Joseph Smith Martyrdom
The next day, Mobs surrounded the Nauvoo Temple and threatened to burn Joseph’s house. One local newspaper said that within 10 days, they would murder or expel all Mormons from Nauvoo. Francis Higbee went to the county seat in Carthage and swore out a complaint. The county sheriff went to Nauvoo to arrest Joseph Smith, but fearing mob violence if he allowed himself to be imprisoned, Joseph refused to go, and the Nauvoo City municipal court refused to recognize the warrant. The Warsaw Signal responded by claiming that only “Powder and Ball” could end Joseph Smith’s supposed crimes and called for a posse to murder Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith appealed to U.S. President John Tyler and Illinois Governor Thomas Ford for protection from mob violence. The Nauvoo Legion was called up and martial law was declared in Nauvoo in order to protect the citizens. On June 21, Governor Ford arrived. He calmed the populations of Carthage and Nauvoo and quickly dismissed the rumors about Mormons attacking others, but he determined that Joseph Smith should at least stand trial for the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. He argued that the destruction itself was not necessarily illegal, but that due process had not been followed. He promised Joseph Smith the protection of the state militia and his own personal oversight to ensure that due legal procedure would be followed. Joseph Smith did not trust the proposal, and for a few hours attempted to flee to Iowa, but his brother, Hyrum Smith, and his friends persuaded him to return. On June 25, 1844, Joseph Smith surrendered and was imprisoned in Carthage Jail. As he rode to Carthage, Joseph declared, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I SHALL DIE INNOCENT, AND IT SHALL YET BE SAID OF ME—HE WAS MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD” (Doctrine and Covenants 135:4, emphasis in original).
The Governor promised a quick and fair trial and also promised the protection of an impartial state militia in Carthage. Joseph was quickly released on bail and then immediately rearrested for treason for declaring martial law in Nauvoo. On June 26, Governor Ford went to Nauvoo to assuage the Mormon’s fears, but instead of leaving the state militia in charge in Carthage, he left the local militia, called the Carthage Greys, as protectors of the very man they had sworn to kill.
Many friends had accompanied Joseph Smith to Carthage Jail and remained in prison with him, though they were not under arrest. On June 26, Joseph Smith ordered them to leave. He promised one friend, a convert from Wales named Dan Jones, that Jones would escape the mobs and return to Wales as a missionary. This came true several years later and Dan Jones became one of the greatest missionaries in Mormon history. All but three friends eventually left. The three that remained at Carthage were Joseph’s brother, Hyrum, John Taylor, who later became President of the Mormon Church, and Willard Richards, an Apostle. Most of the other Apostles, including Brigham Young had recently been sent on missions to the east coast of the United States.
On June 27, Joseph, Hyrum, Willard, and John were permitted by the jailor to move from the cells into a more comfortable bedroom. Joseph Smith spent the day reading from the Book of Mormon and writing letters to his family. At age 38, Joseph Smith had had 11 children born to him through Emma. Six of those died in infancy, including one who died of exposure when the mobs which tarred and feathered Joseph left the doors and windows of his home open. In Ohio, Emma had lost twins, but then shortly after adopted twins from a family whose own mother had died. Only five children survived to adulthood: Julia Murdock, one of the adopted twins, Joseph Smith III, Frederick, Alexander, and David Hyrum who was born after Joseph’s death. Julia, the oldest, was only 13 when her father died and Joseph, the oldest son was only 12. In his letters, Joseph Smith pleaded with Emma to raise the children in the Lord and to follow the religion their father had taught. He was also concerned about the ill-health of his Mother, now widowed for three years and who could scarcely take care of herself anymore.
In the afternoon of June 27, 1844, the remaining prisoners took turns reading aloud from the scriptures and from the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus. According to John Taylor, the last passage of scripture that Hyrum Smith read was in Ether 12 in which Moroni, the last Book of Mormon prophet, bids farewell to those who oppose God’s work. John Taylor also sang Joseph Smith’s favorite hymn, “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” which describes the friendship between a righteous man and poor man, who suffers much from trials and false imprisonment.
