“An Almighty Foundation,” chapter 45 of Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, Volume 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815–1846 (2018)
Chapter 45: “An Almighty Foundation”
Before sunrise on June 28, Emma answered an urgent knock at her door. She found her nephew Lorenzo Wasson standing on the doorstep, covered in dust. His words confirmed her greatest fear.1
Soon the whole city awoke as Porter Rockwell rode through the streets shouting the news of Joseph’s death.2 A crowd gathered outside the Smiths’ home almost instantly, but Emma kept herself and her children inside with only a handful of friends and boarders. Her mother-in-law, Lucy Smith, paced the floor of her bedroom, looking absently out the windows. The children huddled together in another room.3
Emma sat alone, grieving silently. After a while, she buried her face in her hands and cried, “Why am I a widow and my children orphans?”
Hearing her sobs, John Greene, the Nauvoo city marshal, entered the room. Trying to comfort her, he said her affliction would be a crown of life to her.
“My husband was my crown,” she said sharply. “Why, O God, am I thus deserted?”4
Later that day, Willard Richards and Samuel Smith rode into Nauvoo with wagons carrying the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum. To shield them from the hot summer sun, the bodies had been placed in wooden boxes and covered with brush.5
Both Willard and Samuel were deeply shaken from the previous day’s attack. Samuel had tried to visit his brothers in jail, but before he could reach Carthage, a mob had fired on him and chased him for more than two hours on horseback.6 Willard, meanwhile, had survived the assault with only a small wound on his earlobe, fulfilling a prophecy Joseph had made a year earlier that balls would fly around Willard, strike his friends on the right and left, but leave not a hole in his clothing.7
John Taylor, on the other hand, hovered between life and death in a hotel in Carthage, too injured to leave town.8 The night before, Willard and John had written a short letter to the Saints, pleading with them not to retaliate for Joseph and Hyrum’s murder. When Willard finished the letter, John had been so weak from blood loss that he could scarcely sign his name to it.9
As Willard and Samuel neared the temple, a group of Saints met the wagons and followed them into town. Nearly everyone in Nauvoo joined the procession as the wagons moved slowly past the temple site and down the hill to the Nauvoo Mansion. Saints wept openly as they walked through the city.10
When the procession arrived at the Smiths’ home, Willard climbed the platform where Joseph had last addressed the Nauvoo Legion. Looking over a crowd of ten thousand people, Willard could see that many were angry with the governor and the mob.11
“Trust in the law for redress,” he pleaded. “Leave vengeance to the Lord.”12
That evening, Lucy Smith braced herself as she waited with Emma, Mary, and her grandchildren outside the dining room of the Nauvoo Mansion. Earlier, several men had carried the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum into the house to wash and dress them. Since then Lucy and her family had been waiting to view the bodies. Lucy could barely hold herself together, and she prayed that she would have the strength to see her murdered sons.
When the bodies were ready, Emma went in first but quickly sank to the floor and had to be carried from the room. Mary followed her, trembling as she walked. With her two youngest children clinging to her, she knelt beside Hyrum, gathered his head in her arms, and sobbed. “Have they shot you, my dear Hyrum?” she said, smoothing his hair with her hand. Grief overtook her.
With the help of friends, Emma soon returned to the room and joined Mary at Hyrum’s side. She placed her hand on her brother-in-law’s cold forehead and spoke softly to him. She then turned to her friends and said, “Now I can see him. I am strong now.”
Emma stood and walked unassisted to Joseph’s body. She knelt beside him and placed her hand on his cheek. “Oh, Joseph, Joseph!” she said. “Have they taken you from me at last!”13 Young Joseph knelt and kissed his father.
Lucy was so overwhelmed by the sadness around her that she could not speak. “My God,” she prayed silently. “Why hast thou forsaken this family?” Memories of her family’s trials flooded her mind, but as she looked on her sons’ lifeless faces, they appeared peaceful. She knew Joseph and Hyrum were now beyond the reach of their enemies.
“I have taken them to myself,” she heard a voice say, “that they might have rest.”14
The next day, thousands of people lined up outside the Nauvoo Mansion to honor the brothers. The summer day was hot and cloudless. Hour after hour, Saints entered one door, passed by the coffins, and exited another door. The brothers had been enclosed in fine coffins lined with white linen and soft black velvet. A plate of glass over their faces allowed mourners to see them one last time.15
After the viewing, William Phelps preached the prophet’s funeral sermon to a crowd of thousands of Saints. “What shall I say of Joseph the seer?” he asked. “He came not in the whirlwind of public opinion, but in the simple name of Jesus Christ.”
