“A Public Nuisance,” chapter 43 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 43: “A Public Nuisance”
After his dismissal from the First Presidency, William Law avoided Joseph. In late March 1844, Hyrum tried to reconcile the two men, but William refused to make amends as long as the prophet upheld plural marriage.1 Around the same time, Joseph heard that William and several others in town were conspiring to kill him and his family.2
Joseph spoke out confidently against the conspirators. “I won’t swear out a warrant against them, for I don’t fear any of them,” he told the Saints. “They would not scare off an old setting hen.”3 Yet he was concerned about the growing dissent in Nauvoo, and the death threats only added to the feeling that his time to teach the Saints was nearing an end.4
That spring, a church member named Emer Harris informed Joseph that the conspirators had invited him and his nineteen-year-old son, Denison, to attend their meetings. “Brother Harris,” Joseph said, “I would advise you not to attend those meetings, nor pay any attention to them.” But he told Emer that he wanted Denison to attend the meetings and learn what he could about the conspirators.
Later, Joseph met with Denison and his friend Robert Scott to prepare them for their assignment. Knowing the conspirators were dangerous, he cautioned the young men to say as little as possible while they were there and to offend no one.5
On April 7, 1844, the second day of the church’s general conference, Joseph set aside his concerns about conspiracy to address the Saints. A strong wind blew through the congregation as he took the stand. “It will be hardly possible for me to make you all hear unless there is profound attention,” the prophet called out above the weather. He announced that he was going to speak about his friend King Follett, who had died recently, and offer comfort to everyone who had lost loved ones.6
He also desired to give every Saint a glimpse of what awaited them in the world to come. He wanted to pull back the spiritual veil, if only for a moment, and teach them about the nature of God and their divine potential.
“What kind of a being is God?” he asked the Saints. “Does any man or woman know? Have any of you seen Him, heard Him, communed with Him?” Joseph let his questions linger over the congregation. “If the veil was rent today,” he said, “and the great God, who holds this world in its orbit, and upholds all things by His power—if you were to see Him today, you would see Him in all the person, image, and very form as a man.”
Joseph explained that seeking knowledge and keeping covenants would help the Saints fulfill the Father’s ultimate plan for them. “You have got to learn how to be gods yourselves,” Joseph said, “by going from a small degree to another, from grace to grace, from exaltation to exaltation, until you are able to sit in glory as do those who sit enthroned in everlasting power.”
This plan, he reminded them, conquered death. “How consoling to the mourner,” he said, “to know that although the earthly tabernacle shall be dissolved, they shall rise in immortal glory, not to sorrow, suffer, or die anymore, but they shall be heirs of God and joint-heirs with Jesus Christ.”7
The process would take time, requiring much patience, faith, and learning. “It is not all to be comprehended in this world,” the prophet assured the Saints. “It will take a long time after the grave to understand the whole.”
As his sermon drew to a close, Joseph became reflective. He spoke about his family members and friends who had died. “They are only absent for a moment,” he said. “They are in the spirit, and when we depart we shall hail our mothers, fathers, friends, and all whom we love.” He assured mothers who had lost infants that they would be reunited with their children. In the eternities, he said, the Saints would no longer live in fear of mobs, but instead dwell in joy and happiness.8
Standing before the Saints, Joseph was no longer the rough, unschooled farm boy who had sought wisdom in a grove of trees. Day by day, year by year, the Lord had polished him like a stone, slowly shaping him into a better instrument for His hands.9 Yet the Saints understood so little of his life and mission.
“You never knew my heart,” he said. “I don’t blame you for not believing my history. Had I not experienced it, I could not believe it myself.” He hoped that one day, after his life had been weighed in the balance, the Saints would know him better.
When Joseph finished, he took a seat and the choir sang a hymn. He had spoken for almost two and a half hours.10
Joseph’s sermon inspired the Saints and filled them with the Spirit. “The teachings which we heard made our hearts rejoice,” wrote Ellen Douglas to her parents in England a week after the conference. Ellen and her husband and children had been among the first British converts to sail for Nauvoo in 1842, and the truths Joseph taught in his sermon were a reminder of why they had sacrificed so much to gather with the Saints.
