“We Announce the Martyrdom”: The Murder of Joseph Smith as Portrayed in Times and Seasons Poetry

By Benjamin E. Park

Benjamin E. Park, “‘We Announce the Martyrdom’: The Murder of Joseph Smith as Portrayed in Times and Seasons Poetry,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 34–47.

“We Announce the Martyrdom”: The Murder of Joseph Smith as Portrayed in Times and Seasons Poetry

Benjam​in E. ​Park

Zion’s noblest sons are weeping,

See her daughters bathed in tears,

Where the prophets now are sleeping,

Nature’s sleep—sleep of years.

When the earth shall be restored,

They will come with Christ the Lord.

(Mary Ann Broomhead, thirteen years old, 1844)[1]

June 27, 1844, will always be understood as a day of infamy by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Joseph and Hyrum are dead. Taylor wounded, not very badly. I am well. . . . The job was done in an instant,” wrote Willard Richards shortly after a mob stormed Carthage Jail.[2] The news fell on distraught and sorrowful ears. “My soul sickened and I wept before the Lord and for a time it seemed that the very Heavens were clad in mourning.”[3] “When [Joseph] was killed . . . I could have died, just laid down and died.”[4] Days later, nearly ten thousand mourners viewed the bodies when they were brought to the Mansion House, followed by many more attending the funeral. For the next year, much of the talk in Nauvoo circled around the death of their beloved leader and prophet.

As sad as the news was for the Saints, it remarkably brought a rejuvenation of dedication. One scholar noted,”There is a transformation of charismatic power into a continuing influence that follows the death of certain leaders. In this case the Mormon Prophet’s death became a source of moral and communal power for subsequent group development.”[5] Others have said that Joseph’s death came at the right time because it “unified his followers . . . and provided a useful element of tragedy and persecution.”[6] Some have even speculated that the Church would not have survived had it not been for the Martyrdom which pulled the Saints together.[7] When the New York Herald boldly declared that Joseph’s death would “seal the fate of Mormonism,” the result was not what they expected. They felt that their fate was sealed to ruin because another leader would not be able to take his place.[8] But, instead, it sealed the Church to the fate of establishing “one of the most stable and organized religious organizations.”[9] For some reason, the Martyrdom brought power and purpose to the Church, a power and purpose which can still be felt today when a member of the Church speaks about the Martyrdom. It is the purpose of this paper to explore some of the reasons why this was a unifying experience.

Much has been written on this event, as well as the reactions that followed, but possibly the most telling ideological window in understanding this event is what was written immediately after it took place. These writings capture the feelings of Joseph’s friends and family shortly after they received the news themselves. It reveals their immediate feelings of sorrow, anger, reverence, and hope. It also gives a glimpse into why the killing of their revered prophet did not lead to a termination of their faith but rather a blossoming of their religion.

One source of these contemporary accounts is in the Church newspaper at the time, the Times and Seasons. The last page of almost every issue contained a poetry section, often by writers such as Eliza R. Snow or W. W. Phelps. While the poetry usually covered a vast range of topics (which are all great insights into the current thought of the time), for the six months or so following the Martyrdom, the majority of the poems focused on the death of Joseph and Hyrum. Authors of these poems included, as usual, Snow and Phelps, as well as several others such as Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor. Although many themes are touched upon in the poems, four stand out above the rest: the legacy of Joseph Smith, the impending fate of the persecutors, the loss of freedom and civility in the United States, and the continued mission of the Prophet.

The Po​etry and the Poets

Before proceeding to analyze the content of the texts, it is important to discuss the poetry and poets as a whole. Since the poems were written shortly after Joseph was killed, they are fairly representative of the instantaneous reaction. When a person writes several years after an incident, that period of time allows them to consider the meaning as well as its importance and to write about past events with the end results already known. If someone were to write about the Martyrdom forty years after the fact, they would already know that the Church survived and flourished and could write with those elements in mind. However, these authors were writing immediately following the tragedy; therefore, they did not know how everything would turn out. Their words include hope and faith in regards to the survival of the Church, rather than concrete evidence of it.[10]

