On 27 June 1844 Mormonism’s founding prophet, Joseph Smith, was killed. Much has been written about the death of Joseph Smith, accounts written from every perspective imaginable. In 1994 historian D. Michael Quinn, a former BYU professor and former Mormon, published The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power. In this book, Dr. Quinn carefully documented the political tinderbox in Nauvoo, Illinois which led to the death of the Prophet.
Having organized the theocratic Council of Fifty and having been crowned by this Council as king in April 1844, Joseph Smith continued his bid for the U.S. Presidency. Dr. Quinn wrote:
“The largest missionary force in the church’s first six decades was campaigning full time for Smith’s presidential candidacy. …
“It is fair to say that all Mormons in the first half of 1844 took Smith’s presidential candidacy very seriously. As Apostle John Taylor told a special meeting of Nauvoo’s citizenry on 7 March 1844: ‘We must do what we can to elect him.'” (134-135)
But some Mormons grew uncomfortable with the Prophet’s aspirations. A month after being crowned king Joseph Smith preached a sermon in which he proposed a revolution. Some understood this to be a reference to a spiritual revolution, but others, in the context of the theocratic Council of Fifty, feared the revolution was to be farther-reaching. Dr. Quinn wrote:
“With good reason most council members regarded Smith’s public statement as his literal intentions, both religious and governmental. There was already a theocratic organization bound by capital oaths. These fifty men acknowledged Smith as a monarch over a pan-religious kingdom on earth in which they were princes. Publicly Smith was seeking the nation’s highest office by constitutional means, but privately he recorded in a thinly veiled reference to himself, and unidentified Vermonter’s endorsement of revolution. ‘This government was about to be overthrown,’ his diary reported of the Vermonter’s prophecy, ‘and the Kingdom which Daniel spoke of was about to be established some where in the west and he thought Illinois.’ …
“Covertly dissenting members [of the Council of Fifty] wondered if there were any limits to Smith’s theocratic ‘designs.'” (137)
This led to the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor, a dissenter newspaper that threatened to expose Joseph Smith’s political ambitions. The Prophet, as mayor of Nauvoo, led the city council in declaring the newspaper a “public nuisance” for which it was quickly destroyed.
Subsequently, Joseph Smith found himself in Carthage Jail charged with treason. According to Dr. Quinn,
“The morning of 27 July [sic – June], Smith sent an order (in his own handwriting) to [LDS] Major-General Jonathan Dunham to lead the Nauvoo Legion in a military attack on Carthage ‘immediately’ to free the prisoners. Dunham realized that such an assault by the Nauvoo Legion would result in two blood baths — one in Carthage and another when anti-Mormons (and probably the Illinois militia) retaliated by laying siege to Nauvoo for insurrection. To avoid civil war and the destruction of Nauvoo’s population, Dunham refused to obey the order and did not notify Smith of his decision. One of his lieutenants, a former Danite, later complained that Dunham ‘did not let a single mortal know that he had received such orders.’
“About 5 p.m. on Thursday, 27 June 1844, more than 250 men approached the Carthage Jail. When informed of this by the panicky jailer, Joseph Smith replied: ‘Don’t trouble yourself [–] they have come to rescue me.’ That was not to be. Within moments three prisoners were desperately trying to secure the upper room’s door with bare hands and wooden canes against a cursing mob shooting randomly inside. Joseph Smith fired back with a six-shooter pistol at the attackers in the doorway, wounding three of them. Shot in the face, Patriarch Hyrum Smith died instantly. Struck by four bullets, Apostle John Taylor lay motionless on the bloodied floor. Pinned behind the door as the mob rushed into the prison cell, Apostle Willard Richards miraculously escaped with only a bullet-nicked ear. The man the murderous vigilantes knew as church president, mayor, militia commander, U.S. presidential candidate, and Master Mason leaped out the second-floor window shouting, ‘O Lord my God!’
“Mormonism’s king was dead.” (141)