Gospel Doctrine Commentary: The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith

Gospel Doctrine Commentary: The Martyrdom of Joseph Smith September 8, 2017


Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 8.24.18 AMGuest post by Ganesh Cherian.  Wellington, New Zealand

One of the greatest murder mysteries of the 19th Century is the martyrdom of Joseph Smith:

Joseph and his brother Hyrum died at Carthage

Joseph was a very charismatic man.[1] He drew people to him, and even those who disagreed with him often really liked him. He could be quite polarising because of this;  it took a lot to hate him. So by all accounts (and many times in the past), he was able to get himself out of trouble, convincing people of his sincerity and innocence.

Fears for his life existed long before Carthage though. His councillors in the First Presidency pleaded with him to change his course, as he was endangering himself and the church[2]. Accounts by William Marks[3] (Nauvoo Stake President) seem to suggest he did have some second thoughts, but that he also might have already gone too far and there was no ‘reverse’ on the actions he had taken.

And while steps to his death had happened years before, it became infinitely more dangerous the previous year on July 12th, 1843. This was the day that Joseph dictated a revelation on the doctrine of plural marriage[4]:

Joseph had been experimenting with ‘additional wives’ since the beginning of the church. Even though the Book of Mormon described it as ‘abomination’[5] Joseph couldn’t get over the idea that polygamy was featured in the Old Testament. He learnt quickly that this might not be received well by the members, the wider public and especially not his wife. His relationship with his 16-year-old housekeeper Fanny Alger caused scandal in Kirtland and horror for Emma. His dear friend and fellow leader of the church Oliver Cowdry was heartbroken over the incident; he believed it to be an affair[6]. Oliver tried to allay the fears of members and citizens alike by adding into the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants a section [7], but he could not allay his disappointment, by 1838 Joseph and Oliver had split, their relationship strained over the Fanny affair[8].

In Nauvoo Joseph again experimented, taking three women as plural wives in 1841[9]. Despite the increased secrecy, rumours spread. Denying these to Emma, he formed the Relief Society in early 1842 with her as president to fight such allegations. But things got worse. A new convert John C. Bennett (who became a close associate of Joseph), used what he knew about the ‘restoration of concubines’ to lure women into casual sexual relationships[10]. When he was discovered and excommunicated, he went about the region giving speaking tours and writing articles exposing Josephs ‘spiritual wifery’[11]. This caused huge danger to the church, and Emma stepped up her defence using the Relief Society[12]. Joseph undeterred married 12 additional women in that year many who were prominent in the very same organisation[13].

By 1843 Emma became heartbreakingly aware that Joseph was the instigator of polygamy. He promised that she would be the recipient of great endowments of heavenly blessings if she could accept the practice[14]. She relented and briefly allowed her young housekeepers to marry her husband, but then quickly regretted it, throwing the girls out of the house[15]. Joseph had more success with his brother Hyrum. He had been initially opposed but became convinced and took polygamous wives himself. In his new zeal for the practice, Hyrum got Joseph to write down ‘the revelation’ in the hopes of persuading his defiant sister-in-law.[16] He was bitterly unsuccessful, despite the threats in the text to her personally, Emma did not believe it came from God and she threw it in the fire. She also realised this document was dangerous, it was physical proof, and it could lead to Joseph’s death if it was exposed. Emma threatened to divorce Joseph, she was convinced he was going to ruin her reputation or worse get himself killed and she was desperate to secure her future and assets.[17].

Unfortunately for Emma, William Clayton (Joseph’s secretary) had made another copy. Under advice from those already practising plural marriage like Brigham Young, Joseph had Hyrum present it to the Nauvoo high council in secrecy[18]. This event and the document copy set off alarm bells with Joseph’s councillors in the First Presidency. They were also concerned about the growing polygamy and well aware of the danger a physical document posed. They pleaded with Joseph that he disband the practice before it was too late. While Joseph himself acknowledged the danger[19], undeterred he kept marrying women, 18 that year.

This caused a huge split in the leadership of the Church. Joseph (as President), Hyrum (Church Patriarch), Brigham Young (President of the 12), Heber C. Kimball (Senior Apostle) all advocated for polygamy.   Emma (as RS President), Sidney Rigdon (1st C, First Presidency), William Law (2nd C, First Presidency) and William Marks (Stake President of Nauvoo) spoke against it. This tense situation was complicated by the fact that Joseph, Hyrum and  Brigham publically denounced plural marriage, but privately expanded it[20].

Early in 1844 [21], Joseph prophesied the downfall of the gentile nation. William Law (Joseph’s councillor in the First Presidency) felt like the Prophet was in great personal danger. He would not listen to reason, and he was leading the church on a dangerous track. William publically opposed him[22] Hoping to wake Joseph up to his precarious position. Joseph released him from the First Presidency and excommunicated him[23]. Emma tried as well. She quoted a ‘voices of innocence’ document and got the Relief Society sisters to sign an oath to protect the family from moral ruin embodied in polygamy[24]. Joseph subsequently halted Relief Society meetings[25].

In June William Law had enough. He and others who were concerned about polygamy formed ‘ The True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ and in their maiden publication set to establish the Book of Mormon (and its anti-polygamy stance) as the Gospel of Christ[26]. The Nauvoo Expositor Newspaper detailed Joseph’s polygamy and secret councils, calling Joseph a fallen prophet, a philanderer, and guilty of subverting the United States[27]. Joseph as Mayor of Nauvoo ordered the printing press destroyed and the copies collected and burned[28]. William Law appealed to the governor of Illinois who sought to arrest Joseph and Hyrum on riot and treason charges[29]. The brothers fled Nauvoo and went into hiding, but were convinced to return and give themselves up[30].