Another main point is that when looking through the poems, the reader notices that none of them attempt to convey personal reaction; rather, they all speak as if representative of the community at large. Each poem seems to play the role of mouth for the entire Latter-day Saint population as if they are all speaking as one. This point is supported by the fact that none of the poems contradict each other. In a way, each poem tells the same story and the same feelings, just in different words. At this moment in the Church’s history, a majority of the Saints were united in feeling and thought. This may be one of the things which led Governor Ford to state that the Martyrdom “bound them together closer than ever, [and] gave them new confidence in their faith.”[11] This element is exemplified in the anonymous poem “Lamentation of a Jew among the Afflicted and Mourning Sons and Daughters of Zion, at the Assassination of the Two Chieftains in Israel.”

How can we, a people in sackcloth,

Open our lips before thee?

They have rejected and slain our leaders,

Thine anointed ones.

Our eyes are dim, our hearts are heavy;

No place of refuge being left.

Redeem the people that in thee only trusts:

There is none to stand between and inquire:

Thou art our helper,

The refuge of Israel in time of trouble.[12]

It is also crucial to note that every author of the poetry presented in this article was personally acquainted with Joseph Smith and therefore were stung hard with the loss. Eliza R. Snow lived with the Prophet, taught his children, and was even sealed to him as a plural wife. The author of “Lamentation of a Jew” was most likely Alexander Neibaur, the Prophet’s dentist.[13] William W. Phelps was Joseph’s legal secretary and spent much time with him while writing all of the Prophet’s legal documents.[14] And finally, Parley P. Pratt and John Taylor were Apostles during a time when Joseph leaned on them more than ever before. Knowing this background, it is easier to understand the motivation behind the poetry.

The Le​gacy of Joseph Smith

The Saints had always held Joseph Smith in high regard. This love, as expected, grew exponentially as the news reached them that he had been killed. They immediately saw him as a sacrifice in their behalf and labeled him as a martyr for the truth, placing him with the prophets of the past. In their mind, Joseph had “ascended to heaven” as soon as the bullets pierced his body.[15] As John Taylor penned shortly after it happened, Joseph “lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3).

In the first poem after the Martyrdom, Eliza R. Snow writes a plea to God:

We mourn thy Prophet, from whose lips have flow’d

The words of life, thy spirit has bestow’d—

A depth of thought, no human art could reach

From time to time, roll’d in sublimest speech,

From the celestial fountain, through his mind,

To purify and elevate mankind:

The rich intelligence by him brought forth,

Is like the sun-beam, spreading o’er the earth.[16]

John Taylor echoes these remarks by writing,

His equal now cannot be found,—

By searching the wide world around.

With Gods he soared, in the realms of day;

And men he taught the heavenly way.[17]

W. W. Phelps made similar praise to Joseph when he wrote,

Great is his glory, and endless his priesthood,

Ever and ever the keys he will hold;

Faithful and true he will enter his kingdom,

Crown’d in the midst of the prophets of old.[18]

The Saints, however, did not stop at just comparing Joseph to the ancient prophets; they went further and compared his murder to the sacrifice of the Savior. In Taylor’s written statement, which has already been quoted from, he includes the bold declaration that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).[19] Eliza R. Snow would take this thought even further in her poem.

Had nature’s self a heart, her heart would bleed;

For never, since the son of God was slain

Has blood so noble, flow’d from human vein

As that which now, on God for vengeance calls

From “freedom’s ground”—from Carthage prison walls! . . .

Now Zion mourns—she mourns an earthly head:

The Prophet and the Patriarch are dead!

The blackest deed that men or devils know

Since Calv’ry’s scene, has laid the brothers low![20]

Comparing Joseph’s martyrdom to Christ’s crucifixion was a common theme among the Saints (see fig. 1). The poem “Lamentation of a Jew” makes an even clearer connection when it says that Joseph and Hyrum gave up their will in order to be in the will of the Father.[21] Such statements fit into their feel of pride for the new dispensation. Joseph Smith once stated that he had “more to boast of than any man ever had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such work as I.”[22]

As the beginning of the dispensation of the fullness of times, they felt like they had reason to boast, and that rhetoric made it into their poetry memorializing their dear prophet.

