Joseph Smith, a True Martyr

Danel W. Bachman

Danel W. Bachman, “Joseph Smith, a True Martyr,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1993), 317–32.

Danel W. Bachman was an instructor at the LDS Institute of Religion adjacent to Utah State University in Logan, Utah when this was published.

Denials That Joseph Smith Was a Martyr

Twenty-five years ago Truman Madsen wrote an essay entitled “Joseph Smith Among the Prophets” in which he evaluated Joseph Smith against “ten widely-accepted descriptions of the great prophets of the Hebrew-Christian tradition” (Madsen 47). In applying these criteria which non-Mormons use in calling one a prophet, he found that in each instance Joseph Smith qualified.

Today we need a similar assessment in reference to Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. Soon after the murders of Joseph and Hyrum, there were those who said they were not martyrs, and in recent years it has become fashionable for professional anti-Mormons, as part of their campaign to blot out Mormonism from the registers of Christianity, to deny Joseph Smith the status of martyr. Even some Latter-day Saints agree. This essay represents a humble preamble to what I hope will call forth a more detailed study by one better qualified on the subject of “Joseph Smith Among the Martyrs.”

As I said, at an early day there were those who resisted the notion that Joseph and Hyrum were martyrs. One of the earliest examples took place in the Illinois state senate in December of 1844. A bill was introduced to repeal the Nauvoo Charter, and on 16 December someone in the debate defended the Charter and the Mormons. The next day Senator John Henry arose and said, “Yesterday we heard of the murder of the Smiths, as though these men were martyrs in the cause of truth and uprightness.” He scoffed at the idea on the basis of their alleged involvement in the attempted assassination of Lilburn Boggs. “Murrel had his strickers [sic],” Henry exclaimed, and “Joe Smith had his Danites, who he employed in his hellish errands. And yet with such facts before us, sympathy is sought to be excited for Joe Smith” (“Illinois” 2).

Three examples illustrate the flavor of modern anti-Mormon sentiment. In 1972 Elinar Anderson, an ex-Mormon, calling on unspecified English dictionaries as his authority, declared:

The Prophet’s followers mourned their leader as a martyr, which was not literally true. A martyr, according to English dictionaries, is one who suffers death as a penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce his religion or the principles and practice thereof. Joseph Smith and his co-conspirators were jailed for breaking the law, and even in jail were armed with guns and attempted to defend themselves, until they were outnumbered. In Mormon writings, this fact is never found. (29)

Anderson either ignorantly or intentionally misleads his readers with the affirmation that LDS histories leave out Joseph’s use of the pistol (see History of the Church 7:1-3; hereafter HC).

In 1978 Walter Martin appealed to historical precedent to make a similar argument:

The Mormons refer to this as Joseph’s martyrdom, but, as history indicates, martyrs are people who willingly submit to death for their convictions, leaving final justice to God. Such was not the case with Joseph Smith, Jr., who died with a gun in his hand, returning the fire of his murderers! Self-defense is understandable, but hardly a qualification for martyrdom! (41)

Several years later Ed Decker and Dave Hunt agreed with Martin, adding the assertion that Joseph went to Carthage for denying his beliefs rather than “standing up for them.” The authors continue:

He was arrested and imprisoned for persecuting other people, and he died in a blazing gun battle in which he killed at least two men and wounded another. The mob that murdered him committed a heinous crime, but the fact is that he did not die quietly like a lamb led to the slaughter, as did Jesus Christ. Joseph Smith answered back viciously against those who accused him, and they didn’t accuse him wrongfully, as the Pharisees did Jesus. Joseph Smith was no martyr, but a fighter who in utter disregard for the freedom of the press and rights of others physically destroyed a newspaper that criticized him. This was the crime for which he was arrested and imprisoned. (173; emphasis in original)

Finally, I cite former institute teacher, scholar, and historian, T. Edgar Lyon. Two members of a CES curriculum team, William Schafermeyer and David Ridges, interviewed him in 1976 in preparation for work on a new CES Church History manual. The following excerpt is transcribed from a tape recording of the interview:

Lyon: Was Joseph Smith martyred? Is he a martyr?

Ridges: As far as I’m concerned, by my definition, yes.

Lyon: What’s your definition of a martyr?

Ridges: My definition is somebody that dies for a particular cause.

Lyon: And what did he die for? What was the cause?

Ridges: He died because the people hated him because of the gospel and . . .

Lyon: How many people that killed him knew anything about the gospel?

Ridges: I would doubt that many of them did, but he was a Mormon and they scavenged (? Word unintelligible), rumors and stuff . . .

