Joseph Smith/Martyrdom/Events surrounding it

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Events surrounding the death of Joseph Smith, Jr.

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Question: What were the causes of Joseph and Hyrum Smith's martyrdom?

Political tensions, theological disagreements, rumors of polygamy and the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor

There were many contributing factors which led to the martyrdom. Chief among these include:

  1. political tensions
  2. theological disagreements
  3. rumors of polygamy
  4. destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor

The factors which led to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith are complex and multi-faceted. They included the following:

  1. Politics: Local, and, eventually, national, politics involving the Saints and their non-Mormon neighbors were often heated, given the fact that the Saints voted as a block and given Joseph Smith's commanding influence on how the Saints voted. This easily led to antagonism and rivalry between Mormons and non-Mormons over political issues. Joseph, being the mayor of Nauvoo and eventually a presidential candidate, was right in the middle of many of these controversies. Being the president of the Church and considered a prophet by his followers also generated suspicion in plenty of non-Mormons that Joseph was transgressing state-church boundaries, which furthered hostilities.
  2. Theology Mormons, both in the 19th century and even today, are and have been considered either fanatics or blasphemous in their radical break from many mainstream, conventional Christian doctrines about the nature of God, scripture, revelation, etc. Joseph Smith's Nauvoo-era theology led to further rifts that can be seen even today. Some of his most radical teachings about the nature of God and the potential of man alienated his theological rivals and furthered tensions.
  3. Polygamy: By Joseph's martyrdom in 1844, rumors of polygamy had begun circulating in Nauvoo and surrounding areas, prompting both members within the Church and non-members to come to see Joseph Smith as morally contemptible and even dangerous. Joseph made admittedly awkwardly-worded public denials of polygamy, but with the rumor-mongering and distortions of such men as John C. Bennett, polygamy was a charged issue. As Joseph privately taught his version of plural marriage—which differed markedly from the libertinism and seduction practiced by Bennett—rumors began to circulate, and some members became concerned that Joseph was either a fallen prophet, or one who was teaching false doctrine.

There were other factors that led to Joseph's martyrdom, including economic, social, and cultural tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons.

All of this was dry powder that was finally sparked by the publication and suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor. If one reads the Expositor, one can see all of the reasons listed above as grievances dissenters gave against Joseph Smith. Because of its highly incendiary and threatening language, the Nauvoo city council deemed the paper a public nuisance and voted to stop its publication out of fear that allowing its continued publication would lead to mobs and violence against the Saints. Acting under the direction of the city council and Joseph Smith, the Nauvoo city marshal destroyed the press that printed the Expositor.

This, naturally, led to a public outcry against Joseph Smith. Thomas Sharp, the virulent anti-Mormon editor of the Warsaw Signal, infamous proclaimed upon hearing about the destruction of the Expositor,

War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens ARISE, ONE and ALL!!!—Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! to ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them. We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL!!!

At the behest of governor Thomas Ford, and after being discharged of charges of inciting a riot by a non-Mormon justice of the peace, Joseph went to the county seat in Carthage, where he again faced charges of inciting a riot and the destruction of private property. After paying bail of $500 dollars, there suddenly came the bogus charge of "treason," a non-bailable offense, by dissenter Augustine Spencer, and justice of the peace Robert Smith order Joseph and Hyrum kept in Carthage. To be frank, the charge of treason was probably little more than a legal pretext to keep Joseph in Carthage, and was likely part of Thomas Sharp's conspiracy to lynch Joseph.

Despite his pledge to protect Joseph, Ford, at the last minute, disbanded his militia troops, apparently out of a concern that if they accompanied him to Nauvoo they'd cause trouble, and told them to go home. But left behind in Carthage as Ford traveled to Nauvoo were the Carthage Greys, in whose ranks some of the most fanatical and bloodthirsty anti-Mormons, including members of Thomas Sharp's Warsaw militia and Sharp himself, were marshaled. Small wonder that Joseph was murdered by the Greys almost as soon as Ford left Carthage for Nauvoo.


