My beloved brethren and sisters, I am grateful for the opportunity to be here tonight at Carthage. There is a very large congregation here, and out across the continent are tens of thousands of others who meet in this commemorative service made possible through satellite transmission.
This is a day of quiet reverence and deep respect.
This is June 26. One hundred and fifty years ago, June 26 was a Wednesday. That morning Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois, who had come to Carthage, visited Joseph Smith in the jail. He and the Prophet talked for about an hour. Out on the streets of the town more than a thousand men belonging to various military units were lazily spending the day, venting their hatred for the Mormons as they talked together in groups. The target of that hatred was Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet.
That morning he told the governor of the danger surrounding him. The governor dismissed it. He said he was going to Nauvoo the next day and promised that if he did so, he would take Joseph with him.
He repeated that pledge when he left that morning.
In the afternoon, the constable arrived at the jail accompanied by men of the Carthage Grays. The prisoners were marched to the courthouse in public humiliation. There, after an hour of debate over legal matters, the court adjourned until noon the next day. Joseph and Hyrum were brought back to the jail. The weather was sultry and hot and miserable.
The next morning, Dan Jones, who had spent the night in the jail with Joseph and Hyrum, left to carry a message. He talked with Frank Worrel, one of the Carthage Grays. He reported that Worrel said: “We have had too much trouble to bring old Joe here to let him ever escape alive, and unless you want to die with him, you had better leave before sundown. … You’ll see that I can prophesy better than old Joe, for neither he nor his brother, nor anyone who will remain with them will see the sunset today.”
Dan Jones reported this to Governor Ford who responded that Jones was “unnecessarily alarmed.”
At 10:30 that morning, Governor Ford and his troops left for Nauvoo, leaving those in the jail behind at the mercy of the mob militia. As the afternoon of that sultry day wore on, the Prophet asked John Taylor to sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” He sang all seven verses, and Joseph asked him to sing them again. He replied, “I don’t feel like doing it.” But at Hyrum’s importuning he repeated the song.
The jailer suggested about 5:00 P.M. that the four of them in the jail—Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Willard Richards, and John Taylor—might be safer if they went into the cell at the back of the second floor. Joseph indicated that they would do so after supper.
A few moments later, a noise was heard outside, followed by a cry of surrender. Then came two or three gunshots.
Willard Richards looked out the window and saw a large group of men with painted faces. The mob ran up the steep stairs and began firing. The prisoners pushed the door shut and then tried to knock down the guns sticking through the door. John Taylor used Stephen Markham’s large hickory cane, and Willard Richards used John Taylor’s cane. A bullet fired through the door hit Hyrum on the left side of the nose. Another ball, coming through the window, hit him in the back almost simultaneously. Two other balls hit him as he fell. John Taylor was then hit. One of the balls struck his watch. It stopped at 5:16 P.M. We still have that watch.
One or two balls then hit Joseph. He jumped to the window, paused for a moment, cried out, “Oh Lord, my God,” then fell out the window, his body resting against the curb of the well.
It was all over. Joseph was dead. Hyrum was dead. John Taylor was wounded. Willard Richards miraculously escaped.
Thus ended the long odyssey that had taken Joseph Smith within a period of thirty-eight and a half years from his birth on 23 December 1805, in Sharon, Vermont; first to western New York; to northern Pennsylvania; to Kirtland, Ohio; to Missouri—first to Independence and eventually to Far West—and then to Liberty Jail; from there to Quincy, Illinois; to Nauvoo; and on to Carthage.
John Taylor wrote:
“Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. …
Such the prophetic statement of John Taylor in 1844.
Governor Ford, who had betrayed the Prophet, gave a different appraisal. In his History of Illinois, published after his death, he writes these words:
“Thus fell Joe Smith, the most successful imposter in modern times; a man who, though ignorant and coarse, had some great natural parts which fitted him for temporary success, but which were so obscured and counteracted by the inherent corruption and vices of his nature that he never could succeed in establishing a system of policy which looked to permanent success in the future” (A History of Illinois, Chicago: S. C. Griggs & Company, 1854, pp. 354–55).
I do not wish to speak disrespectfully of Governor Ford. Let the facts of the history of the subsequent events of his life, and of the lives of his family, tell of his troubled destiny. At the conclusion of his term of office in 1846, he retired to write his History. He subsequently moved to Peoria with the intent of practicing law. He was unable to earn a living. His life was “one of unrelieved poverty and defeat.” His wife, at the young age of thirty-eight, died of cancer on 12 October 1850. Three weeks later, on November 3, the governor died. Their five children were left orphans. Two of the daughters subsequently married; the third did not. She lies buried with her parents in the Springdale Cemetery in Peoria.
The two sons, who strangely enough had given up the name of Ford and taken the name of Smith, were each hanged, on different occasions, as horse thieves in Kansas.
Such the sad story of the man who violated his pledge to Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Such the sad story of his family after him.
