delegation of Illinois officials apologized to leaders of
the Mormon Church on Wednesday for the 1844 murder of the
church’s founder and the expulsion of Mormons from
Illinois.” So begins an Associated Press article from April 7th,
this article only presents half the story.
With apologies to Paul Harvey, allow me to present
the rest of the story.
First, let me
state unequivocally that I deplore religious persecution, no
matter which religion or sect is targeted.
I do not condone the events that took place in
Carthage and Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844.
My only intent in writing this article is to lay the
groundwork for what happened.
The murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith and the
expulsion of the Mormons from Illinois did not occur in a
the AP seems unwilling to present the whole story, we shall.
didn’t arrive in Illinois on a whim.
They had been chased out of Missouri, and the
citizens of Illinois knew it.
Their stay in Missouri had been marred by back and
forth battles with the militia and the locals.
Both sides had the stain of blood on their hands.
The conflict in Missouri had been heightened by a "Fourth
of July Oration" given by First Counselor Sidney
Rigdon that threatened the state of Missouri with what he
called a "war of extermination."
Joseph Smith was so impressed with the speech, that
he made it into a pamphlet.
While many LDS
faithful argue that the Mormon offensives were strictly
retaliatory in nature, that ignores much of history.
LDS historian D. Michael Quinn wrote, “A
generally unacknowledged dimension of both the extermination
order and the Haun's Mill massacre, however, is that they
resulted from Mormon actions in the Battle of Crooked River.
Knowingly or not, Mormons had attacked state troops, and
this had a cascade effect…”(Origins of Power,
Stephen C. LeSueur stated, "Although Mormon military
action was generally initiated in response to reports of
violence, the Mormons tended to overreact and in some
instances retaliated against innocent citizens. Their
perception of themselves as the chosen people, their
absolute confidence in their leaders, and their
determination not to be driven out led Mormon soldiers to
commit numerous crimes. The Mormons had many friends among
the Missourians, but their military operations undercut
their support in the non-Mormon community" (The
1838 Mormon War in Missouri, p.4).
Mormons were driven from Missouri, and settled in Illinois.
Under the leadership of Joseph Smith, they raised up
the settlement of Nauvoo.
Engaging in the
same fierce land acquisition and block voting that
stigmatized them in Missouri, the Illinoisans began to feel
threatened by these new arrivals.
Nauvoo grew quickly, and Mormon missionaries in
Europe brought converts by the hundreds back to America to
settle in Nauvoo. Smith made many deals with politicians, and broke almost as
the Mormons were able to choose the elected officials in
their county and district by voting as a block.
The growing influence of the Mormons made the
non-Mormons nervous in Hancock County, where Nauvoo was
was a unique city, in that the Mayor (Joseph Smith), the
Town Council, the local magistrate (Joseph Smith), and the
local militia (under the command of Joseph Smith) were all
Mormons, and the separation of powers did not exist, other
than to insulate the powers of Nauvoo from the rest of
Hancock County and Illinois.
The Nauvoo Legion, Joseph Smith’s militia, was
peculiar in that it reported to Smith, but not to the rest
of the Illinois militia.
Smith’s past in Missouri began to catch up with him, in
the form of arrest warrants.
However, while Smith was arrested more than once, his
political ties gained him quick release.
To prevent further occurrences, the Nauvoo municipal
government passed an ordinance that no external warrant or
writ may be served on a resident of Nauvoo without the
consent of the mayor (Smith).
Around this time,
several apostate Mormons started a newspaper in Nauvoo, with
the intent to expose the internal misdeeds of the Mormon
hierarchy and Nauvoo government.
They called their paper The Expositor, but
were only able to publish one edition of their paper.
After that, Smith ordered the press destroyed, and
the apostates to be run out of Nauvoo.
This action was the straw that broke the camel’s
apostates went to nearby Carthage, the Hancock County seat,
to swear out a complaint against Smith.
The Illinois militia based in and around Carthage
assembled in anticipation that such a warrant could not be
served peaceably. Word
was sent to Nauvoo, and the Nauvoo legion was put on alert.
Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, along with other members
of the Nauvoo council and Mormon leadership surrendered to
the authorities in Carthage.
