City of Nauvoo/Nauvoo Expositor/Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor

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Did Joseph violate the law by ordering the Nauvoo Expositor destroyed?


Question: Was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor legal?

The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor led directly to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum

It is claimed by one critic of the Church that Joseph "could not allow the Expositor to publish the secret international negotiations masterminded by Mormonism’s earthly king." [1] Another claimed that "When the Laws (with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph ordered the destruction of the printing press, which was both a violation of the 1st Amendment, and which ultimately led to Joseph’s assassination." [2]

The Expositor incident led directly to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, but it was preceded by a long period of non-Mormon distrust of Joseph Smith, and attempts to extradite him on questionable basis.

The destruction of the Expositor issue was legal; it was not legal to have destroyed the type, but this was a civil matter, not a criminal one, and one for which Joseph was willing to pay a fine if imposed.

Joseph seems to have believed—or, his followers believed after his death—that the decision, while 'unwise' for Joseph, may have been in the Saints' interest to have Joseph killed. For a time, this diffused much of the tension and may have prevented an outbreak of generalized violence against the Saints, as occurred in Missouri.

The destruction of the first issue was legal, but it was not legal to destroy the printer's type

It is claimed that "When the Laws (with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph ordered the destruction of the printing press, which was both a violation of the 1st Amendment, and which ultimately led to Joseph’s assassination." [3]

The destruction of the Expositor issue (i.e., the paper itself) was legal; it was not legal to have destroyed the type, but this was a civil matter, not a criminal one, and one for which Joseph was willing to pay a fine if imposed.

Joseph did not unilaterally order the action against the Expositor—it was the Nauvoo City Council (which included non-Mormons) which reached the unanimous decision. Having reached that decision, Joseph Smith then issued an order, as mayor, to carry out the Council's decision. As described in the Church's 2011 Priesthood/Relief Society manual:

On June 10, 1844, Joseph Smith, who was the mayor of Nauvoo, and the Nauvoo city council ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor and the press on which it was printed. [4]

History of the Church also describes this event [5]:

I [Joseph Smith] immediately ordered the Marshal to destroy it [the Nauvoo Expositor] without delay, and at the same time issued an order to Jonathan Dunham, acting Major-General of the Nauvoo Legion, to assist the Marshal with the Legion, if called upon so to do." [6]

The First Amendment is irrelevant to this discussion. In 1844, the First Amendment only applied to federal law; it had no application to state or local law until the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War.


Question: Did Joseph Smith or his associates attempt to reconcile with William Law before he published the Nauvoo Expositor?

Prior to the publication of the Expositor, Hyrum Smith, Almon W. Babbitt, and Sidney Rigdon attempted to reconcile William Law to the Church

William Law announced he would reconcile only under the condition that Joseph publicly state that the practice of polygamy was "from Hell":

I told him [Sidney] that if they wanted peace they could have it on the following conditions, That Joseph Smith would acknowledge publicly that he had taught and practised the doctrine of plurality of wives, that he brought a revelation supporting the doctrine, and that he should own the whole system (revelation and all) to be from Hell.[7]

The Nauvoo Expositor declared that Joseph was "“blood thirsty and murderous...demon...in human shape”

Shortly afterward, on 7 June 1844, the first (and only) edition of the Nauvoo Expositor was published. It detailed Joseph’s practice of plural marriage, and charged him with various crimes, labeling him a “blood thirsty and murderous...demon...in human shape” and “a syncophant, whose attempt for power find no parallel in history...one of the blackest and basest scoundrels that has appeared upon the stage of human existence since the days of Nero, and Caligula.”[8]


Question: How was the decision reached to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor?

Destruction of Expositor

8 June 1844
Nauvoo city council meets regarding the Expositor.
10 June 1844
The city council declares the Expositor a public nuisance and threat to the peace. This was not mere exaggeration; there were sixteen episodes of mob violence against controversial newspapers in Illinois from 1832 to 1867, and so the leaders’ fears of civil unrest were likely well-founded. The city council therefore ordered the press and the paper destroyed.[9]
This was done. The decision to suppress the Expositor, while legal for the day, worsened a tense situation (in the years following the Expositor suppression, similar tactics would be used in 1862, 1893, 1918, and 1927).[10]
Historically, presses which violated community ideas of what was proper were a genuine risk to the public peace. Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery editor of The Saint Louis Observer was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.[11]
Joseph and the city council might well have had memories of what happened in Missouri when some members of the Church became frustrated with the lack of legal redress for their mistreatment by Missouri citizens.
Missouri probably also set the stage for the legal decision to suppress the press. In 1833, the Evening and Morning Star, the LDS paper in Independence, was subject to being "razed to the ground" at the unanimous decision of the mob committee established to drive out the Mormons.[12] The mob's ultimatum later stipulated that the Mormons were not to publish anything before leaving.[13]
The law of the day probably gave Joseph and the council the right to destroy the offending issue; however, since they had also ordered the press and type destroyed, they violated property laws. Joseph later said he would be happy to pay for the damages.[14] Critics are inconsistent when they complain about the Nauvoo city council's decision to suppress the Expositor (an action that was legal) and yet do not also acknowledge that Mormon presses had been destroyed by mobs acting with no legal authority whatever.
Despite the fact that the Expositor's suppression was legal, the destruction of the press appeared high-handed to Church critics, and other newspapers began to call for the Mormons’ expulsion or destruction. Joseph and others were arrested on charges of “riot.”


Question: Why did the Nauvoo City Council feel it was necessary to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor?

One member recorded that Joseph told him that the destruction of the press was necessary for the Saints’ safety

It is claimed that Joseph "could not allow the Expositor to publish the secret international negotiations masterminded by Mormonism’s earthly king." [15]

The reality was that the Joseph and the City Council were concerned that the paper would cause turmoil among the Saints.

One member stated,

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.[16]

Joseph foresaw his own death as a result of the turmoil that was already occurring

Given Joseph’s numerous presentiments of his own death, it may well be that he knowingly chose this course of action to spare the members’ lives at the cost of his own. Said Joseph to Elizabeth Rollins:

I must seal my testimony with my blood.[17]

And later:

Some has supposed that Br Joseph Could not die but this is a mistake it is true their has been times when I have had the promise of my life to accomplish such & such things, but having accomplish those things I have not at present any lease of my life I am as liable to die as other men.[18]


To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes

  1. Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 16. ( Index of claims )
  2. John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
  3. John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
  4. "Chapter 46: The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood," Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith," The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (2011), 528–40.
  5. It should be noted that History of the Church was begun after Joseph's death, and was written in the "first person," as if Joseph himself had written it. For further information on this, see Question: Who is the author of ''History of the Church''?
  6. History of the Church, 6:432. Volume 6 link
  7. William Law, "Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844," 13 May 1844; cited by Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter"
  8. Francis M. Higbee, “Citizens of Hancock County,” Nauvoo Expositor (7 June 1844).
  9. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 (1965):874.  (Key source)
  10. Oaks, 897–898.
  11. "Today in History, November 7," United States Library of Congress. off-site
  12. Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1922), 134. See also Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:390–395. Volume 1 link; Anonymous, "A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri," Times and Seasons 1 no. 2 (December 1839), 18. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  13. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:338–339. Volume 1 link
  14. James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd edition revised and enlarged, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992[1976]), 208. ISBN 087579565X. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  15. Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 16. ( Index of claims )
  16. Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 114; citing Diary of George Laub, BYU Special Collections, 18.
  17. Journal of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, BYU Special Collections, 7; cited by Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 103.
  18. Joseph Smith, Discourse of 9 April 1842, Wilford Woodruff Diary; cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 112.