Joseph Smith
Church History
& Beliefs

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The Prophet Joseph Smith A holy war, it had raged for years. Joseph Smith and his religious faithful had sought to establish their Zion in one community after another. Not even the wilderness would have them. At the end, there was no battleground but there were prisoners— celebrated ones, at that.

In the late afternoon on June 27, 1844, a mob craving its own frontier form of justice crept across an Illinois pasture and surrounded the jail at Carthage. The militia that had been mustered to keep the peace mounted no resistance. A small pack of the attackers stormed up the stairs and swiftly fired shots into the second-floor cell that housed the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum, and his friends John Taylor and Willard Richards. The melee ended as quickly as it had begun.

A dispatch from Willard Richards to the anxious citizens in nearby Nauvoo reported the grim news: "Joseph and Hyrum are dead. Taylor wounded, not very badly. I am well. Our guard was forced, as we believe, by a band of . . . 100 to 200. The job was done in an instant."

For fourteen years Joseph Smith Jr. had led a religion born on America soil. Though he had built his church on the western frontiers—New York, Ohio, Missouri, and finally Illinois—this American prophet was a phenomenon that attracted national attention. His was more than a religious movement. It was, as described in 1842 by the editor of the New York Herald, "a spiritual system, combined also with morals and industry, that may change the destiny of the race."


Deed Done at Carthage Joseph explained his sense of mission in 1844: "I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world." That change embraced what he considered was a calling from God to restore the true church, translate records from ancient plates and publish them as new scripture called the Book of Mormon, organize a lay priesthood, build holy temples, and establish "the kingdom of God on earth." Thousands from the New England states, Canada, the East Coast, and the British Isles flocked to the message of Jesus Christ, a restoration of His gospel, and the coming Millennium. Such an orientation challenged religious pluralism and demonstrated people's dissatisfaction with an increasingly sectarian society.

The Mormons took refuge in building a sacred Zion. Their efforts sparked controversy time and again until the fateful days of late June 1844, when the Prophet Joseph was charged with treason and ordered by Illinois Governor Thomas Ford to turn himself in at Carthage, the Hancock County seat. That community, twenty-five miles southeast of the Mormons' city of Nauvoo, had been agitated for days. Bands of vigilante townsmen and farmers from surrounding areas had been pressing for the arrest of their archenemy, Joseph Smith. When he arrived, the Carthage Greys—the local militia—unruly and decidedly anti-Mormon, were commissioned to keep the peace.

In the days that followed, Joseph was paraded before the troops, brought before a judge, and then locked in Carthage Jail. Eight of his friends elected to stay with him. On June 27, a guard at the jail boasted to one of Joseph's companions of the imminent end of the prized prisoner: "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 . . . and you'll see that I can prophesy better than Old Joe."

John Tal

or's Watch That afternoon a mob of men stormed the jail. In a flash they were up the stairs and firing through the door into the room where the prisoners were held. Hyrum Smith fell first, struck in the face. Joseph got off three rounds at the assailants; his gun misfired the other three barrels. A bevy of shots poured into the room from another party of aggressors positioned on the ground outside. John Taylor received several bullets, including one from outside that hit the watch in his vest pocket, stopping it at 5:16 P.M. Willard Richards was grazed but essentially unharmed. Joseph was struck from behind as he ran for the window. He fell to the ground outside, having been hit four times, twice in the back. The fatal incident lasted less than three minutes.

Joseph's younger brother Samuel, fearing for the safety of his older siblings, had saddled his horse and headed for Carthage that afternoon. He arrived to find his brothers dead and the town deserted. Fearing a reprisal from the Mormons, Joseph's foes had fled to the country, as had many of the townspeople. From house to house the cry spread, "The Mormons are coming." County officials packed up the county records and moved them to Quincy for safekeeping. Governor Ford, returning from having delivered a strong rebuke to the Mormons in Nauvoo, made a hasty exit too. The roads heading south and southeast—the opposite direction from the Mormon stronghold—were crowded with both those who had joined in the assault and those who had waited and watched.

Willard Richards's missive to the Mormons had warned, "The citizens here are afraid of the Mormons attacking them. I promise them no!"

The response from the Nauvoo faithful was stunned silence. While they doubled the watch and fortified their guard stations, Joseph's followers wrestled with a grief they had never known. Lucy Meserve Bean Smith reflected on the mood that horrific night: "On the evening of the 27th of June such a barking and howling of dogs and bellowing of cattle all over the city of Nauvoo I never heard before nor since. . . . I knelt down and tried to pray for the Prophet, but I was struck speechless, and knew not the cause till next morning. Of course the awful deed was already accomplished, when the spirit refused to give me utterance to the prayer the evening before."

