“Chapter Twenty-One: Growing Conflict in Illinois,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 263–71
“Chapter Twenty-One,” Church History in the Fulness of Times, 263–71
For three years Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints lived in relative peace in Illinois. Then, as had occurred in Ohio and Missouri, dissenters within and opponents without combined to create conflict for the Church. Again the Prophet Joseph Smith was harassed, persecuted, and threatened. As problems began to escalate in 1842, he wrote to the Saints. He assured his brothers and sisters in the gospel that “the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; and for what cause it seems mysterious, unless I was ordained from before the foundation of the world for some good end. … I feel, like Paul, to glory in tribulation; for to this day has the God of my fathers delivered me out of them all” (D&C 127:2). The Prophet had tremendous confidence that despite all the emerging conflicts the Lord would help him triumph over all his enemies.
John C. Bennett arrived in Nauvoo in August 1840 and quickly rose to prominence. Only a year and a half older than the Prophet, Bennett had varied experience as a physician, Methodist preacher, founder of a college, university president, military leader, and, most recently, as the quartermaster general of Illinois. In the April 1841 general conference he was presented before the Church “as Assistant President until President [Sidney] Rigdon’s health should be restored.”1 For a time he was the Prophet’s companion, confidant, and adviser.
On 15 June 1841, just two and a half months after Bennett had been sustained as Assistant President, Joseph Smith received a letter from Hyrum Smith and William Law, then in Pittsburgh, confirming a rumor that Bennett had an estranged wife and child in Ohio. When he first went to Nauvoo, Bennett had claimed that he was not married. The Prophet confronted him with these facts, and in feigned remorse, Bennett took poison in an apparent suicide attempt.
About this same time Bennett, by perverting the doctrine of plural marriage and misusing the prestige of his high Church position, was able to lure some women into immoral conduct. His “spiritual wifery,” as he termed it, was adultery.
Before the true character of John C. Bennett was made apparent, he also engineered a clever plot to assassinate the Prophet and take over the Church. On Saturday, 7 May 1842, a mock battle between the two cohorts, or brigades, of the Nauvoo Legion was arranged. Major General Bennett asked Lieutenant General Joseph Smith to take charge of the first cohort during the contest. When the Prophet declined, Bennett urged him then to take up a station in the rear of the cavalry without his staff during the engagement. This Joseph also declined to do. Instead he chose his own position with his lifeguard, Albert P. Rockwood, by his side. Joseph noted that he sensed through “the gentle breathings of that Spirit” that there was a plot afoot to have him exposed to being slain and that no one would know who the perpetrator was.2
When Bennett’s personal immorality and sinister designs were discovered, he was excommunicated from the Church. He was also cashiered from the legion, forced to resign as mayor, and expelled from the Masonic fraternity. With his reputation in Nauvoo ruined, he bitterly left the city and took up lecturing against the Prophet and the other leaders of the Church. His serialized exposé, appearing in the Sangamo Journal newspaper in Springfield, Illinois, during the summer of 1842, was collected and published a few months later as part of The History of the Saints; or, an Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism. Bennett claimed that he only became a Mormon to bring to light the alleged illicit conduct of the Prophet.
Bennett also stimulated anti-Mormon feelings among the Masons in Illinois. As early as October 1841 some Masons who were members of the Church obtained permission to initiate a Masonic lodge in Nauvoo. Joseph Smith could see advantages in belonging to this fraternal order. Presumably it was felt that other Masons in the state and nation, many of whom held prominent positions, would look more kindly upon the Church. Joseph Smith and many others in Nauvoo were formally introduced into the order in March 1842. Unaware that John C. Bennett had been expelled from an Ohio Masonic order for misconduct, Masons in Nauvoo elected him secretary of their lodge.
When he left Nauvoo, Bennett visited Masons in Hannibal, Missouri, who were also unaware that he had been expelled from the fraternity. He accused the leadership of the predominantly Mormon lodges in and around Nauvoo of violating Masonic procedure, keeping a false set of books, and doing other improper things. These accusations were passed on to the Illinois grand lodge, which launched a two-year investigation. Consequently, many Illinois Masons believed Bennett’s false charges.