Lyon: Why did they hate the Mormons? . . . They couldn’t have cared less about him being a Mormon or a Presbyterian or a Methodist or anything else, it was the same. It wasn’t religion. It was politics, and a concept of the kingdom of God—a political kingdom of God . . .

The big issue was basically the Mormons and their political strength in the county. And the second one was the kingdom of God idea, of a distortion which they made of it . . . And it looked to them as though you had a revolutionary body that was going to try to destroy the government of the United States and take over the world. And they were seeing an example of it right in Hancock County where you couldn’t get elected to any office if you didn’t play ball with the Mormons. It was naturally a foregone conclusion you were out. So Joseph Smith went to Carthage to answer for having destroyed a press, or having violated the provisions of the United States Constitution. . . . One, the destruction of property without due process of law, the other one the freedom of the press. Now you see why I’m raising the question is . . . what’s your cause of martyrdom? What is it? . . . Religion played little part in it.

Parenthetically, it should be noted that Dr. Lyon’s logic about the violation of constitutional principles is anachronistic. Although deprivation of property without “due process of law” became a provision of the Constitution as a part of the Fifth Amendment which went into effect 15 December 1791, it was not until after the principle was reiterated in slightly but significantly different language in the Fourteenth Amendment passed on 28 July 1868 that “due process of law” became an important issued in American Constitutional history, particularly as to whether the provisions of these two amendments pertained to the states. Moreover the destruction of the Expositor, was accomplished by the act of the Nauvoo City Council, and was therefore arguably “abated” in accordance with due process (see Oaks.)

The Definition of Martyr

Contrary to Mr. Anderson’s and Dr. Lyon’s beliefs, neither the ancient nor the modern meaning of the word prevents Joseph Smith’s joining the ranks of martyrs. Our English word “martyr” is derived from the Greed word martys. As it is used in the Bible it was originally a legalistic term meaning “witness.” In the New Testament, martys is used only in reference to persons not to things. The form martyria refers to the act of testifying or the testimony itself and martyrion is that which serves as evidence, proof, or a fact established by evidence (New Bible Dictionary 1335). In the Bible, these words are only translated into our English word “martyr” three times, at Acts 22:20; Rev 2:13, and 17:6. Most standard Bible dictionaries do not have a topic heading under “martyr” or “martyrdom’ but nearly all discuss the word under the topic “witness.”

However, in the New Testament the expression is associated with the deaths of Stephen and Antipus (Acts 22:20; Rev 2:13), and Revelation 17:6 speaks of the “blood of martyrs.” One author asserts this is “hardly justified though martys quickly developed this [the modern] meaning” (New Bible Dictionary 1335). It is interesting to note, however, that the two times the word appears in the Book of Mormon, it is in connection with the death of Church members at the hand of persecutors (see Alma 14:9, 25:8). Moreover, Paul taught the Hebrews “where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of a testator” (Heb 9:17). These passages suggest the association of death with the meaning of the word.

Therefore, apparently because of these associations and the milieu of persecution in the early Church, Biblical scholars tell us that by the second century, certainly by the time of Origen (c AD 185-254), the word martys was given a technical meaning: “those who showed allegiance to Christ by their death.” And even though a full-fledged martyrdom theology developed in the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches, the original meaning of the word emphasized “the prophetic witness rather than the death itself” (Harpers Bible Dictionary 610).

The case of Abinadi in the book of Mosiah perhaps illustrates how the death of a prophet is an act of “witnessing.” Just prior to being burned at the stake, Abinadi told king Noah that he had allowed himself to fall into his hands in order that the king “may know of [a] surety” of Abinadi’s prophecies about the future of Noah and his people. Abinadi continues: “Yea, and I will suffer even until death, and I will not recall my words, and they shall stand as a testimony against you. And if ye slay me ye will shed innocent blood, and this shall also stand as a testimony against you at the last day” (Mosiah 17:9-10).

Abinadi’s prophecies to King Noah take on added significance because of his willingness to die rather than rescind them. His unretracted assertions would become a “testimony against” Noah “at the last day.” Moreover, Abinadi’s “innocent blood” would also become a “testimony” against the king. So from a Latter-day Saint perspective, the act of witnessing or testifying and dying for that testimony are intimately associated concepts (see JST Matt 10:34; JST Luke 9:24; JST Luke 14:26; John 15:13; 1 John 3:16 (10-18); D&C 58:2-4; 98:13-15; 101:15-16, 35-37; 103:27-28; 124:54). In this light it is not insignificant that when John Taylor “announce[d] the martyrdom of Joseph . . . and Hyrum” he did so in the language reminiscent of Paul and Abinadi. Not only were the “testators . . . now dead, and their testament . . . in force,” but “their innocent blood, with the innocent blood of all the martyrs under the altar that John saw, will cry unto the Lord of Hosts till he avenges that blood on the earth” (D&C 135:1, 5, 7; emphasis in original).