Another key part to the legacy of Joseph is that he is a martyr, meaning that he gave his life willingly for his cause.[23] The author of “Lamentation of a Jew” says that they were

Ready for a sacrifice;—standing in the breach,

Tried, proved and found perfect.

To save the blood of the fathers;

Their children, brothers, and sisters;[24]

John Taylor agrees on this point.

The saints;—the saints; his only pride,

For them he liv’d, for them he died![25]

Eliza R. Snow, Parley P. Pratt, and W. W. Phelps also point to the fact that Joseph was seen as a martyr in their poetry.[26] Even today, most poetry, prose, and art make Joseph out to be a glorious martyr, triumphant, and undefeated.

The Impending Fate of the Persecutors

As glamorously as the poets painted Joseph Smith, they also condemned those behind the vicious deed with equal force. Snow calls them “wretched murd’rers” that were “fierce for human blood.”[27] In a poem written for Joseph’s child, David Hyrum, she explains that he will never meet his father because he was killed “by the hands of wicked men.”[28] Pratt, answering his own question of “who, so cruel, or so hard in heart” would martyr the prophets, says that it was “some demon from the courts of Hell.”[29]

The author of “Lamentation of a Jew,” after calling them “false brethren,” pleads for God to

Give ear unto their cries until thou lookest

And shewest down from heaven—taking vengeance

And avenging their blood—avenging thy people and thy law,

According to thy promises made [30]

Parley P. Pratt, after explaining the descent a person would take to martyr a man of God, writes more on the thought of God avenging the persecutors. While telling the Saints to be patient and not to take the task of vengeance upon themselves, he writes:

Wait—till Missouri’s plains are soaked in blood

Of innocence, and the souls of Latter day Saints

Mingle their cries with yours for vengeance on

The earth. Wait, till the plains of Illinois,

And the walls of Carthage, are soaked with

The blood of martyred prophets, whose cries

Ascend to heaven for vengeance on a mob.[31]

William W. Phelps’s poem, “Joseph Smith,” also contained a statement similar to this, but it was changed later on before it was added to Church’s hymnbook. Today the text says,

Praise to his mem’ry, he died as a martyr;

Honored and blest be his ever great name!

Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,

Plead unto heav’n while the earth lauds his fame.[32]

The original text was as follows:

Praise to his mem’ry, he died as a martyr;

Honor’d and blest be his ever great name;

Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,

Stain Illinois, while the earth lauds his fame.[33]

It is not a surprise that Joseph’s followers would be crying to an avenging God, when Joseph had made similar cries only five years earlier while in Liberty Jail.[34] This notion of a God who is susceptible to emotions and reacts to pleading prayers is often referred to as divine passibility.[35] This doctrine, at the time fairly isolated within the Latter-day Saint faith, would have given Saints hope that God would swiftly avenge them of the wrongs committed by these awful servants of the devil.

Ye Saints! be still, and know that God is just—

With steadfast purpose in his promise trust.

Girded with sackcloth, own his mighty hand,

And wait his judgments on this guilty land![36]

The Loss of F​reedom and Civility in the United States

Where are thy far-fam’d laws—Columbia! where

Thy boasted freedom—thy protecting care?

Is this a land of rights? Stern-facts shall say

If legal justice here maintains its sway,

The official pow’rs of State are sheer pretence

When they’re exerted in the Saints’ defense.[37]

If prior events such as the expulsion from Jackson County, the extermination order, and President Van Buren’s denial for redress weakened the Church’s faith in the nation, then the Martyrdom completely destroyed it. Their prophet, who was running for the office of United States president at the time and was always an outspoken advocate for the Constitution, was killed by lawless men while under the custody of the state militia. They were now coming to the conclusion that there was no peace or safety found within the boundaries of the country they lived in. The Constitution, which they saw as inspired of the Lord, was not being obeyed by those who were in charge. This allowed lawlessness to reign. Eliza R. Snow wrote:

