Joseph Smith Jr.—in His Own Words, Part 3


A look at the personal writings of the Prophet and at the places—as they look today—where he was when he wrote.

1. En Route from Ohio to Missouri

Among the most trying times of Joseph Smith’s life was his experience in Ohio in 1837 when bitterness and apostasy greatly threatened the Church. The situation reached such proportions that the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon were forced to leave Kirtland by night on 12 January 1838 in order to preserve their lives. After meeting their families farther west, they continued on to join loyal Saints in Missouri in March of that year. Later in his life, the Prophet related an incident that occurred during this trip as they arrived at Paris, Illinois.

Paris, Illinois

On the way to Missouri with their families, Sidney Ridgon and Joseph Smith sought lodging in Paris, Illinois. Refused at first, they finally convinced an innkeeper to let them stay. In the morning, they received “many apologies from the inhabitants for their abusive treatment.”

Illinois: Paris, Edgar County

“[1838 Jan or Feb]. When I was going up to Missouri in co. with Elder Rigdon & our families we arrived at Paris, Illinois on an extreme cold day. to go forward was 14 miles to a house, & backward nearly as far we applied to all the taverns for admission in vain. we were mormons & could not be received such was the cold that in one hour we must have perished. We plead for our women & children in vain we councelled together & the brethren agreed to stand by me. & we concluded we might as well die fighting as freeze to death. I went into a tavern & plead our cause to get admission. The Landlord said he could not keep us for love or money. I told him we must & would stay let the consecuence be what it might, for we must stay or perish. the landlord said they had heard the mormons were very bad people & the inhabitants of Paris had combined not to have any thing to do with them but we might stay. I told him we would stay but no thanks to him I have men enough to take the town & if we must freeze we will freeze by the burning of there houses—The taverns were then opened & we were accommodated. & received many apologies in the morning from the inhabitants for their abusive treatment.” (Joseph Smith diary, 12.29.18, LDS Church Archives, handwriting of Willard Richards.)

2. Missouri Imprisonment

The conflict that arose between the Saints and their neighbors in Missouri in the 1830s, rooted in religious, economic, political, and social differences, reached its climax in 1838 with the issuance of the notorious extermination order by Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. As October ended, a large force of state militia confronted the Latter-day Saint community at Far West in what appeared to be the showdown. On October 31, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders entered the militia camp under a flag of truce, hoping to defuse the tense situation. But the Prophet and those with him were seized and confined. This confinement was the beginning of five months imprisonment for Joseph Smith. Early in November the prisoners were taken to Independence; later that month, during a hearing of his case, Joseph was chained with others in a cold room in Richmond, Ray County. Then, beginning on December 1, he and others were incarcerated in the jail at Liberty, Clay County. During his imprisonment the Prophet wrote several letters to his friends and family. All but one of the following extracts are addressed to his wife, Emma:

Missouri: Independence, Jackson County

1838 November 4. “My dear and beloved companion, of my bosam, in tribulation, and affliction, I woud inform you that I am well, and that we are all of us good spirits as regards our own fate. … we have a good house provided for us and the kindst treatment, I have great anxiety about you, and my lovely children, my heart morns and bleeds for the brotheren, and sisters, and for the slain of the people of God. … if we are permited to stay any time here, we have obtained a promice that we may have our families brought to us, what God may do for us I do not know but I hope for the best always in all circumstances although I go unto death, I will trust in God, what outrages may be committed by the mob I know not, but expect there will be but little or no restraint Oh may God have mercy on us. … I cannot learn much for certainty in the situation that I am in, and can only pray for deliverance, untill it is meeted out, and take every thing as it comes, with patience and fortitude, I hope you will be faithful and true to every trust, I cant write much in my situa[t]ion, conduct all matters as your circumstances and necesities require, may God give you wisdom and prudance and sobriety which I have every reason to believe you will, those little childrens are subjects of my meditation continually, tell them that Father is yet alive, God grant that he may see them again Oh Emma for God sake do not forsake me nor the truth but remember me, if I do not meet you again in this life may God grant that we may we meet in heaven, I cannot express my feelings, my heart is full, Farewell Oh my kind and affectionate Emma I am yours forever your Hu[s]band and true friend” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 11.4.18, RLDS Archives.)