“He came to give the commandments and law of the Lord, to build temples, and teach men to improve in love and grace,” William testified. “He came to establish our church upon earth, upon the pure and eternal principles of revelation, prophets, and apostles.”16
Following the funeral, Mary Ann Young wrote about the tragedy to Brigham, who was hundreds of miles to the east campaigning for Joseph with several members of the Twelve. “We have had great afflictions in this place since you left home,” she related. “Our dear brother Joseph Smith and Hyrum have fallen victims to a ferocious mob.” Mary Ann assured Brigham that their family was in good health, but she did not know how safe they were. For the last three weeks, incoming mail to Nauvoo had all but stopped, and the threat of mob attacks was constant.
“I have been blessed to keep my feelings calm during the storm,” Mary Ann wrote. “I hope you will be careful on your way home and not expose yourself to those that will endanger your life.”17
On the same day, Vilate Kimball wrote Heber. “Never before did I take up my pen to address you under so trying circumstances as we are now placed,” she told him. “God forbid that I should ever witness another like unto it.”
Vilate had heard that William Law and his followers were still seeking revenge against church leaders. Fearing for Heber’s safety, she was reluctant for her husband to come home. “My constant prayer now is for the Lord to preserve us all to meet again,” she wrote. “I have no doubt but your life will be sought, but may the Lord give you wisdom to escape their hands.”18
A short time later, Phebe Woodruff wrote her parents and described the attack at Carthage. “These things will not stop the work any more than Christ’s death did, but will roll it on with a greater rapidity,” Phebe testified. “I believe Joseph and Hyrum are where they can do the church much more good now than when with us.”
“I am stronger in the faith than ever,” she affirmed. “I would not give up the faith of true Mormonism if it cost me my life within one hour from the time I am writing this, for I know of a surety that it is the work of God.”19
As the letters of Mary Ann, Vilate, and Phebe traveled east, Brigham Young and Orson Pratt heard rumors that Joseph and Hyrum had been killed, but no one could confirm the story. Then, on July 16, a member of the church in the New England branch they were visiting received a letter from Nauvoo detailing the tragic news. When he read the letter, Brigham felt like his head was going to crack. He had never felt such despair.
His thoughts turned instantly to the priesthood. Joseph had held all the keys necessary to endow the Saints and seal them together for eternity. Without those keys, the work of the Lord could not move forward. For a moment, Brigham feared that Joseph had taken them to the grave.
Then, in a burst of revelation, Brigham remembered how Joseph had bestowed the keys on the Twelve Apostles. Bringing his hand down hard on his knee, he said, “The keys of the kingdom are right here with the church.”20
Brigham and Orson traveled to Boston to meet with the other apostles in the eastern states. They decided to return home immediately and advised all missionaries who had families in Nauvoo to return as well.21
“Be of good cheer,” Brigham told the Saints in the area. “When God sends a man to do a work, all the devils in hell cannot kill him until he gets through.” He testified that Joseph had given the Twelve all the keys of the priesthood before his death, leaving the Saints everything they needed to carry on.22
Back in Nauvoo, as Emma mourned her husband, she began to worry about supporting her children and mother-in-law alone. Joseph had made extensive legal efforts to separate his family’s property from what belonged to the church, but he had still left behind considerable debts and no will. Unless the church quickly appointed a trustee-in-trust to replace Joseph as manager of the church’s property, Emma feared, her family would be left destitute.23
Church leaders in Nauvoo were divided over who had the authority to make the appointment. Some people believed the responsibility should fall on Samuel Smith, the prophet’s oldest living brother, but he had taken sick after the mob chased him away from Carthage, and he died suddenly at the end of July.24 Others believed that local stake leaders should select the new trustee. Willard Richards and William Phelps wanted to postpone the decision until the Twelve had returned from their mission to the eastern states so they could participate in the selection.
But Emma was anxious for a decision and wanted church leaders to appoint a trustee-in-trust right away. Her choice for the position was William Marks, the Nauvoo stake president.25 Bishop Newel Whitney strongly opposed the choice, however, because William had rejected plural marriage and cared little for the ordinances of the temple.
