Joseph Smith Latter-day Saint History

What Led to Joseph Smith’s Death at Carthage?

It’s a story of how legal, political, and religious factors can converge to lead to tragic outcomes.

Joseph Smith‘s death in Carthage, Illinois was traumatic for the Latter-day Saints. His assassination was the culmination in a series of events that had consequences for the community of Saints—particularly those living in Nauvoo. In this interview, historian Spencer W. McBride discusses the events surrounding the Prophet’s death as shared in Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.

Learn more about the events leading up to Joseph Smith’s death in Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.

Table of Contents

What is “Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast”?

The Road to Carthage is an eight-episode podcast miniseries that explores the series of events that led to a mob violently murdering Joseph and Hyrum Smith in June 1844. The series also considers the aftermath of that event. All this is done in a documentary style featuring excerpts of interviews with first-rate historians.

What’s the podcast’s backstory?

Many people, including Latter-day Saints, have a sense of what brought about the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, but are unaware or confused by the complexities and ambiguities surrounding the events that led to such a tragic attack. This podcast seeks to provide both information and clarity.

Why was the Council of Fifty organized?

The Council of Fifty was organized in Nauvoo by Joseph Smith to consider the Saints’ options for protecting their lives and rights. The Council considered possibilities to move to Texas or to the western territories, it considered and made appeals to political leaders, and it discussed what a government designed for the the transition to the millennial reign of Jesus Christ would look like.

The Council also managed much of Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign.

What did the Latter-day Saints in the Council of 50 envision the government of God to be like?

We primarily have what was recorded in the minutes of the Council as our source, and the members certainly did not agree on all points. But the basic idea was what Joseph Smith called “Theodemocracy,” in essence a mix of a theocracy and a democracy in which the people assented to the mind and will of God as expressed through a prophet.

cWhat it would actually have looked like in practice is unclear. We only have the theoretical discussions and debates in the Council minutes to go on.

Joseph Smith Papers historians Mark Ashurst-McGee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Matthew J. Grow discuss the Council of Fifty’s attempts to create a government to protect their religious freedoms.

How did the network of newspapers work in the United States at that time?

There was no national newspaper that reached readers throughout the country. Instead, local newspaper editors borrowed liberally from each other, reprinting articles wholesale.

This meant that really interesting news and opinions in one part of the country could eventually receive national coverage through this exchange network of newspapers.

So, there was great potential in operating a newspaper, even far away from the country’s centers of population and power.

Why were articles in the Warsaw Signal or the Nauvoo Expositor so concerning?

The Warsaw Signal was the premier venue for anti-Mormon editorials in Illinois. That paper stirred up local men to oppose Joseph Smith and the church, even to the extent of forming a political party dedicated to the eventual expulsion of the Latter-day Saints from Illinois.

The Nauvoo Expositor, as Joseph Smith and other city leaders in Nauvoo saw it, represented a clear and immediate danger. The nature of its claims and the way that they were presented were designed to bring violent mobs against the city.

The Nauvoo Expositor represented a “clear and immediate danger” to the Latter-day Saints, according to Spencer McBride, the Joseph Smith Papers “Road to Carthage” podcast host.

Again, newspapers were a very influential medium at this time and sensational papers and editorials had often led to such violent acts in the past.

Was the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor by the Nauvoo city council legal?

It is ultimately debatable—as are most interpretations of the law. But several scholars, such as Dallin H. Oaks, have made a convincing case that the suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor was legal.

The Nauvoo City Council believed that there was legal precedent for their actions. But even if the act was proven to be illegal, the corresponding punishment for the Nauvoo City Council should have been a civil fine with reparations paid to the proprietors of the destroyed paper and press.

Death was certainly not the punishment that would have been meted out if a court had declared it an illegal action. But that is the punishment that a mob meted out, working outside the legal system.

However, I think it is also worth pointing out that the legality of the act and the prudence of the act are two separate conversations.

It’s important to make that distinction.

Even those who argue for its legality are well aware that, with the benefit of hindsight, it would have been prudent for the Nauvoo City Council to explore other avenues for dealing with the newspaper in question.