Missouri: Richmond, Ray County

1838 November 12. “we are prisoners in chains, and under strong guards, for Christ sake and for no other cause, although there has been things that were unbeknown to us, and altogether beyond our controal, that might seem, to the mob to be a pretext, for them to persacute us, but on examination, I think that the authorities, will discover our inocence, and set us free, but if this blessing cannot be obtained, I have this consolation that I am an innocent man, let what will befall me, I recieved your letter which I read over and over again, it was a sweet morsal to me. Oh God grant that I may have the privaliege of seeing once more my lovely Family, in the injoyment, of the sweets of liberty, and sotial life, to press them to my bosam and kiss their lovely cheeks would fill my heart with unspeakable grattitude, tell the chilldren that I am alive and trust I shall come and see them before long, comfort their hearts all you can, and try to be comforted yourself, all you can, the[re] is no possible dainger but what we shall be set at Liberty if Justice can be done and that you know as well as myself. … Brother Robison is chained next to me he has a true heart and a firm mind, Brother Whight, is next, Br. Ridgon, next, Hyram next, Parley next, Amasa, next, and thus we are bound together in chains as well as the cords of everlasting love, we are in good spirits and rejoice that we are counted worthy to be persecuted for christ sake, tell little Joseph, he must be a good boy, Father loves him with a perfect love, he is the Eldest must not hurt those that are smaller then him, but cumfort them tell little Frederick, Father, loves him, with all his heart, he is a lovely boy. Julia is a lovely little girl, I love hir also She is a promising child, tell her Father wants her to remember him and be a good girl, tell all the rest that I think of them and pray for them all. … Oh my affectionate Emma, I want you to remember that I am a true and faithful friend, to you and the chilldren, forever, my heart is intwined around you[r]s forever and ever, oh may God bless you all amen I am your husband and am in bands and tribulation.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 11.12.18, RLDS Church Archives.)

Missouri: Liberty Jail, Liberty, Clay County

1839 March 20. “O God where art thou and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place how long shall thy hand be stayed and thine eye yea thy pure eye behold from the etearnal heavens the rongs of thy people and of thy servants and thine ear be penetrated with their c[r]yes yea o Lord how long shall they suffer these rongs and unlawfull oppressions before thine hart shall be softened towards them and thy bowels be moved with compassion towords them. O Lord God almity maker of heaven earth and seas and of all things that in them is and who controleth and subjecteth the devil and the dark and benig[h]ted dominion of shayole. Streach forth thy hand let thine eye pierce let thy pavilion be taken up let thy hiding place no longer be covered let thine ear be inclined let thine hart be softened and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us let thine anger be kindle[d] against our enemis and in the fury of thine hart with thy sword avenge us of our rongs remember thy suffering saint[s] oh our God and thy servants will rejoyce in thy name for ever.” (Joseph Smith and others to the Church at Quincy, 3.20.18, handwriting of Alexander McRae, LDS Church Archives.)

1839 March 21. “My Dear Emma I very well know your toils and simpathise with you if God will spare my life once more to have the privelege of takeing care of you I will ease your care and indeavour to cumfort your heart I wa[n]t you to take the best care of the family you can which I believe you will do all you can I was sorry to learn that Frederick was sick but I trust he is well again and that you are all well. … God ruleth all things after the council of his own will my trust is in him the salvation of my soul is of the most importants to me for as much as I know for a certainty of Eternal things if the heveans linger it is nothing to me I must stear my bark safe which I intend to do I want you to do the same. … I feel like Joseph in Egyept doth my friends yet live if they live do they remember me have they regard for me if so let me know it in time of trouble.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 3.21.1839. LDS Church Archives.)

1839 April 4. “Thursday night I set down just as the sun is going down, as we peak throw the greats of this lonesome prision, to write to you, that I may make known to you my situation. It is I believe it is now about five months and six days since I have been under the grimace, of a guard night and day, and within the walls grates and screeking iron dors, of a lonesome dark durty prison. With immotions known only to God, do I write this letter, the contemplations, of the mind under these circumstances, defies the pen, or tounge, or Angels, to discribe, or paint, to the human being, who never experiance[d] what we experience. This night we expect; is the last night we shall try our weary Joints and bones on our dirty straw couches in these walls, let our case hereafter be as it may. … We shall be moved from this [place] at any rate and we are glad of it let what will become of us we cannot get into a worse hole then this is, we shall not stay here but one night besides this if that thank God, we swall never cast a lingering wish after liberty in clay county Mo. we have enough of it to last forever.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 4.4.18, Yale University.)

