Leadup to Martyrdom

Several of Smith’s closest colleagues had become frustrated with his clandestine practice of polygamy and his divergence from the main streams of Christian primitivism (along with objections to his business, political, and ecclesiastical practices). The subterfuge required to hide aberrant sexual and political practices tended to contribute to dissension and turmoil, as did occasional marriage proposals to followers’ wives (see Chapter 8). Followers alienated by his Nauvoo Mormonism rejected the attempt to unite secular and religious life in pursuit of Smith’s Zion. A group of disaffected Mormons—including some from the highest ranks of the ecclesial hierarchy—published an ill-fated newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. The Expositor, an inflammatory exposé, confirmed rumors of deviant marital and political systems and proclaimed Smith a fallen prophet. The exposé increased the fears of already antagonistic Illinois neighbors, who distrusted the powerful theocratic body that appeared to exploit and subvert American law in a quest for world domination. (Smith, the Mayor of Nauvoo, had just announced a bid for the US presidency, which did little to reassure his neighbors.)

Believing that the paper would be used to justify military action against Nauvoo, Smith, through his dominance over the city council, had the newspaper and its press destroyed, spawning cries of riot and tyranny from the dissenters. He attempted to flee, as he had so often, from what he termed “vexatious lawsuits,” but returned at the bidding of his people to face trial. Upon Smith’s arrest, Governor Thomas Ford somewhat naïvely reassured the Saints that the Prophet was safe in Carthage, a rival town whose opinion leaders were harshly anti-Mormon. On June 27, 1844, a mob comprised largely of local militia, their faces painted black, stormed the jail where he was being held. After futile self-defense with a smuggled pistol, Smith rose to a window, issued the first words of the Masonic cry of distress, and fell to his death, his body riddled with bullets.[1]Even at this late stage, Joseph had lived to lose another sibling: Hyrum was shot to death moments before his prophet-brother.

[1] On the Masonic distress call, see “THE MURDER,” T&S 5:13 (15 July 1844): 585 and Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 1:482. Smith’s use of the distress call is often seen as gamesmanship, but he might also have identified with the ancient widow’s son as he died to protect the sacred name of God. I am indebted to Kate Holbrook for this insight.

Banner image is of Mount Mkinwartsveri (Kazbek), with the Church of St. Mary foreground left, image © Samuel Brown 2000