Nauvoo: The City of Joseph and the Martyrdom of the Prophet (1838-1846)
After being expelled from Missouri by the Extermination Order, members the Mormon Church found refuge in the city of Quincy, Illinois, and surrounding areas in January of 1839. The kind people there helped the Mormons until they could find a place of their own to settle. Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church while Joseph Smith remained in prison on false charges of treason. Finally, on April 16, a friendly guard, realizing that Joseph and the others were being confined illegally, allowed them to escape.
On April 25, Joseph and the other leaders selected a town named Commerce in Hancock County, Illinois, to be their new city. It was a beautiful, though swampy, location overlooking a large bend in the Mississippi river. They bought the land and began settling there. The Twelve Apostles soon went abroad again to preach the Gospel. Joseph Smith remained behind to help build up the new city. Joseph changed the name to Nauvoo, which comes from a Hebrew word meaning beautiful.
The Mormons were still anxious to return to their lands in Missouri or at least obtain compensation. Joseph Smith directed them to write down everything that had happened and to try to account for all that they had lost. In October 1839, Joseph Smith took these affidavits to Washington D.C., where he spoke with members of the U.S. Congress and met with President Martin Van Buren. They told them that since Missouri was a sovereign state, only Missouri could redress their wrongs. Though Joseph told him that Governor Boggs refused to redress anything, President Van Buren still said he could not help the Mormons.
Joseph returned to Nauvoo. He and the other leaders determined that they would not let themselves be driven and harassed by illegal mobs again. They petitioned for and obtained a charter for their own city, which gave them the legal right to defend themselves against attacks both from the law and from mobs. The charter for Nauvoo created a city militia, which were very common at the time, and also established a university. It also stated that no resident of Nauvoo could be arrested without a writ of habeas corpus before a city judge. This meant that no person living in Nauvoo could be dragged off by mobs or sheriffs without getting a fair chance to hear the charges against them.
Nauvoo prospered, and immigrants soon began arriving from England and Canada. In 1840, the Mormon Church was ten years old and had grown from a mere 6 members in April 1830, to over 16,000 by the end of 1840. There were now enough Mormons in England that the Church began publishing its own newspaper in that country, The Millennial Star.
In the fall of that year, the Mormons began building their second Mormon temple, and Joseph Smith announced a revelation on baptism for the dead. This meant that all those who had ever lived without having had a chance to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ could still accept it through a vicarious ordinance.
By 1841, the number of Mormons had grown so much that they spilled over into Hancock County and across the Mississippi into Iowa. Persecution was far from absent during this period and the Missouri state government tried multiple times to extradite Joseph Smith and other leaders back to Missouri. Someone had attempted to assassinate Missouri’s Governor Boggs and, although there was no evidence, Boggs was convinced Joseph Smith was behind it. Fortunately, the Nauvoo charter required some proof before a person could be extradited, and Missouri was never able to provide any. Also in 1841, the Twelve Apostles continued their missions in Europe. Elder Orson Hyde, one of the Apostles, traveled throughout Europe and even visited Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In November of 1841, Joseph Smith dedicated part of the new Nauvoo Temple, so it could be used for baptisms for the dead.
The early part of 1842 was relatively peaceful. In the spring, a newspaperman in Chicago named John Wentworth requested a brief summary of the history of the Church from Joseph Smith, as well as a summary of its beliefs. Joseph complied. The letter, known as the Wentworth letter, is an important source of Mormon history; it also contains the Articles of Faith. On March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith organized the Women’s Relief Society. Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, became the first president. The Relief Society thereafter appointed teachers, taught one another the gospel, and organized relief and service programs. One of their early missions was to provide relief for the poor in Nauvoo and assist with the building of the Nauvoo Temple. Today, the Relief Society is among the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the world.
The remainder of 1842 and most of 1843 were not so peaceful. In May, John C. Bennett, who had become a close associate and friend of Joseph Smith, was excommunicated from the Church because of adultery. He tried to claim that Joseph had given him permission pursue his adulterous lifestyle, but ultimately he confessed. After he left the Church, he became very bitter and wrote attacks against Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church. This forced Joseph Smith to spend much of the fall season in hiding. From his hiding places, Joseph continued to guide the Mormon Church, if through letters.