The Smiths' cortege left Carthage early the next morning, Friday, June 28. Each wagon carried a grim cargo in a lidless pine box; prairie brush and branches masked the corpses from the summer sun. Richards, flanked by a handful of militia, escorted the wagons home. The procession reached Nauvoo about 3:00 p.m.

A line of mourners had begun to form about two o'clock that afternoon. Men, women, and children, still in shock from the news, waited quietly in the streets for the return of their leader. William Hyde observed, "My soul sickened and I wept before the Lord and for a time it seemed that the very Heavens were clad in mourning."

Carthage Cell Said Maria Wealthy Wilcox, "It can be well imagined, the sorrow and darkness that seemed to pervade the whole place." James Madison Fisher described the melancholy, "Everything seamed to turn as black as ink." Aroet Hale, who later played the snare drums at the funeral, said of the sight, "To See Stout men and women Standing around in group[s] Crying & morning for the Loss of their Dear Prophet and Patriarch was Enough to break the hart of a Stone." "The love the saints had for him was inexpressible," said Mary Alice Cannon Lambert. "Oh, the mourning in the land!" she lamented. "The grief felt was beyond expression—men, women and children, we were all stunned by the blow."

An estimated ten thousand farmers, laborers, housewives, children, businessmen, newcomers to Nauvoo, leaders of the church, members of the City Council, and officers and volunteers from the Nauvoo Legion thronged the streets. Many of the new converts from Britain, Ireland, and Wales raised a melancholy moan, a keening that could be heard beyond the borders of what was later called the "City of Joseph."

He had been their townsman, political leader, general, friend, and, in their eyes, an instrument in God's hand to restore the gospel of Jesus Christ and His true church. Jane James, a young black woman who had been employed at the Smith home, described her feelings of loss: "Yes, indeed. I [knew] the Prophet Joseph. That lovely hand! He used to put it out to me. Never passed me without shaking hands with me wherever he was. Oh, he was the finest man I ever saw on earth. . . . When he was killed . . . I could have died, just laid down and died."

Poetess Eliza R. Snow expressed in verse the anguish of all the followers:

Had nature's self a heart, her heart would bleed
At the recital of so foul a deed
For never, since the Son of God was slain
Has blood so noble flow'd from human vein

The grim procession advanced down Main to Water Street and on to the Mansion House where Joseph and his family had lived since August 1843. The people were told to return at eight o'clock in the morning to pay final respects.

Three men prepared the bodies for private grieving and public viewing. They treated the wounds with camphor-soaked cotton and dressed the bodies in "fine plain drawers and shirt, white neckerchiefs, white cotton stockings and white shrouds." The family was then admitted to see the martyred men.

The dead prophet's oldest son, Joseph III, age eleven, later described their sorrow: "My mother and we children were in the living room in the Mansion—mother overwhelmed with her grief, and we children sympathizing as children will without fairly comprehending the importance of such an event. . . . After leaning over the coffin, [mother] placed her hand upon the cheek of my father, and in grief-stricken accents said, "Oh, Joseph! Joseph! Oh, my husband! My husband! Have they taken you from me at last!"

"Yea I witnessed their tears, and groans," wrote Vilate Kimball to her husband, Heber. "Every brother and sister that witnessed the scene felt deeply to sympathize with them."

The bodies were placed in coffins lined with white cambric. The rough slats were covered with black velvet fastened with brass nails, and a glass lid was set over each face. For nine hours the next day, people filed through the dining room of the home where Joseph had hosted church officers, visitors to Nauvoo, and his family and friends. Close to ten thousand mourners paid their respects that day.

The Carthage Jail The coffins were buried in a public ceremony conducted by church leaders. The boxes that were interred, however, were filled with bags of sand and rocks. Joseph and Hyrum's remains were entombed in the middle of the night in the cellar of the Nauvoo House, a hotel then under construction across the street from Joseph's home. Such a deception was prompted by fears that the graves would be robbed because there was a price on Joseph's head.

News of the death of Joseph Smith raced through the country. His close associates, including most of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, were away on missions and other assignments. Parley P. Pratt, serving in New York, was on a canal boat with his brother William when he felt a powerful, sinister presence. He later learned "it was the same hour that the Carthage mob were shedding the blood of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and John Taylor, near one thousand miles distant."

Heber C. Kimball, who was in Baltimore pursuing an effort to place Joseph Smith's name in nomination for president of the United States, recorded: "The papers ware full of News of the death of our Prophet. I was not willen to believe it, fore it was to much to bare. The first news I got of his death was on Tuesday morning . . . it struc me at the heart."