In an hour when peace and safety

Have the civil banner fled—

In a day when legal justice

Covers its dishonor’d head.[38]

When speaking of the coming vengeance of the Lord, Pratt does not limit it to just Missouri and Illinois:

Wait—till the last vestige of civil and

Religious liberty shall expire in

The bosom of a boasting nation, whose

Rulers mock the cries of justice,

And laugh at the prayers of the oppressed.[39]

This sentiment of being betrayed by their country would soon lead to their exodus to the unsettled frontier west. The Saints found it ironic that a nation which was built upon the principles of religious freedom would deny that same freedom to a group of people who saw themselves as patriots. This, they felt, was a disgrace to America’s founding heritage.

Shades of our patriotic fathers! Can it be,

Beneath your blood-stain’d flag of liberty;

The firm supporters of our country’s cause,

Are butcher’d while submissive to her laws?[40]

The Continued M​​ission of the Prophet

Possibly the most comforting condolence for the Saints after the death of Joseph was that they knew Joseph’s mission had not ended. The Mormon theology of death allows for the thought of a continued mission beyond the grave. They knew that not even death could keep Joseph from fulfilling his purpose. This gave the Saints at least three reasons to be comforted. The first is that they knew that Joseph was now free from the troubles that plagued him throughout his life. He could now perform his work without the distractions of mobs, apostates, and the government. Two of his closest friends were thrilled at the thought of Joseph being free from this torment.

Great is his glory, and endless his priesthood,

Ever and ever the keys he will hold;

Faithful and true he will enter his kingdom,

Crown’d in the midst of the prophets of old. . . .

Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren,

Death cannot conquer the hero again. [41]

He’s free;—he’s free;—the Prophet’s free!

He is where he will ever be,

Beyond the reach of mobs and strife,

He rests unharm’d in endless life,

His home’s in the sky;—he dwells with the Gods,

Far from the furious rage of mobs.[42]

The second reason is that they apparently thought that Joseph could have even more impact to help the Church while on the other side of the veil. “The noble martyrs now have gone to move the cause of Zion in the courts above,” Snow explains.[43]

And finally, the Saints were able to take comfort in the fact that they will be able to see Joseph again. This, probably even more so than the other factors, gave the Church reason to continue in the path Joseph set up for them. They knew that if they stayed worthy, living up to the teachings and commandments of the gospel, there would be a glorious reunion with their martyred leader.

He died; he died—for those he lov’d,

He reigns;—he reigns in realms above,

He waits with the just who have gone before,

To welcome the saints to Zions shore;

Shout, shout ye saints—this boon is given,

We’ll meet our martyr’d seer in heaven.[44]

William Phelps wrote of the same comfort that awaits us in the next realm:

Come to me; here’s the future, the present and past;

Here is Alpha, Omega, the first and the last;

Here’s the fountain, the “river of life,” and the Tree;

Here’s your Prophet & Seer, Joseph Smith: Come to me.[45]

Conclusi​on

When Joseph Smith was murdered by an angry mob after leading the Latter-day Saint Church for only fourteen years, many thought it would be the end of that religious movement. However, the Church continued to prosper and expand to a degree everyone thought unlikely. One of the reasons they were able to do this was how they viewed the death of their prophet. Instead of viewing it as a meaningless tragedy, they were able to glean meaning which would increase their faith. They continued to revere the Prophet and praised him even more after he died. They viewed those who committed the crime as wicked men who had their due coming. They felt that the United States had lost the freedom it had been originally founded on. And, finally, they knew that if they lived worthy while building the kingdom which Joseph started, they would be able to greet him again. All of these sentiments, as well as a few others, are exemplified in the poetry written shortly after the martyrdom occurred. It was their faith and outlook which sealed their future as one of expansion and triumph, rather than one of diminution and extermination.

Notes


[1] Quoted in Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “Through Teenage Eyes,” New Era, June 1994, 43. A copy of the sampler that this poem is embroidered on is found in Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and T. Jeffery Cottle, A Window to the Past (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1993), 57.

[2] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:621–22.

