- Historic Sites
The Death Of The Prophet
The Mormons grow in numbers, but persecution makes them wanderers. Then a burst of violence results in
December 1962 | Volume 14, Issue 1
On April 6, 1830, six poor but enthusiastic young men organized the Church of Christ, later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The ceremony, or organization, was held at the farm of Peter Whitmer in the town of Fayette, Seneca County, New York. The members immediately began the distribution through sale of the newly published Book of Mormon, which Joseph Smith, their leader, claimed to have Jound and translated.
The Mormons, as they came to be called, proclaimed themselves “a peculiar people” and made it quite evident that their church differed from other sects in the vicinity. They insisted that the Book of Mormon be looked upon as an addition to the Holy Scripture published in the Bible. This their neighbors regarded as blasphemous. As a result Joseph Smith and his followers were so persecuted that they migrated to Kirtland, Ohio. It was soon obvious (since almost immediately they sent out missionaries to foreign lands) that not only in America but in England and all Scandinavian countries many people were eager to accept their new doctrine. A steady stream of converts began to join them.
From Kirtland, where they built their first temple, circumstances later forced them to move again westward to the area near Independence, Missouri. In 1838-39 feeling against the approximately ten thousand Mormons was so strong that they were driven from Missouri into Illinois. Here they stopped at a Mississippi River town called Commerce. They changed its name to Nauvoo, and soon thereafter, due to constant growth of the Mormon population, it became the state’s largest city. This enabled Joseph Smith to form, for the protection of the Mormons from further persecution, the Nauvoo Legion, a unit of the Illinois militia, with guns supplied by the state and Joseph Smith as self-appointed lieutenant general.
A sound of talk rose from the east bank of the Mississippi River at Nauvoo on the morning of June 18, 1844. Standing “at ease,” the Legion of Nauvoo, fifteen hundred armed and uniformed men, faced the uncompleted wall of a building across the muddy road fromjoseph Smith’s large new Mansion House. Crowded close behind them, about ten thousand townspeople, men, women, and children, chatted eagerly. Suddenly, sharp commands stiffened the Legion to attention, and silence fell. Trumpets sounded. There was an uneasy shifting as all eyes were fixed on the door of the Mansion House. It opened and six white-uniformed guards marched briskly from it. Behind them strode their tall Lieutenant General, preceding six more of the guards. Scattered shouts came from the crowd—then long, loud cheering.
From spurs glittering on his shiny black boots to his hat’s high crown (gilt stars tossed there among black ostrich plumes), the General was resplendent. Below epaulets on the shoulders of his self-designed blue general’s jacket, rows of brass buttons marched to his figured belt, where hung the scabbard of his sword. None of the men about him, not even Porter Rockwell—he of the long curls and burly body—drew the crowd’s attention away from the General. A head taller than any of the men in the white circle of his guards, he was the dark champion. The crowd roared its applause as he marched about inspecting his Legion.
It was two o’clock that afternoon before tall young General Smith, Prophet of the Mormons, mayor of the largest city in Illinois, and candidate for the Presidency of the United States, climbed with agility to the top of the unfinished wall. Though his mind was troubled, he resolutely began the speech he already knew might be the last he would ever make to his people. From the towns of Warsaw and Carthage, from the nearby settlements of Ramus, Morley, and Fountain Green, had come riders to report that anti-Mormon mobs were forming. There was already talk of an invasion of Nauvoo that would pit militia companies of the surrounding country-side against the militia in the Legion. During that day and the week that followed, it would seem that only Joseph Smith fully realized the imminence of civil war. Only he was conscious of the deadly intent of his enemies; only he felt the inevitability of tragic consequences.
As the General faced his audience, he was aware that his calling out of the Legion had caused fear and bitterness among non-Mormons in Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois. He was still under indictment in Missouri, and he was sure from his recent experiences that the “Pukes” (scornful nickname for Missourians) would not give up trying to extradite, kidnap, or kill him. He knew his order for the destruction of the presses of the Nauvoo Expositor , a journal published by rebellious Mormon apostates, had already caused charges of violation of the freedom of the press. He also knew that the paper had justifiably accused him not only of the secret practice of polygamy (of which, according to his confidential report to his closest friends, God’s approval had for years been revealed to him) but of urging the Mormon leaders to practice it. His was a desperate situation, but he met it with his usual romantic courage. Always the dramatist, he stood on the unfinished wall and defied his foes with sounding rhetoric and melodramatic gesture.
His speech began simply with a claim of the right of all Mormons to live under the protection of those who threatened them and to receive “the privileges guaranteed by our state and national constitutions.”