During John C. Bennett’s mercurial rise and fall in Nauvoo, political rivalries were developing between the Latter-day Saints and their neighbors in western Illinois. These difficulties stemmed from volatile frontier politics, where interparty opposition was intense and feelings were easily inflamed. The problem was intensified because Democrats and Whigs were nearly equal in Illinois. The Democrats took control of the state government in 1838, but the Whigs had retained a narrow edge in western Illinois when the Saints began to arrive in 1839. Both political parties hoped that the new citizens might help their cause.3
In Hancock County, however, feelings soon polarized over the rapid growth of Nauvoo and other Mormon communities. The citizens of Warsaw, seventeen miles south of Nauvoo, became anxious and jealous over the growing economic, political, and religious dominance of the Mormon city. It was in Warsaw and in Carthage, the Hancock County seat seventeen miles east of Nauvoo, that the anti-Mormon feelings first began to coalesce in Illinois.
In an attempt to promote goodwill, Church leaders invited Thomas Sharp, a former lawyer, and the editor of the Warsaw Signal to the celebration at the laying of the temple cornerstone on 6 April 1841. As Thomas Sharp witnessed the day’s events, including a parade and sumptuous banquet, and listened to Joseph Smith and other Church leaders speak about the prospects for the growth of Nauvoo and the kingdom of God, he became convinced that Mormonism was more than a religion. To him it appeared to be a dangerous, un-American political movement aimed at domination of a vast empire. Returning to Warsaw he launched a vigorous campaign against the Church in the columns of his newspaper, claiming that it was Joseph Smith’s intent to unite church and state; he insisted that the Saints possessed too much power and autonomy in their Nauvoo charter.
In June 1841, Sharp helped form an anti-Mormon political party in Hancock County which held conventions in Warsaw and Carthage and public meetings in other smaller communities. Thus, individuals from both national political parties united against the Church. In the county elections in July, an anti-Mormon slate was elected, which thwarted the political influence of the Saints, even when they voted as a bloc. But as Latter-day Saints continued to stream into Hancock County, including many British members who quickly became United States citizens, the political power of the Saints grew and further alienated their new enemies in Hancock County.
Meanwhile, the Saints found a friend in a leader of the Democratic party in Illinois—Judge Stephen A. Douglas of the state supreme court. While serving as secretary of state, Douglas had helped ensure the passage of the Nauvoo charter by the Illinois legislature.
When Joseph visited Church members in Adams County early in June 1841, he was arrested as a fugitive from the state of Missouri. In Quincy, however, Joseph obtained a writ of habeas corpus, which enabled him to appeal to Judge Douglas, who consented to give the matter a hearing a few days later at the circuit court in Monmouth, seventy-five miles northeast of Nauvoo.
When the trial opened on 9 June, the courtroom overflowed with spectators excited about a possible lynching of Joseph Smith. Judge Douglas fined the sheriff twice for failing to keep the crowd under control. The defense arguments concerning atrocities against the Saints in Missouri moved many people in the courtroom, including Judge Douglas, to tears. The next day he dismissed the case on procedural grounds.
Judge Douglas’s decision won him the gratitude of the Church, but it aroused strong suspicion in western Illinois that he had a political agreement with Joseph Smith. Whig newspapers statewide accused him of openly courting the Mormon vote by dismissing the case. The Whigs, therefore, stopped wooing the Latter-day Saints and stepped up their attacks on them as the gubernatorial election year of 1842 approached. Stephen A. Douglas became the target of many partisan blasts as he continued to befriend the Church. His appointment of several Church members to court positions in Hancock County aroused intense anti-Mormon feelings in Warsaw and Carthage.