[3] As quoted in Heidi S. Swinton, American Prophet: The Story of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Shadow Mountain, 1999), 8.

[4] Jane James, Young Woman’s Journal 16, no. 12 (December 1905): 553.

[5] Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace and Glory (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000), 230.

[6] George Bartholomew Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing Forms (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932), 126.

[7] David Williams, “The Welsh Mormons,” The Welsh Review, 113–18.

[8] New York Herald, July 8, 1844.

[9] Dr. Jason Lase, quoted in Terryl L. Givens, “‘Lightning out of Heaven’: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community,” BYU Studies 45, no. 1 (2006): 7.

[10] A discussion of how the martyrdom was portrayed in poetry and prose many years afterwards is found in Davis Bitton, The Martyrdom Remembered, 61–82.

[11] Thomas Ford, quoted in Smith, History of the Church, 7:37.

[12] Anonymous, “Lamentation,” Times and Seasons, July 15, 1844, 591; emphasis added. Authorship of this poem is discussed in note 13.

[13] A Neibaur descendant is very confident that he wrote the poem, as stated in Theda Lucille Bassett, Grandpa Neibaur Was a Pioneer (Salt Lake City: Artistic Printing Company, 1988), 26–27. For information on Neibaur being Joseph’s dentist, see Fred Woods, “Mormon and Still a Jew,” Mormon Historical Studies 7, nos. 1–2 (Spring/Fall 2006), 22–34.

[14] For Phelps’s Nauvoo duties, see Bruce A. Van Orden, “William W. Phelps’s Service in Nauvoo as Joseph Smith’s Political Clerk,” BYU Studies 32, no. 2 (Winter and Spring, 1991): 81–94. Also, for an inspiring insight on the relationship between Phelps and Joseph, see Joseph’s letter welcoming him back in to the Church, see Smith, History of the Church, 4:162–64.

[15] “Praise to the Man,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 27.

[16] Eliza R. Snow, “The Assassination of Gen’ls Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1844, 575.

[17] John Taylor, “The Seer,” Times and Seasons, January 1, 1845, 767.

[18] William W. Phelps, “Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, August 1, 1844, 607. It was later included in the Latter-day Saint hymnbook and remains one of the most popular hymns today (no. 27 in the current edition).

[19] This statement has continued to be a favorite among believers today.

[20] Snow, “The Assassination,” 575.

[21] Anonymous, “Lamentation,” 591.

[22] Smith, History of the Church, 6:408–9.

[23] For a discussion on the disputed debate of whether Joseph should be considered a martyr, see 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, 2003), 317–30.

[24] Anonymous, “Lamentation,” 591.

[25] Taylor, “The Seer,” 767.

[26] Snow, “Assassination,” 575; Parley P. Pratt. “Cry of the Martyrs,” Times and Seasons, September 2, 1844, 639; Phelps, “Joseph Smith,” 607.

[27] Snow, “Assassination,” 575.

[28] Eliza R. Snow, “Lines written on the birth of the infant son of Mrs. Emma, widow of the late General Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons, December 1, 1844, 735.

[29] Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs,” 639.

[30] Anonymous, “Lamentation,” 591.

[31] Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs,” 639.

[32] “Praise to the Man,” Hymns, no. 27.

[33] Phelps, “Joseph Smith,” 607; emphasis added.

[34] Joseph Smith, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Dean C. Jessee (Provo, UT: Deseret Book, 2002), 429–39.

[35] See David L. Paulsen, “Are Christians Mormon? Reassessing Joseph Smith’s Theology in His Bicentennial,” BYU Studies 15, no. 1 (2006), 52–55.

[36] Snow, “Assassination,” 575.

[37] Snow, “Assassination,” 575.

[38] Snow, “Lines Written,” 735.

[39] Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs,” 639.

[40] Snow, “Assassination,” 575.

[41] Phelps, “Joseph Smith,” 607.

[42] Taylor, “The Seer,” 767.

[43] Snow, “Assassination,” 575.

[44] Taylor, “The Seer,” 767.

[45] William W. Phelps, “Come to Me,” Times and Seasons, January 15, 1845, 783.