Thus, the meaning of the word as it has evolved in contemporary dictionaries does not exclude Joseph Smith from being classed among Christian martyrs because it cannot be demonstrated that the restrictions attributed to it by the aforementioned authors are valid. Indeed, the Random House Dictionary definition is broad enough now to include not only those who choose to suffer and die for their religion; but “any person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause,” or “a person who undergoes severe or constant suffering.”

Can a Martyr Resist Death?

One will notice that the interpretation that martyrs do not resist death is not part of the ancient or the modern meanings of the word as Anderson, Martin, Decker, and Hunt suggest. So whence this notion? It is difficult to say for sure, but the most likely possibilities are the scriptural accounts of Jesus and Stephen, neither of whom opposed their deaths.

Naysayers of Joseph Smith’s qualifying point to four elements of his resistance, any one of which, they say, would remove him from the honored ranks of the martyrs. First, he used a gun. Second, he tried to escape by trying to jump out the window. Third, he allegedly called on the Nauvoo Legion to rescue him. And fourth, he violated his own statement that he was going “like a lamb to the slaughter.”

In response to these objections, some important questions about a comparison of Joseph Smith with traditional Christian martyrs arise. Jesus, Stephen, and Paul are the epitome of Christian martyrs. While the accounts or the deaths of Jesus and Stephen state or imply their passive acceptance of death, the conclusion that martyrs do not resist death based on these examples is superficial. While Jesus finally accepted judgment and death at the hands of the Jews and Romans in Jerusalem, he did resist earlier attempts against his life. Likewise, Paul resisted being put to death through Rome’s legal and judicial system, apparently taking advantage of every provision of Roman law that might bring an acquittal. Similarly, Abinadi fled from the wrath of the people of Noah on his first visit among them. So one has to ask why do some critics distinguish between the resistance of Jesus and Paul and that of Joseph Smith? Is Joseph’s disallowed because it was violent and extralegal? Is only nonviolent and legal resistance permitted by martyrs? If so, on what basis is this criterion decided?

Moreover, the circumstances in Carthage seem different from those of most other Christian martyrs’ deaths. Prisoners typically do not have weapons in prison as Joseph Smith did, nor do they have innocent cell mates present who are not under indictment but are simply there as supporting friends. One can legitimately ask how Stephen or Paul might have reacted under similar circumstances. In addition, were martyrs usually surprised by a hostile illegal lynch mob as were Joseph and Hyrum? Most, it seems, had time to contemplate their fate and presumably their reactions to it after the authorities had condemned them to death. In Carthage, no such sentence had been passed; the prisoners were not awaiting execution, only adjudication of their case. Consequently, the comparison between Joseph and Hyrum and most typical Christian martyrs does not appear to be completely analogous.

Nevertheless, we do have some indications from another period of Church history that may speak to this issue. In November 1838 Joseph and Hyrum were sentenced to be shot by a quasi-military court-martial. An examination of the records of that period reveals no effort on the part of either man to violently resist their fate either personally or by rallying their supporters. Joseph explained:

As far as I was concerned, I felt perfectly calm, and resigned to the will of my heavenly Father. . . . And notwithstanding that every avenue of escape seemed to be entirely closed, and death stared me in the face, and that my destruction was determined upon, as far as man was concerned; yet, from my first entrance into the camp, I felt an assurance, that I with my brethren and our families should be consolation to my soul, in the depth of sorrow and distress, bade me be of good cheer, and promised deliverance. (8)

Hyrum, however, writing a month later speaks of no spiritual premonitions. His straightforward statement was:

I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast; and I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life. My confidence in God was likewise unshaken. (23)

In pondering whether martyrs may resist death, we find still another question presents itself: Who and what determines the time of martyrdom, and how does the martyr-to-be know the time has arrived? If one agrees that Abinadi’s fleeing from king Noah, or Paul’s using the Roman judicial system, or Jesus’ “passing through the midst” of the crowd at Nazareth (Luke 4:30) are, in effect, resisting, martyrdom, and that they differ from Joseph Smith’s defiance only in degree, then one is led to ask why did Abinadi, Paul, and Jesus resist? Why didn’t they submit to the will of their opponents when they were first threatened? Obviously, in the cases of Abinadi and Jesus, they resisted because their missions were not complete. The same may also be true of Paul in that it gave him time to take the gospel to Rome, although that point is not as explicit in the record of his story as it is in those of Abinadi and Jesus. Since Joseph was only awaiting the disposition of his case, and not yet on “death row,” is it reasonable to assume that he knew when and how his own martyrdom was to take place, and should have faced it more calmly than he did?