In 1843, Joseph alternated periods of hiding from his persecutors with periods where he could publicly teach the Gospel, often in groves of trees, because no building was large enough to hold the audiences who wished to hear him. Joseph taught about the importance of gathering all Mormons together and building temples. In July, he recorded a revelation about polygamy (though he may have received it many years earlier). Mormons typically called polygamy plural marriage. Joseph had been troubled by Old Testament accounts of prophets like Abraham who had multiple wives. He asked the Lord about this. The Lord responded that sometimes He commands men to take more than one wife, but that polygamy can only be practiced by God’s command. Joseph would be extended a command to practice polygamy. Joseph resisted this initially, but he began teaching polygamy to some of his most loyal associates. After much prayer, most of them accepted it as a revelation from God.
Some, however, were not pleased with Joseph, though polygamy was not well known enough as yet to be the cause of most complaints. Since John C. Bennett, who had been mayor of Nauvoo, left the city after being excommunicated, Joseph Smith became mayor. Some felt that he had too much power being president of the Church and mayor. Joseph replied that he was not autocratic, but that he taught the people principles and left them to govern themselves. In early 1844, Joseph Smith appointed seven men to oversee the Seventy. These corresponded to the seven men the Apostles of Jesus’ time appointed (see Acts 7:3).
Early 1844 was a trying time. Some people dissented from the Church, because they either opposed polygamy or felt that Joseph Smith had become a fallen prophet. Anti-Mormons and ex-Mormons like Bennett continued to stir up trouble by publishing scandalous and libelous reports about the Mormons and Joseph Smith, whom they mockingly called Joe Smith or Peepstone Joe. Joseph decided that to respond to these critics he needed a national forum. He therefore decided to run for President of the United States. It is unlikely he expected to win, but he and the Mormon Church used the candidacy as a platform to express their views. Joseph Smith promised that if elected he would use the government to protect minorities. He actively worked to cultivate good relations with other persecuted groups in the United States at this time, such as the Catholics. He also planned to end slavery by establishing a fund to buy slaves from slave owners, and then free them. The slave owners could use the money to transform their estates so that they would no longer need slaves.
On June 7, 1844, William Law, a disaffected Mormon, published the first and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor. It was a scandalous paper that called for Joseph Smith to be hung. It described in lurid prose all the evil things Joseph and other leaders were supposedly doing. On June 10, Joseph Smith, as mayor, and the city council met to decide what to do. They determined that, based on their interpretation of their charter, they had the power to remove the press since it posed an imminent threat by calling for violence and hence fit the legal definition of a public nuisance. The press and most copies of the paper were destroyed. A riot ensued and, the next day, Joseph Smith was sought out by the county sheriff on charges of inciting riot. Fearful that a mob would attack him while in jail or that the trial would be unfair, Joseph hid for a few days. He offered to turn himself in, provided he could obtain a change of venue. The local county court was in Carthage and Joseph did not trust the people of Carthage. He wanted to be tried in Springfield instead. Governor Thomas Ford came from Springfield to oversee the affair. He promised Joseph Smith protection and a fair trial if he turned himself in. On June 22, Joseph surrendered himself to the governor. Joseph was taken to Carthage, Illinois, the county seat of Hancock County. Many of his friends refused to leave him, but Joseph ordered them to leave, trusting in the governor’s promise of protection. The governor left Carthage on June 26 and left the Carthage militia, called the Carthage Greys, in charge.