I wish to contrast Governor Ford’s appraisal of Joseph Smith with one spoken as prophecy in 1823 when Joseph was seventeen years of age. As reported by Oliver Cowdery, these were the words addressed to Joseph by Moroni:
“Your name shall be known among the nations, for the work which the Lord will perform by your hands shall cause the righteous to rejoice and the wicked to rage; with the one it shall be had in honor, and with the other in reproach; yet, with these it shall be a terror because of the great and marvelous work which shall follow the coming forth of this fulness of the gospel” (Times and Seasons, 2:13).
The essence of that remarkable statement was confirmed again in March 1839. At that time the Saints had fled Missouri under the threats of an extermination order issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. They had not a piece of land in all the world which they could till unmolested. They had not a house or a barn, not a schoolroom or a chapel they could call their own. Their only possessions were those they had taken with them in their flight across the bottomlands of the Mississippi and into Illinois. Behind them in the town of Liberty their Prophet remained a prisoner, bereft, maltreated, cold, and miserable through the long months of that winter. In that time of desolation, Joseph cried out:
“O God, where art thou? …
“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people … ?” (D&C 121:1–2.)
And then came these remarkable words of prophecy—among the greatest, I think, to be found anywhere in scripture. Said the Lord:
“The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;
“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.
“And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors” (D&C 122:1–3).
The appraisal of Governor Ford, who once walked this same ground on which we are met today, has been repudiated. On the other hand, the prophecy of Moroni and the revealed word of the Lord have been and are being fulfilled, and they will yet be further fulfilled in a greater measure as the years and generations come and go. Joseph Smith died here at Carthage Jail on 27 June 1844, an even 150 years ago. But his work has grown in magnitude, strength, and power, and will continue to do so. He sealed his testimony of the divinity of this work with his life’s blood.
One who loved him has written:
“When a man gives his life for the cause he has advocated, he meets the highest test of his honesty and sincerity that his own or any future generation can in fairness ask. When he dies for the testimony he has borne, all malicious tongues should ever after be silent, and all voices hushed in reverence before a sacrifice so complete” (Ezra Dalby Manuscript, 12 December 1926).
That was a day of tragedy, that sultry hot, deadly afternoon of June 27.
As the bodies were placed in wagons and covered with tree branches to shield them from the heat, the solemn procession back to Nauvoo was one of grief and desolation among the people.
But under the inspired plan of the Lord, revealed through Joseph Smith as Prophet and revelator, the Council of the Twelve Apostles was in place, with Brigham Young as its head, to pick up the pieces and move forward.
Under the direction of Brigham Young, the temple was completed. But there was no peace. The same vicious spirit which had killed the Prophet and the Patriarch, rose to destroy those who followed them.
In February 1846 they began their departure from Nauvoo. They traveled across Iowa in what appeared to be an endless procession. They established Winter Quarters on the Missouri, and the following year pioneered the trail to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. Tens of thousands moved over that trail, and thousands died along the way.
Those sad days are gone. But the glorious work, begun by him who was killed at Carthage, has grown in a miraculous and wonderful way. Today, there are nearly nine million members of the Church which carries the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Last year, there were more than four million copies of the Book of Mormon printed and distributed. Members of the Church are found in more than 140 nations worldwide. Latter-day Saints worship in more than twenty-one thousand congregations. Before long, there will be two thousand stakes of Zion.
This marvelous work, which has sprung from the prophetic calling of the boy of Palmyra, has “come forth out of the wilderness of darkness,” and is shining “forth fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners,” as the Prophet prayed it would (D&C 109:73).
John Taylor wrote:
Joseph, the Seer! … I love to dwell on his memory dear;
The chosen of God and the friend of man,
He brought the priesthood back again;
He gazed on the past and the future, too,
And opened … the heavenly world to view.
(Hymns, 1948, no. 296)
We pause in reverence here this evening. We reflect on the miracle of the life begun in the green hills of Vermont and ended here in the jail of Carthage. That life was not long. But the fruits of that life have been something almost beyond comprehension.
This great cause of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been more precious than life itself to thousands upon thousands who have died in its service. Witnesses have gone into the world by the hundreds of thousands to bear testimony of Joseph Smith’s calling as a Prophet of God. The holy priesthood restored through him has fallen as a mantle upon uncounted numbers of men of integrity and virtue who have been clothed with this divine power. The Book of Mormon is going across the earth as another testament of the Lord Jesus Christ.
To quote a truism uttered long ago and in different circumstances, “the blood of the martyrs has become the seed of the Church.” The testimonies which were sealed here in these very precincts, on this ground where we meet tonight, that hot and sultry day 150 years ago, now nurture the faith of people around the world.
God bless the memory of Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith who died here. With gratitude and love we sing all across this church the words of Joseph’s friend, W. W. Phelps:
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood.
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
(Hymns, 1985, no. 27)
His life and ministry became the fulfillment of the promise given by the Lord 6 April 1830, that “thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ” (D&C 21:1).
I bear solemn testimony of the divinity of his call, of the magnitude of his accomplishments, of the virtue of his life, and of the security of his place among the great and honored of the Almighty in all generations of time, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.