Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

The Murder of Joseph Smith

A sketch of Nauvoo
A sketch of Nauvoo

Faced with the reality that the time was not yet ripe to establish their Zion, the Mormons eventually left Missouri, settling in Illinois, where they prospered for several years. Having learned that they could not depend on protection from civil authorities, the Mormons negotiated a municipal charter with the Illinois legislature that granted them almost complete autonomy. Joseph Smith was chosen as mayor of the city, which the Mormons named Nauvoo, and the charter allowed the Saints to raise their own militia for their defense.  The church required that all men between the ages of 15 and 50 serve in the Nauvoo Legion, of which Smith headed as Lieutenant General.

Smith at head of Nauvoo Legion
Smith at head of Nauvoo Legion

In one of his first speeches to the citizens of Nauvoo, Smith ordered his people to stand down from hostility, but to patiently await a return to Zion. I wish you all to know that because you were justified in taking property from your enemies while engaged in war in Missouri, which was needed to support you, there is now a different condition of things existing, he said. We are no longer at war, and you must stop stealing. When the right time comes we will go in force and take the whole state of Missouri. It belongs to us as an inheritance; but I want no more petty stealing.

By the early 1840s, the Mormons had built a flourishing city at Nauvoo, but the problems that plagued the sect in New York, Ohio, and Missouri, surfaced again. The bloc voting and the communistic lifestyle was offensive to non-Mormons, and growth pains within the Church had prompted some members to recant their beliefs and to challenge Joseph Smiths status as prophet. Ultimately, these separate problems would unite and change the course of Mormonism forever.

The counties surrounding Hancock, in which was Nauvoo, were fearful of the prosperity of the saints, and of their political influence; there were angry words and bickering between the opposing societies, and then blows, wrote Hubert Bancroft in his History of Utah (1889). The old Missouri feud was kept alive by suits instituted against Smith and others. An attempt made to assassinate Governor Boggs was, of course, charged to the Mormons, and probably with truth. In fact, if we may believe their enemies, they did not deny it. Boggs had unlawfully ordered all the Mormons in Missouri killed if they did not leave the state: why had not they the same right, they argued, to break the law and kill him?

Despite the Mormons theocratic stance and devotion to the rule of economic communitarianism, the sect was and still is unusually tolerant of other faiths. Freedom to believe (or not) according to ones conscience is a cornerstone of the Latter Day Saints. This acceptance, however, did not apply to apostates and heretics in the Mormon faith. As Nauvoo grew along with the number of Gentiles and apostate Mormons, vocal opposition to Smith increased. Some of the opposition came from those who generally opposed the new religion, others challenged Smiths leadership and wanted to take control themselves, and still other critics vehemently objected to some of the Churchs more controversial views, like the practice of polygamy (at the time, conducted in the utmost secrecy), or the belief that the Almighty had once been human. As the challengers grew bolder, an anti-Smith newspaper opened in Nauvoo and was so openly hostile and threatening to Smith who, by this time, had openly discussed running for President of the United States -- that he ordered it shut down. His thugs, however, destroyed it instead, prompting the state to issue a warrant for Smiths arrest.

Smith and his brother Hyrum, along with several other leaders of the Mormons, were promised protection from the angry Gentile mobs by the governor of Illinois and eventually surrendered to authorities. While locked in the Carthage city jail, the men were set upon by vigilantes who stormed the jail and found that the state militia, which had been guarding the Mormons, was nowhere to be found. As he stood in front of a small window in his cell, Joseph Smith was shot and killed. To make sure the prophet was really dead, the mob dragged his body outside, where several more volleys were fired into it. Hyrum Smith was also murdered that night.

Assassination of Joseph Smith
Assassination of Joseph Smith

Smiths death did not have the intended effect. Rather than cause the fall of the Church, it galvanized the faithful and provided an opportunity for an even more powerful prophet, Brigham Young, to take control.

Brigham Young
Brigham Young
Brigham Young set the tone and direction for the Mormons. Their Prophet had been martyred. Publicly, Young pledged to make the Gentiles pay for their sins. I swear by the eternal Heavens that I have unsheathed my sword, and I will never return it until the blood of the Prophet Joseph is avenged, he told his confidants.

Young, named The Lion of the Lord by Joseph Smith, quickly solidified his control of the Mormons, purged the leadership ranks of his rivals and negotiated a temporary armistice with the Mormons foes.  It was clear to the Saints that that they could not peacefully coexist with the Gentiles and that their claim to Zion would have to wait until God felt it was time to vanquish the unbelievers. To put some distance between his people and their enemies, Young opted to move West.

In 1847, the Saints began to emigrate to Utah. For those who made the arduous trek across the Plains and the Rockies, moving to Salt Lake City, the capital of the land the Mormons called Deseret would be as far as they were willing to go. They would build a nation of God in the wilderness, and there they would make their final stand against their foes. Forced from every community where they tried to build homes, witnesses to the murders of their leaders and children, and ignored by the governments to whom they pleaded for protection, the Mormons turned their backs on America.

They teach the rising generation to look upon every Gentile or outsider as their enemy, and never to suffer one of their number to be sentenced by a Gentile court, wrote John Lee about the way of life in Utah after the exodus. They have even gone so far as to teach them not to allow a Gentile Judge to hang a Mormon dog. That they have no right to come into this Territory, and to sit in judgment upon the Saints. That the Saints are to judge the world instead of the officers of the world judging them.

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