On June 27, 1844, Joseph arose early. He ordered his remaining friends to leave. All but four did. These four, Joseph’s brother Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards remained with Joseph all day. They wrote letters and John Taylor, a gifted musician, sang hymns. Around 5:00 p.m. that evening, a mob of men with their faces painted black surrounded the jail. Whether complicit or not, the jailor fired a warning shot, then departed. The mob was comprised of the Carthage Greys, the men who were supposed to have protected Joseph until a fair trial could be held. Undeterred by the warning shot, they stormed the jail. Joseph and the others had been transferred from the cell to a more comfortable bedroom on the second floor. As the mob rushed the jail, Joseph and Hyrum tried to hold the door. Joseph picked up a gun a friend had left for him. Joseph had said he did not want to use it, but promised that he would defend his friends. He fired three shots, wounding, but not killing, three men. The gun then jammed. As Hyrum tried to hold the door, he was shot in the face and fell to the floor. His last words were: “I am a dead man!” Joseph dropped to the floor and cradled his dead brother for a moment. While the other men, Willard Richards and John Taylor (the latter would eventually be shot four times, but survive), held the door, Joseph walked to the window. No one knows why. Most likely he wanted to draw fire away from his remaining friends. He was shot at the window. He exclaimed, “Oh Lord, my God” as he fell out the window. He would land near a well and be shot three more times as he lay on the ground either dead or dying. Before the mob could mutilate his body more, someone shouted that the Nauvoo militia was coming and the mob dispersed. Joseph Smith was dead, as was his loyal brother, Hyrum. His friend, John Taylor, who was wounded with him, wrote an account of Joseph’s martyrdom which was later included in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 135
Nauvoo after the Martyrdom
Enemies of the Church, like Thomas Sharp, a newspaper editor in nearby Warsaw who had called for Joseph’s death, believed that the Church would dwindle without Joseph. They believed that Mormonism was Joseph Smith’s personality cult, but they were wrong. In the year after Joseph’s death, nearly 4,000 people joined the Church.
Still, many Mormons were at a loss. Some had believed that God would not let Joseph die, but Joseph Smith’s work was done. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other leaders rushed back to Nauvoo from their missionary work. In August, a conference was held to determine who would lead the Church. Sidney Rigdon attempted to set himself up as Guardian of the Church. Sidney Rigdon was Joseph Smith’s First Counselor, who had been reprimanded multiple times for pride. He was also an ill man who had suffered seizures and general mental instability since a mob attack ten years earlier. However, Brigham Young, speaking for the Quorum of the Twelve, addressed the assembly on August 8, 1844. He said that the power of the priesthood and the rights, or keys, to perform all the Mormon temple ordinances were still with the Church, because Joseph Smith had given them to the Twelve Apostles. Therefore, just as the Apostles led the Church in Peter and Paul’s time, so should the Apostles lead the modern Church. As he spoke, many said that Brigham Young was transfigured before them and it seemed as though Joseph Smith himself were talking. A vote was taken and nearly everyone, including Sidney, voted to accept the leadership of the Apostles.
Joseph’s murder gave the Mormons a short respite as their enemies waited for the Mormons to disintegrate. However, they did not. In fact, the Church continued to grow, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles continued to send Mormon missionaries all over the globe. They also worked to finish the temple. Once their enemies realized the Mormons were not going to leave, they began to attack them once again. In January of 1845, the Nauvoo charter was rescinded. To add insult to injury, in May, the leaders of the mob who murdered Joseph and Hyrum were acquitted in a sham trial where no Mormon was allowed to testify or even attend. This included the only surviving eyewitnesses, John Taylor and Willard Richards. By that fall, Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles made two decisions: finish the temple, and prepare to move to the Rocky Mountains where, years before, Joseph had prophesied the Mormons would eventually settle. In September, the citizens of Hancock County demanded that the Mormons leave. By December, the Nauvoo Temple was complete enough to permit the Mormons to begin receiving their temple endowments (one of the Mormon temple ceremonies) and to begin entering into celestial, or eternal, marriage.
In February 1846, the first company of Mormon pioneers left Nauvoo, walking across the frozen Mississippi into Iowa. On February 8, the temple was officially dedicated, though the public dedication was not until May 1. The Mormons left in waves and founded temporary settlements along the Platte River in Iowa: Garden Gove, Mount Pisgah, Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), and finally Winter Quarters, Nebraska. The road was slow and soggy. On September 10, the last Mormons were attacked by mobs in the Battle of Nauvoo. By September 16, 1846, the last Mormons were driven from the city. Their beautiful temple was burned by an arsonist. Nauvoo, a city that in 1844 had rivaled even Chicago for size and beauty, was all but destroyed. Several years later a tornado destroyed what remained of the second Mormon temple.