It was “a deliberate political assassination, committed or condoned by some of the leading citizens of Hancock County.”1 That’s how law professor Dallin H. Oaks and co-author Marvin S. Hill described the murder of Joseph Smith, who was butchered with his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844.
Apostles John Taylor and Willard Richards were voluntarily with Joseph and Hyrum in jail when they were murdered on June 27, 1844. They survived as witnesses of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Joseph Smith who restored it, and his brutal martyrdom. Their witness is declared in section 135
Section 135 is a eulogy of the Prophet and an indictment of the state and nation that allowed him to be slain. As such, its tone is a rich mixture of reverence and disdain, praise and contempt. Attributed to John Taylor, who was himself shot repeatedly in the massacre, the document has an apostolic air. It declares a witness in certain terms. It announces Joseph Smith’s significance to mankind, his translation of the Book of Mormon and spreading of the gospel, his receipt of revelations, the gathering of Israel, the founding of Nauvoo, and, with Hyrum, the sealing of his testimony with his life.
Though critics have knowingly manipulated the language of verse 3 to make it sound as if Latter-day Saints value Joseph Smith more than Jesus Christ, the text does not say that, nor do Latter-day Saints believe it. Rather, they praise Joseph Smith because he revealed Jesus Christ, which no one had done for more than a millennium. Section 135 testifies that Joseph and Hyrum died innocent and that their deaths put their testaments in full force. It testifies that the Lord will avenge their deaths and that the honest-hearted in all nations will be touched by their testimony of Jesus Christ.
Section 135 emphasizes the enduring significance of Joseph Smith and his testimony. Joseph regarded himself as “obscure,” a “boy of no consequence” (Joseph Smith—History 1:23), but at age seventeen he received from an angel named Moroni the improbable news that “my name should be had for good and evil among all nations” (v. 33). In his own lifetime his name became known for good and evil in Nauvoo, in Illinois, in the United States, and now globally. However unlikely, Moroni’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Bostonian Josiah Quincy visited Joseph shortly before he went to Carthage. Quincy wrote that Joseph Smith was “born in the lowest ranks of poverty” and came of age “without book-learning and with the homeliest of all human names” and that by the end of his shortened life he had become “a power on earth.”2
It is not remarkable that a flawed teenage Joseph sought forgiveness in the woods and at his bedside, nor that he had to repent relentlessly and grow into his demanding calling, nor that he often felt frustrated at both himself and the Saints, nor that his testimony deeply touched the hearts of some and antagonized others, nor that it continues to do so. The remarkable thing about Joseph Smith, as section 135 emphasizes, is what he did. Who else has brought forth the equivalent of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants? Who else restored the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ? “He left a fame and a name,” no matter how plain, “that cannot be slain” (D&C 135:3). In every way he gave his life for the Lord’s work. What a life!
“Fanatics and imposters are living and dying every day,” Josiah Quincy wrote,
and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained. The most vital questions Americans are asking each other today have to do with this man and what he has left us.3
That is Joseph Smith’s significance and his appeal: he revealed the answers to the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Is there purpose in life? What is the nature of people? Are individuals free agents or determined? What is the nature of the Savior’s atonement? Does it reach those who do not hear the gospel in mortality? And perhaps above all, what is the nature of God?
“If I am so fortunate as to be the man to comprehend God, and explain or convey the principles to your hearts, so that the Spirit seals them upon you,” Joseph taught just a few weeks before he was murdered, “then let every man and woman henceforth sit in silence, put their hands on their mouths, and never lift their hands or voices, or say any thing against the man of God, or the servants of God again.”4 Joseph answered the ultimate questions as a witness. He beheld angels, translated by the power of God, received visions and revelations. He knew God and Christ. He thus died as a testator—a witness. Section 135 announces that a testator had been killed, but his testimony endures forever.
1. Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana, 1975), 6, 214.
2. Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past From the Leaves of Old Journals (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1883), 337.
3. Quincy, Figures of the Past, 317.
4. “History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” 1969, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
Doctrine and Covenants 135 was written to mark the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. It was first published just a few months after the martyrdom in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. This edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was nearly complete when Joseph and Hyrum were killed, and the printers could only include this section (published in the 1844 edition as section 111) in the Doctrine and Covenants by using a smaller typeface than was used in the rest of volume.