Question: Did Joseph and others with him remove their garments in order to avoid being identified as polygamists?

John Taylor, who was an eyewitness to the martyrdom, clarified that the garments were not removed out of fear, but that they were sometimes removed because of the hot weather

It is claimed that prior to leaving for Carthage, that Joseph Smith removed his garments, and advised others to remove theirs, in order to avoid identification as polygamists. [1]

  • Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and John Taylor removed their garments prior to leaving for Carthage. Willard Richards continued to wear his.
  • According to contemporary accounts, Joseph may have asked others to remove their garments in order to avoid having them desecrated or mocked.
  • John Taylor, who was an eyewitness to the martyrdom, clarified that the garments were not removed out of fear, but that they were sometimes removed because of the hot weather.
  • Because Willard Richards escaped the martyrdom unscathed, a widespread belief arose that his wearing of the garment afforded him physical protection.
  • Garments were sometimes used as a means for enemies of the church to identify Church members.
  • There is no evidence that the wearing of garments or their subsequent removal had anything whatsoever to do with identifying someone as a polygamist.

Of the four men who were in Carthage Jail at the time that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed, three of them had removed their garments prior to leaving Nauvoo

Of the four men who were in Carthage Jail at the time that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed, three of them had removed their garments prior to leaving Nauvoo. Willard Richards was the only one of the four who was wearing his garments at the time of the martyrdom.

The commonly believed reason for the removal of the garments was that they were removed in order to keep them from falling into the hands of their enemies

The commonly believed reason for the removal of the garments was that they were removed in order to keep them from falling into the hands of their enemies. Heber C. Kimball reported in his journal that Joseph instructed those of the Quorum who were going to accompany him to Carthage to remove their temple garments prior to leaving.[2] Sarah G. Richards noted the following in a letter to Zina Huntington,

[T]he order came that in every habitation where any of the endowment clothes were found, [it] would [mean] death to the inmates -- Olive Frost...came to tear to pieces the garments &c of...Doctor Levi....Miss [Rhoda] Richards separated the parts and placed them among the articles of linen.[3]

Oliver Huntington elaborated on this in his journal entry for 22 April 1897:

Thursday, April 22, 1897: My niece Zina Card and sister Lucy B. Young came on their return from Goshen and the other settlements in this county south of here and stayed all night with us.

They were out by appointment from the Presidency of the Church in the interests of the young womans Journal.

We had an excellent time while they were here talking over old times, the sayings of Joseph and Hyrum of Brigham and others.

Among other things both new and old was repeated the fact that the Prophet Joseph pulled off his garments just before starting to Carthage to be slain and he advised Hyrum and John Taylor to do the same, which they did; and Brother Taylor told Brother Willard Richards what they had done and advised him to take off his also, but Brother Richards said that he would not take his off, and did not; and he was not harmed.

Joseph said before taking his garments off, that he was going to be killed. . . "was going as a lamb to the slaughter" and he did not want his garments to be exposed to the sneers and jeers of his enemies.

These facts all came from President John Taylor's lips after he was President of the Church. Elder John Morgan had told them to me as stated to him by Brother Taylor. Sister Lucy B. Young said that Brother John Taylor told her in answer to direct questions, the same all except with regard to Willard Richards.[4]

It appears, therefore, that garments may indeed have been removed in order to prevent them from being mocked

It appears, therefore, that garments may indeed have been removed in order to prevent them from being mocked. Critics, however, assumed that the garments were removed because Joseph and the others were somehow afraid of wearing them in the presence of their enemies. John Taylor, who was one of the four present in the jail at the time of the Joseph and Hyrum's death, responded to this by clarifying that the garments were sometimes removed simply because of the hot Illinois weather.

Elder John Taylor confirmed the saying that Joseph and Hyrum and himself were without their robes in the jail at Carthage, while Doctor Richards had his on, but corrected the idea that some had, that they had taken them off through fear. W. W. Phelps said Joseph told him one day about that time, that he had laid aside his garment on account of the hot weather.[5]

The fact that Willard Richards was the only one who escaped the martyrdom unscathed appears to have led to the belief that he had been protected by them

The fact that Willard Richards was the only one who escaped the martyrdom unscathed appears to have led to the belief that he had been protected because he was the only one of the four wearing his garments at the time.

