“Foes Became His Friends,” Liahona, Dec. 1995, 27
Many of us have witnessed events in which the influence of the Spirit has turned the prejudiced notions of the unbeliever into an awareness of the goodness of the gospel of peace. Hearts and minds open, and sons and daughters of God choose to follow Christ.
The Prophet Joseph Smith encountered many people who, touched by his testimony, embraced the restored gospel and accepted him as the Lord’s prophet. Combined with his testimony, Joseph’s Christlike character and influence often disarmed—and turned to his favor—even some of those whose hearts were darkened toward him.
The following sketches from the Prophet Joseph’s life bear out Elder Parley P Pratt’s observation that “even [Joseph’s] most bitter enemies were generally overcome, if he could once get their ears.”1
In June 1830 the Prophet went to Colesville, New York, to preach and baptize. When he arrived he found that believers in the area had prepared several of their friends for baptism. After the baptisms, a meeting was scheduled that evening for confirming the new members.
As the people began to gather at the designated time, Joseph was arrested “on the charge of being a disorderly person, of setting the country in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon.” However, the constable experienced a change of heart, apparently after getting to know the Prophet:
“The constable informed me, soon after I had been arrested, that the plan of those who had got out the warrant was to get me into the hands of the mob, who were now lying in ambush for me; but that he was determined to save me from them, as he had found me to be a different sort of person from what I had been represented to him.”2
Although he had a duty to take his prisoner to court, the constable kept his word to protect Joseph from the mob. The would-be attackers surrounded the constable’s wagon on its way out of town. Before they could assault Joseph, the constable thwarted the attempt by whipping the horses and driving the wagon past them.
That night the two lodged in a tavern. The constable gave Joseph the bed in the room and slept on the floor with his feet against the door and a loaded musket by his side, because, Joseph said, he had “declared that if we were interrupted unlawfully, he would fight for me, and defend me as far as it was in his power.”3
The next day Joseph was acquitted, and he and the constable parted as friends.
In spring 1834, some 200 elders, known as Zion’s Camp, marched 900 miles from Kirtland, Ohio, to aid the destitute Saints driven from their homes in Jackson County by Missourians. The Missourians’ plans to attack the relief force were frustrated when a severe hailstorm drove them away.
Two days later, mob leader Colonel Sconce and other members of the mob, humbled by the fury of the storm, met with the men of Zion’s camp to learn their intentions. Joseph spoke as follows:
“I arose, and, addressing them, [related] the sufferings of the Saints in Jackson county, and also our persecutions generally … ; and that we had no intention to molest … any people, but only to administer to … our afflicted friends; and that the evil reports circulated about us were false, and got up by our enemies to procure our destruction. When I had closed a lengthy speech, the spirit of which melted them into compassion, they arose and offered me their hands, and said they would use their influence to allay the excitement which everywhere prevailed against us; and they wept when they heard of our afflictions and persecutions, and learned that our intentions were good. Accordingly they went forth among the people, and made unwearied exertions to allay the excitement.”4
Despite these actions, the event that precipitated the Saints’ eviction from Missouri occurred four years later on election day, 6 August 1838, in Gallatin, county seat of Daviess County. A scuffle arose when the Saints were not allowed to vote. No one was killed, and although Joseph had not been present at the scene of trouble, rumors accusing him of having killed seven men at the polls soon spread.
A few days later, Joseph was at his parents’ home when a company of armed men stopped at the house. Eight officers entered and, while speaking with Joseph’s mother, assured her that they would kill “Joe Smith and all the Mormons.” She denied that Joseph was in the county when the men were allegedly killed. “Furthermore,” she said, “if you should see him, you would not want to kill him.”
“‘Gentlemen,’” her narrative continues, “‘suffer me to make you acquainted with Joseph Smith, the Prophet.’ They stared at him as if he were a spectre. He smiled, and stepping towards them, gave each of them his hand, in a manner which convinced them that he was neither a guilty criminal nor yet a hypocrite.
“Joseph then sat down and explained to them the views … of the Church, and what their course had been; besides the treatment which they had received from their enemies since the first. He also argued, that if any of the brethren had broken the law, they ought to be tried by the law, before anyone else was molested. After talking with them some time in this way, he said, ‘Mother, I believe I will go home now—Emma will be expecting me.’ At this two of the men sprang to their feet, and declared that he should not go alone, as it would be unsafe—that they would go with him, in order to protect him. Accordingly the three left together, and during their absence, I overheard the following conversation among the officers, who remained at the door:
“lst Officer. ‘Did you not feel strangely when Smith took you by the hand? I never felt so in my life.’
“2nd Officer. ‘I could not move. I would not harm a hair of that man’s head for the whole world.’
“3rd Officer. ‘This is the last time you will catch me coming to kill Joe Smith, or the “Mormons” either.’
“lst Officer. ‘I guess this is about my last expedition against this place. I never saw a more harmless, innocent appearing man than the “Mormon” Prophet.’
“2nd Officer. ‘That story about his killing them men is all a … lie—there is no doubt of it; and we have had all this trouble for nothing; but they will never fool me in this way again; I’ll warrant them.’