Jesus’ martyrdom differs in at least one major respect from those of Abinadi, Paul, Joseph, and Hyrum, and that is that he was not powerless to change the outcome, while they succumbed to forces beyond their control. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the “lamb to the slaughter” metaphor, where the emphasis is on the slaughter and the powerlessness of the lamb to resist it, rather than the lamb’s nonresistance. Indeed, those familiar with sheep tell me that once a sheep becomes aware of the danger it faces, its anxiety and resistance can be quite pronounced, though futile (Welch).

Two questions about resistance remain. Why did Joseph attempt to jump out the window? Nobody knows for certain, but Willard Richards believed that “Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and probably thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren . . . if he could escape, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor, and sprang into the window” (Jessee 16). If, indeed, the Prophet was attempting to save Willard Richards and John Taylor, that would be in keeping with one of his reasons for going to Carthage as we shall soon see.

Finally, did Joseph request the Nauvoo Legion to come and extricate him from incarceration? In 1984 Mark Hofmann published a letter dated 27 June 1844 purporting to be from Joseph Smith to Jonathon Dunham, which ordered Dunham to leave the defense of Nauvoo to Captain Singleton, and to bring as many of the Legion as possible with him to Carthage. Richard Anderson has show that letter to be a forgery, probably based upon secondhand stories published in Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History (Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Martyrdom” 14). Every evidence is that the scenario portrayed in the History of the Church, that Joseph placed Dunham and the rest of the Legion under the direction of Governor Ford and Captain Singleton, is correct and that those orders were never changed or rescinded. Joseph’s attitude and posture the entire time was one of submission and cooperation with Governor Ford rather than one of resistance.

The Milieu of Martyrdom

There is yet another reason Joseph’s brief and unsuccessful resistance does not block his being considered a martyr. Walter Martin argued that shooting a pistol at a lynch mob illustrates that Joseph was not willing to die for his faith and testimony. However, an examination of the events in the period immediately leading up to the assassination show otherwise. As Richard Anderson noted, Joseph understood perfectly the dangers in Carthage; nevertheless, he purposefully chose to return and face when he believed was certain death. For example, in May when Joseph was in Carthage to face indictments brought against him by Nauvoo dissenters, Thomas Sharp wrote in his Warsaw Signal that he was convinced that Joseph was not safe outside Nauvoo. “We would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time. He has deadly enemies—men whose wrongs have maddened them. . . . The feeling in this country is now lashed to its utmost pitch, and it will break forth in fury upon the slightest provocation” (2). Joseph also knew that indignation meetings led by the anti-Mormon party in Carthage on 13 June had agreed on resolutions to “exterminate, utterly exterminate the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders” (“Preamble” 1; HC 6:464). “Exterminate” was an emotion-laden word to the Saints after the Missouri persecutions, and the anti-Mormons knew that. No one doubted the seriousness of the resolution, least of all Joseph. He repeatedly expressed the sentiment, in letters to Governor Ford and to others, that the apostates and anti-Mormon element in Hancock County wanted his blood.

In addition, Professor Anderson observes, as with the instance in Far West and in most other times before Carthage when Joseph faced serious danger, he was optimistic that he would survive, that his number was not up. But he apparently had no such hopeful inspiration from the Lord while in Carthage, and he therefore spoke no optimistic assurances to his family and friends as he had done during previous crises. It was different this time. A gloomy, dark cloud surrounded the Prophet and the events of the fortnight following the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor on 7 June 1844. “Slaughter,” “butchery,” “massacre,” “thirst for blood,” and “murder” dominated the vocabulary of those dark days (Anderson, “Prophecies of Martyrdom” 1, 8).

Yet in the midst of it all, Joseph and Hyrum resolved to go to Carthage. Why? Was it simply a matter of resignation in the awareness that the time was at hand and there was a noble motive, although the exact method and moment may have been a mystery? Contemporary statements suggest the latter.

