Chapter 8: The Martyrs

"Chapter 8: The Martyrs," Truth Restored, (2001)

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 Orrin Porter 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 Rockwell to a representative of the state of Missouri.

A warrant was issued, and the men were arrested; but they 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 easily.

Enemies from Within

In 1840 a Dr. John C. Bennett had allied himself with the Church’s cause. He was a man gifted in many ways, educated and capable, but apparently lacking in principle. Because of his abilities he was given a number of important responsibilities, but when he became involved in moral offenses he 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, again, this came to nothing.

There was another group in Nauvoo, however, whose efforts were 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 retaliate against the Prophet.

Added to these difficulties was the political situation. Members of the Church 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 Prophet Joseph 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 slaves, thus freeing them 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 paper called the Nauvoo Expositor. It caused a great stir because it openly maligned prominent citizens of the community.

The people were incensed. Since the Illinois legislature, in the charter given Nauvoo, granted the city the authority “to declare what shall be a nuisance, and to prevent and remove the same,” 1 the city council met for some fourteen hours, 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 marshal to “destroy the printing press from whence issues the Nauvoo Expositor, and pi[le] the type of said printing establishment in the street, and burn all the Expositors and libelous handbills found in said establishment.” 2 The marshal carried out the order and so reported.

Its publishers immediately used this as a pretext for accusing Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum of violating the freedom of the press. They were arrested, tried, and acquitted. But ever since, the action has been denounced by scores of writers. A careful analysis of the law then in effect, however, has led a distinguished legal authority to conclude: “Aside from damages for unnecessary destruction of the press, for which the Nauvoo authorities were unquestionably liable, the remaining actions of the council, including its interpretation of the constitutional guarantee of a free press, can be supported by reference to the law of their day.” 3

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 also guarantee the safety of all such persons as may thus be brought to this place from Nauvoo either for trial or as witnesses for the accused.” 4

To this, Joseph Smith, sensing the real importance 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.” 5

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 I and Hyrum were ever taken again we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.” 6

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.” 7 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.” 8

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.” 9

When they arrived in Carthage they were arrested on a charge of treason and committed to jail on a false mittimus. When the illegality of this action was protested to Governor Ford, he replied that he did not think it his duty to interfere, as they were in the hands of the law. He thereupon turned the matter over to the local magistrate, who happened to be one of the leaders of the mob, and suggested that he use the Carthage Greys to enforce the incarceration. 10

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 incarcer-ated 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.” 11 The letters were sent with visitors who left at one-thirty in the afternoon.

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 pow’r to ask his name,
Whereto 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 pris’n 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 my 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.”

Not long after 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 … window, and saw about a hundred armed men around the door. … The mob encircled the building, and some of them rushed by the guard up the flight of stairs, burst open the door, and began the work of death.”

Hyrum was struck first. 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 deed was completed in a matter of seconds. 12

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 has said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.”

The mobocrats had thought that in killing Joseph Smith they had killed the Church. 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 Saints 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 began again. Fields of grain were burned, cattle were driven off, then houses on the outskirts of the city were destroyed. Under these circumstances, Brigham Young and other leaders of the Church determined to seek out a place where the Saints could live in peace, unmolested by mobs and prejudiced politicians.

Joseph Smith had uttered a remarkable prophecy in 1842 at a time when the Church was enjoying peace in Nauvoo. He had said “that the Saints would continue to suffer much afflic-tion 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 Mountains.” 13

There, in the vastness of the West, lay their hope for peace. Constantly badgered by threats and mob force, the Church 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 finally be able to worship God according to the dictates of their consciences.

Show References


    1. Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,Utah Law Review 9 (1965): 874–75.


    2. HC 6:448.


    3.  Utah Law Review 9 (1965): 903.


    4. HC 6:537.


    5. HC 6:540.


    6. HC 6:546.


    7. HC 6:549–50.


    8. HC 6:554.


    9.  D&C 135:4.


    10. See HC 6:570.


    11. HC 6:605.


    12. See HC 6:612–21.


    13. HC 5:85.