Nauvoo and the Martyrdom

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Nauvoo the Beautiful, the City of Joseph

Original Nauvoo Temple
original Nauvoo Temple

After being expelled from Missouri by the Extermination Order, members of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (often called the Mormon Church) found refuge in the city of Quincy, Illinois, in January of 1839. The kind people there helped the Latter-day Saints until they could find another location in which to establish themselves. Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church while Joseph Smith remained in prison on false charges of treason. Finally, on April 16, a friendly guard, realizing that Joseph and the others were being confined illegally, allowed them to escape.

On April 25, Joseph and the other leaders selected a town named Commerce in Hancock County, Illinois, to be their new city. It was a beautiful, though swampy location overlooking a large bend in the Mississippi river. They bought the land and began settling there. The Twelve Apostles soon left again to preach the Gospel. Joseph Smith remained behind to help build up the new city. Joseph changed the name to Nauvoo, which comes from the Hebrew word meaning beautiful.

The Latter-day Saints were still anxious either to return to their lands in Missouri or get just compensation. Joseph directed them to write down everything that had happened and to try to account for all that they had lost. In October 1839, Joseph Smith took these affidavits to Washington, DC, where he spoke with members of the U.S. Congress and met with President Martin Van Buren. They told them that since Missouri was a sovereign state, only Missouri could redress their wrongs. Though Joseph told them that Governor Boggs refused, President Van Buren still said he could not help the Latter-day Saints.

Joseph returned to Nauvoo. He and the other leaders determined that they would not let themselves be driven and harassed by illegal mobs again. They petitioned for and obtained a charter for their own city, which gave them the legal right to defend themselves against attacks both from the law and from mobs. The charter for Nauvoo created a city militia, which was very common at the time, and also established a university. It also stated that no resident of Nauvoo could be arrested without a writ of habeas corpus before a city judge. This meant that no person living in Nauvoo could be dragged off by mobs or sheriffs without getting a fair chance to hear the charges against them.

Nauvoo prospered, and soon immigrants began arriving from England and Canada. In 1840, the Church was ten years old and had grown from a mere 6 members in April 1830, to over 16,000 by the end of 1840. There were now enough members of the Church of Jesus Christ in England that the Church began publishing its own newspaper in that country, The Millennial Star.

In the fall of that year, the Saints began building the Nauvoo Temple, and Joseph Smith announced a revelation teaching baptism for the dead. This meant that all those who had ever lived without having had a chance to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, could still accept it through a vicarious ordinance.

By 1841, the number of Latter-day Saints had grown, so that they spilled over into Hancock County and across the Mississippi into Iowa. Persecution followed them, and the Missouri state government tried multiple times to extradite Joseph Smith and the other leaders back to Missouri. Someone had attempted to assassinate Governor Boggs, and though there was no evidence, Boggs was convinced that Joseph Smith was behind it. Fortunately, the Missourians could never extradite anyone, because they had no evidence, and the Nauvoo charter required some proof before the person could be extradited.

Also in 1841, the Twelve Apostles continued their missions in Europe. Elder Orson Hyde, one of the Apostles, traveled throughout Europe and even visited Palestine, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In November of 1841, Joseph Smith dedicated part of the new Nauvoo Temple so it could be used for baptisms for the dead.

The early part of 1842 was relatively peaceful. In the spring, a newspaper man in Chicago named John Wentworth requested from Joseph Smith a brief summary of the history of the Church and what it believed. Joseph complied. The letter, known as the Wentworth letter, is an important document from Latter-day Saint history; it also contains the Articles of Faith. On March 17, 1842, Joseph Smith organized the women’s Relief Society. Emma Smith, Joseph’s wife, became the first president. The Relief Society organized the women. They thereafter appointed teachers, taught one another the gospel, and organized relief and service programs. One of their early missions was to provide relief for the poor in Nauvoo and assist in building the Nauvoo Temple; hence the organization was called the Relief Society. Today the Relief Society is among the largest and oldest women’s organizations in the world.