The full measure of Mormon gratitude toward Judge Douglas appeared in a letter by Joseph Smith in the Times and Seasons: “We care not a fig for Whig or Democrat: they are both alike to us; but we shall go for our friends, our TRIED FRIENDS. … DOUGLAS is a Master Spirit, and his friends are our friends —we are willing to cast our banners on the air, and fight by his side in the cause of humanity, and equal rights—the cause of liberty and the law.”4 Later in 1842, with the undeniable aid of the Mormon vote, the Democratic candidate for governor, Thomas L. Ford, won the election over Joseph Duncan, the Whig candidate and an avowed opponent of the Saints.
In the same election campaign, William Smith, the Prophet’s brother and one of the Twelve Apostles, ran on the Democratic ticket for the state house of representatives against Whig candidate Thomas Sharp. To counter Sharp’s anti-Mormon comments, the Wasp was established under the editorship of William Smith. Later the Nauvoo Neighbor, under the editorship of John Taylor, replaced the Wasp and continued to proclaim the Latter-day Saint cause. With the support of the growing numbers of Latter-day Saints, the Apostle easily won the election and went to Springfield to fight for the continuation of the Nauvoo charter. Sharp’s defeat intensified his antagonism, and he broadened his attack over a ten-county area and cried for extermination or expulsion of the Mormons.5
In May 1842,6 Lilburn W. Boggs, former governor of Missouri, was wounded by a would-be assassin. Missouri authorities accused Joseph Smith of the attempted murder and again tried to extradite him back to Missouri.
John C. Bennett, filled with hatred and revenge after leaving Nauvoo, claimed that Joseph Smith had sent Porter Rockwell to Missouri for the express purpose of killing the ex-governor. Rockwell angrily confronted Bennett at Carthage and accused him of lying. Bennett then contacted the rapidly recovering Boggs in Missouri and persuaded him to swear to an affidavit that Porter Rockwell, acting on orders of Joseph Smith, had tried to murder him. In July, Boggs appeared before a justice of the peace in Independence, Missouri, to charge Orrin Porter Rockwell, one of Joseph Smith’s bodyguards, with attempted murder. Governor Thomas Reynolds of Missouri then convinced Governor Thomas Carlin of Illinois to send officers to arrest Porter Rockwell and Joseph Smith. The Prophet, using the power of habeas corpus granted in the Nauvoo charter, was temporarily freed. Knowing that if he returned to Missouri he would be killed, the Prophet sought seclusion on a Mississippi River island. Rockwell fled to Pennsylvania under a fictitious name.
Letters from Emma Smith, the Nauvoo Female Relief Society, and prominent Nauvoo citizens failed to persuade Governor Carlin of the impropriety of the extradition order. Carlin continued to offer a reward for the arrest of the Prophet and Porter Rockwell. At this time Church leaders prepared documents answering John C. Bennett’s accusations and sent 380 elders to distribute the documents to public officials and Church members in various states. Meanwhile, United States district attorney Justin Butterfield offered the opinion that Joseph could obtain dismissal of the charges from the circuit court of the United States of the district of Illinois. With protection provided by newly elected Governor Thomas Ford, Joseph Smith went to Springfield in December 1842 and was eventually released because the charges went beyond the evidence in Boggs’s original affidavit and therefore lacked foundation. The Saints in Nauvoo rejoiced that their Prophet could come out of hiding and be with them once more. Unfortunately, Porter Rockwell was arrested in St. Louis in March on his way home to Nauvoo and languished in Missouri jails for ten months before being acquitted.
A third attempt by Missouri officials to return Joseph Smith to Independence for trial was made in June 1843 during the congressional race. John C. Bennett was in Daviess County, Missouri, and revived the old charge of treason against the Prophet. Governor Ford of Illinois agreed to a warrant of extradition. At this time Joseph and his family had left for a much-needed vacation at the home of Emma’s sister, Elizabeth Wasson, near Dixon, Illinois, two hundred miles north of Nauvoo. Stephen Markham and William Clayton were sent from Nauvoo to warn the Prophet. While they were in the house, Sheriff Joseph Reynolds of Jackson County, Missouri, and Constable Harmon Wilson of Hancock County, Illinois, arrived and rudely arrested the Prophet in the yard. Cyrus H. Walker, Whig candidate for Congress and also a leading attorney, happened to be in Dixon and promised Joseph that he would defend him if Joseph would vote for him in the upcoming election, to which the Prophet agreed.
