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The Illinois Apology - The Rest of the Story

Contender Ministries

A 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, 2004.  Unfortunately, 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 vacuum.  Since the AP seems unwilling to present the whole story, we shall.

The Mormons 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, p.100).  Historian 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).

Ultimately, the 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 many.  Eventually, 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 located.  Nauvoo 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.  

Ultimately, 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 back.  The 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. 

Ultimately, 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 Jesus by saying 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:

"Elder 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.