"It has been a time of mourning," said Brigham Young, president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and now senior officer of the church, who rushed home from the East when he heard of the slaying. "The day that Joseph and Hyrum were brought in from Carthage to Nauvoo it was Judged by menny boath in and out of the church that there was more then five barels of tears shed. I cannot bare to think enny thing about it."

Not everyone was saddened by Joseph's death, however. Those who opposed him believed that the Mormons had been held captive by the Prophet's diabolical powers, and if he were gone, the Mormon effort would collapse. The New York Herald, for example, predicted: "The death of the modern mahomet will seal the fate of Mormonism. They cannot get another Joe Smith. The holy city must tumble into ruins, and the 'latter-day saints' have indeed come to the latter day."

Rival clergymen were quick to commend the mob action. An exultant Alexander Campbell, whose congregations had been "raided" by Mormon missionaries and who had been vilifying Joseph since his New York days, boldly announced in his Millennial Harbinger that the murder was an act of God:

"The money digger, the juggler, and the founder of the Golden Bible delusion, has been hurried away in the midst of his madness to his final account. 'He died not as a righteous man dieth.' The hand of the Lord was heavy upon him. An outlaw himself, God cut him off by outlaws. . . . It was the outrages of the Mormons that brought upon the head of their leader the arm of justice. . . . Religion or religious opinions had nothing to do with it. It was neither more nor less than the assassination of one whose career was in open rebellion against God and man."

Three Cheers... Reverend William G. Brownlow of the Jonesborough Whig scorned the lamentations being printed by some papers: "Some of the public Journals of the country, we are sorry to see, regret the death of that blasphemous wretch Joe Smith, the Mormon Prophet. Our deliberate judgement is, that he ought to have been dead ten years ago, and that those who at length have deprived him of his life, have done the cause of God, and of the country, good service." Reverend Brownlow did not hide his enthusiasm when he concluded, "Smith was killed, as he should have been. THREE CHEERS to the brave company who shot him to pieces!"

Other accounts were more tempered. The Iowa Bloomington Herald said, "Assassins may plunge the dagger to the heart of the innocent and unsuspecting savages may torture, kill and slay, but their crimes are virtues in comparison with the heart of the reputed civilized man who in cold blood murders the victim who has voluntarily placed himself in the hands of his enemy, to be tried and dealt with according to law."

The Missouri Republican, speaking from the state that had brutally expelled the Mormons only a few years before, now sounded a more penitent tone, referring to the killing of the Smiths as "perfidious, blackhearted, cowardly murder—so wanton as to be without any justification—so inhuman and treacherous as to find no parallel in savage life under any circumstances."

A few newspapers boldly spoke with admiration for this American prophet. The New York Sun suggested, "It is no small thing, in the blaze of this nineteenth century, to give to men a new revelation, found a new religion, establish new forms of worship, to build a city, with new laws, institutions, and orders of architecture, to establish ecclesiastic, civil and military jurisdiction, found colleges, send out missionaries, and make proselytes in two hemispheres: yet all this has been done by Joe Smith, and that against every sort of opposition, ridicule and persecution."

About two weeks after the Carthage incident, the New York Weekly Herald reported, "Thus died the plowboy Prophet of America at the hands of an assassin, the object of intense, local persecution within Hancock County, where feeling ran high in the communities of Carthage and Warsaw against Nauvoo, its balance of power and the Prophet. Yet, out beyond the vineyards of Hancock County, beyond that beautiful bend in the Mississippi, he was a respected and an admired Prophet and statesman."

From around the country came messages of support for those with friends and family in Nauvoo. "What earthly power has ever yet stood before the overpowering energies of a religious creed?" queried a highly respected gentleman from Fair Haven, Connecticut, of his friend in Nauvoo. "Indeed, we do not know which has the worst effect on the community, the doctrines of Smith or the ten thousand false rumors constantly put in circulation against him. One thing is certain, his name will survive when those who grossly misrepresent him have become blanks on the page of the future."

Governor Ford later noted in his History of Illinois, "Upon the principle that 'the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church', there was now really more cause than ever to predict its success. The murder of the Smiths, instead of putting an end to the delusion of the Mormons and dispersing them, as many believed it would, only bound them together closer than ever, gave them new confidence in their faith and an increased fanaticism."

Weeks before his death, the Prophet Joseph was visited by Josiah Quincy, soon to become mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. Years later, in his book Figures of the Past, Quincy judged Joseph Smith to be a force of surprising significance:

"It is by no means improbable that some future textbook, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious commonplace to their descendants."

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