Stephen Markham and William Clayton then arrested Sheriff Reynolds and Constable Wilson for false imprisonment and for threatening Joseph Smith’s life. En route, they were met by a mounted posse of the Nauvoo Legion and were ushered safely into Nauvoo before cheering citizens. The Nauvoo municipal court released Joseph Smith on a writ of habeas corpus.
Reynolds and Wilson were treated to a sumptuous dinner and released. They then dashed to Carthage and incited further anti-Mormon feelings among the people. They swore out new writs for Joseph Smith’s arrest, and a posse was organized to retake the Prophet. Governor Ford, however, honored the Nauvoo court’s decision. While the matter was in litigation, public opinion in the state became increasingly anti-Mormon.
Before the congressional election in August, Church leaders decided that Joseph P. Hoge, the Democratic candidate, would best represent the Saints’ interests. Joseph Smith kept his pledge to vote for Cyrus Walker. Hyrum Smith and John Taylor, however, urged other members of the Church to vote for Hoge. Both candidates, uncertain of Mormon leanings, spent four days campaigning in Nauvoo. The Nauvoo vote helped swing the election in favor of Hoge. The Whigs then charged the Mormons with misuse of corporate political power. Many Democrats joined the chorus of anti-Mormon feeling because they feared the power that had worked for them might one day be used against them. Thus Joseph Smith’s sincere attempts to keep the Church aloof from partisan politics were unsuccessful.
While forces from without threatened the Prophet, dissension within Nauvoo aided their hostile aims. During the Bennett scandal in 1842, three other members of the Church—Robert Foster, Francis Higbee, and Chauncey Higbee—were also severely reproved by Joseph Smith for immorality. Following the scandal, Francis Higbee went to Cincinnati for a year, but he returned following the death of his faithful father, Elias Higbee. In September, Francis was offended again when the Prophet publicly accused him and others of collusion with the Missourians in their third attempt to extradite him. Francis Higbee became the Prophet’s bitter enemy.
The number of dissenters in Nauvoo grew with the addition of Church members who opposed plural marriage and other new doctrines taught by Joseph Smith. William Law, Second Counselor in the First Presidency; his brother Wilson Law, major general in the Nauvoo Legion; and high council members Austin Cowles and Leonard Soby all believed that Joseph Smith was a fallen prophet.7
By late December 1843, Joseph Smith became aware of some of the evil designs of the dissidents. He told the Nauvoo police that he was much more worried about traitors within the Church than about any enemies in Missouri: “All the enemies upon the face of the earth may roar and exert all their power to bring about my death, but they can accomplish nothing, unless some who are among us and enjoy our society, have been with us in our councils, participated in our confidence, taken us by the hand, called us brother, saluted us with a kiss, join with our enemies, turn our virtues into faults, and, by falsehood and deceit, stir up their wrath and indignation against us, and bring their united vengeance upon our heads. … We have a Judas in our midst.”8
The apostates’ uneasiness grew as the police watched their activities carefully. Accusations were exchanged between the apostates and the Nauvoo city council. In April, Robert Foster and William and Wilson Law were excommunicated for un-Christian conduct. On 28 April these men and their sympathizers met and declared Joseph Smith a fallen prophet and inaugurated a reformed church with William Law as president. They appointed a committee to visit families and try to convert them to the new church. A printing press was ordered, and plans were made to launch an opposition newspaper to be named the Nauvoo Expositor.
While apostasy festered in Nauvoo in late 1843, the Prophet Joseph Smith was busy politically. Realizing that 1844 was a national election year, he wrote letters to John C. Calhoun, Lewis Cass, Richard M. Johnson, Henry Clay, and Martin Van Buren, the men most frequently mentioned as candidates for president of the United States. He asked each man what his course would be toward the Latter-day Saints if he were elected, especially in helping them obtain redress for property lost in Missouri. Of the five, Cass, Clay, and Calhoun responded by letter, but none proposed the kind of federal intervention that the Prophet and the Church members desired.
