In the late afternoon of that sticky June day, Joseph Smith lay broken and bleeding beside the foundation of the Carthage Jail. Though few people knew he held the secret, self-imposed scepter of king, the fact that he had been in the race for the United States presidency was common knowledge. But Joseph Smith did not look like a ruler that day. Events which had intensified during the first half of 1844 had brought the Prophet to his ignoble end.
In January 1844 Joseph Smith had been privately nominated by his Apostles to run for president. The Saints at Nauvoo voted nearly unanimously to support this political move. By spring Mormon proselytizing missions in the U.S. had been suspended. Instead, hundreds of political missionaries were sent out to campaign for Joseph. Smith’s efforts at international diplomacy proved he was serious. By early June LDS ambassadors were strategically in place in England, Texas, Washington, D.C., France and Russia.
The thousands of Mormons in Illinois generally voted as a bloc. This concerned non-Mormon citizens because the Mormons virtually held the key to the state’s national politics. To the people of Illinois, Joseph’s campaign for president was no small matter.
Meanwhile, hidden from the public eye yet inextricably bound to his politics, Joseph Smith began organizing the Kingdom of God on earth.
In March Joseph organized the theocratic Council of Fifty. This Council was to be God’s Kingdom and Government to establish His rule and law for the “protection of civil and religious liberty in this nation and throughout the world.” Those initiated into the Council were sworn to secrecy “under the penalty of death.”
At a church-wide conference a veiled announcement was made about Mormonism’s new government: “When God sets up a system of salvation, he sets up a system of government;…a government that shall rule over temporal and spiritual affairs.” The Council of Fifty operated under the presumption of ultimate power, believing they had the authority to set aside and live above the laws of the U.S. and all other secular governments.
On April 11, at a meeting of the Fifty, Joseph was secretly “chosen as our Prophet, Priest and King by Hosannas.” The Council performed an ordinance “in which Joseph suffered himself to be ordained a king, to reign over the house of Israel forever.” Publicly, Joseph, the presidential candidate, announced, “I go emphatically, virtuously, and humanely for a THEO-DEMOCRACY, where God and the people hold the power to conduct the affairs of men in righteousness…”
Some within the Council privately suspected Joseph’s kingly ordination might be treasonous. Their fears were confirmed when, one month into his kingship, Joseph announced, “I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” Alarmed, these men broke their vow of secrecy and informed Joseph’s former (and excommunicated) first counselor William Law of the Prophet’s ordination as “King, Priest and Ruler over Israel on Earth.”
On May 10 William Law and fellow religious dissenters published a prospectus for their newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, which contained a reference to Nauvoo’s “SELF-CONSTITUTED MONARCH” and promised to reveal the city’s “gross moral imperfections.” On June 7 the first and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor appeared, proclaiming, “We will not acknowledge any man as king or lawgiver to the church: for Christ is our only king and lawgiver.”
A sympathetic historian wrote in 1994: “Smith realized that Council of Fifty members had betrayed him. He could not allow the Expositor to publish the secret international negotiations masterminded by Mormonism’s earthly king.” Therefore, on June 10 the Nauvoo city council, Mayor Joseph Smith presiding, decided to destroy the Expositor and its press as “a public nuisance.” Twelve days later Joseph deserted his city and his people in an attempt to escape the consequences of his treasonous actions. However, being accused of cowardice by his friends, Joseph returned to Illinois and entered Carthage Jail.
On the morning of June 27 Joseph sent an order to the commander of his Nauvoo Legion instructing him to lead an immediate attack on Carthage in order to free the prisoners. At about 5:00 p.m. the frightened jailer informed Joseph that more than 250 men were approaching. The Prophet replied, “Don’t trouble yourself [–] they have come to rescue me.” But Joseph was mistaken. The Nauvoo Legion didn’t come; its Major-General refused to obey the attack order because he knew such action would bring civil war and destruction on the citizens of Nauvoo.
As the mob overtook the jail gunfire erupted and within minutes Mormonism’s king was dead. So ended the presumptuous ambitions of Joseph Smith the Prophet.
Every June as Mormons around the world remember the death of their Prophet, Christians are able to joyously proclaim that Jesus Christ, the true and living Prophet, Priest and King, reigns now and forevermore!
(Information included in this article is from D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy, 117-141.)
This article is reprinted from the Summer 1995 issue of A Word in Season (newsletter of Word for the Weary).