The Joseph Smith Papers recently released a final podcast series, the Road to Carthage podcast, focusing on the final days and immediate aftermath of Joseph Smith’s life. It was an explosive time, filled with tension both within and outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In a recent interview at the Latter-day Saint history blog From the Desk, podcast host Spencer W. McBride talked about the events that led to Joseph Smith’s death in 1844. What follows here is a co-post to the full interview (a shorter post with excerpts and some discussion).
An important piece of the picture when it comes to events leading to Joseph Smith’s death is the way that information was shared at the time and place and the impact that had on public opinion. As McBride explains, the mechanism mostly focused on a network of local newspapers:
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.
Two newspapers in particular played a key role in the story:
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.
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.
These significant concerns, in turn, led to drastic actions on the part of Joseph Smith and the city council of Nauvoo–the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor press.
Now, the Nauvoo Expositor’s published volume is an interesting (and uncomfortable) document. It was written by William Law, Wilson Law, Charles Ivins, Francis M. Higbee, Chauncey L. Higbee, Robert Foster, Charles Foster and Sylvester Emmons. William Law was particularly notable, since he had been a member of the First Presidency of the Church and had been in Joseph Smith’s inner circle for a time and he took the lead in writing the core article of the paper. The paper was intended to be an exposé of church practices that Law and his associates opposed, essentially an act of whistleblowing. It denounces Joseph Smith and other leaders of the Church for teaching doctrines that were “taught secretly, and denied openly,” which they declared were “heretical and damnable.” Apotheosis, a plurality of gods, and the doctrine of unconditional sealing up to eternal life were a couple of prime targets of their ire, but plural marriage (which the authors of the document saw as adultery) was the most explosive issue explored. To be fair to the authors of the Nauvoo Expositor, they may have been well-intentioned in their efforts for the Church more broadly (though not towards Joseph Smith and the Quorum of the Twelve) in making an attempt to rescue it, as they saw things, from the innovations that Joseph Smith had made in the Nauvoo era (and in doing so, presaged much of what the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believed once it was organized). Their efforts to expose Joseph Smith and his inner circle, well intended or not, were made in the already tense atmosphere of Nauvoo, and the exposé sparked a firestorm. (And to be clear, this paragraph are my own musings and not anything that Spencer W. McBride said.)
The Nauvoo Expositor and its press were destroyed on orders of the city council after an extended debate. As for the legality of its actions, McBride noted that:
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. …
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.
While it was potentially legal for the city council to destroy the press–or at least the paper–given the already charged climate, it wasn’t a wise course of action to take, as it was what led to the arrest that took Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith to Carthage.
Their deaths in Carthage were not legal in any shape or form, even if they were tied to the destruction of the press.
Even if the act [of destroying the Nauvoo Expositor] 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.
While not the only reason that the mob assassinated Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the act took place in the context of the immediate aftermath of the Nauvoo Expositor being destroyed in Nauvoo.