Chapter 8: The Martyrs
by Gordon B. Hinckley
ON the evening of May 6, 1842, Former-governor Lilburn W.
Boggs of Missouri was sitting in his home when an unknown assailant fired a
pistol through the window and seriously wounded him. The pistol was found on
the grounds, but the would-be assassin was not apprehended. It was feared
for a time that Boggs would die, but he eventually recovered.
Because he had taken a prominent part in expelling the
Mormons from the state, it was soon rumored that they were responsible for
the deed. The ex-governor, without any apparent foundation for his act, made
an affidavit accusing O. P. Rockwell, a member of the Church, of the crime.
He followed this with a second affidavit charging Joseph Smith as
accessory-before-the-fact. The governor of Missouri was then asked to
requisition the governor of Illinois to deliver Joseph Smith and O. P.
Rockwell to a representative of the state of Missouri.
A warrant was issued and the men were arrested, but were
released after trial on a writ of habeas corpus. The plans of the Missouri
enemies of the Prophet had gone awry, but they were not to be frustrated so
Enemies from Within
In 1840 a Dr. John C. Bennett had allied himself with the
Mormon cause. He was a man gifted in many lines, educated and capable, but
apparently lacking in principle. Because of his abilities he was given a
number of important responsibilities. Then he became involved in moral
offenses and was chastised by Joseph Smith. He retaliated by leaving Nauvoo
and publishing a book against the Church. He then got in touch with enemies
of the Church in Missouri, thus adding fuel to the smoldering fire of
hatred. The result of this was another plot for the arrest of Joseph Smith.
But this again came to nothing.
There was another group in Nauvoo, however, whose
nefarious work was to meet with greater success. Six men—William and Wilson
Law, Frances M. and Chauncey L. Higbee, and Charles A. and Robert D.
Foster—had been disfellowshipped from the Church, whereupon they determined
to ruin the Prophet.
Added to these difficulties was the political situation.
The Mormons voted for men whose policies they thought would lead to the
greatest good, sometimes the candidates of one party and sometimes those of
another. In the presidential campaign of 1844, disagreeing with the policies
of both major parties, they steered a middle course by nominating Joseph
Smith as a candidate for the office of President of the United States with
Sidney Rigdon as a candidate for the Vice-presidency. The Mormon leader
issued a statement of his views on government which attracted the attention
of many. Among other things he advocated that the government solve the slave
problem by purchasing the negroes, thus freeing the slaves and compensating
their owners—a policy which if followed might have saved the treasure and
lives later sacrificed in the Civil War. He further suggested that prisons
be made schools where offenders might be taught useful trades and thus
become valuable members of society.
To further acquaint the people of the nation with the
Prophet's views, a number of men left Nauvoo to campaign for his candidacy.
It was while these men were absent from Nauvoo that the Prophet's troubles
reached a climax.
On June 10, 1844 the six men named above published a
libelous sheet called the Nauvoo Expositor. It caused a great stir because
it openly maligned prominent citizens of the community.
The people were incensed. In coping with the situation the
city council met, took evidence, read the law on the subject of nuisances,
consulted the charter granted by the legislature to determine their rights
and obligations, declared the publication a nuisance, and ordered the mayor,
who was Joseph Smith, to abate it.
He in turn issued an order to the city marshall to
"destroy the printing press from whence issued the Nauvoo Expositor and pi
the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the
Expositors and libelous handbills found in the establishment." The marshall
carried out the order and so reported.
Its publishers immediately used this as a pretext for
drastic action. Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested. They were
tried and acquitted. But the fire of hatred, which had been fanned so long,
now burst into fury. Rumors flew throughout western Illinois. The Prophet's
enemies reached Governor Thomas Ford with exaggerated stories, and the
governor requested that Joseph and Hyrum meet him in Carthage, where feeling
against the Smiths was particularly strong. He added: "I will guarantee the
safety of all such persons as may be brought to this place from Nauvoo
either for trial or as witnesses for the accused."
To this Joseph Smith, sensing the real import of the
situation, replied: "We dare not come, though your Excellency promises
protection. Yet, at the same time, you have expressed fears that you could
not control the mob, in which case we are left to the mercy of the
merciless. Sir, we dare not come, for our lives would be in danger, and we
are guilty of no crime."
The Prophet knew whereof he spoke. Though he had been
arrested and acquitted thirty-seven times, the last entry in his journal,
written at this time, reads: "I told Stephen Markham that if Hyrum and I
were ever taken again we would be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God."
He thought of escaping to the West, but some of those
close to him advised him to go to Carthage and stand trial. To his brother
he said, "We shall be butchered." Nevertheless, on the morning of June 24,
1844 the Prophet and several associates set out for Carthage. Pausing near
the temple, they looked at the magnificent building and then at the city
which only five years previous had been little more than swampland. To the
group with him, Joseph said: "This is the loveliest place, and the best
people under the heavens; little do they know the trials that await them."
Further on he made another significant remark: "I am going
like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer's morning; I have a
conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die
innocent, and it shall yet be said of me—he was murdered in cold blood."
