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Courtesy Library of Congress "Martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith in Carthage Jail, June 27th, 1844" lithograph by artist C.G. Crehen. Hyrum Smith's name is misspelled in the title of the piece.
Book examines pivotal moment in U.S. history — Joseph Smith’s murder
Book » In nation founded on religious liberty, Alex Beam describes violent era when LDS leader was killed.
First Published Jun 26 2014 07:18 pm • Last Updated Jun 30 2014 09:49 am

On a muggy June afternoon in Carthage, Ill., exactly 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 LDS history, marking the end of the faith’s founding era and the beginning of its exile and exodus to Utah.

At a glance

Written word

Excerpts from Alex Beam’s “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church”:

“In 1843, the eager-to-please council awarded the town’s liquor monopoly to...Joseph’s Nauvoo Mansion. ‘A hotel that is a temperance house cannot support itself,’ was Joseph’s rationale, speaking as an innkeeper and not as the revealer of the Word of Wisdom, ‘and if anybody needs profits, I do.’ ”

“Thomas Ford speculated that a future Church of [Jesus Christ of] Latter-day Saints might swell to many times the size of the tens of thousands of members it claimed in 1844...Should that occur, Ford wrote, ‘the humble governor of an obscure State, who would otherwise be forgotten in a few years, stands a far chance, like Pilate and Herod, by their official connection with the true religion, of being dragged down to posterity with an immortal name.”

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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, says 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 says, 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 says. "In most accounts, Smith is seen as a strange guy who had a bunch of followers and then was killed."

For Beam, the slaughter of the Mormon founder — as well as the conflicts leading up to it — provides rich insights into the dynamics of the native-born faith, the country’s failure to protect religious freedom for unpopular churches, and mob violence in the 19th century.

"Here’s a guy who believed in the American Constitution and the country’s institutions like courts," Beam says. "And here’s a country that’s always talking about the freedom of religion. Yet he was essentially killed for talking about his religion."

And Smith was not just gunned down by a mob of hooligans, Beam says. 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.’ "

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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.

Creating an outsider movement » In 1830, Smith, a one-time 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.

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