“I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield, and what can man do if God is my friend? I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes. Then I shall be offered freely.”—Joseph Smith, 22 January 18431
Critics have often measured the Prophet Joseph Smith’s work in Nauvoo by a set of expectations far different from the Prophet’s own sense of mission and purpose. Looking only at his role as storekeeper, land agent, military leader, and mayor, they have not understood why Joseph Smith did not exercise caution when reason suggested that his actions might result in personal disaster.
Such assessments ignore Joseph Smith’s religious and prophetic role and his personal sense of urgency, which had little to do with city development or politics. Assessing his accomplishments on the basis of civic involvement alone overlooks the aspects of his Nauvoo program most important to his mission.2
During his long Missouri imprisonment, Joseph Smith contemplated his life’s work. Though he had accomplished much, it had not been without difficulty. Timing, he decided, had been part of the problem. “Many things were introduced among the Saints,” he wrote, “before God had signified the time, … notwithstanding the principles and plans had been good.”3 He was also concerned that vital portions of his mission remained undone. “I never have had opportunity to give the [whole] plan that God has revealed to me,” he wrote from Liberty Jail in March 1839.4
Adding to the Prophet’s concern was the poor morale and destitute condition Church members struggled with following the expulsion from Missouri. Even prominent members wondered whether they should “gather” again and risk new confrontation. Rallied by Brigham Young, who understood that gathering to build a temple was essential, the Saints voted in March to try once more, a decision Joseph Smith ratified. “I cried Lord what will you have me to do,” he later wrote, “& the answer was built up a city & call my saints to this place!”5 (Except where noted, quotations retain original spelling. Spelling in the nineteenth century had not yet been standardized, and many writers often spelled phonetically.)
The Prophet emerged from jail with a clear understanding that his remaining mission was temple-centered and that he would have only a relatively short time to complete it. Yet in 1839 a temple was secondary. The immediate need was for survival, and for a place of refuge. Still, even as he was laying the foundation for Nauvoo in the summer of 1839, Joseph Smith was helping the Twelve prepare for their mission to Great Britain, a mission that would infuse the Church with new energy and resources and prepare the Twelve to assist the Prophet in completing his temple-related mission. That summer he taught them new principles, promising that “God hath not revealed any thing to Joseph, but what he will make known unto the Twelve.”6
Though necessarily concentrating first on building a city, the Prophet keenly felt a need for a temple. In July 1840, for example, he spoke of his commitment to build “as great a temple as Solomon did.” If “I might live to behold the temple completed,” he added, “I will say, ‘Oh, Lord, it is enough; let thy servant depart in peace.’”7
Joseph Smith’s reaction to his father’s blessing in September 1840 shows his sense of urgency. On his deathbed, Father Smith promised his son Joseph, “You shall even live to finish your work.” According to Lucy Mack Smith, her son “cried out, weeping, ‘Oh! my father, shall I.’ ‘Yes,’ said his father, ‘you shall live to lay out the plan of all the work which God has given you to do. This is my dying blessing upon your head in the name of Jesus … for it shall be fulfilled.’”8 While reassured by this promise, Joseph Smith could not shake the conviction that he must press ahead.
In January 1841, the Prophet received an important revelation. “Your prayers are acceptable before me,” the Lord said, “and in answer to them I say unto you,” proclaim the restored gospel to the world, establish Nauvoo as a cornerstone of Zion, gather the Saints, “and build a house to my name.” (D&C 124:2–3, 25–27.) A temple was essential, “for there is not a place found on earth that [the Most High] may come to restore again that which was lost … , even the fulness of the priesthood.” (D&C 124:28.)
The revelation further defined this power and explained that the ordinances, revelations, and teachings of the temple provided the foundation of Zion. Joseph Smith would be shown “all things pertaining to this house, and the priesthood thereof.” (D&C 124:34, 39–44.)
The ceremonial laying of the cornerstones for the Nauvoo Temple was the centerpiece of the April 1841 general conference.9 But substantial work did not begin immediately, partly because of limited resources and other projects already underway. Furthermore, the Twelve, who would become the temple’s strongest supporters, were still in England.
The Twelve returned from their mission experienced and prepared to serve at the very time the Prophet Joseph Smith badly needed them in managing Nauvoo and expanding Church responsibilities. In August 1841, Joseph Smith called an “extraordinary conference.” There he announced that the time had come for the Twelve “to stand in their place next to the First Presidency” and to assist, for the first time, in managing all the affairs of the Church.10 This soon included gathering and directing resources for the temple.
Part of the Prophet’s challenge was the reluctance of the members to accept new ideas. Clearly, the Prophet felt tension between his sense of urgency to complete his work and the inability of some members to receive it. “Many seal up the door of heaven,” he recorded in his diary in 1843, “by saying so far God may reveal and I will believe,” but no further.11 In a statement recorded by Wilford Woodruff not long before the Prophet’s death, Joseph Smith said, “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to peaces like glass as soon as anything Comes that is Contrary to their traditions.”12
In Nauvoo, Joseph Smith labored to prepare the Saints to receive all the Lord wished to restore. In some cases, he moved ahead privately among those he felt would embrace new teachings, preserve them, and eventually deliver them to the Church. In other cases, he introduced, “line upon line,” ideas that would prepare the minds of the Saints for the larger revelations to come.
Thus it was that through the winter and spring of 1842, the Prophet prepared the Saints for temple ordinances. In March, he published the book of Abraham, permitted the establishment of the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge (he did not request it), and helped to organize the Nauvoo Female Relief Society. His goal was to prepare the people to receive the fulness of the priesthood through the ordinances of the temple.
Joseph Smith often spoke to the Relief Society of his purpose and mission. On 28 April 1842, he told the sisters that it was “nonsense of the human heart” to aspire to office or find fault with the management of things: “If God has appointed him, and chosen him as an instrument to lead the Church, why not let him lead it through?” He intended to “organize the Church in proper order,” he said. That could not be done unless the sisters were properly organized under the order of the priesthood, something possible only in connection with the temple.13
On this same occasion, he also shared his premonitions. He would make use of every opportunity to teach the sisters, the minutes report, because “they would not long have him to instruct them. … [for] according to his prayers God had appointed him elsewhere.”
At this time Joseph Smith was preparing to officiate in the first endowments—the key to completing his mission. Though complications postponed full implementation of his plans for more than eighteen months, he apparently felt in April that his mission was essentially finished. Earlier that month, Wilford Woodruff recorded him saying that “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 accomplished those things I have not at present any lease of my life & am as liable to die as other men.”14
In 1842 Joseph Smith moved ahead with temple-related preparations despite the fact that the temple itself was far from ready. Pondering both the slow progress of construction and renewed forebodings of death, Joseph Smith made the momentous decision to complete his temple-related mission outside the temple. He therefore set apart an upper room in which he could deliver the ordinances and teachings of the gospel pertaining to the temple.
There was precedent for such a decision. When baptisms for the dead began the year before, the Lord had explained that the ordinance could be performed outside the temple under certain circumstances. (See D&C 124:28–35.) Though he would have preferred otherwise, Joseph Smith felt that the Lord ratified his decision to extend this model to include other ordinances.
Without a temple, only a few could, at first, receive the additional teachings and ordinances. Still, the Prophet could now proceed with the whole program even though not all the Saints were prepared to receive it. He made clear to those selected to receive the ordinances that they were a vanguard, not an elite. They would receive “what will be made known to all the Saints … so soon as they are prepared to receive, and a proper place [the temple] is prepared to communicate them.”15
Early in May 1842, therefore, Joseph Smith instructed nine close associates, including Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball of the Quorum of the Twelve, “in the principles and order of the Priesthood.” This was the first full temple endowment.16 As yet, though, only men had received the ordinances. Women, too, needed to receive them, and additional priesthood keys needed to be passed on.