Like many British converts, the Douglases had spent most of their savings immigrating to Nauvoo, leaving them in poverty. Ellen’s husband, George, had died shortly after their arrival, and she had come down with a terrible fever, leaving her unable to support her eight children. A friend soon recommended that she get help from the Relief Society, which Ellen had joined after arriving in the city.
“I refused to do so,” Ellen told her parents in the letter she wrote after the conference, “but she said I needed something and that I had been so long sick, and if I would not do it myself, she would do it for me.” Ellen knew her children needed many things, especially clothes, so she finally agreed to ask a member of the Relief Society for help.
“She asked me what I needed most,” Ellen explained, “and they brought the wagon and fetched me such a present as I never received before from any place in the world.”
She and her children now had a cow and raised dozens of chickens on the lot they rented while they saved money to purchase land of their own. “I never in my life enjoyed myself better than I do now,” she told her parents. “I for one feel to rejoice and to praise my God that He ever sent the elders of Israel to England, and that He ever gave me a heart to believe them.”
She closed her letter by bearing testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith. “The day will come,” she told her parents, “when you will know that I have told you the truth.”11
That spring, Denison Harris and Robert Scott attended William Law’s secret meetings and reported what they learned to Joseph.12 By now, William saw himself as a church reformer. He still professed to believe in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, but he was furious about plural marriage and Joseph’s recent teachings about the nature of God.13
Among the conspirators, Denison and Robert recognized William’s wife, Jane, and his older brother Wilson. They also saw Robert and Charles Foster, who had been Joseph’s friends until they had clashed with him over land development around the temple.14 John Bennett’s old allies Chauncey and Francis Higbee attended as well, along with a local roughneck named Joseph Jackson.15
The prophet was touched that Denison and Robert were willing to risk their lives for him. Following their second meeting with the conspirators, he instructed the young men to attend once more. “Be strictly reserved,” he advised, “and make no promises to conspire against me or any portion of the community.” He warned them that the conspirators might try to kill them.
The following Sunday, Denison and Robert found men guarding the usual meeting place with muskets and bayonets. The two entered the house and quietly listened as the conspirators debated. Everyone agreed that Joseph had to die, but no one could settle on a plan.
Before the meeting closed, Francis Higbee administered an oath of solidarity to each conspirator. One by one, the men and women in the room raised a Bible in their right hand and took the oath. When Denison and Robert’s turn came, they refused to step forward.
“Have you not heard the strong testimony of all present against Joseph Smith?” the conspirators reasoned. “We deem it our solemn duty to accomplish his destruction and rescue the people from this peril.”
“We came to your meetings because we thought you were our friends,” the young men said. “We did not think there was any harm in it.”
The leaders ordered guards to seize Denison and Robert and march them down into the cellar. Once there, the young men were given one more chance to take the oath. “If you are still determined to refuse,” they were told, “we will have to shed your blood.”
The young men again said no and braced themselves for death.
“Hold on there!” someone in the cellar cried. “Let’s talk this matter over!”
In an instant the conspirators were arguing again, and the young men heard one man say that it was too dangerous to kill them. “The boys’ parents,” he reasoned, “may institute a search that would be very dangerous to us.”
Denison and Robert were taken down to the river by armed guards and released. “If you ever open your mouths,” the guards warned, “we will kill you by night or by day, wherever we find you.”16
The young men left—and immediately reported back to Joseph and a bodyguard who was with him. As the prophet listened to their story, grateful they were unharmed, a grave expression crossed his face. “Brethren,” he said, “you do not know what this will terminate in.”
“Do you think they are going to kill you?” asked the bodyguard. “Are you going to be slain?”
Joseph did not answer the question directly, but he assured the young men that William Law and the other conspirators were wrong about him. “I am no false prophet,” he testified. “I have had no dark revelations. I have had no revelations from the devil.”17
Amid the turmoil of the spring, Joseph met regularly with the Council of Fifty to discuss the ideal attributes of a theocratic democracy and the laws and practices that governed it. At one meeting, shortly after the April conference, the council voted to receive Joseph as prophet, priest, and king.
