospectus, May 10, 1844, and Expositor, pp. 1, 3.
31. Precedents for this would continue to build up until the turn of the century. The deliberations of the city council were lengthy, and they anticipated some of the consequences of the action finally taken. Yet William Clayton calls the Expositor the “engine of destruction” (journal of William Clayton).
32. See Oaks and Hill, Carthage Conspiracy.
33. Diary of George Laub, p. 18.
34. HC 6:433.
35. See diary of Joseph Fielding, vol. 5, p. 38; also HC 6:451, 503, 505, 506–52.
36. On June 20 Joseph forwarded to President John Tyler in Washington, D.C., the affidavits that spelled out the swirl of forces and the threats of “utter extermination” from both Missouri and Illinois. He appealed to the President of the United States to render “that protection which the Constitution guarantees in case of ‘insurrection and rebellion.’” Nothing was done in response. See HC 6:508.
37. On a charge of riot Joseph and the city council were tried and acquitted by the justice of the peace Daniel H. Wells. See HC 6:488–91.
38. Carthage was headquarters for “the caucus” who had threatened to destroy all the Smith family in a few weeks, including Joseph H. Jackson, Mike Barnes, Captain Singleton, and a Missourian who boasted of his murder of men, women, and children in Missouri. The Prophet assigned Daniel Carns to carry to Governor Ford this information, which was brought him by Gilbert Balnap. (See entry of March 24, 1844, in “President Joseph Smith’s Journal,” kept by Willard Richards, p. 48; WJS, pp. 337–38; HC 6:272.)
39. HC 6:536.
40. HC 6:567–68.
41. On the threats of Joseph H. Jackson, see the description by John Taylor in Appendix 4 of Roberts, Rise and Fall, p. 419. In his bitterness (he had wanted to marry a daughter of Hyrum Smith) Jackson said “a Smith should not be alive two weeks, not over two months anyhow” (WJS, p. 337, March 24, 1844). See also WJS, pp. 392–93, note 5, p. 338; HC 6:272.
42. See WJS, pp. 340–62, for six contemporary accounts of the King Follett discourse; compare D&C 93.
43. TPJS, p. 361; WJS, p. 355.
44. TPJS, p. 362. The earliest printing of this discourse appears in TS 5 (August 15, 1844): 612–17.
45. TPJS, pp. 355–56.
46. TPJS, p. 365.
47. See HC 6:280–81, footnote; also Contributor 5 (April 1884): 251–60.
48. Elder Roberts commented, “The Prophet lived his life in crescendo. From small beginnings, it rose in breadth and power as he neared its close. As a teacher he reached the climax of his career in [the King Follett] discourse.” (TPJS, p. 356, footnote.)
49. See TPJS, pp. 369–76, June 16, 1844.
50. JI 27 (August 1, 1892): 471.
51. See HC 6:551.
52. HC 6:497. George A. Smith’s Journal History summary of the Prophet’s remarks is based on statements of Joseph Hovey and others. See also journal of Joseph Lee Robinson, p. 22.
53. HC 6:499.
54. See journal of John Pulsipher, p. 13.
55. HC 6:499.
56. See, for instance, journal of James Palmer.
57. See the journals of Joseph Lee Robinson, p. 22; Samuel H. Rogers, p. 63; Wandle Mace, p. 134; and John Pulsipher, p. 13.
58. HC 6:499, 500.
59. See TPJS, p. 377; journal of Wandle Mace, p. 308.
60. TPJS, p. 377; HC 6:545, 549.
61. TPJS, p. 376; HC 6:545–46.
62. For the affidavits on mob movements and munitions, see HC 6:500–531.
63. See Vilate Kimball’s letter of June 24 to her husband, Heber C. Kimball: “Some were dreadfully tried in their faith to think Joseph should leave them in the hour of danger. Hundreds have left; the most of the merchants on the hill have gone.” (As cited in Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, p. 340.) See also journal of Wandle Mace, p. 144.
64. John Murdock, in Southern Star 1 (March 11, 1899): 117.
65. TPJS, pp. 377–78; HC 6:549–50.
66. Southern Star 1 (March 11, 1899): 117.
67. JI 27 (July 1, 1892): 400.
68. See Writings, p. 611; TPJS, p. 391; HC 6:605.
69. See testimony of Leonora Taylor in undated manuscript under “Carthage,” Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
70. See diary of George Laub, p. 32.
71. Compare an 1846 statement from the high council of the Church: “We have never tied a black strap around any person’s neck, neither have we cut their bowels out, nor fed any to the ‘Cat-fish’” (TS 6 [January 20, 1846]: 1097).
72. William Fawcett recalled a public address in which Joseph referred to the price on his head (see JI 27 [January 15, 1892]: 66). Only four weeks before his death he told Reynolds Cahoon and Alphaeus Cutler that he wanted his body to be buried next to his father, “if they do not get it”—meaning, if his enemies did not take his body (see journal of Anson Call). Also, Mother Smith said there was an “immense reward which was offered by the Missourians for Joseph’s head” (History of Joseph Smith, p. 324).
73. HC 6:554.
74. See Hinckley, Daniel H. Wells, p. 34; also HC 6:554.
75. See recollection of Mary Ellen Kimball in JI 27 (August 15, 1892): 490–91.
76. HC 6:554.
77. Journal of Isaac Haight, p. 13.
78. “Autobiography of John Lowe Butler,” p. 28.