It seemed obvious that there was no one the Saints could endorse for the presidency. Therefore, Joseph Smith met with the Twelve on 29 January 1844 to consider their course for the coming elections. The brethren unanimously sustained a motion to propose their own ticket with Joseph Smith as their candidate for president. He told them that they would have to send every man in Nauvoo who could speak in public to campaign and preach the gospel and that he would be among them. “After the April Conference we will have General Conferences all over the nation, and I will attend as many as convenient. Tell the people we have had Whig and Democratic Presidents long enough: we want a President of the United States. If I ever get into the presidential chair, I will protect the people in their rights and liberties.”9
With the help of William W. Phelps, John M. Bernhisel, and Thomas Bullock, Joseph synthesized his ideas for a platform into a pamphlet titled General Smith’s Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. It was published on 7 February and mailed to about two hundred leaders in the country. Joseph’s proposals were designed to appeal to voters in both major parties. He advocated revoking imprisonment for debt, turning prisons into seminaries of learning, abolishing slavery by 1850 and reimbursing slaveholders out of revenue from the sale of public lands, establishing a national bank with branches in each state, and annexing Texas and Oregon.10 Joseph Smith’s first choice as his vice-presidential running mate was the prominent New York journalist and friend of the Saints, James Arlington Bennet. Bennet declined, however, and Joseph finally settled on Sidney Rigdon.
On 11 March 1844 a council meeting was held in Nauvoo to organize the political kingdom of God in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Now that the Prophet was a candidate for high political office, the time seemed right to inaugurate this body which would also serve as a committee to direct his campaign. The council consisted of about fifty members, including most of the Church leaders. It therefore came to be known as the Council of Fifty.
By the end of April, a list of elders and their campaign assignments was published in the Nauvoo Neighbor. It was also decided, in an early May convention held in Nauvoo, to secure the appointment of delegates from several states to a national convention to be held in Baltimore, Maryland, in July to nominate Joseph Smith for president of the United States.
In spite of the public relations efforts of the Church, opposition intensified in the early months of 1844. Thomas Sharp repeatedly attacked the Church and accused its leaders of every crime imaginable. He also promoted the anti-Mormon party’s day of fasting and prayer on Saturday, 9 March, in an effort to speedily bring down the “false prophet” Joseph Smith. The anti-Mormon party in Carthage appointed a grand “wolf hunt” in Hancock County for the same day. These hunts were a common sport in the area, but in this and future cases the wolf hunt was merely a pretext for a mob to gather to harass, pillage, and burn the farms of the Saints in outlying areas.
In contrast to the lawless actions of the anti-Mormon party and the Warsaw Signal, Joseph Smith joined with Governor Ford that spring in an effort to establish more cordial relations among the citizens of western Illinois. An editorial in the Nauvoo Neighbor called upon all honest men to join with the governor “in his laudable endeavors to cultivate peace and honor the laws.” The editorial urged the Saints to treat kindly those who did them wrong and reminded them of the wise man’s proverb, “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). The Neighbor editorial declared that their motto was “Peace with all.”12 In spite of these overtures, Thomas Sharp continued his attack through the Warsaw Signal and hinted that trouble was brewing between Joseph Smith and some Church members and that a breach was imminent.13
By May 1844 the Latter-day Saints were once again embroiled in an apparently irreconcilable conflict with their neighbors. There were many reasons for this: politically the Saints were alienated from nearly everyone else in Illinois, other communities were jealous of Nauvoo’s economic growth and political autonomy, many people in Illinois feared the power of the Nauvoo Legion, the Masons were disturbed by alleged irregularities of the order in Nauvoo, and there was a general distaste among the people for peculiar Mormon doctrines and practices which had been misrepresented by John C. Bennett and others. Despite these factors, the Saints still might have been able to maintain peace if it had not been for the apostasy developing within the Church. Unhappily, all signs pointed toward eventual violence. On 29 May 1844, Thomas Sharp told his readers he “would not be surprised to hear of his [Joseph Smith’s] death by violent means in a short time.”14