The men had no political authority, so the motion had no temporal consequences. But it affirmed Joseph’s priesthood offices and responsibilities as head of the Lord’s earthly kingdom prior to the Second Coming. It also alluded to John the Revelator’s testimony that Christ had made righteous Saints kings and priests unto God, giving added meaning to the Savior’s title King of Kings.18
Later that afternoon, Joseph noted that a few members of the council were not members of the church. He proclaimed that in the Council of Fifty, men were not consulted about their religious opinions, no matter what they were. “We act upon the broad and liberal principle that all men have equal rights and ought to be respected,” he said. “Every man has a privilege in this organization of choosing for himself voluntarily his God and what he pleases for religion.”
As he spoke, Joseph picked up a long ruler and gestured broadly with it, as a schoolmaster might do. “When a man feels the least temptation to such intolerance, he ought to spurn it,” he told the council. He said the spirit of religious intolerance had drenched the earth in blood. “In all governments or political transactions,” he declared, “a man’s religious opinions should never be called in question. A man should be judged by the law, independent of religious prejudice.”
When Joseph finished speaking, he accidentally snapped the ruler in half, to the surprise of everyone in the room.
“As the rule was broken in the hands of our chairman,” Brigham Young quipped, “so might every tyrannical government be broken before us.”19
By the end of April, William and Jane Law’s increasingly public dissent led a council of thirty-two church leaders to excommunicate them and Robert Foster for unchristian conduct. Since no one had summoned them to defend themselves at the hearing, William was outraged, and he rejected the council’s decision.20
Afterward, the church’s critics became more vocal as several apostles and scores of elders left Nauvoo to serve missions and campaign for Joseph’s presidency. Robert Foster and Chauncey Higbee rummaged for evidence that could be used in lawsuits against the prophet.21 William Law held a public meeting on April 21 at which he denounced Joseph as a fallen prophet and organized a new church.
At the meeting, William’s followers installed him as president of the new church. After that, they met every Sunday and planned ways to attract other disaffected Saints to their cause.22
Meanwhile, Thomas Sharp, the young newspaper editor who had turned against the Saints shortly after they arrived in Illinois, filled his paper with criticisms of Joseph and the church.
“You know nothing of the repeated insults and injuries received by our citizens from the heads of the Mormon church,” he declared, defending his attacks on the Saints. “You can know nothing of these things, or you could not undertake to lecture us for endeavoring to expose such a gang of outlaws, blacklegs, and bloodsuckers.”23
Then, on May 10, William and his followers announced their plans to publish the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper that would give, as they put it, “a full, candid, and succinct statement of facts, as they really exist in the city of Nauvoo.”24 Francis Higbee also brought charges against Joseph, accusing him of defaming his character in public, while William and his brother Wilson used Joseph’s plural marriages as grounds for charging him with adultery.25
“The devil always sets up his kingdom at the very same time in opposition to God,” Joseph told the Saints in a sermon as false charges mounted against him. Afterward, he and the other endowed Saints met above his store and prayed to be delivered from their enemies.26 Joseph wanted to avoid arrest, but he did not want to go into hiding again. Emma was pregnant and very ill, and he was reluctant to leave her side.27
Finally, at the end of May, he decided that it was best to go to Carthage, the county seat, and face a legal investigation into the accusations against him.28 Around two dozen of Joseph’s friends accompanied him to the town. When the case came before a judge, the prosecutors were missing a witness and were not able to proceed with the investigation. The hearings were put off for a few months, and the sheriff permitted Joseph to return home.29
Joseph’s release enraged Thomas Sharp. “We have seen and heard enough to convince us that Joe Smith is not safe out of Nauvoo, and we would not be surprised to hear of his death by violent means in a short time,” he declared in an editorial. “The feeling of this country is now lashed to its utmost pitch, and it will break forth in fury upon the slightest provocation.”30
While opposition to Joseph intensified, the Saints continued to build up their city. Louisa Pratt struggled to shelter and feed her four daughters while her husband was away on his mission in the South Pacific. Before leaving, Addison had purchased some lumber, but not enough for Louisa to build a house on their city lot. Since she owned some land in a neighboring state, she went to a nearby lumber mill and asked to purchase lumber on credit, with her land as collateral.