Arrived in Carthage, they were arrested on a charge of
treason! Then they were committed to jail on a false mittimus. When the
illegality of this action was protested, the response was enforcement of the
order by an armed body.
Governor Ford was appealed to, but he replied that he "did
not think it within the sphere of his duty to interfere, as they were in the
hands of the civil law." To the justice of the court he said: "You have the
Carthage Greys at your command."
Joseph Smith secured an interview with the governor who
promised him that he would be protected from the mobs which by this time had
gathered in Carthage. Moreover, the governor assured him that if he, the
governor, went to Nauvoo to investigate matters for himself, as Joseph Smith
had requested him to do, he would take the Prophet with him.
Notwithstanding these promises, Governor Ford went to
Nauvoo on the morning of June 27, leaving Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and
Willard Richards and John Taylor incarcerated in Carthage jail, with a mob
militia encamped on the town square.
The day was spent by the prisoners in discussion and the
writing of letters. To his wife Joseph wrote: "I am very much resigned to my
lot, knowing I am justified, and have done the best that could be done. Give
my love to the children and all who inquire after me. May God bless you all
. . . " The letters were sent with visitors who left at one-thirty in the
As the day wore on a feeling of depression came over the
group. At the request of the Prophet, John Taylor sang "A Poor Wayfaring Man
of Grief," a song dealing with the Savior, which had been popular in Nauvoo.
A poor, wayfaring man of grief,
Hath often crossed me on my way
Who sued so humbly for relief,
That I could never answer, "Nay."
I had not power to ask his name
Whither he went, or whence he came;
Yet there was something in his eye
That won my love, I knew not why.
Once when my scanty meal was spread
He entered—not a word he spake!
Just perishing for want of bread;
I gave him all; he blessed it, brake.
* * * *
In prison I saw him next,—condemned
To meet a traitor's doom at morn;
The tide of lying tongues I stemmed,
And honored him 'mid shame and scorn.
My friendship's utmost zeal to try
He asked if I for him would die;
The flesh was weak, my blood ran chill,
But the free spirit cried, "I will."
Then in a moment to my view,
The stranger started from disguise;
The tokens in his hands I knew;
The Savior stood before mine eyes.
He spake, and my poor name he named—
"Of me thou hast not been ashamed;
These deeds shall thy memorial be;
Fear not, thou didst them unto me."
When the song was finished, "there was a little rustling
at the outer door of the jail, and a cry of surrender, and also a discharge
of three or four firearms followed instantly. The Doctor glanced an eye by
the curtains of the window, and saw about a hundred armed men around the
door . . . The mob encircled the building, and some of them rushed by the
guards up the flight of stairs, burst open the door, and began the work of
Hyrum was struck first, and he fell to the floor
exclaiming, "I am a dead man." Joseph ran to him, exclaiming, "Oh, dear
brother Hyrum." Then John Taylor was hit, and he fell to the floor seriously
wounded. Fortunately, however, the impact of one ball was broken by the
watch in his vest pocket. This saved his life.
With bullets bursting through the door, Joseph sprang to
the window. Three balls struck him almost simultaneously, two coming from
the door and one from the window. Dying, he fell from the open window,
exclaiming, "O Lord, my God!"
Dr. Richards escaped without injury. But the Church had
lost its Prophet, and his brother, the Patriarch. The dastardly deed was
completed in a matter of seconds. They had sealed their testimonies with
Sorrow and Hope
When news of the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith reached
Nauvoo a pall of gloom settled over the city. The next day the bodies of the
dead were taken to Nauvoo. Thousands lined the streets as the cortege
passed. The brothers were buried on the following day.
Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Carthage had fled from their
homes in fear that the Mormons would rise en-masse and wreak vengeance. But
there was no disposition to return evil for evil. The Saints were content to
leave the murderers in the hands of Him who had said, "Vengeance is mine. I
The mobocrats had thought that in killing Joseph Smith
they had killed Mormonism. But in so doing they had understood neither the
character of the people nor the organization of the Church. Joseph had
bestowed the keys of authority upon the apostles, with Brigham Young at
their head, and the people sustained them in this capacity, although there
was some confusion for a time.
Under the leadership of Brigham Young the progress of
Nauvoo continued. It became increasingly clear, however, that there would be
no peace for the Mormons in Illinois. The blood of the Smiths appeared only
to have made the mob bolder. The law had not punished the murderers; the
governor had apparently connived with them. Why should they not carry to
completion the work of extermination?
When the shock of the murders eased, depredations against
property again began. Fields of grain were burned, cattle were driven off,
then houses on the outskirts of the city were destroyed. In the light of
these circumstances Brigham Young and other leaders of the Church determined
to seek out a place where, as he said, "the devil can't come and dig us
Joseph Smith had uttered a remarkable prophecy in 1842, at
a time when the Mormons were enjoying peace in Nauvoo. He had said "that the
Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the
Rocky Mountains. Many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our
persecutors, or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and
some of you will live to go and assist in making settlements and build
cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky
There, in the vastness of the West, lay their hope for
peace. Constantly badgered by threats and mob force, they began preparations
in the fall of 1845 to leave their fair city and go forth into the
wilderness to find a place where they might worship God according to the
dictates of conscience.