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Joseph Smith – Death of A Religious Leader

On this significant day, we remember the tragic death of Joseph Smith, who was murdered by a mob in Carthage, Illinois. As the founder of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, his assassination was a result of escalating anti-Mormon sentiment. This sentiment intensified when Joseph ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper established by former Mormons who criticized his religion.

Founding of the Church

Joseph Smith was born to an unremarkable New England family. His grandfather had lost most of his property during the economic downturn of the 1780s and eventually moved to Vermont, where the Smith family grew up as farmers. However, bad harvests forced the family to move to New York.

At the time, spiritualism in the US was on the rise with many religious movements and sects emerging. Among these was Seekerism, a movement that hoped to restore the virtue of Christianity. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack was part of this group. This explains why Joseph became an avid treasure and magic seeker. 

When he was 14, Joseph alleges that he received a vision from God and later an angel called Moroni. This angel gave him the location of some gold tablets that would give him the history of the US. After finding these tablets, Joseph would write down their history in the Book of Mormon. This claims that a lost tribe of Israel had traveled there to the United States after the death of Jesus.

With this record, Joseph began preaching his new church and beliefs and managed to gather a few dozen followers. In 1830, they began to rebuild this great civilization where they would live until the end times. This would mark the beginning of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints. However, they would not immediately find a permanent home as the Mormons were unwelcome in many places and they would have to move from place to place.

One reason why these communities did not survive was that many places found the Mormon’s presence threatening as their numbers could threaten the existing systems. As a result, these places often expelled the Mormons, sometimes with violence. On one such occasion in Kirtland Missouri, the Mormons were expelled by the locals, leading the Mormons to fight back with weapons. The Governor of the state drove them out and even imprisoned Joseph, who later escaped and fled to Illinois. 

There, the Mormons settled in an abandoned town by the Mississippi River which they called Nauvoo, or a beautiful place in Hebrew, Here the Mormons built their most successful settlement and soon emerged as one of the largest cities in the state.

Joseph Smith’s Imprisonment and Assassination

Joseph Smith would be elected as mayor of this town, but over time he would become increasingly tyrannical. He punished and suppressed groups who were critical of him including the Nauvoo Expositor. Among them were claims that Nauvoo was practicing polygamy and wished to establish himself as a Theocratic king. Joseph Smith deemed this newspaper a threat to the peace and ordered its destruction.

However, non-Mormons saw this as a threat to their freedom of speech and protested this decision. They began to riot and took both Joseph and his brother Hyrum to Carthage, the county sea where they were imprisoned and charged with treason. While awaiting trial, a mob of nearly two hundred men stormed the prison where the brothers were being held. 

The first to die was Hyrum who was shot to death. Joseph Smith tried to escape and jump out the window but was shot and killed before falling to the ground. He died on June 27, 1844.

At the time, one newspaper critical of the Church wrote a piece calling the people to action. 

“War and extermination is inevitable! Citizens ARISE, ONE and ALL!!!—Can you stand by, and suffer such INFERNAL DEVILS! To ROB men of their property and RIGHTS, without avenging them. We have no time for comment, every man will make his own. LET IT BE MADE WITH POWDER AND BALL!!!”

– Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal
joseph smith last words letter

Joseph Smith Succession Contenders

After Joseph Smith death, a leadership crisis struck the Latter-Day Saint movement. Hyrum Smith, who was supposed to succeed Joseph as President, was also killed, making the succession unclear.

“By virtue of his position as the senior member of the First Presidency, Rigdon asserted his claim. He declared, “The keys of the kingdom are with me. I hold the keys of authority that God has placed in my hands by the voice of Joseph” ([Source about Sidney Rigdon’s claim]). However, recent disagreements with Joseph Smith weakened his position.”

 Sidney Rigdon, the “Spokesman for Joseph Smith

“As the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Brigham Young presented a different perspective. He claimed that before his death, Joseph had bestowed leadership authority upon the entire Quorum, making them the collective successors ([Source about Brigham Young’s claim]). This resonated with many Saints who valued the concept of apostolic succession.”

– Brigham Young, the Leader of the Apostles

“The competing claims fractured the Latter-Day Saint movement. A significant portion of the membership sided with Brigham Young, eventually migrating westward and establishing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) – the dominant branch today. Others followed Rigdon (Rigdonites), Strang (Strangites), and Joseph Smith III (Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now the Community of Christ).”

The Seeds of Division

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