For much of his lifetime, newspaper reports insinuated that Joseph Smith was duping his followers in a greed-motivated religious scam.
For a person of his remarkable abilities and undeniable charisma, however, it seems that he derived very little monetary profit from his devilish scheme, if such it was.
“Now father,” Helen Soby wrote in an 1841 letter responding to such concerns, “if you want to know about us or Joe Smith read the Book of Mormon . . . instead of newspapers’ statements. All the money that he has had of us is 100 dollars that I lent him, and that has been proffered to me three times and I would not receive it.”
Joseph was seriously hurt financially in 1840. He had invested in a partnership to buy the steamboat Des Moines, an undertaking intended to bring people (overwhelmingly new converts) and development to the new city of the Saints on the Mississippi. But that investment was lost three months after the purchase, when the steamboat, rechristened the Nauvoo, ran into rocks and sank on a hidden sandbank.
At that point, he owed $73,066.38. By contrast, his monetary assets — in a large but cash-poor new settlement on the cash-poor American frontier — included less than twenty thousand dollars . . . in notes receivable.
Accordingly, in April 1842, pursuant to a new federal law that had become effective just the previous February, Joseph declared bankruptcy, seeking relief from creditors whom he simply could not pay.
He defended his decision as the only way he could settle the debts he owed: “I was forced into the measure by having been robbed, mobbed, plundered, and wasted of all my property, time after time, in various places.”
“Some observers,” writes historian Glen Leonard, “could not imagine that Smith lacked means, since as trustee-in-trust for the church he controlled vast assets in land and buildings. But these were not his own. When the Twelve took over management of Nauvoo property sales in 1841, the Prophet prepared an inventory. His personal belongings, said the Twelve, included ‘his old Charley horse, given him in Kirtland; two pet deer; two old turkeys, and four young ones; the old cow given him by a brother in Missouri; his old Major, dog; his wife, children, and a little household furniture.’ The Prophet kept his own real estate separate from land registered in his name as trustee-in-trust for the church by filing it in Emma Smith’s name.”
Glen M. Leonard, Nauvoo: A Place of Peace, A People of Promise (Salt Lake City and Provo: Deseret Book and Brigham Young University Press, 2002), 149-150, 168-169.
A film has recently been made to advocate the theory that Joseph and Hyrum Smith were assassinated on 27 June 1844 in the jail at Carthage, Illinois, not by the armed anti-Mormon mob that was indisputably there with murderous intent, but by their fellow inmates, Willard Richards and John Taylor — members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who went on, respectively, to be a second counselor in the First Presidency and the third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Presumably, this was done on the orders of Brigham Young, who almost immediately succeeded Joseph as the leader of the Church and, in time, as its second president.
I’ve managed, unfortunately, to watch the scene from the movie in which Elder Taylor and Elder Richards treacherously murder their cellmates. I was, to be candid, surprised at my response. The depiction didn’t merely strike me as wrong. It didn’t merely displease me. It offended me. Deeply. It made me almost physically ill. It was indescribably revolting to me — and the two words that genuinely came to my mind, again and again, as I thought about it were Satanic and obscene. That’s why, yesterday, Rob Gardner’s heart-rending setting of the poem “O, give me back my Prophet dear,” which was penned by none other than John Taylor (who also wrote the announcement of the death of Joseph and Hyrum that now forms Section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants) was on my mind:
1. O, give me back my Prophet dear,
And Patriarch, O give them back,
The Saints of Latter-days to cheer,
And lead them in the Gospel track!
But O, they’re gone from my embrace,
From earthly scenes their spirits fled,
Two of the best of Adam’s race,
Now lie entombed among the dead.
2. Ye men of wisdom, tell me why —
No guilt, no crime in them were found —
Their blood doth now so loudly cry,
From prison walls and Carthage ground?
Your tongues are mute, but pray attend,
The secret I will now relate,
Why those whom God to earth did lend,
Have met the suffering martyrs’ fate.
3. It is because they strove to gain,
Beyond the grave a heaven of bliss,
Because they made the Gospel plain
And led the Saints to righteousness;
It is because God called them forth,
And led them by His own right hand.
Christ’s coming to proclaim on eath,
And gather Israel to their land.
4. It is because the priest of Baal
Were desperate their craft to save,
And when they saw it doomed to fail,
They sent the Prophets to their grave
Like scenes the ancient Prophets saw,
Like these the ancient Prophets fell.
And, till the resurrection dawn,
Prophet and Patriarch, farewell.
I’m informed that one of the principal figures behind the making of the film has been excommunicated. Why? For his accusation that the future second and third presidents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in collusion with a third apostle, a future counselor in the Church’s First Presidency, cold-bloodedly and with premeditation murdered its first president and his patriarch-brother. I’m told that the filmmaker sees his excommunication as a badge of honor. (He’s a heroic truth teller, after all.) Personally, I regret that he can’t be excommunicated twice, so repugnant do I find his allegation. The hypothetical parallel that came pretty quickly to my mind was someone who claims that poor John Wilkes Booth was merely loitering around Ford’s Theater when Mary Todd Lincoln stealthily reached into her purse, pulled a pistol, and shot her husband, Abraham, in the head at point blank range. And then she framed the unfortunate Mr. Booth and all of his completely innocent friends. The allegation would be screamingly funny, if it were at all funny.
I’m hoping that this repulsive piece of speculative historical revisionism will soon fade into the obscurity that I believe it abundantly deserves, and I’m very reluctant to give it even the slightest degree of publicity. But some folks have already begun to respond to it, and I’ve finally elected to share links to the three brief articles on the topic that I’ve read thus far:
“Conspiracy as History: “Who Killed Joseph Smith?” as a Case Study: Right-wing ideologues critical of the Church of Jesus Christ have again turned their attention to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. Unsurprisingly, their ideas don’t stand up to historical muster.”
Moreover, this 2008 BYU Studies article remains fundamental for serious study of the matter:
Yuck. I’m appalled this this dreck has to be mentioned at all.