Joseph Smith might have been able to finish his work in 1842 had not events beyond his control intervened. Difficulties with John C. Bennett erupted less than ten days after the first endowments. Bennett’s excommunication for moral failings prompted him to make a public “exposé” of supposed temple ritual, making it difficult for ordinances to continue. Joseph Smith was also appointed to replace John Bennett as mayor of Nauvoo, adding to his family and Church responsibilities. He also spent time in hiding to avoid capture by Missouri enemies; on one occasion, in fact, he was captured, then escaped.
In September 1843, Joseph Smith returned to the ordinance work begun over a year before. By January 1844, a number of men and women had received temple ordinances at the hands of the Prophet. These met together frequently to assist in the ordinance work for others and to receive instruction. Before the Prophet’s death, approximately seventy men and women had received the ordinances.17
The Prophet also urged work to continue on the temple. He continually reminded the Saints of its importance and of the promised blessings available to all within. The Lord reminded the Saints, “Let the work of my temple … be continued on and not cease; and let your diligence, and your perseverance, and patience, and your works be redoubled, and you shall in nowise lose your reward.” (D&C 127:4.)
In the last months of his life, the Prophet prepared Church leaders to carry on the work of the kingdom. He continued to meet privately with the Twelve and others who had received temple ordinances, teaching them more fully about temple-related powers, responsibilities, and doctrine. He particularly instructed the Twelve in their duties. He emphasized that they were to finish the temple and “investigate the locations of Callifornia & oregon & find a good location where [the Church] can move after the Temple is completed.”18 In March, the Prophet introduced his final institutional model, the Council of Fifty—a priesthood-directed organization within which members and nonmembers could work cooperatively in carrying out economic and political enterprises.19
The climax came in late March in a special council involving the Quorum of the Twelve and others. Though dozens of recorded reminiscences comment on the council, the Twelve prepared the most detailed account soon after the Prophet’s death.20 According to them, Joseph Smith, who was “depressed in Spirit,” opened his heart “concerning his presentiments of the future.”
The Prophet addressed his friends, “Brethren, the Lord bids me hasten the work in which we are engaged. … Some important Scene is near to take place. It may be that my enemies will kill me, and in case they should, and the Keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the Earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared.”
The Twelve could not all be killed at once, Joseph explained, “and should any of you be killed, you can lay your hands upon others and fill up your quorum. Thus can this power and these keys be perpetuated in the Earth.” He then rolled the burden of the kingdom onto their shoulders, saying, “for the Lord is going to let me rest a while.” That done, he declared, “I feel that I am free. I thank my God for this deliverance.”
Parley P. Pratt reported that as part of this “final charge” to the Twelve, Joseph Smith conferred “the keys of the sealing power” upon Brigham Young, President of the Quorum of the Twelve. This was the last key, the Prophet taught, the “most sacred of all,” and it pertained “exclusively to the first presidency.”21 He could now declare “that he had conferred upon [them] every key and every power that he ever held himself before God.”22 His life’s work was complete.
In April conference, the Prophet testified to the Saints that he was far from being a fallen prophet, as some charged, that he had never been “in any nearer relationship to God than at the present time.”23 A few weeks later, on the eve of his departure for Carthage, George Laub heard him speak publicly for the last time:
“The enemy is seeking my life and are laying planns to kill me,” Brother Laub recorded, “but if they kill me they kill an Inocent man. This I will call on God, angels & men to witness. … But I have laid the foundation of the work of what the Lord hass gave me to doo, therefore have noe longer leas of my life. I have accomplished my work that was given me & others can build on the same.”24
In August 1842, Joseph Smith had said, “I have the whole plan of the kingdom before me, and no other person has.”25 By the spring of 1844, that was no longer true. The Twelve and others now shared that plan, and they had received all the instructions and power necessary to carry it forward. “Though the enemy had the power to kill our Prophet,” Brigham Young said, “did he not accomplish all that was in his heart to accomplish in his day? He did, to my certain knowledge … he prepared the way.”26