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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction


His enemies may have feared Joseph Smith all the more because he was formidable personally. Josiah Quincy, soon to be the mayor of Boston, visited Nauvoo in spring 1844 with Charles Francis Adams, son of former American president John Quincy Adams. Quincy compared Smith to the Rhode Island congressman Elisha Potter, who had impressed Quincy in Washington. Quincy said both Smith and Potter “were of commanding appearance, men whom it seemed natural to obey,” who emanated “a certain peculiar moral stress and compulsion which I have never felt in the presence of others of their countrymen.”36 Peter Burnett, one of Smith’s attorneys in the aftermath of the Missouri war and later governor of California, saw the steel in his client’s character. “He possessed the most indomitable perseverance,” Burnett wrote after watching Smith’s conduct in prison. He “deemed himself born to command, and he did command.” By comparison, church counselor Sidney Rigdon, though a man of superior education and fine appearance, “did not possess the native intellect of Smith, and lacked his determined will.”37

Joseph Smith seems rarely to have been intimidated. Howard Coray, one of the better-educated early converts, was impressed that when Smith entertained callers “of almost all professions—Doctors, Lawyers Priests,” he

was always equal to the occasion, and perfectly master of the situation; and, possessed the power to make every body realize his superiority, which they evinced in an unmistakable manner. I could clearly see that Joseph was the captain, no matter whose company he was in, Knowing the meagerness of his education, I was truly gratified, at seeing how much at ease he always was, even in the company of the most scientific, and the ready off hand manner in which he would answer their questions.38

Joseph Smith may have tried for the upper hand because of a sensitivity to insult. He came from a social class that bore the onus of contempt almost as a way of life. Poor tenant farmers like the Smiths were looked down upon as shiftless and crude. The ridicule that followed his stories of revelation may have magnified his unease and led him to compensate with abrasive behavior and brave flourishes. He clung to his military title in the Nauvoo Legion as a badge of honor and expected recognition of his standing. When slighted, he would lash back. As Benjamin Johnson, a great admirer, said, “Criticism even by his associates was rarely acceptable & contradiction would rouse in him the Lion at once for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.”39

Against his enemies he was adamant. Thomas Sharp, the vitriolic editor of the Warsaw Signal, received a hot burst from Smith after publishing an editorial critical of the Mormons. Upon reading the piece, Smith canceled his subscription:

Mr. Sharp, Editor of the Warsaw Signal:

Sir--You will discontinue my paper--its contents are calculated to pollute me, and to patronize the filthy sheet--that tissue of lies--that sink of iniquity--is disgraceful to any mortal man. Yours, with utter contempt,

Joseph Smith

P.S. Please publish the above in your contemptible paper.40

Although Smith was perpetually caught up in controversy, strife pained him. His ideal for the city of Zion was for all to be “of one heart and of one mind.”41 In a letter from the jail in Liberty, he described himself perfectly when he advocated “reproving be-times with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and then showing forth afterwords an increas of love.” He dreamed of a society filled with love and peace. The anger and hatred the Mormons suffered was exactly the opposite of his own vision. During the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri in winter 1838–1839, he was kept under prison guard for five months, charged with treason for having resisted attack. During those months, Smith meditated on the evils of power—in society and within the church. He had “learned by sad experiance,” he wrote to the Saints, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men as soon as they get a little auth[o]rity as they [s]uppose they will imediately begin to [e]xercise unritious dominion.” He wanted it otherwise.

[No power or influence] can or ought to be maintained [b]y v[i]rtue of the Priesthood only by persuasion by long suffering by gentleness and meekness and by love unfaigned by kindness by pure knowledge which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and with out guile reproving be-times with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and then showing forth afterwords an increas of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem the[e] [to] be his enimy.42

Joseph Smith’s overflowing affection for his people was one reason for their loyalty. He entered long exclamations of gratitude in his diary when the Latter-day Saints cut wood for him in the winter, and he often laid his hands on his clerks’ heads to give them personal blessings. “Fri[e]ndship,” he told his people, “is the gr[a]nd fundamental prniple [principle] of Mormonism, to revolution[ize] [and] civilize the world.— pour forth love.”43 In prison following the Missouri war, chained to six of his companions in two-foot intervals, Smith wrote cheerily to Emma:

Brother Robison is chained next to me he has a true heart and a firm mind, Brother Whight, is next, Br. Rigdon, next, Hyram, next, Parely, next, Amasa, next, and thus we are bound together in chains as well as the cords of everlasting love, we are in good spirits and rejoice that we are counted worthy to be persicuted for christ sake.

In the same letter he wrote to his wife and children:

Oh my affectionate Emma, I want you to remember that I am a true and faithful friend, to you and the children, forever, my heart is intwined around you[r]s forever and ever, oh may God bless you all, amen I am your husband and am in bands and tribulation.44

Sadly, in the end, the bands between the couple were tried to the breaking point.

At times revelation became a burden as well as a blessing, at no time more than when plural marriage was revealed. Plural marriage was the final component of the logic of restoration. Smith had prayed for an understanding of Old Testament polygamy and was commanded to do the “works of Abraham.”45 Although he hated adultery and was deeply loyal to his wife Emma, he believed he was to take additional wives as had the ancient patriarchs. He went about it carefully, one woman at a time, usually approaching her relatives first and going through a prescribed wedding ceremony. During his lifetime, he was married to approximately thirty women.46 Although conjugal relations were apparently involved, he spent little time with these women, the need for secrecy and the demands on his time keeping them apart. At first aghast at what her husband was doing, Emma eventually agreed to a few of the plural marriages but then pulled back. She oscillated between hesitant submission and outright opposition to the practice, but according to Maria Jane Johnston Woodward, who worked for a time as a servant in the Smith household, Emma told her, “The principle of plural marriage is right. . . . [I]t is from our Father in Heaven.”47 After her husband’s death, Emma refused to go west, where plural marriage would be practiced. She never admitted to her children that their father had been involved.

To add to his unpopularity, in the final six months of his life Joseph Smith set out on a course of political action that outraged his critics. In January 1844, he announced his candidacy for president of the United States and a few months later organized a shadow government called the Kingdom of God, which may have been envisioned as a prototype of Christ’s millennial government of the earth. Whether or not he believed he could win the presidency, he spoke optimistically, as candidates do in the beginning of a campaign. Certainly his patience with government had run out. The Mormons had been abused many times with no compensation for confiscated property from any level of government, and in 1844 they felt the tide of hatred rising again. Smith could not understand why the Constitution did not compel the government to protect the rights of Mormons. His platform defended all downtrodden people of his time: slaves, whom he felt should be purchased from their masters with revenues from public lands; prisoners held under cruel and unsanitary conditions; court-martialed soldiers; and sailors, whose suffering at the hands of tyrannical ship captains was attracting the sympathy of reformers. To all, he promised justice.

One close associate said after a meeting to organize the Kingdom of God, “It seems like heaven began on earth, and the power of God is with us.”48 But Joseph Smith’s enemies in the church and the surrounding towns could see nothing noble in his program. A number of onetime believers, some who had been high in the church’s hierarchy, took plural marriage as evidence that he had fallen as a prophet. They organized to remove him from office and return the church to its pre-polygamy and pre–Kingdom of God course. When they published a newspaper to rally the opposition, Smith, fearful the paper would incite mob violence, had the press shut down by city authorities and destroyed. Nearby citizens were infuriated. When Smith went to Carthage, the county seat, for trial, a mob attacked him in jail. He was shot through an open window, fell to the ground, and died on 27 June 1844.49