79. John Bernhisel wrote that Joseph looked him full in the face when he made this statement. This occurred after armed horsemen, sixty or more, came round the bend and Joseph halted his company and said: “Do not be alarmed brethren. They can only do what they did to the ancient saints. They can only kill the body.” They turned out to be militiamen. See Journal History, June 24, 1844.
80. HC 6:592.
81. HC 6:603.
82. See HC 6:605–6.
83. See account given by John Taylor in Appendix 4 of Roberts, Rise and Fall, p. 441.
84. See Stephen Markham Papers, compiled by Lucille Thorne.
85. See Stiles, Recollections and Sketches: Early Lawyers and Public Men of Iowa.
86. See diary of William Holmes Walker, p. 13.
87. HC 6:608.
88. When reviewing the Missouri persecutions, he said with resolve, “If I do not stand with those who will stand by me in the hour of trouble and danger, without faltering, I give you leave to shoot me” (HC 6:94). In 1842 he had said to three men, of whom John Taylor was one: “When my enemies take away my rights, I will bear it and keep out of the way; but if they take away your rights, I will fight for you” (HC 5:181; TPJS, p. 268). Earlier still he had said, “If I have power and am called on by the innocent suffering, I swear by the great God I will use that power for them and not say I can’t do anything for you. I can do something and I will.” (See journal of Levi Richards, p. 88.) In an 1841 sermon he said: “What greater love hath any man than that he lay down his life for his friend? Then why not fight for our friend until we die?” (WJS, p. 81.) In his last speech before the Legion, on June 18, he said, “While I live, I will never tamely submit to the dominion of cursed mobocracy” (HC 6:499). These sober commitments would have been empty rhetoric had he been passive during the lethal attack at Carthage.
89. “[William] Grover said they had killed the Smiths, and Jo struck him twice with his fist” (testimony of Joseph Brackenbury in undated manuscript under “Carthage,” Church Archives). Grover appears on Sheriff Backenstos’s list of those who were in the mob at Carthage (HC 7:143). It is said he went to Missouri for a time until his bruises healed. He had a grudging respect for Joseph as a “d–n stout man.” (See Barnes, “The Martyrdom,” p. 5.)
90. Of the thirty-six holes James W. Woods counted, many were around the frame of the east window. Jacob Hamblin discovered that all the latches on the gates and doors had been bent down to allow easy access. (See Stiles, Recollections and Sketches: Early Lawyers and Public Men of Iowa; Little, Jacob Hamblin, pp. 13–14.)
91. See Willard Richards, “Two Minutes in Jail,” HC 6:619–21.
92. See HC 6:600, 610.
93. JI 27 (March 15, 1892): 173.
94. Joseph tried to persuade Hyrum to leave for Cincinnati the day they crossed the Mississippi for Montrose. Later he pleaded with him to stay in Nauvoo rather than accompany him to Carthage. And on the road to Carthage he encouraged him to return to Nauvoo with other members of the city council. Each time Hyrum insisted on remaining with him. See HC 6:520; TPJS, pp. 376–77; Roberts, Rise and Fall, p. 291.
95. HC 6:618.
96. Joseph cried out when he first heard of the suffering exiles in Missouri: “Oh God, what shall I do in such a trial as this!” (Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 225.) See also HC 6:618. Henry Harmon claimed that Joseph came to the window twice, and the second time he came through. See martyrdom accounts of James W. Woods, Samuel O. Williams, and Henry Harmon, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah.
97. HC 6:618.
98. HC 6:621.
99. See Oaks and Hill, Carthage Conspiracy, p. 88; Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, p. 525; also martyrdom accounts in HC 7.
100. See Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, p. 525. Mother Smith described the faces of her two sons, as they lay in state in the Mansion, as “peaceful and smiling” (History of Joseph Smith, p. 325). Joseph Fielding wrote in his journal that their “noble appearance” was “by no means lost in death as they lay side by side” (diary of Joseph Fielding, vol. 5, p. 46).
101. See recollection of Brigham Young, unpublished discourse of July 14, 1861, Church Archives.
102. He also wrote the hymn, “The Seer,” for the dedication of the Seventies’ Hall in Nauvoo, the day after Christmas, 1844. See HC 7:333–35.
103. HC 6:621.
104. HC 6:519.
105. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, pp. 332–33.
106. Rage and restraint are manifest in these excerpts from a captain of a rifle company in the Nauvoo Legion: “At the word we would gladly have marched and met the mob in battle but that was not Joseph’s way. . . . We were kept under arms until June 24, when the Legion was dismissed. . . . My feeling as I gazed on the lifeless bodies of those men . . . [was that] I would much rather at the head of my company [have] marched into the prairie of Illinois and fought the whole mob of the states until one party or the other became extinct, than tamely to have these great men murdered as they were. But the authorities who were left said, ‘Be still and see the salvation of God.’” (Journal of Luman Andros Shurtliff, pp. 63–64.)
107. D&C 6:29–30.
108. D&C 132:49.
109. D&C 132:60.
110. D&C 136:39.
For full citations see “Author’s Note on Sources, Abbreviations, and Bibliography” in the Joseph Smith Lecture Series.
See the complete list of abbreviations HERE