Around 5:00 p.m. shots sounded outside the jail, and the jailors and guards fled before a huge mob of men, mostly members of the Carthage Greys, whom Governor Ford had placed in charge of protecting Joseph Smith. Their faces were obscured by black pitch, and they burst into the jail firing their guns. The mob burst in and the surrounded and outmanned prisoners tried to defend themselves. Hyrum and Williard Richards attempted to brace the door, but a bullet penetrated the wood, hitting Hyrum in the face. He fell to the floor shouting “I am a dead man.” Joseph cradled his dying brother, exclaiming, “Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!” According to Brother Taylor, Joseph then “instantly arose and with a firm, quick step, and a determined expression of countenance, approached the door, and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged” (Hyrum Smith: A Life of Integrity, Jeffrey S. O’Driscoll, 352). As bullets flew through the room around him, Joseph ran to the window. John Taylor was shot four times, and only his pocket watch preserved his life. He crawled under a bed for protection. Willard Richards watched as Joseph climbed onto the window sill. Immediately he was struck twice from behind and once from the window. Four bullets hit him and he fell out of the window exclaiming, “O Lord, My God!” He landed at the foot of well just outside the jail and was shot numerous times more until someone in the crowd shouted, “The Mormon militia is coming,” thus sparing his body from further desecration. The Mormons were not really coming, but the rumor was enough to scatter the mob. Willard Richards patched up John Taylor’s wounds with straw and cloth and tended to the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum.
That day Samuel Harrison Smith, the prophet’s brother, was riding to Carthage. As he neared and discovered the mob activity, he raced back to Nauvoo to tell the Mormons there and to get help. The exertion was too much for him, and a few weeks later he, too, died, leaving only one of the six Smith brothers, the unstable William Smith to outlive their mother. All three of Joseph’s sisters, Sophronia, Katharine, and Lucy, survived and lived full lives. Joseph’s mother lived until 1856 in the care of Emma Smith, but for most of that time she was an invalid.
The bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were returned to Nauvoo, Illinois, the next day and buried in a secret location near Joseph’s home on June 29, 1844, since a price was placed on his body. Only a few knew the location. A public burial with coffins full of sand was also held.
The Aftermath of the Martyrdom
Joseph Smith had declared that he would die to help save the Mormons and the Mormon Church. This came literally true as the Mormons’ many enemies waited following the murder of Joseph and Hyrum believing that the Mormon Church would disintegrate without its leader, but these enemies misunderstood Joseph Smith and the Mormons. They believed that Mormonism was a cult with Joseph Smith as the Mormons’ God and that without him, Mormonism would crumble. But the Mormon Church did not crumble, for the beliefs of Mormonism were founded not in a fallible prophet, but in an infallible God who inspired prophets. Mormonism continued to thrive, and in the brief respite following the martyrdom, the Mormons finished their beautiful temple and prepared to abandon Nauvoo, which they named the City of Joseph. The leadership of the Mormon Church was assumed by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles with Brigham Young as senior Apostle. Before his death, Joseph had conferred all the priesthood keys he held as a prophet upon the Twelve. Shortly after Joseph’s death, the import of this act became clear to the apostles.
In early 1846, the Mormons completed the Temple, and the members received their temple endowments, and many were sealed for time and eternity as husbands and wives. Late in 1846, the residents of Carthage and Warsaw demanded that the Mormons leave, and Brigham Young began the preparation to abandon everything and move. The first Mormons pioneers had begun their exodus in 1845, but the main party began leaving in February of 1846. They fled into the muddy lands of Iowa. In September of 1846, the last Mormons were expelled by the Carthage militia in the Battle of Nauvoo. During the expulsion, arsonists desecrated and burned the Nauvoo Temple, and a few years later a tornado destroyed what remained. The great Mormon Pioneer Exodus to Utah had begun.
Joseph Smith’s Legacy
In 38 years, Joseph Smith accomplished more than most men do in much longer lifetimes. He translated the Book of Mormon and oversaw its publication on two continents. He received and published many revelations of his own in the Doctrine and Covenants. He organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (The Mormon Church) and gathered together thousands of people, built numerous cities and two beautiful temples. He taught Mormon beliefs about the Gospel of Jesus Christ, of whom he had a sure witness, and helped men realize their divine worth and potential in God’s eyes. He sent missionaries to three continents (North America, Europe, and parts of Asia), and through them over 25,000 people joined themselves to the Church and sacrificed nearly everything knowing that the Church was inspired of God. The organizational structure Joseph Smith left behind has remained largely unchanged in the subsequent 200 years, only with small procedural changes and numerous expansions. Most importantly, he restored and taught the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and organized the Mormon missionary force that continues to this day in preaching that message to the entire world. His words, like those of the ancient prophets like Isaiah or Paul, have become scripture, but beyond that, his testimony and example about how to come closer to God and how to obtain salvation have helped millions to find peace in this life and salvation in the life to come. In the Wentworth Letter, which Joseph Smith wrote to a newspaper editor in Chicago, said this about the future of Mormonism:
“Our missionaries are going forth to different nations . . . the Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.” (History of the Church 4:540)