[Elder Kimball] Spoke of Elder Richards being protected at Carthage Jail -- having on the robe, while Joseph & Hyrum, and Elder Taylor were shot to pieces.[6]

This idea that the garments would have physically protected Joseph and Hyrum was further elaborated on by Hubert Howe Bancroft in his History of Utah. Bancroft notes the following regarding the temple garment,

This garment protects from disease, and even death, for the bullet of an enemy will not penetrate it. The Prophet Joseph carelessly left off this garment on the day of his death, and had he not done so, he would have escaped unharmed.[7]

Modern-day Church leaders have since clarified that the temple garment serves as "a protection against temptation and evil"

Modern-day Church leaders have since clarified that the temple garment serves as "a protection against temptation and evil" and instead of it being some type of 'lucky talisman' the "promise of protection [associated with it] is conditioned upon worthiness and faithfulness." (First Presidency Letter, 10 October 1988; see Ensign, August 1997, 19-).

The wearing of garments was used by those hostile to the Church as a means of identifying Mormons

The wearing of garments was used by those hostile to the Church as a means of identifying Mormons. In the autobiography of B.H. Roberts, Elder Roberts relates the story of how an "Elder Robinson" removed his garments while in hostile territory in order to avoid being identified as a Mormon.

But unfortunately if Elder Robinson should fall into the hands of enemies, it would be a betrayal of him as to his being a Mormon elder. He therefore retired to a densely wooded section of the country and, stripping off these garments, rolled them up and climbed a tree and tied them securely....But approaching the neighborhood of Kane Creek where the elders were reported to be killed, the railroad passes over a bit of trestle work over a very deep and quite large ravine, and near the middle of this trestle work he observed three men approaching from the other side, guns in hand. There was nothing left to do than to go right on.

These men proved to be members of the mountain guard watching for me. On meeting Elder Robinson they questioned him as to where he came from and what his purpose was, and when he told them that he was looking for a job cotton picking they laughed saying, "A damn fine cotton picker you would be. Look at your hands." And, of course, as Elder Robinson had not engaged in physical labor, his hands were white and soft, not at all characteristic of cotton pickers. He then told them of having been sick for sometime, and that accounted for his pallor in his face and hands and that he was just now beginning to get about and was now strong enough to begin cotton picking.

Hence he was in search of that job. They invited him to sit down while they thought things over. No sooner did he do that when one of the three grabbed his shirt by the collar and tore it so as to expose his body, but they found no garments incriminating him as to his Mormonism and finally allowed him to pass.[8]

There is no documentation that ties the wearing of garments to the practice of polygamy

Did Joseph and the others remove their sacred garments in order to avoid being identified as polygamists? There is no documentation that ties the wearing of garments to the practice of polygamy. It was not required that one practice polygamy in order to receive the endowment. In the case of Joseph Smith, he was easily identifiable whether or not he was wearing his garments. Removal of his garments would certainly have made no difference in his being identified and taken to Carthage.


Question: Did Willard Richards violate the Word of Wisdom by using tobacco at Carthage Jail?

Joseph Smith obtained some tobacco for a friend while in Carthage Jail prior to being martyred. Doesn't this make Joseph Smith a hypocrite for violating the Word of Wisdom?

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States

We are sometimes guilty of "presentism"—judging historical figures by the standards of our day, instead of their day. The tobacco was intended for medicinal purposes.

Willard Richards was a Thomsonian herbalist, a type of physician common in the first half of the nineteenth century in the United States. Thomson was the name of the founder of this school of practice, which differed from the practice of the "orthodox" medical doctors, who focused on balancing humors, purging, inducing diarrhea, and so forth.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal

An aspect of Thomsonian medicine was Thomson's enthusiasm for the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom--they were likely medicinal.

