Editor's Pick John Taylor's 1854 Description of the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum
May 6, 2014
by John W. Welch

June 27, 2014, will mark the 170th anniversary of the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum in the Carthage Jail on a sultry Wednesday afternoon in Illinois. Trying to understand what happened on that day, let alone all of the events of the years leading up to that eruption of violence, has both fascinated and bewildered readers and writers, historians and biographers, theologians and politicians, producing perennial crops of new theories and perspectives, as several recent publications clearly show.

While all these historical treatments and popular retellings of the events of June 1844 are often riveting and captivating, the detailed report of John Taylor, who was an eyewitness to the events related to Joseph Smith's death, is most remarkable and credible. His account, delivered on June 27, 1854, the tenth anniversary of the martyrdom, is now available, for the first time, in BYU Studies Quarterly 50, no. 3.

Here Taylor, who was in the Carthage Jail with Joseph Smith, spoke publicly for the first time about the painful experiences leading up to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum. His words were taken down in Pitman shorthand and until very recently that dictation had never been transcribed. Deciphered by LaJean Carruth, and edited and introduced by Mark Staker, this impressive document and the materials connected with it in this article should be read in full and featured prominently in any future discussions of that treacherous assassination. It includes many new, interesting contemporaneous assertions and historical details, including the following:

When asked, "how is it possible" that so many people opposed the Latter-day Saints "if you had done no wrong?" Taylor responded, the answer was simple: "Our religion was not popular religion. It was opposed to their religion. . . . We had met them in argument but they could not withstand them" (47). He also speaks candidly of the difficulties presented by the introduction of eternal marriage and sealings of additional wives to some of the brethren: "[It] was a time that was particularly trying to the people. . . . Yet it was a thing that was substantiated by scripture and made manifest also by revelation" (43). The principle was abused by some, led by John C. Bennett, who "corrupted themselves—were full of < lasciviousness > and abomination, and corrupted their own bodies," and when excommunicated for adultery "began to go away from that time and to be Joseph's enemy" (43-44).

Was it a political power struggle? Taylor explained: "As American citizens, we had to vote. If we voted for the Whigs, the Democrats were our enemies; if for the Democrats, the Whigs were our enemies. Now it was the policy of Joseph Smith to take a middle ways . . . [we put] several persons in [the city council in Nauvoo who were] not in the church. . . . I speak of these things in order to show the conciliatory spirit Joseph Smith made use of in order to calm the troubled feelings of people and do away with the strong antipathy that generally prevailed" (48).

Taylor also spoke about the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, published by enemies of Joseph and very critical of him. Declaring it a nuisance that "was calculated to injure, destroy [the] community," the Nauvoo City Council ordered the sheriff to legally abate it. Taylor testifies, "I was on that council and I believe made perhaps the first move toward the destruction of it" (45). He rightly points out that Blackstone's legal commentary gave substantive legal authority for a government to act upon a public nuisance, and the city charter of Nauvoo "gave unto us power to declare what was a nuisance and remove it" (46). Taylor went on to explain that he did not see this merely as a matter of hanging onto a legal technicality and that the action of the City Council would be justified as a general principle of social order: "There is a difference between freedom and abuse of it. . . . There is no country I can go to that will allow me to interfere with the rights of citizens in that country" (46-47). And on this point, he reports a remarkable conversation he subsequently had with Governor Thomas Ford, who said, "'Mr. Taylor, I was sorry you destroyed that;' [Taylor] 'yet,' says I, 'it was legal.' [Ford] 'That is nothing but it comes in contact with the prejudice of the people.' . . . [Taylor] 'What were we to do then?' [Ford] 'I would have got up a mob to destroy it and that would have cleared the city council'" (47)!! Thus, any assertion that Joseph caused his own death by acting illegally in connection with the destruction of the Expositor is disregarding the fact that the Nauvoo Council acted legally in declaring the paper a public nuisance, as Ford himself seems to have conceded.

Of course, with hindsight one might wonder what else the Council might have tried, or if it might have used better judgment. It could have issued a warning, or demanded the right to publish a rebuttal in that newspaper, or just pied the type and required the press to move out of town. But the Council did not act in haste; it debated and deliberated for many hours, and in the end, besides demolishing the printing press itself, only paper and office furniture was burned, and no one was injured or arrested. Yet the revenge of Joseph's enemies was calculated, legally unjustifiable, and flagrantly excessive, as Taylor reports: "[They] fabricated every kind of falsehood in order to inflame and irritate the public mind, and they succeeded in great measure in doing it" (47).

As Taylor makes clear, the whole matter of the Expositor was ultimately just a pretext to get Joseph to Carthage. In order to hold him there, Joseph was charged with committing "treason against the United States." Of this completely groundless accusation, Taylor said: "They had been put up to this by one of the lawyers. They did this because treason was not a bailable case and they thought they would get them [Joseph and Hyrum] into prison where they could accomplish their designs upon them" (56).

Taylor's statement is most powerful as he forcefully declares his unwavering testimony of Joseph Smith as a prophet of God: "I have heard him speak, as many of you have, in public to advance the principles of eternal truth, plead with the people to observe the laws of God. . . . I know that he was a good man; that he was an honest man; that he was a man of integrity; that he was a prophet of the Lord; that he lived in that capacity and died in that capacity and maintained his integrity to the end. . . . I not only know it by my natural sight but by the revelations of God. And I know by the same way that he yet lives because I have seen him and I know he yet lives" (41).

For a selected list of other articles published by BYU Studies about the Martyrdom and Nauvoo during this difficult time, see any of the following: