Literary DCGD #32: Lines on the Assassination

August 22, 2013 | no comments
By

Eliza R. Snow[I'm sorry for the delay in getting this posted. I've been traveling a lot the past week.]

The martyrdom of Joseph Smith was a shock to his people and one that, as their successors, we still remember and still feel. But in the days following his assassination, the reaction of Church members was one of outrage. While we today see the martyrdom as “sealing his testimony,” then the members of the Church saw this as a failure of the state, with a feeling that the state was somewhat complicit in these murders. But despite that the brothers were immediately seen as martyrs, equal to those of antiquity.

The following poem is perhaps the most immediate poetic reaction, written on July 1st and published that same day in the Times and Seasons. It was subsequently republished in all three of the other existing LDS publications that Fall and was published as a broadside as well. It was later published in other LDS publications, included in the hymnal and published in Snow’s compilation of her poetry.

This is one of the large corpus of poems by Mormonism’s best known poet, Eliza R. Snow, who was a plural wife to Joseph Smith and was therefore his widow. She was also married to Brigham Young and was the second General President of the Relief Society. Selections of her poetry are found in a two-volume work she compiled, Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political, which was published in 1856 and 1877. Ten of her poems are currently in the LDS hymnal, and several others once were in editions of the LDS hymnal, but have since been dropped. She is the first LDS poet to have her complete work collected (Eliza R Snow: The Complete Poetry).

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Lines on the Assassination

By Eliza R. Snow

On the Assassination of Generals Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith, First Presidents of the Church of Latter-day Saints, who were Massacred by a Mob, in Carthage, Hancock county, Illinois, on the 21th, June, 1844.

And when he had opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar, the souls of them that were slain for the word of God, and for the testimony which they held.

And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?

And white robes were given unto every one of them; and it was said unto them, that they should rest yet for a little season. until their fellow servants also, and their brethren, that should be killed as they were. should be fulfilled.— Rev. vi. 9, 10, 11.

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Ye heav’ns attend! Let all the earth give ear!
Let Gods and seraphs, men and angels hear—
The worlds on high—the universe shall know
What awful scenes are acted here below!
Had nature’s self a heart, her heart would bleed;
For never, since the Son of God was slain,
Has blood so noble, flow’d from human vein
As that which now on God for vengeance calls
From “freedom’s ground”—from Carthage’s prison walls.

 

Oh! Illinois! thy soil has drank the blood
Of Prophets martyr’d for the truth of God.
Once lov’d America! what can atone
For the pure blood of innocence, thou’st sown?
Were all thy streams in teary torrents shed
To mourn the fate of those illustrious dead:
How vain the tribute, for the noblest worth
That grac’d thy surface, O degraded Earth!

 

Oh! wretched murd’rers! fierce for human blood!
You’ve slain the prophets of the living God,
Who’ve borne oppression from their early youth,
To plant on earth the principles of truth.

 

Shades of our patriotic fathers! Can it be,
Beneath your blood-stain’d flag of liberty;
The firm supporters of our country’s cause,
Are butcher’d while submissive to her laws?
Yes, blameless men, defam’d by hellish lies,
Have thus been offer’d as a sacrifice
T’ appease the ragings of a brutish clan,
That has defied the laws of God and man!

 

‘Twas not for crime or guilt of theirs they fell—
Against the laws they never did rebel.
True to their country, yet her plighted faith
Has prov’d an instrument of cruel death!

 

Where are thy far-fam’d laws—Columbia! where
Thy boasted freedom—thy protecting care?
Is this a land of rights? Stern Facts shall say
If legal justice here maintains its sway,
The official pow’rs of State are sheer pretence
When they’re exerted in the Saints’ defence.

 

Great men have fall’n and mighty men have died—
Nations have mourn’d their fav’rites and their pride;
But Two, so wise, so virtuous, great and good,
Before on earth, at once, have never stood
Since the creation—men whom God ordain’d
To publish truth where error long had reign’d:
Of whom the world itself unworthy prov’d:
It Knew Them Not; but men with hatred mov’d
And with infernal spirits have combin’d”
Against the best, the noblest of mankind!

 

Oh! persecution! shall thy purple hand
Spread utter destruction through the land?
Shall freedom’s banner be no more unfurl’d?
Has peace indeed, been taken from the world?

 

Thou God of Jacob, in this trying hour
Help us to trust in thy almighty power,
Support thy Saints beneath this awful stroke—
Make bare thine arm to break oppression’s yoke.
We mourn thy Prophet, from whose lips have flow’d
The words of life, thy Spirit has bestow’d—
A depth of thought, no human art could reach
From time to time, roll’d in sublimest speech,
From the celestial fountain, through his mind,
To purify and elevate mankind:
The rich intelligence by him brought forth,
Is like the sunbeam spreading o’er the earth.

 

Now Zion mourns—she mourns an earthly head:
The Prophet and the Patriarch are dead!
The blackest deed that men or devils know
Since Calv’ry’s scene, has laid the brothers low!
One in their life, and one in death—they prov’d
How strong their friendship—how they truly lov’d:
True to their mission, until death they stood,
Then seal’d their testimony with their blood.
All hearts with sorrow bleed, and every eye
Is bath’d in tears—each bosom heaves a sigh—
Heart broken widows’ agonizing groans
Are mingled with the helpless orphans’ moans!

 

Ye Saints! be still, and know that God is just—
With steadfast purpose in his promise trust:
Girded with sackcloth, own his mighty hand,
And wait his judgments on this guilty land!
The noble martyrs now have gone to move
The cause of Zion in the courts above.

Times and Seasons, 1 July 1844, p. 575

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While Snow does say that the martyrdom sealed the brothers’ testimony (True to their mission, until death they stood, / Then seal’d their testimony with their blood) it isn’t exactly the main message of the poem. Instead Snow praises the martyrs (For never, since the Son of God was slain, / Has blood so noble, flow’d from human vein) and criticizes the government for allowing this heinous deed to occur:

Shades of our patriotic fathers! Can it be,
Beneath your blood-stain’d flag of liberty;
The firm supporters of our country’s cause,
Are butcher’d while submissive to her laws?
Yes, blameless men, defam’d by hellish lies,
Have thus been offer’d as a sacrifice
T’ appease the ragings of a brutish clan,
That has defied the laws of God and man!

But even with this criticism, the praise of Joseph and Hyrum predominates. Like the Gospel Doctrine lesson, and after invoking God’s help to endure the trial that the martyrdom brought, Snow highlights the truth and light that Joseph Smith brought:

We mourn thy Prophet, from whose lips have flow’d
The words of life, thy Spirit has bestow’d—
A depth of thought, no human art could reach
From time to time, roll’d in sublimest speech,
From the celestial fountain, through his mind,
To purify and elevate mankind:
The rich intelligence by him brought forth,
Is like the sunbeam spreading o’er the earth.

Church members today still feel this way, I think. While time has made us less likely to focus on the failures of government in the martyrdom, we still share Snow’s feelings of awe at Joseph’s accomplishments and see his martyrdom as sealing his testimony before, as Snow says, he has “gone to move / The cause of Zion in the courts above.”

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