Illinois Governor Thomas Ford assigned the militia
company from Carthage to defend the jail against attack,
while he went to Nauvoo to explain to the Mormons the
severity of the charges against the Smiths, and to encourage
them to not seek retaliation, as there was a wide-spread
public sentiment against them that would inevitably lead to
war should they retaliate. It was during Ford’s absence from Carthage, that a mob
stormed the jail, killing Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and
wounding John Taylor. While
Governor Ford was blamed by the Mormons for complicity, his
account shows he was unaware that an assassination attempt
would be made, “Upon hearing of the assassination of
the Smiths, I was sensible that my command was at an end;
that my destruction was meditated, as well as that of the
Mormons; and that I could not reasonably confide longer in
one party or the other.
I am convinced that it was the expectation that the
Mormons would assassinate me, on the supposition that I
planned the murder of the Smiths.
Hence the conspirators committed their act while I
was at Nauvoo.” (Account of Gov. Ford, as quoted in Life
in Utah; Or, the Mysteries and Crimes of Mormonism, J.H.
Beadle, 1870, p 112).
Since the murder
of the Smiths, Mormons have clung to the words of Elder John
Taylor in Doctrine and Covenants 135:4, which draws a
parallel between the death of Joseph Smith and the death of
that Smith went “like a lamb to the slaughter.”
I must protest this comparison, as Jesus did not
fight back during His torture and crucifixion. Smith, on the other hand, fought back with a pistol that had
been smuggled to him at the jail.
The same Elder John Taylor, in volume seven of the Documentary
History of the Church, wrote:
Cyrus H. Wheelock came in to see us, and when he was about
leaving drew a small pistol, a six-shooter, from his pocket,
remarking at the same time, Would any of you like to have
this?' Brother Joseph immediately replied, `Yes, give it to
me,' whereupon he took the pistol, and put it in his
pantaloons pocket. The pistol was a six-shooting revolver,
of Allen's patent; it belonged to me, and was one that I
furnished to Brother Wheelock when he talked of going with
me to the east, previous to our coming to Carthage…I was
sitting at one of the front windows of the jail, when I saw
a number of men, with painted faces, coming around the
corner of the jail, and aiming towards the stairs. The other
brethren had seen the same, for, as I went to the door, I
found Brother Hyrum Smith and Dr. Richards already leaning
against it, They both pressed against the door with their
shoulders to prevent its being opened, as the lock and latch
were comparatively useless. While in this position, the mob,
who had come upstairs, and tried to open the door, probably
thought it was locked, and fired a ball through the keyhole;
at this Dr. Richards and Brother Hyrum leaped back from the
door, with their faces towards it; almost instantly another
ball passed through the panel of the door, and struck
Brother Hyrum on the left side of the nose, entering his
face and head. At the same instant, another ball from the
outside entered his back, passing through his body and
striking his watch. The ball came from the back, through the
jail window, opposite the door, and must, from its range,
have been fired from the Carthage Greys, who were placed
there ostensibly for our protection, as the balls from the
firearms, shot close by the jail, would have entered the
ceiling, we being in the second story, and there never was a
time after that when Hyrum could have received the latter
wound. Immediately, when the ball struck him, he fell flat
on his back, crying as he fell, `I am a dead man!' He never
moved afterwards. I shall never forget the deep feeling of
sympathy and regard manifested in the countenance of Brother
Joseph as he drew nigh to Hyrum, and, leaning over him,
exclaimed, `Oh! my poor, dear brother Hyrum!' He, however,
instantly arose, and with a firm, quick step, and a
determined expression of countenance, approached the door,
and pulling the six-shooter left by Brother Wheelock from
his pocket, opened the door slightly, and snapped the pistol
six successive times; only three of the barrels, however,
were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three
were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am
informed, died, I had in my hands a large, strong hickory
stick, brought there by Brother Markham, and left by him,
which I had seized as soon as I saw the mob approach; and
while Brother Joseph was firing the pistol, I stood close
behind him" (pp. 101-103).
The Mormons were
eventually driven from Illinois.
Brigham Young led them to the Salt Lake Valley, to
establish “Zion” in Utah.
Controversy followed them, as their violence against
non-Mormons (Mountain Meadows Massacre), their practice of
polygamy, their practice of excluding trade with
“gentiles”, and their threats of war with the federal
government did not win many friends.
Eventually, the chapter of violence closed, and Utah
became the final home of the LDS Church.
Was religious persecution faced
by the Mormons justified?
Not in my mind, it wasn’t.
Yet we must not assume that all the wars and battles
were acts of persecution against an innocent people.
Quite often, the Mormons were as much to blame as
their opponents. As
with most stories, this one has two sides, and it’s
important that both sides be told.