Mormon founder executed 168 years ago after starting rogue religious city-state
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Most Americans know very little of the The Church of Latter Day Saints, or the Mormon Church, and even less about its founder, the religious megalomaniac, con artist, tyrant and mentally unstable “prophet” Joseph Smith. The Mormons will most likely be solemnly celebrating the day in which their founder, their prophet, was killed, treating the occasion as though he were a lamb taken to slaughter like Jesus Christ. And so a little biographical detail and history lesson is in order.
A good resource for an objective chronology of Joseph Smith’s Illinois perambulations lies in the book “A History of Illinois: From its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847.” The book’s author was Thomas Ford, the Governor of Illinois at the time. Ford, naturally, is not a little harsh with the Mormons, but how else could someone have responded when a treasure-hunting failed businessman attempted to set up a religious state in Nauvoo, Illinois. Perhaps Ford was wrong to entrust Smith and his brother Hyrum’s lives to the Carthage Greys, an anti-Mormon faction, but things then were not as they are now. Mob justice was always a possibility, especially during the time of Manifest Destiny.
Another good point of reference is John Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith.” Krakauer is known for his non-fiction prowess, and what readers will not get is the Mormon white-washing and distortion of historical events. “The Maze of Mormonism” by Dr. Walter Martin is also highly useful in understanding LDS.
In this article, however, we are only interested in the events leading up to Smith’s execution. Even a brief look at Smith’s chronology of travels across the midwest reveals failure after failure in creating a Mormon “Zion.” Indeed, “If at first you don’t succeed…” must have been Smith’s primary operating principle throughout his adult life. To be fair, however, the Mormons did suffer their fair share of scorn from non-Mormons; but the reaction to the scorn should have in no way led to a theocratic city-state with a standing army.
And, remember, America has always been a country rich in a variety of religious movements, most of which sprouted like tendrils from the protestant reformation. None seem to have attempted to create a theocratic city-state that would establish a state (or city) religion and abridge the First Amendment, as the early days of LDS shall illustrate.
In 1831, several years before heading to Illinois, Smith and LDS leaders set up a Mormon community in Kirtland, Ohio, hoping to establish the form of society they had envisioned. It was here that Smith and other church leaders attempted to establish a bank backed by real estate that Mormon followers would be encouraged to use, according to Fawn Brodie’s biography “No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith.” (Rather good idea for a money-making venture, no?)
“The toppling of the Kirtland bank loosed a hornets’ nest. Creditors swarmed in upon Joseph armed with threats and warrants. He was terribly in debt. There is no way of knowing exactly how much he and his leading elders had borrowed, since the loyal Mormons left no itemized account of their own claims. But the local non-Mormon creditors whom he could not repay brought a series of suits against the prophet which the Geauga county court duly recorded. These records tell a story of trouble that would have demolished the prestige and broken the spirit of a lesser man.
Thirteen suits were brought against him between June 1837 and April 1839, to collect sums totaling nearly $25,000. The damages asked amounted to almost $35,000. He was arrested seven times in four months, and his followers managed heroically to raise the $38,428 required for bail. Of the thirteen suits only six were settled out of court-about $12,000 out of the $25,000. In the other seven the creditors either were awarded damages or won them by default.” (pp. 198-202)
After fleeing from Kirtland following a warrant issued on account of bank fraud and multiple lawsuits, Smith moved to Far West, Missouri to establish yet another Zion, which is where the religion received its new name—The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
It was in Far West where Smith and some of his followers become more militant in their faith, adopting a paranoia of persecution by non-Mormons and disaffected Mormons alike—something typical of a great deal of revealed religions. A series of events during this time led to the 1838 Mormon War, which saw Mormons and Non-Mormons raiding each other’s towns, ultimately leading to the Battle of Crooked Creek, which found Smith and his Mormon army attacking a state militia—yes, a state militia. Smith’s army eventually surrendered and were tried for treason, but Smith was spirited away in April of 1839, thus avoiding trial.
Next stop: Nauvoo, Illinois.
Once in Nauvoo, Smith and his followers (those who hadn’t sensed his long con), made some friends in the Illinois government and received a charter for the city that would allow him to make it something of a city-state, or an autonomous zone, where the “oppressed” Mormon minority could feel safe and escape persecution. They were also granted a militia, the Nauvoo Legion, with John C. Bennett (a Mormon convert), and former member of the Illinois legislature, installed as Mayor. It was in Nauvoo that Smith introduced the concepts of polygamy and bigamy (revealed by God, of course). By 1842, Smith was intent on making Nauvoo the capital of a great American theocratic state. Good times.
