Selected Teachings on Church History
Four Factors Leading to the Martyrdom

1. Introduction of Plural Marriage

July 12, 1843. Joseph records the revelation now contained in D&C 132. (see Background to D&C 132)

Relevant Quotes:

  • Joseph said of the principle of plural marriage, "I shall die for it." (Recollection of Brigham Young, unpublished discourse of October 8, 1866).
  • Joseph Smith: "They accuse me of polygamy, and of being a false prophet…. But I am no false prophet; I am no imposter. I have had no dark revelations, I have had no revelations from the devil. I have made no revelations; I have not got anything up myself. The same God that has thus far dictated and directed me, and inspired me and strengthened me in this work, gave me this revelation and commandment on celestial and plural marriage, and the same God commanded me to obey it.
    "He [God] said to me that unless I accept it and introduce it and practice it, I together with my people should be damned and cut off from this time henceforth. And they [William Law, etc.] say if I do so and so they will kill me. What shall I do! What shall I do! If I do not practice it I shall be damned with all my people. If I do teach it and practice it and urge it, they say they will kill me, and I know they will. But we have got to observe it, that it [is] an eternal principle, and that it was given to [me] by way of commandment and not by way of instruction." (Dennison L. Harris, "Verbal Statement of Bishop Dennison L. Harris to President Joseph F. Smith in the Presence of Elder Franklin Spener, at the house of Bishop Dorius of Ephraim, San Pete County, Utah, on Sunday Afternoon, May 15, 1881, and reported by George F. Gibbs," LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. Spelling and punctuation have been modernized; inRemembering Joseph, p. 381; see full account)
  • See also Joseph's Struggles with Plural Marriage
  • Brigham Young: "Joseph said to me in Kirtland, 'Brother Brigham, if I was to reveal to this people what the Lord has revealed to me, there is not a man or a woman would stay with me.'" (Journal of Discourses, 9:294)
  • George Q. Cannon: "I recollect upon one occasion, previous to the death of the Prophet Joseph, hearing him make a remark from the stand which made a deep impression upon my mind at the time. He said that if he were to reveal unto the people the principles and the doctrines which God had revealed unto him, there were men upon the stand that would go around the streets of the city seeking to shed his blood…. Although I did not fully comprehend his remark, I believed it; for I believed every thing he said. Yet not many months elapsed before I comprehended his words; for, soon afterwards one of the men who sat on the stand and heard that declaration, and whose name he mentioned, went about the city plotting to shed his blood." (Journal of Discourses, 10:343)
  • William Law's Threat: "William Law, with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, was pleading with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren, Mr. Law predicting that if Joseph would abandon the doctrine, 'Mormonism' would, in fifty or one hundred years, dominate the Christian world. Mr. Law pleaded for this with tears streaming from his eyes. The Prophet was also in tears, but he informed the gentleman that he could not withdraw the doctrine, for God had commanded him to teach it, and condemnation would come upon him if he was not obedient to the commandment." (Related by Joseph W. McMurrin who heard it from William's son Richard, who said this took place about 1842 and who was present at the time)

2. Apostasy of Key Individuals

William Law

  • Former 2nd Counselor to Joseph Smith. Apostatized due to introduction of plural marriage (see "William Law's Threat" above).
  • 18 April 1844. “I put pistols in my pockets one night & went to Joseph Smith’s house, determined to blow his infernal brains out, but I could not get the opportunity to shoot him but I am determined I will shoot him the first opportunity, & you will see blood & thunder & devastation in this place” (HC, 7:227).
  • On another occasion in April 1844 he tried to shoot Joseph Smith but his gun misfires (see account).
  • He held secret meetings in the spring of 1844 with approximately 200 people, plotting and pledging to kill Joseph Smith (see account).

John C. Bennett

  • Soon after arriving alone in Nauvoo in 1840, Bennett had begun courting a young woman. About this time, a letter from Springfield cautioned Nauvoo leaders that Bennett had abandoned a wife and children in Ohio. When confronted, he dropped his new fiancée but took a new approach.
    "He went to some of the females in the city, who knew nothing of him but as an honorable man, and began to teach them that promiscuous intercourse between the sexes, was a doctrine believed in by the Latter-Day Saints, and that there was no harm in it." Bennett persuaded the women that the Prophet and others sanctioned and practiced his doctrine of "spiritual wifery."
  • Bennett had filled major roles of public trust in Nauvoo. Within a few weeks, he lost all of them. He resigned as mayor and was released as assistant president to the First Presidency, discharged in disgrace by the Nauvoo Legion, expelled from the Masonic Lodge, and dropped as chancellor of the city university.
  • After his excommunication Bennett published letters and began a fourteen-stop speaking tour against the Church.
  • He wrote the book History of the Saints, weaving a tale of sexual promiscuity in Nauvoo through what he called "spiritual wifery." This "expose" confirmed the worst of anti-Mormon charges. Locally, it fed the political opposition. Parley Pratt said that Bennett's expose was "beneath contempt.... His object was vengeance on those who exposed his iniquity."
  • To counteract this influence, in June 1842 the Prophet published his own explanation of Bennett's fall from favor and sent out missionaries to explain the church's position.

