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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
“We have turned the barren, bleak prairies and swamps of this state into beautiful towns, farms, and cities,” he said, and he shouted a few moments later, “I call God, angels, and all men to witness that we are innocent of the charges.…All mob-men, priests, thieves, and bogus makers [counterfeiters], apostates and adulterers, who combine to destroy this people, now raise the hue and cry throughout the state that we resist the law, in order to raise a pretext for calling together thousands more of infuriated mob-men to murder, destroy, plunder, and ravish the innocent.”
The volume and intensity of Joseph’s voice steadily increased in his next few sentences. After these he paused, and there was deep silence. Then came the deep-voiced utterance of his mighty question; “Will you all stand by me to the death, and sustain at the peril of your lives, the laws of our country, and the liberties and privileges which our fathers have transmitted unto us, sealed with their sacred blood?”
From the men of the Nauvoo Legion and the thousands behind them came a thundering “Aye!”
“It is well,” said the Prophet quietly. “If you had not done so, I would have gone out there [he pointed to the west] and raised up a mightier people.”
Then he resumed raising his audience to high excitement: “I call upon all men from Maine to the Rocky Mountains and from Mexico to British America whose hearts thrill with horror to behold the rights of free men trampled under foot.…Come, all ye lovers of liberty, break the oppressor’s rod, loose the iron grasp of mobocracy.” From the scabbard at his side, the General snatched a glittering blade and raised it above his head.
“I call God and angels to witness that I have unsheathed my sword with a firm and unalterable determination that this people shall have their legal rights…or my blood shall be spilt upon the ground like water, and my body consigned to the silent tomb…I would welcome death rather than submit to this oppression; and it would be sweet, oh sweet, to rest in the grave rather than to submit.”
For an hour more Joseph stirred the emotions of his people. And in the last minute of his appeal, he transformed himself from soldier in uniform to prophet of the Lord: “God has tried you. You are a good people; therefore I love you with all my heart. Greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends.…I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation.…
“May the Lord God of Israel bless you for ever and ever. I say it in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and in the authority of the Holy Priesthood he has conferred upon me.”
As the Prophet-General-Mayor left his makeshift platform, it was obvious to his prominent associates that he had made the crowning effort of his life. Before the Legion of Nauvoo, the largest military unit in the frontier states, he had defied the infuriated mobs still gathering in the river towns on both sides of the Mississippi. He had tried to make it clear that he regarded the publishers of the Expositor as criminals disturbing the peace, as inciters to violence, and therefore not entitled to federal guarantees of freedom of the press. But he had ignored the fact that he and the other Mormon leaders had for some time been practicing polygamy. Had he chosen to admit this, the bitterness of the anti-Mormons in the area would unquestionably have brought about an invasion of Nauvoo and civil war.
It is impossible to know how many of Joseph’s wives heard his ringing speech that Tuesday afternoon. It would be equally impossible to state definitely how many of the thirty or more women with whom he had gone through marriage ceremonies were “spiritual” wives—wedded to him “for eternity”—and hence not sharers of his bed. It is certain, however, that among his admiring hearers were several women whom he had married “for time” and with whom he had experienced connubial joys.
Perhaps the most interesting and certainly the most widely known of these was pretty, tiny, blond Lucinda Pendleton Morgan Harris, of whom Joseph had heard much in the days of his upstate-New York treasure-digging before he had married his first wife, Emma Hale. Lucinda’s first husband had been the William Morgan who had threatened to reveal secrets of the Masons and had been kidnapped and murdered by fanatic members ofthat fraternity. One of the first of the Prophet’s plural wives, Lucinda had, for the seven years since she was thirty, been married to a Mason—George Washington Harris. It was then, living at the Harris home in Far West, Missouri, that Joseph had converted her to acceptance of the plural-marriage principle. Among other spouses (aside from the omnipresent Emma) who may well have listened pridefully to their eloquent husband on that sunny June afternoon in 1844 were twenty-nine-year-old Louisa Beaman, generally thought to be his first plural wife (he had been married to her for three years), and Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, who later reported, “I was sealed to him in the Masonic Hall over the old brick store by Brigham Young in February, 1842.”
That same year he had wed Eliza Roxey Snow, poetess, sealed to him in June both for time and eternity; Sarah Anne Whitney, his bride of July; and Elvira Cowles, whom he soon after won for time and eternity. In the spring of 1843 he had added to his mates the Partridge sisters, Elisa, twenty-three, and Emily, nineteen; the Lawrence girls—Mary, twenty, and her sister Sarah, seventeen; Aimera Woodward Johnson, thirty-one; Lucy Walker, seventeen; and Olive Frost, twenty-seven. That fall he married nineteen-year-old Melissa Lott, who seems to have been, according to his biographers, the last wife bedded before his murder.