Vilate Kimball adds a unique perspective to the Prophet’s return across the Mississippi on 24 June. Some accounts say that Joseph had a revelation directing him to head west (HC 6:545-46). But Vilate wrote to her husband that, “Joseph went over the river out of the United States, and there stoped [sic] and composed his mind, and got the will of the Lord concerning him, and that was, that he should return and give himself up for trial” (Esplin 235). Was there a revelation? Were there two revelations? No one knows, but I do not doubt the possibility. If the Prophet were instructed to return, what could have been the catalyst for such a revelation? We know that a delegation visited Joseph on the Iowa side of the river and pleaded with him to return. We further know that at the core of those pleadings was a genuine concern that Nauvoo faced great danger from the bellicose spirit prevalent in Hancock County and in Western Illinois in general (Newell; see also Oaks and Hill 17). The pleadings cut to the quick of his heart. It is my view that the Prophet returned, not necessarily because of the accusation of cowardice, but because he knew that only blood would satisfy the opposition now, and the blood they sought was his. Vilate Kimball continued in her letter: “Their giveing [sic] themselves up, is all that will save our city from destruction. The Governor wrote if they did not do so, our city was suspended upon so many caggs [sic] of powder, and it needed only one spark to tulch [sic] them off, so you can see how he feels” (235). Once on the Illinois side of the river, Joseph visited his family one last time. William Clayton recorded the following in his journal entry for 24 June 1844:

He appeared to feel solemn & though[t]ful, and from expressions made to several individuals, he expects nothing but to be massacred. This he expressed before he returned from over the river but their appearing no alternative but he must either give himself up or the City be massacred by a lawless mob under the sanction of the Governor. (Allen 140; emphasis added)

So Joseph decided to sacrifice himself for his people. The term sacrifice should not be taken lightly. He viewed himself as a literal sacrifice to save his people. And he was an innocent sacrifice, too (see HC 6:630; 7:187). It was something he had anticipated. On 23 January 1843 Wilford Woodruff records that Joseph said, “I understand my mishion [sic] & business. God Almighty is my shield. . . . I shall not be sacrafised [sic] untill [sic] my time comes. Then I shall be offered freely” (Woodruff 2:217). The Prophet had been in that frame of mind before. In a sermon on Sunday 12 May 1844 he declared: “I once offered my life to the Missouri mob as a sacrifice for my people, and here I am” (HC 6:365). The same thread is found in his last speech to the Nauvoo Legion on 18 June 18484:

I do not regard my own life. I am ready to be offered a sacrifice for this people; for what can our enemies do? Only kill the body, and their power is then at an end. Stand firm, my friends; never flinch. Do not seek to save your lives, for he that is afraid to die for the truth, will lose eternal life. . . . God has tried you. You are a good people; therefore I love you with all my heart. Greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends. You have stood by me in the hour of trouble, and I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation. (HC 6:500)

Others remembered Joseph as saying he was going to Carthage to sacrifice his life. Gilbert Belnap recorded in his autobiography: “They, however, surrendered the public arms and he gave himself a sacrifice for the people. Well I remember his saying, ‘Although I possessed the means of escape, yet I submit without a struggle and repair to the place of slaughter’” (Andrus and Andrus 181). Dan Jones recalled that before Joseph left for Carthage, his mother reminded him that she had seen him dragged from her many times before and he always told her he would return. “What say you now, my son?” she asked. Jones reported that Joseph replied:

My friends, nay, dearer still, my brethren, I love you. I love the city of Nauvoo too well to save my life at your expense. If I go not to them, they will come and act out the horrid Missouri scenes in Nauvoo. I may prevent it. I fear not death. My work is well nigh done. Keep the faith and I will die for Nauvoo. (Andrus and Andrus 183-84)

Years later Oliver B. Huntington recorded that he had recently learned from Peter Cownover “another evidence of the certainty in the Prophet’s mind that he was going to Carthage to be slain as a sacrifice for the Saints.” Cownover said that he had been in Carthage in charge of prisoners arrested by the county sheriff, and that he arrived back in Nauvoo about the time Joseph and his party were coming out. When Cownover heard they were going to Carthage, he said “’If you go there they will kill you.’ ‘I know it,’ replied the Prophet, ‘but I am going. I am going to give myself for the people, to save them’” (Huntington 2:124-25). Shortly after the murders of the Prophet and his brother, the Twelve published an epistle to the Church. It was their testimony that Joseph and Hyrum “voluntarily yielded themselves to cruel murderers who had sworn to take their lives, and thus like good shepherds have laid down their lives for the sheep” (Young 5:168-20). At the last Joseph said he was “void of offense” and “I shall die innocent” (D&C 135:4). It was the testimony of Brigham Young and John Taylor that he did (see Journal of Discourses 1:40-41; D&C 135:7).

In conclusion, my study indicates that not only are the arguments that Joseph Smith does not fit the definition of a martyr superficial at best, but they are intentionally deceptive at worst. In every way that I know anything about, Joseph Smith qualifies to stand among the true martyrs of Christendom. A young Hungarian Jewish woman who gave her life during World War II as a martyr in the cause of her people once wrote:

There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind. (Atkinson 206).

Joseph Smith is such a light.


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