The remainder of 1842 and most of 1843 were not so peaceful. While construction of the new town and especially the temple continued, Joseph and other leaders were often forced into hiding. In May, John C. Bennett, who had become a close associate and friend of Joseph Smith, was excommunicated from the Church because of adultery. He tried to claim that Joseph had given him permission to do this, but ultimately he confessed. After he left the Church, he became very bitter and began writing attacks on Joseph Smith and the Church. This forced Joseph to spend much of the fall in hiding. From his hiding places, Joseph continued writing letters to the Church.

In 1843, Joseph continued to alternate periods of hiding from his persecutors and publicly teaching the Gospel, often in groves of trees for groups too large to be accommodated in any local building. Joseph taught about the importance of gathering all members of the Church together and building temples. In July, he recorded a revelation about polygamy, or plural marriage as the Saints usually called it. Joseph had been troubled by Old Testament accounts about prophets like Abraham who had multiple wives. He asked the Lord about this. The Lord responded that sometimes he commands men to take more than one wife, but that they can only do this when God commands them and they must be very careful. Joseph was still troubled by this, but he began teaching it to some of his most loyal associates. After much prayer, most of them accepted it as a revelation from God.

Some, however, were not pleased. Since John C. Bennett, who had been mayor of Nauvoo, left after being excommunicated, Joseph Smith became mayor. Some felt that he had too much power. Joseph replied that he was not autocratic, but that he taught the people principles and left them to govern themselves. In early 1844, Joseph Smith appointed seven men to oversee the Seventy. This corresponds to the seven men the Apostles in Jesus’ time appointed (see Acts 7:3).

Early 1844 was a trying time. Some people dissented from the Church because they either opposed polygamy or felt that Joseph Smith had fallen from being a prophet. Those antagonistic toward the Church and former members like Bennett continued to stir up trouble by publishing scandalous and libelous reports about the Saints and Joseph Smith, whom they mockingly called Joe Smith or Peepstone Joe. Joseph decided that to respond to these critics, he needed a national forum. He therefore decided to run for President of the United States. It is unlikely he expected to win, but he and the Church used this as a platform to express their views. Joseph Smith promised that if elected, he would use the government to protect minorities. He also planned to end slavery by establishing a fund to buy slaves from slave owners, and then free them. The slave owners could use the money to transform their estates so that they would no longer need slaves.

The Martyrdom

On June 7, 1844, William Law, a disaffected Latter-day Saint, published the first and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor. It was a scandalous paper that called for Joseph Smith to be hung. It described in lurid prose all the evil things they suspected Joseph and other leaders of doing. On June 10, Joseph Smith as mayor and the city council met to decide what to do. They determined that based on their interpretation of their charter, they had the power to remove the press, since it posed an imminent threat by calling for violence. The press and most copies of the paper were destroyed. A riot ensued and the next day Joseph Smith was sought by the county sheriff on charges of inciting riot. Fearful that a mob would attack him when in jail or that the trial would be unfair, Joseph hid for a few days. He sought a change of venue, but was denied. Governor Thomas Ford came from Springfield to oversee the affair. He promised Joseph Smith protection and a fair trial if he turned himself in. On June 22, Joseph surrendered himself to the governor. Joseph was taken to Carthage, Illinois, the county seat of Hancock County. Many of his friends refused to leave him, but Joseph ordered them to leave, trusting in the governor’s promise of protection. The governor left Carthage on June 26, and left the Carthage militia, called the Carthage Greys, in charge.