Missouri officials attempted to have Smith extradited for the charges of treason, but Smith escaped on a writ of habeas corpus specifically designed for the city of Nauvoo. As Gov. Ford wrote in his book:
They enacted that no writ issued from any other place than Nauvoo, for the arrest of any person in it, should be executed in the city, without an approval endorsed thereon by the Mayor; that if any public officer, by virtue of any foreign writ, should attempt to make an arrest in the city, without such approval of his process, he should be subject to imprisonment for life, and that the Governor of the State should not have the power of pardoning the offender without the consent of the Mayor. When these ordinances were published, they created general astonishment. Many people began to believe in good earnest that the Mormons were about to set up a separate government for themselves in defiance of the laws of the state. (pg. 320)
With Missouri unable to extradite Smith, the LDS founder attempted to get guarantees of assistance from federal politicians. When these efforts failed, Smith announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. Megalomania anyone?
At this point, according to ex-communicated author LDS member D. Michael Quinn, Smith organized the secret Council of Fifty to decide which state and federal laws the Mormon church would obey, but also find locations for a new Mormon theocratic state (California, Texas and Oregon were early candidates—Utah, of course, would become the ultimate site). Richard Ostling, a respected writer on religion in America, noted in his book “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” that Smith and church leaders were intent on setting up a “theodemocracy” with Smith installed as “Prophet, Priest, and King” of the Mormon Church, according to church leader William Clayton.
As Ford wrote:
It seems, from the best information which could be got from the best men who had seceded from the Mormon church, that Joe Smith about this time conceived the idea of making himself a prince as well as a spiritual leader of his people… He caused himself to be crowned and anointed king and priest, far above the rest… To uphold his pretensions of royalty, he deduced his descent by an unbroken chain from Joseph to the son of Jacob…” (Ford, pg. 322)
As in the monarchies of Europe, Smith was accumulating a divine mandate for kingly power, which had long been a repugnant idea to Americans, who had abhorred the tyranny of King George. One must wonder at this point if the real goal wasn’t so much to give the people divine revelation, but to simply accumulate power and money, to say nothing of a king’s ready access to a harem. Smith’s actions were more likely an admixture of religious delusion and greed.
By this time, John Bennett had been excommunicated for sexual indiscretions (a victim of a double standard it would seem), and so Smith was now both Mayor and President of LDS, making Nauvoo officially a theocratic city-state. How it was that Smith and company escaped state and federal law up until this point is truly astonishing: the political situation was a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
At this point, Smith’s doctrine of polygamy and power began to unsettle certain of his followers. Some were none too disposed toward adopting polygamy, nor in bestowing such political and religious power upon Smith. These critics created a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, which published opinions that Smith was a false prophet, too powerful and had corrupted women by forcing them into plural marriages.
Naturally, Smith had the paper censored after just one issue since he believed it was creating a threat to his person. Smith was quoted as saying in the City Council’s minutes, “…would rather die tomorrow and have the thing smashed, than live and have it go on, for it was exciting the spirit of mobocracy among the people, and bringing death and destruction upon us.”
Soon after, warrants from outside Nauvoo were issued against Smith, which he countered with his writ of habeas corpus, believing himself to be beyond the laws of man. On June 18, according to Edwin Brown Firmage and Richard Collin Mangrum, Smith declared Martial law and raised an army of 5,000 men.
A trial was to be held in the County seat of Carthage, and Smith eventually opted to face trial after Gov. Ford guaranteed his safety. They were brought to trial on the crime of treason against the State of Illinois; which, of course, was a capital offense in the United States at that time. Smith, however, would never make it to trial. Ford left Carthage and Smith in the hands of the anti-Mormon Carthage Greys. The jail was stormed by a 200-strong mob, where Smith and Hyrum were killed. (The Nauvoo Legion, it should be noted, was never summoned to defend Smith and company.)
Though Smith’s end was unfortunate, credit must be given to Ford for averting all-out war by convincing Smith to surrender. Remember, Smith had raised an army of 5,000 from the Nauvoo Legion and basically invited the Illinois Governor to put down the insurrection, which he had every right to do. Smith’s actions before and during the revolution displayed a fundamental disregard for the very idea of America’s freedom from any official religion.
If the State of Illinois had nipped the problem of Smith and his militarized theocratic Nauvoo city-state in the bud early, Smith’s execution might have been averted. And while Governor Ford may have had it in for Smith and the Mormon Church, and could have addressed problems differently, he did ensure that the First Amendment, which Smith necessarily despised, still meant something.
And one can’t help thinking that Smith’s aim all along was to create a situation by which his opponents, whether non-Mormons or his Mormon critics, would create a contemporary persecution and execution that was Christ-like, delivered by the hands of American Pontius Pilates and Jewish analogues. As he said, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me — he was murdered in cold blood.”
And this is the story that the LDS church has propagated—that Smith was a religious martyr. Yes, a martyr who trampled on the U.S. constitution, committed various acts of treason, engaged in censorship, all in an effort to create a militarized theocratic city-state somewhere, anywhere, and at all costs. He was the very definition of a tyrant. And tyrants, as history has so often shown, meet their ends at the hands of a mob.
They can call it an “assassination” all they want, but the fact remains that Joseph Smith was a violator of the U.S. constitution. If he’d respected it and not gotten caught up in religious fanaticism, he might have lived—in which case, the Church wouldn’t have its martyr.
Now readers know a little bit more about the church of which Mitt Romney is a member.