Tobacco for Willard Richards

Willard Richards, who was in jail with Joseph, was a Thomsonian physician. This was a branch of pre-modern medical practice which required minimal schooling. Thomson's followers' believed strongly in the use of lobelia, or wild Indian tobacco. It was used as a cure-all, and was prominently used as an emetic to induce vomiting and restore health. This is the key to understanding the use of tobacco at Carthage Jail.

Critics Gerald and Sandra Tanner (p. 33) make a great deal of Joseph asking for a "pipe and tobacco" for Willard Richards. However, when we understand the circumstances, this action makes sense, and it has nothing to do with the Word of Wisdom. In the first place, we must realize that Joseph and Willard were locked in Carthage Jail.

Joseph had sent Stephen Markham out, as previous text unquoted by the Tanners tells us: "'Brother Markham...go get the doctor [i.e., Richards] something to settle his stomach,' [said Joseph,] and Markham went out for medicine. When he got the remedies desired...[the] Carthage Greys gathered round him, put him on his horse, and forced him out of the town at the point of the bayonet." So, Markham could not return, and none of the remedies he had obtained reached the jail. [9]

It is not clear which remedies Markham sought out—but he could not return. A Thomsonian like Richards would have probably seen tobacco as a medicinal drug, however—especially in a pinch when he could get nothing else. This would be particularly true if the tobacco was lobelia—it was the Thomsonian cure-all, literally.

The Tanners complain elsewhere about how in the History of the Church the words "pipe and some tobacco" were replaced by the word "medicine" (p. 471). But, this misses the point in a spectacular way—tobacco was considered a medicine at the time! Modern editors would not make this type of change to a historical text, but one can understand why rather than bother to explain about Thomsonian beliefs and medical practices, the editors of earlier times decided to simply "translate" the reason for the tobacco. The issue only becomes important, after all, when one is unfamiliar with early nineteenth century medicine.

There is further evidence that the tobacco was not seen as a problem by current or later leaders, since John Taylor's later account of the martyrdom in History of the Church mentions it very frankly and matter-of-factly:

Before the jailer came in, his boy brought in some water, and said the guard wanted some wine. Joseph gave Dr. Richards two dollars to give the guard; but the guard said one was enough, and would take no more.

The guard immediately sent for a bottle of wine, pipes, and two small papers of tobacco; and one of the guards brought them into the jail soon after the jailer went out. Dr. Richards uncorked the bottle, and presented a glass to Joseph, who tasted, as also Brother Taylor and the doctor, and the bottle was then given to the guard, who turned to go out. When at the top of the stairs some one below called him two or three times, and he went down.[10]

Since neither the wine nor the tobacco was, for members at the time, seen as a violation of the Word of Wisdom. Leaders would not include this information if it made Joseph look bad. This should be our first clue that something else is going on.[11] Some critics, however, have not sought to understand, but merely to condemn by trusting that their audience will not understand the fine points of early nineteenth century frontier medicine.


Question: Were Joseph Smith's final words, "O Lord, my God!" a cry for help or mercy from Freemasons in the mob at the Carthage jail?

Joseph Smith's final words were "O Lord, my God!"

According to the accounts of both John Taylor and Willard Richards—the two eyewitnesses who survived the mob's attack on Carthage jail—Joseph Smith's final words were "O Lord, my God!"

The account in the official History of the Church records:

Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and no doubt thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if he could get out, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor and sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. "O Lord, my God!"[12]

John Taylor reported:

Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls. (D&C 135:1)

Willard Richards' testimony was that

two balls pierced [Joseph] from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward, exclaiming, "Oh Lord, my God!" As his feet went out of the window my head went in, the balls whistling all around. He fell on his left side a dead man.[13]

Those who knew Joseph Smith believed that this was an attempt to save his life and the life of his friends by calling out to Freemasons in the mob

Those who knew Joseph Smith believed that his use of the phrase "O Lord, my God!" was an attempt to save his life and the life of his friends by calling out to Freemasons in the mob. (Joseph and the other Mormons in the jail were Masons, Joseph himself having been inducted on 15 March 1842.)