Joseph was very aware they were in a lot of trouble[31], he instructed William Clayton to destroy the Council of Fifty minutes[32], which would have made a strong case against them for treason. And the brothers took off their garments that might identify them as polygamists. They then rode to Carthage to face their fate.

With all the rumours confirmed about Joseph by his former councillor, the surrounding towns were up in arms. It didn’t take much to marshal a mob, and it over ran the jail and sent Joseph and Hyrum to their graves.

Who killed the Smith Brothers?

The Angry mob?
The US government & American people that could not see the righteousness of Mormons?
The Governor for not securing a safe place to hold the brothers?
William Law for seeking redress?Joseph for destroying the printing press a curtailing free of speech?
William Law for writing the Nauvoo Expositor confirming polygamy?
Emma for using the Relief Society to preach against polygamy?Joseph for organising the Council of Fifty and running for President?
The High Council meeting that privately acknowledged plural marriage?
Brigham Young for seeking an openness of the doctrine?
Joseph for writing down the revelation on ‘the new and everlasting covenant’?
Hyrum for encouraging Joseph to write the revelation?Joseph for practising polygamy in the first place?
God for commanding it?Or was it God who took out an errant prophet who was leading the church astray???

There was a lot of finger pointing in the wake of the brothers’ deaths. Most notable was the animosity between the President of the Twelve and the wife of Joseph. Brigham Young blamed Emma’s public outburst and disbanded the Relief Society[33]. Emma Smith blamed Brigham for perpetuating plural marriage and endangering her husband and fought him for assets[34]. The contention split the church in half largely along polygamy lines[35].

Brigham also blamed the US government and Gentile American Nation intent on inflicting the saints. He convinced the members that supported him, that in a short time vengeance would rain down form heaven for the death of the Prophet and America would be chastised[36]. They would need to flee the States to have safety and also to practice polygamy in peace. So began the planned exodus to Mexican Territory.

One can’t help but be convinced that all this didn’t need to happen. It was a tragedy which was avoidable. It’s also hard not to see it as the inevitable end to an illegal practice underpinned by secrecy and subterfuge, agonisingly anticipated by Emma, Joseph’s friends, his councillors and his countrymen.

Joseph was truly a martyr.  What is lesser known fact is that he died for the cause of polygamy.


[1] Charismatic Joseph: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1971/01/the-human-qualities-of-joseph-smith-the-prophet?lang=en.

[2] William Law testimony: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Question:_What_caused_William_Law_to_apostatize_from_the_Church_and_turn_against_Joseph_Smith%3F

[3] William Marks statement: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Joseph_Smith/Polygamy/William_Marks_claimed_Joseph_intended_to_abandon_plural_marriage

[4] D&C 132 https://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng

[5] Jacob 2:23-26 ” David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord. Wherefore, thus saith the Lord,… I the Lord God will not suffer that this people shall do like unto them of old.”

[6] Brian Hales: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Encouraging-Joseph-Smith-to-Practice-Plural-Marriage-The-Accounts-of-the-Angel-with-a-Drawn-Sword.pdf

[7] 1835 D&C 101 “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again”

[8] Olivers Letter; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fanny_Alger

[9] Joseph Smith Wives: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Joseph_Smith%27s_wives

[10] John Taylors Account of the Martyrdom: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/john-taylors-june-27-1854-account-martyrdom

[11] ibid

[12] Relief Society Minutes: https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-6?lang=eng

[13] Eliza R Snow, Sarah Whitney etc.

[14] Mormon Enigma pg 140 “Until Emma could be obedient to Joseph and give him plural wives, she could not participate in the endowment ceremonies.”

[15] Ibid pg 143

[16] William Claytons Journal: https://bycommonconsent.com/2013/08/18/sunday-evenings-with-the-doctrine-and-covenants-section-132-part-1-introduction/

[17] ibid

[18] John Taylors Account of the Martyrdom: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/john-taylors-june-27-1854-account-martyrdom

[19] Brian Hales document: http://mormonhistoricsites.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Encouraging-Joseph-Smith-to-Practice-Plural-Marriage-The-Accounts-of-the-Angel-with-a-Drawn-Sword.pdf

[20] Public Denials: https://www.lds.org/topics/plural-marriage-in-kirtland-and-nauvoo?lang=eng

[21] Council of 50 Minutes: http://rationalfaiths.com/council-ytfif-50-embryo-kingdom-god-earth/

[22] William Law Pleading: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Question:_What_caused_William_Law_to_apostatize_from_the_Church_and_turn_against_Joseph_Smith%3F

[23] Law Excommunication April 18th, 1844

[24] Relief Society minutes: https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-10?lang=eng

[25] ibid

[26] Nauvoo Expositor: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Primary_sources/Nauvoo_Expositor_Full_Text

[27] ibid

[28] John Taylors account of the Martyrdom: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/john-taylors-june-27-1854-account-martyrdom

[29] Ibid

[30] ibid

[31] https://www.lds.org/ensign/1994/06/martyrdom-at-carthage?lang=eng

[32] Joseph instructs William Clayton: http://rationalfaiths.com/council-ytfif-50-embryo-kingdom-god-earth

[33] Relief Society Minutes: https://www.churchhistorianspress.org/the-first-fifty-years-of-relief-society/part-1/1-13?lang=eng

[34] Ibid

[35] Succession Crisis: https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/mormon-succession-crisis-1844

[36] Council of Fifty Minutes: http://religionandpolitics.org/2016/09/09/the-mormon-council-of-fifty-what-joseph-smiths-secret-records-reveal/


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