The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

By Pamela Price

The Prophet Joseph Smith
The Prophet Joseph Smith, who was martyred on June 27, 1844.
Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith
Presiding Patriarch Hyrum Smith, martyred with his brother.

The date of June twenty-seventh is important to RLDS members because it is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, Jr., who restored the Church in 1830, and of his brother Hyrum Smith who was the presiding patriarch at that time. They were assassinated in the county jail at Carthage, Illinois, over 175 years ago, while awaiting trial on trumped-up charges.

Joseph's death in 1844 marked a turning point in the history of the Church, for over a hundred thousand people had joined the Church in the fourteen years that he was the Prophet. As an instrument for the Lord, Joseph had laid a firm foundation for the Church, for he translated the Book of Mormon, produced the Inspired Version of the Bible, and had given 105 revelations which are recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. These Three Books are still the basis of the Church.

The restoring of the New Testament Church in 1830 was an extremely important event in the history of the world, for it fulfilled Bible prophecy, brought the true Church to earth again, and did much to change modern religious history. The restoring of Christ's only true Church brought joy to the many who joined it, but animosity to those who "lost" friends or relatives to the new faith—and hatred from the other churches which lost the members (and their financial support). Then too, the Saints' city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi grew so fast that it caused political problems. There was fear that the Saints would overrun that part of the country, and would gain control of political parties and government offices there. And to make matters worse, there were dissidents and conspirators at Nauvoo who wanted Joseph prosecuted (see Joseph Smith Fought Polygamy, volume one). These and other factors contributed to the cause of the martyrdom.

The story of the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum is available in Church books—especially in The Story of the Church by Inez Smith Davis, and The History of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, volume two. Other accounts of the assassination and the events surrounding it can be found in many articles in The True Latter Day Saints' Herald, The Saints' Herald, and the Journal of History.

Mother Lucy Smith's Statement

The day after Joseph and Hyrum were martyred, their bodies were taken back to Nauvoo on horse-drawn wagons. Their mother, Lucy Smith, described the events which followed.

After the corpses were washed and dressed in their burial clothes, we were allowed to see them. I had for a long time braced every nerve, roused every energy of my soul, and called upon God to strengthen me; but when I entered the room, and saw my murdered sons extended both at once before my eyes, and heard the sobs and groans of my family, and the cries of "Father! Husband! Brothers!" from the lips of their wives, children, brothers, and sisters, it was too much. I sank back, crying to the Lord, in the agony of my soul, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken this family!"

A voice replied, "I have taken them to myself, that they might have rest!"

Emma was carried back to her room almost in a state of insensibility.

Her oldest son approached the corpse, and dropped upon his knees, and laying his cheek against his father's, and kissing him, exclaimed, "Oh, my father, my father!"

As for myself, I was swallowed up in the depths of my afflictions; and, though my soul was filled with horror past imagination, yet I was dumb, until I arose again to contemplate the spectacle before me. Oh! at that moment how my mind flew through every scene of sorrow and distress which we had passed together, in which they had shown the innocence and sympathy which filled their guileless hearts!

As I looked upon their peaceful, smiling countenances, I seemed almost to hear them say, "Mother, weep not for us, we have overcome the world by love; we carried to them the gospel, that their souls might be saved; they slew us for our testimony, and thus placed us beyond their power; their ascendancy is for a moment, ours is an eternal triumph." (Lucy Smith, Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors, 354-355)

Apostle Lyman Wight's Testimony

Apostle Lyman Wight, who joined the Church November 1, 1830, was among the converts made in Ohio as the first missionaries of the newly organized Church went forth to take the Gospel to the Lamanites. Apostle Wight wrote of Joseph:

He was greatly beloved and revered by the members of different churches, as also by all his acquaintances with the exception of the various denominations. His soundness in the belief of the doctrine to which he gave heed; his firm, sound, candid mind, and unshaken disposition to do the will of heaven as he was instructed, caused him to have many enemies among the denominations of the day, as also many in his society.

The greatest difficulty originated from his not giving up his own faith and believing in that of others. As many, very many, have grossly mistaken his character, I, having been acquainted with him for at least fourteen years previous to his death, take the liberty to say: That no man can draw any inference of his religion or character from Salt Lake [with Brigham Young] or Beaver Island [with James Strang]. Any person or persons drawing inference of his true character, or of the tenets of his doctrine, from these two histories, would do him great injustice, and do a great injury to themselves. . . .

Joseph Smith, the "author and proprietor" of the Book of Mormon, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was six feet two inches high, of a form and figure difficult to surpass among the human family. He was a man possessed of a great share of good humor. As great a lover of his country as could be found among men. Often spoke of the government as being the most admirable on earth. Wept over the mob of Missouri and Philadelphia alike. He often wept that mobs should arise under the glorious institutions of the United States. Always spoke highly of our chief magistrates and those who administered the laws. (RLDS History of the Church 2:775)

The Testimony of Joseph Smith III

About the first that now occurs to my memory was the appearance of the messenger announcing the death of Father; I think it was Lorenzo Wassen, my mother's nephew, the son of Benjamin Wassen and my mother's sister Elizabeth. He came in, covered with dust, bringing the news.

I remember the gathering of the crowd at the Nauvoo Mansion, and recall seeing Doctor Willard Richards on a platform erected in the frame house or building across the road from the Mansion on the south side of Water Street, and the congregations of thousands who gathered to listen to him and others detailing something of the tragedy and counseling quiet resignation.

I did not hear his speech, or if I did, I do not remember it, as my mother and we children were in the livingroom in the Mansion—Mother overwhelmed with her grief and we children sympathizing as children will without fairly comprehending the importance of such an event. I remember the hours of seclusion of the family from intrusion, the gloom and the dread of the time, awaiting until the bodies were brought home, they being placed in their coffins, in the southwest corner of the diningroom, and the gathering of the little group, my mother and her children—my brothers Frederick and Alexander, and my adopted sister, Julia Murdock, and myself.

Notwithstanding the grief and the oppression of the hour, the darkness of which I can feel even now, I recall the attitude of my mother. After leaning over the coffin, she placed her hand upon the cheek of my father, and in grief-stricken accents said, "Oh, Joseph, Joseph! My husband, my husband! Have they taken you from me at last!"

Friendly hands ministered to us, and Mother was assisted to her room again, and we were alone while the multitude flocked through the house, taking a last look at him who in life had been their leader and their friend.

I do not know much about the cavalcade which formed, nor was I a witness to the depositing of the bodies (or the boxes supposed to contain the bodies) of Father and Uncle Hyrum in the temporary tomb, built in the hillside near the Temple. I remember some of the rumors passed around as to the place where the bodies were really deposited, but I knew where they were subsequently buried, for I was present upon the occasion when, in the presence of two others, there was an opening of the place of deposit, and I saw the features of my father as they were exposed, and a lock of hair was cut from his head, a portion of which I have in my possession today, in a brooch which my mother used to wear.

In view of the contention Brigham Young and those afterward with him in the exodus to the West, and the charge made by the enemies of my father and the opposers to the faith, it is a source of gratification to me now to remember that no other woman bowed beside the bodies of these brothers, as they were waiting the passing of the last rites which the living could pay to the dead, as wives to mourn and exhibit their grief before relatives and friends, save my mother at my father's side and Aunt Mary at the side of my Uncle Hyrum. The scene was sacred to their grief and theirs alone! (Mary Audentia Anderson, The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III, 37–38; The Saints' Herald [January 29, 1935], 143–144)

Although over 175 years have passed since the Martyrdom, the Gospel has not dimmed but is still a marvelous work and a wonder.

(Vision 50 [August 2005]: 3–4)