Among the brotherhood of Freemasons, there is the Grand Hailing Sign of Distress: "Oh Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow's son?" According to Masonic code, any Mason who hears another Mason utter the Grand Hailing Sign must come to his aid.

Most adult men in Hancock County, Illinois, were Masons, and there were Masons in the mob that attacked the jail. If Joseph was attempting to give the Grand Hailing Sign, they would have been obligated to stop their attack and defend Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards.[14]

John Taylor, a Master Mason himself, wrote:

...[T]hese two innocent men [Joseph and Hyrum] were confined in jail for a supposed crime, deprived of any weapons to defend themselves: had the pledged faith of the State of Illinois, by Gov. Ford, for their protection, and were then shot to death, while, with uplifted hands they gave such signs of distress as would have commanded the interposition and benevolence of Savages or Pagans. They were both Masons in good standing. Ye brethren of "the mystic tie" [Masonry] what think ye! Where is our good Master Joseph and Hyrum? Is there a pagan, heathen, or savage nation on the globe that would not be moved on this great occasion, as the trees of the forest are moved by a mighty wind? Joseph's last exclamation was "O Lord my God!"

If one of these murderers, their abettors or accessories before or after the fact, are suffered to cumber the earth, without being dealt with according to law, what is life worth, and what is the benefit of laws? and more than all, what is the use of institutions which savages would honor, where civilized beings murder without cause or provocation?[15]

According to Heber C. Kimball:

Masons, it is said, were even among the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail. Joseph, leaping the fatal window, gave the Masonic signal of distress. The answer was the roar of his murderers' muskets.[16]

Zina D. H. Young wrote in 1878:

I am the daughter of a Master Mason [Heber C. Kimball]! I am the widow of a Master Mason [Joseph Smith] who, when leaping from the window of Carthage jail pierced with bullets, made the Masonic sign of distress; but...those signs were not heeded.[17]

From the above it appears the last words of Joseph Smith were believed by at least some people who knew him to be the Masonic cry of distress.


Notes

  1. Question posted to the Mormon Apologetics and Discussion board, October 2009
  2. Heber C. Kimball, Journal, 21 December 1845, and Oliver B. Huntington, Journal, 22 April 1897.
  3. Sarah G. Richards to Zina Huntington, 20 September 1890, Church Archives.
  4. HISTORY OF THE LIFE OF OLIVER B. HUNTINGTON, Written by Himself, 1878 - 1900
  5. William Clayton and George D. Smith (editor), An Intimate Chronicle: The Journals of William Clayton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Signature Books, 1995), 222.
  6. Heber C. Kimball's diary for 21 Dec. 1845 kept by William Clayton as cited in The Nauvoo Endowment Companies p. 117
  7. Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of Utah (San Francisco, CA: The History Company, Publishers, 1890), 357 n.17.
  8. Brigham H. Roberts, Gary Bergera (ed.), The Autobiography of B.H. Roberts [citation needed]
  9. History of the Church, 6:616. Volume 6 link
  10. 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), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  11. 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), 6:616. Volume 6 link
  12. 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), 6:618. Volume 6 link
  13. History of the Church, 6:618. Volume 6 link
  14. Masons in antebellum America took the Grand Hailing Sign very seriously. Many accounts exist of it being used during the Civil War. See Michael A. Halleran, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War (University Alabama Press, 2010).
  15. "The Murder," Times and Seasons 5 (15 July 1844), 585. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) Taylor's original italics have been removed, and italics added for emphasis. The article itself is unsigned, but John Taylor was the editor of the Times and Seasons and would have either written it or approved its publication.
  16. Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball: The Father and Founder of the British Mission (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 26. It should be noted that while Heber C. Kimball personally knew Joseph Smith, he was not an eyewitness to the events at Carthage.
  17. Andrew Jenson, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 4 vols., (Salt Lake City, A. Jenson History Co., 1901; reprinted Salt Lake City, Utah : Greg Kofford Books, 2003), 1:698. Zina's statement about "leaping the window" matches very closely with what her father, Heber C. Kimball, said about the incident.