To what extent did Governor Thomas Ford disarm the Saints in Nauvoo?

Because the Nauvoo Legion was part of the Illinois State Militia, it had received firearms from the state over several years. When it appeared that there could be conflict in and around Nauvoo, Governor Ford ordered the confiscation of the state’s arms that were in Nauvoo so that they would not be used against the state militia. However, the state did not confiscate any firearms that were the personal property of the people of Nauvoo.

Why do we need to be cautious in deciding why Joseph Smith went to Carthage rather than flee west?

Caution is in order because we have limited sources and many of the sources we do have are reminiscent and written through a lens of future events.

For example, many of the reminiscent sources are particularly hard on Emma Smith, even suggesting that she forced Joseph to come back, a decision that resulted in his death.

But those sources were created at a time after there had been a falling out with Emma Smith and many of the men who led the church following the death of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

This is all to say that we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions with such episodes of church history, being particularly responsible in the way that we consider the sources of the formation on which we rely.

Why did Emma Smith stay behind?

There were a number of reasons for this and the podcast goes through many of them:

  • Property and marriage. There was tension between Emma and Brigham Young over property in Nauvoo and over the practice of plural marriage.
  • Stability. There was a desire to stay in one place after years of moving from place to place.
  • Burial. There seems to have been a desire to stay where her husband was buried.

It was a complex situation and a complex decision. And I think we need to be sensitive to all the factors at play—and the context of trauma in which Emma made her decision.

What caused some tension between Brigham Young and Emma Smith after Joseph Smith’s death?

Two of the main points were disagreements over Joseph Smith’s estate (e.g. what property belonged to the church and what property belonged to the Smith family) and over the question of whether the practice of plural marriage would continue.

What were some of the major findings of Dallin H. Oaks?

The eighth and final episode of the Road to Carthage podcast focuses on Oaks’s research and findings. He and his colleagues broke significant ground in understanding the bankruptcy proceedings of Joseph Smith and the handling of his estate after his tragic death.

They also broke new ground in examining and explaining the trial of the accused assassins of Joseph Smith in 1845. It was really special to hear President Oaks tell the human interest stories behind his research and publications.

Of course, research into the financial and legal history of Joseph Smith continues, with the Financial Series and Legal Series of the Joseph Smith Papers building upon the work of past scholars and breaking new ground of their own.

It’s an exciting time for such studies to be ongoing!

What lessons does Carthage hold for us today?

There are so many! The story of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith is a story of faith and valiance and of fear and violence. It’s a story of how legal, political, and religious factors can converge to lead to tragic outcomes.

Two lessons seemed to particularly stand out to me in the process of making this podcast series:

  1. Tolerance. The first is the need for religious tolerance and freedom, the need for a renewed commitment of people of all faiths—and of no faith—to allow people to worship—or not worship—according to the dictates of their own conscience.
  2. Peace. The second lesson is the need for peace. In Hancock County, Illinois, in June 1844, a mob responded to fear with violence. That was an unjust response to a fear of people who saw the world and lived differently than them back in 1844. It remains an unjust response today. Tolerance, understanding, respect, and love were the appropriate response then. It remains the appropriate response today.

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About the interview participant

Spencer W. McBride is the associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He earned a PhD in history from Louisiana State University and is the author of multiple books on religion and American politics, including Pulpit and Nation: Clergymen and the Politics of Revolutionary America (University of Virginia Press, 2017) and Joseph Smith for President: The Prophet, the Assassins, and the Fight for American Religious Freedom (Oxford University Press, 2021)

Further Reading

Joseph Smith’s Death Resources

By Chad Nielsen

Biotech professional. Armchair historian. Latter-day Saint.

One reply on “What Led to Joseph Smith’s Death at Carthage?”

Theodemocracy sounds like a terrible idea. Can you imagine living in this type of government? Between the escalation of polygamy and all the internal tension it caused, rapidly evolving doctrine of the church, the money issues of the church and Joseph and then the the council of fifty, that is a tinderbox that was going to explode. The Nauvoo Expositor lit a match, but if it hadn’t happened something else would have.

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