“If Marks is appointed,” the bishop declared privately, “our spiritual blessings will be destroyed, inasmuch as he is not favorable to the most important matters.” Knowing the church was much more than a corporation with financial holdings and legal obligations, Newel believed the new trustee-in-trust ought to be someone who fully supported what the Lord had revealed to Joseph.26
Around this time, John Taylor recovered enough from his wounds to return to Nauvoo. Parley Pratt also returned from his mission and joined John, Willard Richards, and William Phelps in urging Emma and William Marks to wait for the return of the other apostles. They believed it was far more important to select the new trustee through the proper authority than to reach a quick decision.27
Then, on August 3, Sidney Rigdon returned to Nauvoo. As Joseph’s running mate in the presidential campaign, Sidney had moved to another state to meet legal requirements for the position. But when he learned of the prophet’s death, Sidney rushed back to Illinois, certain his position in the First Presidency entitled him to lead the church.
To strengthen his claim, Sidney also announced that he had received a vision from God showing him that the church needed a guardian—someone who would care for the church in Joseph’s absence and continue to speak for him.28
Sidney’s arrival concerned Parley and the other apostles in Nauvoo. The conflict over the trustee-in-trust made it clear the church needed a presiding authority to make important decisions. But they knew that Sidney, like William Marks, had rejected many of the teachings and practices the Lord had revealed to Joseph. More important, they knew that Joseph had depended less on Sidney in recent years and had not bestowed all the keys of the priesthood on him.29
The day after his arrival, Sidney publicly offered to lead the church. He said nothing about finishing the temple or endowing the Saints with spiritual power. Rather, he warned them that perilous times were ahead and promised to guide them boldly through the last days.30
Later, at a meeting of church leaders, Sidney insisted on assembling the Saints in two days to select a new leader and appoint a trustee-in-trust. Alarmed, Willard and the other apostles called for more time to review Sidney’s claims and await the return of the rest of their quorum.
William Marks compromised and scheduled the meeting for August 8, four days away.31
On the evening of August 6, word spread rapidly that Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, Orson Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, and Lyman Wight had arrived in Nauvoo by steamboat. Soon the Saints were greeting the apostles in the streets as they made their way home.32
The next afternoon, the newly arrived apostles joined Willard Richards, John Taylor, Parley Pratt, and George A. Smith at a meeting with Sidney and the other councils of the church.33 By this time, Sidney had changed his mind about selecting a new leader on August 8. Instead, he said he wanted to hold a prayer meeting with the Saints on that day, postponing the decision until church leaders could come together and “warm up each other’s hearts.”34
Still, Sidney insisted on his right to direct the church. “It was shown to me that this church must be built up to Joseph,” he told the councils, “and that all the blessings we receive must come through him.” He said that his recent vision had simply been a continuation of the grand vision of heaven he had seen with Joseph more than a decade earlier.
“I have been ordained a spokesman to Joseph,” he continued, referring to a revelation Joseph had received in 1833, “and I must come to Nauvoo and see that the church is governed in a proper manner.”35
Sidney’s words did not impress Wilford. “It was a kind of second-class vision,” he noted in his journal.36
After Sidney finished speaking, Brigham arose and testified that Joseph had conferred all the keys and powers of the apostleship on the Twelve. “I do not care who leads the church,” he said, “but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it.”37
On August 8, the day of Sidney’s prayer meeting, Brigham missed an early-morning meeting with his quorum, something he had never done before.38 Stepping outside, he saw that thousands of Saints had gathered in the grove near the temple. The morning was blustery, and Sidney stood in a wagon with his back to a strong, steady wind. Rather than holding a prayer meeting, Sidney was again offering himself as guardian of the church.
Sidney spoke for more than an hour, bearing witness that Joseph and Hyrum would hold their priesthood authority through eternity and had organized the church councils sufficiently to lead the church after their deaths. “Every man will stand in his own place and stand in his own calling before Jehovah,” Sidney declared. He again proposed that his own place and calling was as Joseph’s spokesman. He did not wish the congregation to vote on the matter, but he wanted the Saints to know his views.39
When Sidney finished speaking, Brigham called out to the crowd to stay a few moments longer. He said that he had wanted time to mourn Joseph’s death before settling any church business, but he sensed an urgency among the Saints to choose a new leader. He worried that some among them were grasping for power against the will of God.