“The men who went home with my son promised to disband the militia under them and go home, which they accordingly did.”5
But falsehoods about the Saints continued to spread. Joseph did his best to combat the mounting prejudice until October 1838, when he and other Church leaders were betrayed at Far West, Missouri, into the hands of government officials.
Joseph and his brethren were eventually tried at Richmond, Missouri, then imprisoned in Liberty Jail for four months. Finally, early in April 1839, Joseph was taken to Gallatin for another trial. A fellow prisoner, Alexander McRae, wrote that during one adjournment of the court, Joseph made a gesture of friendship toward the guards.
“From that time until we got away,” McRae’s account continues, “they could not put a guard over us who would not become so friendly that they dare not trust them, and the guard was very frequently changed. We were seated at the first table with the judge, lawyers, etc., and had the best the country afforded, with feather beds to sleep on—a privilege we had not before enjoyed in all our imprisonment.”6
Peter H. Burnett, a legal counselor for the prisoners, wrote: ‘[Joseph] had great influence over others. … Just before I left to return to Liberty, I saw him out among the crowd, conversing freely with every one, and seeming to be perfectly at ease. In the short space of five days he had managed so to mollify his enemies that he could go unprotected among them without the slightest danger.”7
After the legal proceedings at Gallatin, the lawmen (who apparently believed in the innocence of the prisoners) gave Joseph and his companions the opportunity to escape. They seized the chance and crossed the state border into Illinois.8
Five years later, on 18 June 1844, nine days before Joseph’s martyrdom and amid all the excitement aroused by mobsters, Joseph gave his last public speech. It is quite possible that the man in the audience described by English convert Charles Lambert was a repentant mobster:
“I was present when the Prophet preached his last sermon. … It was powerful. There was a tall man standing behind me sobbing and crying. When I turned around to look at him, he said he would never fight against the Mormons; no, never. He was a stranger to me.”9
By 24 June 1844, Joseph Smith had surrendered himself to legal authorities seeking to prosecute him for treason. That day he and his company rode to Carthage. While it is widely known that Joseph and his fellow prisoners preached to the prison guards at Carthage, the reaction of some of those guards often goes unnoted. Eyewitness Church member Dan Jones wrote:
“A portion of us were alternately preaching to the guards, … and several were relieved before their time was out because they admitted they were proselyted to the belief of the innocency of the prisoners, which rendered them incompetent of guarding! Frequently they admitted they had been imposed upon by the tales of the mobs. … They believed our testimony to the point of confessing that the accusations made by the mobbers were lies for the purpose of getting revenge on J. Smith. … And more than once was it heard ‘Let us go home boys for I will not fight against these men.’”10
Two days after the martyrdom, Brother Jones attended a viewing of the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum, laid in their coffins at Joseph’s house in Nauvoo. He later wrote that he then beheld “the two wisest and most virtuous men on the earth without any doubt, whom I had seen just awhile before preaching tenderly from between the iron bars of their jail the gospel of peace to those who wanted to kill them.”11 If Joseph had been able to gain the ears of those who finally killed him, to let them feel of his great spirit and friendship, undoubtedly some of their hearts would also have been softened.
A target of relentless persecution and injustice, God’s chosen prophet of the Restoration epitomized the Savior’s admonition to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father who is in heaven” (3 Ne. 12:44–45).
But Joseph did more than use soft words guided by the Spirit to show love and compassion for his enemies. His kind treatment of two spiteful persecutors is one example.
On order from the governor of Missouri, two agents, Reynolds and Wilson, arrested Joseph in Nauvoo in June 1843. They cruelly abused their prisoner, punching his sides with their pistols, threatening his life, and taking him away before he could see his family.
The tables were soon turned on the two officers when they were forced to return to Nauvoo to be tried for threatening the lives of Joseph and another Church member. Joseph had a feast prepared in celebration of his safe return, and among his guests were Reynolds and Wilson.12 That afternoon, in a speech to Nauvoo’s citizens, Joseph reported, speaking of Reynolds and Wilson:
“I have brought these men to Nauvoo, and committed them to her from whom I was torn, not as prisoners in chains, but as prisoners of kindness. I have treated them kindly. I have had the privilege of rewarding them good for evil. They took me unlawfully, treated me rigorously, strove to deprive me of my rights, and would have run with me into Missouri to have been murdered, if Providence had not interposed. But now they are in my hands; and I have taken them into my house, set them at the head of my table, and placed before them the best which my house afforded; and they were waited upon by my wife, whom they deprived of seeing me when I was taken.”13
President Lorenzo Snow once counseled a group of departing missionaries, “There is a way to reach every human heart, and it is your business to find the way to the hearts of those to whom you are called [to serve].”14 Like the Apostle Paul before King Agrippa (see Acts 26) or Ammon before King Lamoni’s father (see Alma 20:8–28), Joseph the Prophet possessed a remarkable gift for reaching the heart, even the heart of an adversary, if the person would only listen.
That gift is one of many personal attributes that underscore Joseph’s prophetic stature and remind us of what we, too, can accomplish in companionship with the Lord.