Joseph Smith: Last Months and Martyrdom
Elder Ben Banks
Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional
February 21, 2006
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.” That testament is of no force, Paul said, until the death of the testator.
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.’” 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.”
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.
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, “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.”
During that last winter he manifested four dominant anxieties. 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 and recommitted the Saints to give of time and means to the speedy erection of that building.
Often he would ride out on his horse, Old Charlie, 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. He anticipated and prophesied that they would be driven and scattered.
Joseph’s anxiety about the temple was compounded by his second anxiety concerning the records of the Church, that they be kept, preserved, and accurately transmitted. That was the responsibility of several of his scribes.
One of them was Willard Richards, a loyal man who often burned candles until midnight, writing with his quill pen. 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. 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.”
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. 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.
His third anxiety was 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 and other 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. 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.”
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. 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.
To summarize thus far: temple anxiety, record anxiety, teaching anxiety.
Finally, the fourth anxiety 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. 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. In radical contrast the Prophet had for some time had all kinds of ominous presentiments.
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, 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. 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.
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. 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.
Over that William Law became bitter, and soon he was excommunicated. Then Law attempted to organize his own church and began to fight back. 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.”
Concern 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.
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.
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 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.”
Speaking of those who had 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 the right and that not a hair of their heads should be hurt for it. 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.”
Francis Higbee is said to have remarked on June10 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.” 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 the Mormons would be killed or driven.
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. 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, to placate the masses.
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. 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.
Many were saying as they had in Kirtland and before, that here was a fallen prophet. Occasionally, with a twinge of humor, he would say, “Well, I had rather be a fallen true prophet than a false prophet.”
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. 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.
He gave the last of his discourses in the Grove. 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.
In the final moment of his discourse he said, “Brethren and sisters, love one another; love one another and be merciful to your enemies.”
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 top of the frame of a building,” the frame of the unfinished Nauvoo House. 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.” He summarized how he had been driven as a roe on the mountains 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 Saints, he would fight for them. Now he unsheathed his sword and said, “I call God and angels to witness [what I have said].”
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.”
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 and said that, despite his words about standing up for them, now that trouble had come he was the first one to run. 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.
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.” 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 and the threats they were making.
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.
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.”
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. Hyrum’s son, Joseph, felt it, and could never quite speak of it for the rest of his life without weeping. 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,” and then didn’t finish the sentence.
Having recrossed the river to Nauvoo that last Sunday, June 3, Joseph sent a letter to the governor in Carthage promising to be there the next day. 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. And as he turned away, he said “Well, if they don’t hang me I don’t care how they kill me.”
It seemed 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.”
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. So he did not know how he would end his life, but he did not relish the thought of hanging.
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.
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.”
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 him. 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. 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 with out 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 over powered me.
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.
They also 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, 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.”
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.”
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. 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.
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.”
Stephen Markham offered to change clothes with the Prophet, to make a switch – the Prophet could then get away on his horse all would be well. The Prophet turned that down. James W. Wood 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.
He found that hope too, to be false, for Judge 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?”
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.”
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. 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.
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 Hablin 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. According to Willard Richards, all that shooting occurred in less than two minutes. Both Hyrum and Joseph received five balls; John Taylor, four.
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. 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.” Hyrum, it turns 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. 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 turned from the door, dropped the pistol, and went to the window.
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?”
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.
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 – from the window. “He’s leaped the window!” someone shouted, and those on the landing rushed downstairs and outside. “Shoot him, – shoot him!” said Levi Williams, and they shot several times more.
One account says that the Prophet died with a smile. 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.” 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.”
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. (Hymn sung by Professor Ron Anderson and his son Jaxon). The final two lines are: “These deeds shall thy memorial be; Fear not, thou didst them unto me” (p-29).
For a time the Saints could not be comforted. The mourning and the 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.
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. So it was that the returning Parley P. Pratt walking 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 headline he has 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.
“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.” 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.”
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” (My Nauvoo Temple Experience).
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.”
*Portions of this address were excerpted from the book Joseph Smith, the Prophet by Truman G. Madsen, published in 1989 by Bookcraft, Salt Lake City.
© 2006 Intellectual Reserve, Inc. All rights reserved.