3. Trip to Washington, D.C.

After efforts to obtain redress for their lost land and property in Missouri had failed on the local level, the Latter-day Saints turned to the nation’s highest authority. At a Church conference in Nauvoo in October 1839, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Elias Higbee were selected to present their cause before the federal government. They left Nauvoo on October 29, but were detained because of Sidney Rigdon’s health. Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee arrived in Washington, D.C., on November 28, and took lodging at a place on the corner of Missouri and Third Street. While at the nation’s capitol, Joseph visited President Martin Van Buren and other government officials, but to no avail. The Prophet finally concluded that nothing would come from remaining in Washington, and he returned to Nauvoo, arriving in March 1840.

During his stay in the East, Joseph wrote at least two letters to Emma. From these come the following extracts, one written at Springfield, Illinois, and the other at Brandywine, Chester County, Pennsylvania:

Springfield, Illinois

In November 1839 Joseph left for Washington D.C. in a fruitless bid to get help for the Saints. From Springfield, Illinois, Joseph wrote his family that “it will be a long and lonesome time dureing my absence from you and nothing but a sense of humanity could have urged me to so great a sacrafice.”

Illinois: Springfield, Sangamon County

1839 November 9. “I shall be filled with constant anxiety about you and the children until I hear from you and in a perticular maner litle Frederick it was so painful to leave him sick I hope you will wa[t]ch over those tender ofsprings in a maner that is becoming a mother and a saint and try to cu[l]tivate their minds and learn them to read and be sober do not let them be exposed to the wether to take cold and try to git all the rest you can it will be a long and lonesome time dureing my absence from you and nothing but a sense of humanity could have urged me to so great a sacrafice.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 11.9.1839. RLDS Church Archives.)

Pennsylvania: Chester County

1840 January 20. “I am now makeing all hast[e] to arange my business to start for home I feel very ancious to see you all once more in this world the time seems long that I am deprived of your sosiety but the lord being my helper I will not be much longer I am determined to st[art] for home in a few days our business I expect is before the house of Congress now and I shall start for Washington in a few day[s] and from there home as soon as posible I am filled with constant anxiety and shall be until I git home I pray God to spare you all untill I git home my dear Emma my heart is intwined arround you and those little ones I want you to remember me tell all the chi[l]dren that I love them and will come home as soon as I can.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 1.20.18, Chicago Historical Society.)

4. Settlement at Nauvoo

After returning to Nauvoo from Washington, D.C., Joseph Smith spent the remainder of his life in the area of western Illinois. During these four years, he was occupied with a variety of church, community, and family responsibilities. He was elected to the Nauvoo city council, and later became mayor of the town; he was appointed lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion; he became editor of the Times and Seasons, and published the book of Abraham and another edition of the Book of Mormon. He also directed the building of the Nauvoo Temple, opened a variety store, participated in community events, was saddened by the death of his father and a brother, and was harrassed by legal charges. The variety of his experience is reflected in three extracts written during this time:

Illinois: Nauvoo, Hancock County

1840 December 12. “I am at work in my office am under the necesity to have some help from time to time to help me along in my calling I therefore desire you to let the bearer of this hav some of that dry wood to burn in the stove of my office and obliege your humble servent.” (Joseph to Newel Whitney, 12.12.18, LDS Church Archives.)

1842 January 5. “I am happy that it is my privilige to say to you that the large New Building which I had commenced when you were here, is now completed, and the doors are opened this day for the sale of goods for the first time. The foundations of the building is somewhat spacios … for a country store. … we have been enabled to s[e]cure goods in the building Sufficient to fill all the shelves & soon as they were completed & have some in reserve, both in loft & cellar. Our assortment is tolerably good—very good considering the different purchases made by differe[n]t individuals, at different times, and under circumstances which controuled their choice to some extent, but, I rejoice that we have been enabled to do as well as we have, for the hearts of many of the poor brethren & sisters will be made glad, with those comforts which are now within their reach. The store has been filled to overflowing all day, & I have stood behind the counter all day myself dealing out goods as steady as any clerk you ever saw to oblige those who were compelled to go without their usual Christmas & New years dinners for the want of a little sugar, molasses, Raisons &c. &c.—& to please myself also for I love to wait upon the Saints, and be a servant to all hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.” (Joseph to Edward Hunter, 1.5.18, handwriting of Willard Richards, LDS Church Archives.)