On June 27, 1844, Joseph arose early. He ordered his remaining friends to leave. All but three did. These three, Joseph's brother Hyrum Smith, John Taylor, and Willard Richards remained with Joseph all day. They wrote letters and John Taylor, a gifted musician, sang hymns. Around 5:00 p.m. that evening a mob of men with faces painted black surrounded the jail. Whether complicit or not, the jailor fired a warning shot then departed. The mob, comprised of the Carthage Greys who were supposed to have protected Joseph until a fair trial could be held, stormed the jail. Joseph and the others had been transferred from the cell to a more comfortable bedroom on the second floor. As the mob rushed the jail, Joseph and Hyrum tried to hold the door. Joseph picked up a gun a friend had left for him. Joseph had said he did not want to use it, but promised that he would defend his friends. He fired three shots, wounding, but not killing three men. The gun then jammed. As Hyrum tried to hold the door, he was shot in the face and fell to the floor. His last words were: "I am a dead man!" Joseph dropped to the floor and cradled his dead brother for a moment. While the other men, Willard Richards and John Taylor, (the latter would eventually be shot four times, but would survive) held the door, Joseph walked to the window. No one knows why; most likely he wanted to draw fire from his remaining friends. At the window he was shot. He collapsed and exclaimed, "Oh Lord, my God," as he fell out the window and landed near a well. He was shot three more times as he lay on the ground either dead or dying. Before the mob could mutilate his body more, someone shouted that the Nauvoo militia was coming and the mob dispersed. Joseph Smith was dead. His friend, John Taylor, who was wounded with him, wrote an account of Joseph's martyrdom which was later included in the Doctrine and Covenants as section 135.

Nauvoo after the Martyrdom

Enemies of the Church, like Thomas Sharp, a newspaper editor in nearby Warsaw who had called for Joseph’s death, believed that the Church would dwindle without Joseph. They believed that the restored gospel of Jesus Christ—often called Mormonism—was just a personality cult built up around Joseph, but they were wrong. In the year after Joseph’s death, nearly 4,000 people joined themselves to the Church. They did not come to join a cult, but to follow the will of God through a living prophet.

Still, many Latter-day Saints were at a loss. Some had believed that God would not let Joseph die, but Joseph Smith’s work was done. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other leaders rushed back to Nauvoo from their missionary work. In August, a conference was held to determine who would lead the Church. Sidney Rigdon, whom Joseph had repeatedly criticized for his violent speeches and pride, attempted to set himself up as Guardian of the Church. However, Brigham Young, speaking for the Quorum of the Twelve, addressed the assembly on August 8, 1844. He said that the power of the priesthood and right, or keys, to perform all the ordinances were still with the Church, because Joseph Smith had given them to the Twelve Apostles. Therefore, just as the Apostles led the Church in Peter and Paul’s time, they should lead it today. As he spoke, many said that Brigham Young was transfigured before them and it seemed as though Joseph Smith himself were talking. A vote was taken and nearly everyone, including Sidney, voted to accept the leadership of the Apostles.

Joseph’s murder gave the Saints a short respite, as their enemies waited for the members of the Church to disintegrate. However, they did not. In fact, the Church continued to grow and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles continued sending missionaries all over the globe. They also worked to finish the temple. Once their enemies realized the Saints were not going to leave, they began to attack them once again. In January of 1845, the Nauvoo charter was rescinded. To add insult to injury, in May, the leaders of the mob who murdered Joseph and Hyrum were acquitted in a sham trial where no Latter-day Saint was allowed to testify or even attend. By that fall, Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles made two decisions: finish the temple, and prepare to move to the Rocky Mountains, where years before Joseph had prophesied they would eventually live.[1][2] In September, the citizens of Hancock County demanded that the Saints leave. By December, the Nauvoo Temple was complete enough to permit the Saints to begin receiving their temple endowments and to begin entering into celestial, or eternal marriage.

In February 1846, the first company of Mormon pioneers left Nauvoo, walking across the frozen Mississippi into Iowa. On February 8, the temple was officially dedicated, though the public dedication was not until May 1. The Latter-day Saints left in waves and founded temporary settlements along the Platte River in Iowa: Garden Grove, Mount Pisgah, Kanesville (now Council Bluffs), and finally Winter Quarters, Nebraska. The road was slow and soggy. On September 10, the last Mormons were attacked by mobs in the Battle of Nauvoo. By September 16, 1846, the last Mormons were driven from the city. Their beautiful temple was burned by an arsonist. Nauvoo, a city that in 1844 had rivaled even Chicago for size and beauty, was all but destroyed. In 1850, a tornado hit Nauvoo and finished what the arsonists had begun.

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See also Martyrdom of Joseph Smith

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New York Period | Ohio Period | Missouri Period | Nauvoo and the Martyrdom | The Utah War | Post-Civil War Persecution | Stability and Growth | International Growth | Contemporary Developments