“You need not doubt a woman,” she told the miller, worried he would deny her credit because of her gender. “As a general thing, they are more punctual than men.”
The miller had no qualms about selling to her on credit, and Louisa soon had the wood she needed to build a small frame house. Unfortunately, the men she hired to do the work were a continual disappointment, forcing her to hire others until she found reliable workers.
While the house was under construction, Louisa worked as a seamstress. When her daughters came down with measles, she watched over them night and day, praying for their recovery until they got well. From all appearances, she seemed to be managing well under the circumstances. But she often felt lonely, inadequate, and helpless to bear the burden on her shoulders.
Once the house was finished, Louisa moved her family in. She installed a rug she had made herself and furnished the home with items she purchased from her earnings.
As the months passed, Louisa and the girls survived on her small income, bartering and purchasing on credit while she paid off her debt to the miller. When their food ran out and Louisa had new debts to pay, the children asked, “What shall we do, Mother?”
“Complain to the Lord,” Louisa said dryly. She wondered what her prayer would sound like. Would she complain about the people who owed her money? Would she rail against those who had not paid her for the work they hired her to do?
Just then a man arrived with a heavy load of wood for her, which she could sell. Then another man arrived with a hundred pounds of flour and twenty-five pounds of pork.
“Why, Mother,” her daughter Frances said, “what a lucky woman you are!”
Overwhelmed with gratitude, Louisa decided to withhold her complaint.31
As William Law promised, the Nauvoo Expositor appeared on Nauvoo’s streets in early June. “We are earnestly seeking to explode the vicious principles of Joseph Smith,” it declared in its preamble, “which we verily know are not accordant and consonant with the principles of Jesus Christ and the apostles.”
In the newspaper, William and his followers insisted that Joseph had strayed from the restored gospel by introducing the endowment, practicing plural marriage, and teaching new doctrine about exaltation and the nature of God.32
They also warned the county’s citizens that the Saints’ political power was rising. They condemned Joseph’s blurring of the roles of church and state and denounced his candidacy for the presidency.
“Let us arise in the majesty of our strength,” they declared ominously, “and sweep the influence of tyrants and miscreants from the face of the land.”33
The day after the paper appeared, Joseph convened the Nauvoo City Council to discuss what to do about the Expositor. Many of the Saints’ neighbors were already hostile to the church, and he worried that the Expositor would provoke them to violence. “It is not safe that such things should exist,” he said, “on account of the mob spirit which they tend to produce.”34
Hyrum reminded the city council of the mobs that had driven them out of Missouri. Like Joseph, he worried that the newspaper would stir people up against the Saints unless they passed a law to stop it.
It was getting late on a Saturday night, and the men adjourned the meeting until Monday.35 On that day, the city council met from morning until evening, again discussing what they could do. Joseph proposed declaring the newspaper a public nuisance and destroying the press that printed it.36
John Taylor agreed. As the editor of the Times and Seasons, John valued a free press and free speech, but both he and Joseph believed they had a constitutional right to protect themselves against libel. Destroying the Expositor and its press would be controversial, but they believed the laws permitted them to do it legally.
Joseph read aloud from the Illinois state constitution about freedom of the press so that all in the room understood the law. Retrieving a respected law book, another councilor read a legal justification for destroying a nuisance disturbing the peace of a community. With the legal reasoning set forth, Hyrum repeated Joseph’s proposal that they destroy the press and scatter the type.37
William Phelps told the council that he had reviewed the United States Constitution, the Nauvoo city charter, and the laws of the land. In his mind, the city was fully and legally justified to declare the press a nuisance and destroy it immediately.
The council voted to destroy the press, and Joseph sent orders to the city marshal to carry out the measure.38
That evening, the Nauvoo marshal arrived at the Expositor office with about a hundred men. They broke into the shop with a sledgehammer, dragged the printing press into the street, and smashed it into pieces. They then dumped out drawers of type and set fire to the rubble. Any copies of the newspaper they could find were added to the blaze.39
The next day, Thomas Sharp reported the destruction of the press in an extra edition of his newspaper. “War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens arise, one and all!!!” he wrote. “We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. Let it be made with powder and ball!!!”40