1842 August 23. “I have thought of my father who is dead. … He was a great and a good man. The envy of knaves and fools was heaped upon him, and this was his lot and portion all the days of his life. He was of noble stature, and possessed a high, and holy, and exalted, and a virtuous mind. His soul soared above all those mean and groveling principles that are so subsequent to the human heart. I now say, that he never did a mean act that might be said was ungenerous, in his life, to my knowledge. I loved my father and his memory; and the memory of his noble deeds, rest with ponderous weight upon my mind; and many of his kind parental words to me, are written on the tablet of my heart. Sacred to me, are the thoughts which I cherish of the history of his life, that have rolled through my mind and have been implanted there, by my own observation since I was born. Sacred to me is his dust, and the spot where he is laid. Sacred to me is the tomb I have made to encircle o’er his head. Let the memory of my father eternally live. … Words and language, is inadequate to express the gratitude that I owe to God for having given me so honorable a parentage. My mother also is one of the noblest, and the best of all women. May God grant to prolong her days, and mine; that we may live to enjoy each other’s society long yet in the enjoyment of liberty, and to breathe the free air.” (Reflections, 8.23.18, handwriting of William Clayton, LDS Church Archives.)

5. Death at Carthage

The destruction of a slanderous Nauvoo newspaper, the Expositor, by order of the city council and mayor on 10 June 1844 initiated events that culminated in the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. As mayor of Nauvoo, the Prophet was the target of intense animosity in the public clamor and outrage that followed. Arrested on a charge of riot, the city authorities were reluctant to leave Nauvoo for fear of their safety. On June 21, in the midst of the excitement, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford arrived at Carthage, the Hancock County seat, to investigate the matter. He assured the Mormon leaders orderly and fair treatment.

Four days later, Joseph, along with members of the Nauvoo city council, arrived at Carthage to face the charge against them. While confined in the Carthage Jail awaiting developments on their case, Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob that rushed the jail in the evening of 27 June 1844. Earlier that day the Prophet had written a few lines to his wife, Emma:

The Carthage Jail

The Carthage Jail serves today as a visitors’ center for the Church. John Taylor, who was with the Prophet at Carthage, later wrote of him: “He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people.” (D&C 135:3.)

Illinois: Carthage Jail, Carthage, Hancock County

1844 June 27, 8:20 A.M. “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 my Friends … and all who inquire after me and as for treason I know that I have not commited any and they cannot prove one apearance of any kind So you need not have any fears that any harme can happen to us on that score may God bless you all Amen” (Joseph to Emma Smith, June 27, 1844, RLDS Archives.)

Author’s original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling: The Rules and the Writers,” Ensign, Aug. 1975, pp. 74–80—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten, Michael M. McConkie, and Jed A. Clark

[illustration] Mounting opposition to the Church increasingly brought difficulties for the Prophet toward the end of his life. This painting shows Joseph and Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards in Carthage Jail moments before Joseph and Hyrum were killed by a mob in June 1844. (“An Act of Defense,” by Gary Smith.)

[photo] In November 1838 the Prophet and other Church leaders were imprisoned at Independence, Missouri. Many of Joseph’s letters to Emma during this period express his concern for her and the children. “Tell them that Father is yet alive, God grant that he may see them again.”

[photo] From Independence, Joseph and the other prisoners were taken to Richmond, Missouri, where they were “bound together in chains as well as the cords of everlasting love.” Today, Richmond is the site of David Whitmer’s grave.

[illustration] Carthage Jail, 27 June 1844. In this painting, Hyrum has been killed and John Taylor wounded as Willard Richards strikes at the rifle barrels. Joseph attempts to draw the mob’s fire by fleeing to the window. He will be shot there and fall to the ground below. (“Panic in the Room,” by Gary Smith.)

[illustration] In symbolic form this painting shows Joseph, clothed with power and authority, dying outside Carthage Jail. Earlier that day he had written to Emma: “I am very much resigned to my lot knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done.” (“Forces of Evil,” by Gary Smith.)

[photo] The Prophet’s incarceration at Liberty, Missouri, proved a great trial of spirit for him. It was in Liberty Jail (housed today in the building above) that he wrote the words that open Doctrine and Covenants 121: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” [D&C 121]

[illustration] After the martyrdom, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were removed and secretly buried to prevent mutilation by the mob. The mourners in this painting weren’t present at the time; the figures symbolize the feelings of the Saints upon hearing that Joseph and Hyrum were dead. (“The Martyred,” by Gary Smith.)

[photo] Joseph’s last home was Nauvoo, Illinois. During his four years there, he was involved in many church, community, and family concerns. “I love to wait upon the Saints,” he wrote in 1842, “and be a servant to all hoping that I may be exalted in the due time of the Lord.”

Dean C. Jessee is a research historian for the Smith Institute at Brigham Young University. He is the father of eight children and currently serves as a counselor in the high priest group of his Salt Lake City ward.