The section has traditionally been attributed to John Taylor, who was at Carthage Jail on the day of the martyrdom and was seriously wounded during the attack on the jail. When the section was originally printed in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, it was not attributed to any single person.1 Because John Taylor may have been assisted by others in composing the section, in the 2013 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, John Taylor’s name was removed as the sole author from the section introduction.2
In the spring of 1844, internal dissentions among the Saints and external tensions with their neighbors in surrounding communities were reaching a breaking point. Leaders of neighboring towns became jealous of Nauvoo’s increasing population, its temple, and its growing prosperity. Antagonists in other communities threatened violence against all Latter-day Saints residing in Nauvoo if the Saints did not abandon their holdings and leave the state. Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, a local newspaper, wrote, “Joe Smith is not safe out of Nauvoo. We would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time.”3 Meanwhile, apostates among the Saints who shared Sharp’s sentiments laid plans to murder the Prophet.
Joseph Smith initially believed these men “would not scare off an old setting hen,” but when their negative views were printed in the Nauvoo Expositor, they ignited public sentiment.4 Joseph, acting as mayor of Nauvoo, met with the Nauvoo city council to discuss the libelous accusations printed in the Expositor. The decision of the city council, stemming from the discussions, was to denounce the newspaper as a public nuisance and to authorize the Nauvoo sheriff to stop future publication of the Expositor. Dallin H. Oaks later addressed the legality of these actions:
As a young law professor pursuing original research, I was pleased to find a legal basis for this action in the Illinois law of 1844. The amendment to the United States Constitution that extended the guarantee of freedom of the press to protect against the actions of city and state governments was not adopted until 1868, and it was not enforced as a matter of federal law until 1931. (See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 : 862.) We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours.5
The destruction of the Expositor press may not have been illegal, but it further enflamed the passions of the Saints’ antagonists. The actions of the Nauvoo sheriff and his posse led the publishers of the Expositor to accuse Joseph and the Nauvoo city council with starting a riot. Joseph was arrested (and discharged twice) on charges of destroying the Expositor press. These legal actions failed to placate the enemies of the Saints, who were intent on bringing Joseph Smith to trial.
Joseph and Hyrum attempted to avoid submitting themselves into the hands of their enemies. They took a small group and crossed the Mississippi River, hoping their absence would defuse the situation. They were thwarted when several ill-advised friends counseled them to submit to the law in Carthage. Upon hearing the pleas from those in Nauvoo, Joseph said, “If my life is of no value to my friends[,] it is of none to myself.”6 On Monday morning, June 24, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum journeyed to Carthage, the county seat of Hancock County. In Carthage, the accusations of riot, linked to the incident with the Nauvoo Expositor, were elevated to treason. The local hostile militias in Carthage openly declared that Joseph and Hyrum would not leave Carthage alive: “There was nothing against these men [the Smith brothers]; the law could not reach them[,] but powder and ball would, and they should not go out of Carthage alive.”7
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Where now is the Prophet Joseph?
Safe in Carthage jail!8
Even Thomas Ford, the governor of Illinois, joined the chorus of conspirators, mobbers, and militia in abetting the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum. “Could my brother Hyrum but be liberated,” Joseph told one of his companions, “it would not matter so much about me.”9 Writing to his wife Emma, Joseph confided on the day of the martyrdom, “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified, and have done the best that could be done. Give my love to the children and all my friends.”10
1. Doctrine and Covenants, 1844, p. 444, JSP.
2. Doctrine and Covenants, 2013, 280–81.
3. Warsaw Signal, May 29, 1844.
4. Discourse, 24 March 1844-A, as Reported by Wilford Woodruff, p. 214, JSP.
5. Dallin H. Oaks, “Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” April 1996 General Conference.
6. JS History, vol. F-1, p. 148, JSP.
7. JS History, vol. F-1, p. 158, JSP.
8. B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1930, 2:281.
9. JS History, vol. F-1, p. 168, JSP.
10. JS History, vol. F-1, p. 175, JSP.