3. Joseph's Candidacy for the Presidency of the United States

1844 was a presidential election year. In January 1844 Joseph announced his candidacy for the US presidency (for historical context see “Joseph Smith: Campaign for President of the United States,” Ensign February 2009). The candidates were:

  1. Martin Van Buren
  2. Henry Clay
  3. John C. Calhoun
  4. Lewis Cass
  5. Richard Johnson
  6. Joseph Smith
  7. James K. Polk (he eventually wins)

Joseph said of his decision to put in for the presidency:

“I would not have suffered my name to have been used by my friends on anywise as President of the United States, or candidate for that office, if I and my friends could have had the privilege of enjoying our religious and civil rights as American citizens, even those rights which the Constitution guarantees unto all her citizens alike. But this as a people we have been denied from the beginning.

“Persecution has rolled upon our heads from time to time, from portions of the United States, like peals of thunder, because of our religion; and no portion of the Government as yet has stepped forward for our relief. And in view of these things, I feel it to be my right and privilege to obtain what influence and power I can, lawfully, in the United States, for the protection of injured innocence; and if I lose my life in a good cause I am willing to be sacrificed on the altar of virtue, righteousness and truth, in maintaining the laws and Constitution of the United States, if need be, for the general good of mankind.” (History of the Church, 6:210-211)

From the above statement it appears that Joseph recognized that his candidacy could cost him his life. Indeed, the conspiracy against Joseph Smith's life was more than local collusion, and involved the support of and encouragement from national leaders. Dr. Wall Southwick reported that he attended a meeting in Carthage with delegates “from every state in the Union except three,” including Governor Thomas Ford of Illinois, wherein they considered “the best way to stop Joseph Smith's career, as his views on government were widely circulated and took like wildfire. They said if he did not get into the Presidential chair this election, he would be sure to the next time; and if Illinois and Missouri would join together and kill him, they would not be brought to justice for it” (History of the Church, 6:605-606).

Confirming a national rather than local murder conspiracy, the Lord said in D&C 136 that “the nation that has driven you out ... killed the prophets, and them that were sent unto them; and they [the nation] have shed innocent blood, which crieth from the ground against them” (vs. 34, 36). The Lord's use of the phrase “the nation” certainly suggests more than a local Carthage conspiracy.


4. The Printing and Destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor

June 7, 1844. The first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor is published by the enemies of the Prophet Joseph, which included William Law, Wilson Law, Charles Ivins, Francis Higbee, Chauncy Hibee, Robert D. Foster and Charles A. Foster.

The Nauvoo Expositor's Three-Fold Attack on Joseph Smith:

1. Fallen Prophet Attack.  They said the Church was once true but since introducing such doctrines such as plurality of wives, plurality of Gods, and sealings into eternal life, Joseph has become a fallen Prophet. 

2. Political Attack. They said that Joseph Smith had combined church and State and abused the right of the Habeas Corpus, and overstepped his bounds with his views on his powers and his candidacy for the US Presidency. 

3. Womanizer Attack.  They said Joseph had taught secretly and denied openly the doctrine of plural marriage, by which young foreign girls were brought thousands of miles to America and then told to submit their own will to God’s for the gratification of the prophet and his followers.

An excerpt from the Nauvoo Expositor

“How shall he, who has drunk of the poisonous draft, teach virtue?… We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith and those who practice the same abominations and whoredoms. [Joseph Smith is] one of the blackest and basest scoundrels that has appeared upon the stage of human existence since the days of Nero and Caligula, [and his followers are] heaven-daring, hell-deserving, God-forsaken villains.” (see full text)

June 10, 1844, the Nauvoo City Council decides to have the Expositor destroyed as a “public nuisance.” This was within the parameters of the powers granted by the Nauvoo Charter (which the apostates hated).

Following the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press, events rapidly unfold:

June 12. Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal (an anti-Mormon Newspaper), explodes against the Mormons for their destruction of the press. He called Mormonism a “dangerous, un-American political movement aimed at domination of a vast empire.” He then whipped his readers into a frenzy by declaring such things as, “War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens ARISE, ONE and ALL!!! Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! To ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them. We have not time for comment, every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL!!!!” (in Church History and the Fulness of Times, p. 265)

June 12-22. There is a public outcry that Joseph and Hyrum must be brought to justice, and must be tried in a court in Carthage. Governor Thomas Ford yields to public sentiment.

June 22. Joseph and Hyrum leave Nauvoo intending to head toward the west to prepare a place for the saints to flee.

June 23. They return to Nauvoo in response to pleading from their friends.

June 24. They submit to arrest.

June 27. Joseph and Hyrum are martyred in Carthage Jail. (see The Martyrdom)