(RNS) On a muggy June afternoon in Carthage, Ill., 170 years ago, a mob of men stormed up the stairs of a makeshift jail and murdered a Mormon prophet.
That day — June 27, 1844 — is pivotal in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, marking the end of the faith’s founding era and the beginning of its exile and exodus to Utah.
But it merits no more than a footnote in most American history textbooks, says Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam. And that is unfortunate, says Beam, author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the fate of the Mormon Church.”
Smith’s assassination — known to LDS faithful as “the martyrdom” — is a “huge moment in the history of the American West, but also in the nation itself,” the writer, who is not Mormon, said in an interview. “I’m not sure there’s another incident in American history where a major religious figure was killed because of his religion.”
Though the episode is “without parallel,” Beam said, its neglect in the country’s self-awareness has to do with “the marginalization of Mormons.”
Smith’s demise is considered an “oddity in American history,” he said. “In most accounts, Smith is seen as a strange guy who had a bunch of followers and then was killed.”
For Beam, the killing — as well as the conflicts leading up to it — provides rich insights into the dynamics of the native-born faith, mob violence in the 19th century and the country’s failure to protect religious freedom for unpopular churches.
Smith was not just gunned down by a mob of hooligans, Beam said. His murderers included “a prominent newspaper editor, a state senator, a justice of the peace, two regimental military commanders and men who just a few months before were faithful members of Joseph’s church … ‘respectable set of men.’ ”
They could have imprisoned him or chased him back to old enemies in Missouri, he writes. “Instead, they chose to kill him.”
Smith’s actions and choices during his final days and weeks might also surprise some Mormons, who mostly see the man they call “Brother Joseph” through a mythic prism — and his death as the capstone of the persecution complex that is etched into the Mormon identity.
In 1830, Smith, a onetime farm boy in upstate New York, organized a new Christian church, claiming that all other denominations had lost true Christianity. Smith said an angel named Moroni had directed him to find plates of gold, on which were written the history of a Hebraic family that migrated to the Americas and whose descendants were visited by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Smith reportedly translated the ancient writings into the Book of Mormon.
It didn’t take long for opposition to arise among skeptics and offended Christians. Smith was derided as an impostor and a “money digger,’’ but his book of scripture hit a responsive note with many New York believers seeking a return to primitive Christianity stripped of cumbersome rituals.
Within 14 years, Smith’s followers numbered in the thousands. They were chased from state to state, upbraided for their theological innovations, their political unity, communal economics and, finally, their social arrangements, including patriarchal polygamy.
Smith presided over “The City of the Saints” in Nauvoo, Ill., where he became mayor, lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion, proprietor of the Nauvoo Mansion House (including its lucrative liquor monopoly) and even ran for U.S. president.
It was a time of great flux — and secrecy — among Smith’s closest circle of friends, Beam writes, and even greater animosity from Illinois neighbors, including Thomas Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal and “professional Mormon hater.”
By 1844, the antagonisms from Illinois neighbors and former Mormons boiled over into violence.
Several former Mormons, including William and Wilson Law, published an edition of the Nauvoo Expositor, detailing Smith’s secret polygamous relationships — including allegations that he had approached William Law’s wife and some teenage girls.
Smith was outraged by the paper and ordered the press the Laws had purchased to be destroyed, and the order was carried out. The Laws filed a claim against Smith in the state court at Carthage, and Smith was arrested.
He gave himself up amid promises by then-Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford that he would be safe.
“It was kind of a biblical story,” Beam says, “with people begging him not to go.”
But the Mormon leader, who initially planned to flee, had gotten himself out of other legal scrapes and thought he could this time as well.
In the last weeks of Smith’s life, Beam says, “he acted a lot like a human being in trouble — with parallel circles of woe bedeviling him.”
The real opposition, though, came not from the few former Mormons, but from the growing opposition in counties surrounding his City of Saints.
“He was a little overconfident, and a little under-perspicacious,” Beam says. “His enemies, with their dark shadows, were suffused with hate — and they have no interest in fighting fair or going through the judicial system.”
They killed the Indians, and now they are going to lynch the Mormons, Beam says.
“This was an era of violent politics,” says Richard Bushman, pre-eminent Smith biographer and Mormon historian.
Bushman, author of “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” explains the opposition to Mormonism as “moral panic.”
Traditional Christians at the time “felt their way of life was in jeopardy,” the historian says. ”It pushed them into extreme measures.”
And they feared that the death of the Mormon prophet would lead to violent retribution from the sorrowful Saints. But it never happened.
On the morning of June 28, 1844, the bodies of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who was also killed in the jail, were taken by wagon from Carthage to Nauvoo, where more than 8,000 believers lined the streets for a glimpse of their fallen leaders.
There were “groans and sobs and shrieks,” one journalist reported, “‘til the sound resembled the roar of a mighty tempest, or the slow, deep, roar of the distant tornado.”
But there were no reprisals. Before long, Brigham Young became the faith’s new leader and directed the entire movement on a 2,000-mile journey across the plains to the Great Basin.
“The people missed Joseph’s charisma, but all the strength and energy of the church didn’t come from a single leader,” Bushman said. “They [the Mormons] did have a feeling of deep resentment that the nation had failed them and that there would be no succor from any official source.”
The Mormon leader’s death “did not paralyze the Mormons,” Beam writes. “Instead, it galvanized the Saints, strengthened them in their beliefs, and propelled them westward to a new, thriving ‘Zion.’ ”
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