To resolve the matter, Brigham asked the Saints to return later that afternoon to sustain a new leader of the church. They would vote by quorum and as a church body. “We can do the business in five minutes,” he said. “We are not going to act against each other, and every man and woman will say amen.”40
That afternoon, Emily Hoyt returned to the grove for the meeting. A cousin of the prophet, Emily was in her late thirties and a graduate of a teacher’s academy. Over the last few years, she and her husband, Samuel, had grown close to Joseph and Hyrum, and the sudden deaths of the brothers had saddened them. Although they lived across the river in Iowa Territory, Emily and Samuel had come to Nauvoo that day to attend Sidney’s prayer meeting.41
Around two o’clock, the priesthood quorums and councils took their seats together on and around the stand. Brigham Young then stood to address the Saints.42 “There has been much said about President Rigdon being president of the church,” he said, “but I say unto you that the Quorum of the Twelve have the keys of the kingdom of God in all the world.”43
As Emily listened to Brigham speak, she caught herself glancing up at him to make sure it was not Joseph speaking. He had Joseph’s expressions, his method of reasoning, and even the sound of his voice.44
“Brother Joseph, the prophet, has laid the foundation for a great work, and we will build upon it,” Brigham continued. “There is an almighty foundation laid, and we can build a kingdom such as there never was in the world. We can build a kingdom faster than Satan can kill the Saints off.”
But the Saints needed to work together, Brigham declared, following the will of the Lord and living by faith. “If you want Sidney Rigdon or William Law to lead you, or anybody else, you are welcome to them,” he said, “but I tell you in the name of the Lord that no man can put another between the Twelve and the prophet Joseph. Why? He has committed into their hands the keys of the kingdom in this last dispensation, for all the world.”45
Feeling that the Spirit and the power that had rested on Joseph now rested on Brigham, Emily watched the apostle call on the Saints to sustain the Twelve as the leaders of the church. “Every man, every woman, every quorum is now put in order,” he said. “All that are in favor of this in all the congregation of the Saints, manifest it by holding up the right hand.”
Emily and the whole congregation raised their hands.46
“There is much to be done,” Brigham said. “The foundation is laid by our prophet, and we will build thereon. No other foundation can be laid but that which is laid, and we will have our endowment if the Lord will.”47
Seven years later, Emily recorded her experience of watching Brigham speak to the Saints, testifying how much he looked and sounded like Joseph on the stand. In the years to come, dozens of Saints would add their witness to hers, describing how they saw Joseph’s prophetic mantle fall on Brigham that day.48
“If anyone doubts the right of Brigham to manage the affairs for the Saints,” Emily wrote, “all I have to say to them is this: Get the Spirit of God and know for yourselves. The Lord will provide for His own.”49
The day after the conference, Wilford sensed a gloominess still hanging over the city. “The prophet and patriarch are gone,” he wrote in his journal, “and there appears to be but little ambition to do anything.” Even so, Wilford and the Twelve went to work immediately. They met that afternoon and appointed bishops Newel Whitney and George Miller to serve as trustees-in-trust for the church and resolve the issues related to Joseph’s finances.50
Three days later, they called Amasa Lyman to the Quorum of the Twelve and divided the eastern United States and Canada into districts to be presided over by high priests. Brigham, Heber, and Willard would call men to these positions and oversee the church in America while Wilford would travel with Phebe to England to preside over the British mission and manage its printing establishment.51
While Wilford prepared for his mission, the other apostles strove to strengthen the church in Nauvoo. The Saints at the August 8 meeting had sustained the Twelve, but some men were already trying to divide the church and draw people away. One of them, James Strang, was a new member of the church who claimed to have a letter from Joseph appointing him to be his true successor. James had a home in Wisconsin Territory and wanted the Saints to gather there.52
Brigham cautioned the Saints not to follow dissenters. “Don’t scatter,” he urged them. “Stay here in Nauvoo, and build up the temple and get your endowment.”53
Completing the temple remained the focus of the church. On August 27, the night before they left for England, Wilford and Phebe visited the temple with friends. Standing at the base of its walls, which reached almost to the top of the second story, Wilford and Phebe admired the way the moonlight brought out the structure’s grandeur and sublimity.
They climbed a ladder to the top of the walls and knelt down to pray. Wilford expressed his gratitude to the Lord for giving the Saints power to build the temple and pleaded that they might be able to finish it, receive the endowment, and plant the work of God throughout the world. He also asked the Lord to preserve him and Phebe in the mission field.
“Enable us to fill our mission in righteousness,” he prayed, “and be enabled to again return to this land and tread the courts of the Lord’s house in peace.”54
The next day, just before the Woodruffs left, Brigham gave Phebe a blessing for the work ahead of her. “You shall be blessed on your mission in common with your husband, and thou shalt be the means of doing much good,” he promised. “If thou wilt go in all humility, thou shalt be preserved to return and meet with the Saints in the temple of the Lord and shall rejoice therein.”
Later that afternoon, Wilford and Phebe set out for England. Among the missionaries traveling with them were Dan Jones and his wife, Jane, who were headed to Wales to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy.55