Lesson 32: “To Seal the Testimony”
Doctrine and Covenants 135
Purpose: To teach class members about the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and to strengthen their testimonies of his calling as a prophet of God.
Discussion and Application:
[1. The Prophet Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood.
2. The Prophet Joseph Smith did more for the salvation of men in this world than anyone except Jesus.]
When you were a small child, your parents probably seemed like very powerful people – they decided what you ate, and when you went to bed, and that you had to go to school even when you didn’t want to. They could also kiss your knee when you fell down and make it better, and protect you when the thunder frightened you, and maybe – like my dad – they could snap their fingers and make the stoplight change from red to green.
Things changed a little when you got older. When your sorrows became more complicated than a bumped knee, they could no longer “kiss it and make it better.” I finally learned that my dad didn’t make the stoplight changed – he snapped his fingers when he saw the light for the other way turn red and knew that a moment later our light would turn green. Maybe you learned that the mother who had always let you have the last cookie didn’t like going without, and sometimes she took the last cookie herself.
How did that make you feel? You didn’t stop loving your parents; you didn’t decide they were frauds who could never be trusted again – so how did you adjust to your new understanding of your parents?
The same kind of thing happened in your religious life: When you were a small child, your parents may have taught you that when you were frightened or lost or sick, you should pray and everything would be all right. In the stories you heard in Primary or wherever you learned about God, children who prayed always got better, or found their lost puppies. You also probably heard Bible stories, about Moses leading the Israelites to the Promised Land, or Nephi getting the scriptures to take with his family when they left Jerusalem.
But what happened when you got older and learned more, and realized that sick puppies didn’t always get better when you prayed, and that sometimes parents got divorced no matter how hard you prayed? When you learned that the Israelites tried to kill everybody else who lived in the Promised Land, or that Nephi had killed Laban in order to get those scriptures, did you decide that they were wicked men who were not following the Lord?
What do you do when you learn as an adult that life is more complicated than anybody told you when you were a child? that Mom and Dad have lives and histories and desires of their own that do not always include you? that there is more to learning to “follow the prophets” than merely singing about them in Primary?
When you were a child, or a new convert, you learned a version of Church history that was as simplified as the children’s Bible stories you learned. As you mature in your knowledge, you realize that Church history has many more details than you learned as a child; you learn that early members of the Church were real people who had all the same passions and ambitions and weaknesses that you have; you learn that a testimony comes from the Spirit, and not from holding an idealized picture of past, peopled with Saints who were always good, and non-Mormons who were always bad.
You might learn, for example, that Joseph Smith wrote several different accounts of his First Vision – the familiar one we have in the Pearl of Great Price, and other versions, both earlier and later. Some of the details are different in these different accounts. Why do you suppose Joseph would have told his story in different ways to different people at different times? If you have had the Holy Ghost confirm to you that Joseph was a prophet, that the Father and the Son did appear to him in response to his prayer, is it reasonable to decide that Joseph was a fraud because, for example, in some versions he identified his visitors explicitly as the Father and the Son, while in other versions he called them “angels” or “glorious personages”?
How do you incorporate new details or new ideas into your understanding of the gospel without deciding that the whole thing is a mess and tossing out your testimony with the trash?
Our lesson today concerns the martyrdom of Joseph Smith in the Carthage Jail in June, 1844. The lesson manual – which is also used for teenagers and for new converts as well as for the adults in this room – gives a very simple background for the martyrdom:
“During 1843 and 1844, animosity against the Church increased. Enemies both inside and outside the Church began trying to destroy it.”
This is true, as far as it goes, but it’s the same kind of simplified story taught to children. This morning I’d like to discuss a somewhat more complicated version of that story. It will still be grossly simplified, because we have so few minutes to go over it – but if any of it is brand new to anyone in the room, we can practice the skills of maturity that we have been talking about so far: We can discuss how to incorporate these ideas into our understanding of the martyrdom and the mission of Joseph Smith.
The manual refers to “animosity against the Church” and “enemies both inside and outside.” Who were some of these enemies, and why did they oppose Joseph Smith?
William Law and his brother Wilson Law were immigrants from Ireland who had joined the Church in Canada. When they came to Nauvoo, they were among the few arrivals who had much money with them. They constructed flour and lumber mills which were essential to the survival and growth of Nauvoo. When Hyrum Smith, who had been Joseph’s counselor in the First Presidency, became the Church Patriarch, William Law was called as Joseph’s new counselor. William Law was one of the first nine men to be given the temple endowment. He was a trusted man, and a faithful Church leader.
Then William learned something that complicated his understanding of the gospel. Hyrum Smith privately taught William about plural marriage. Hyrum showed him the revelation we now have as Section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants, a revelation that had not yet been publicly taught. As the revelation itself makes clear, and as Joseph and Hyrum taught it, plural marriage could be entered only under certain conditions, when it was sanctioned by the Lord and when it was sealed by priesthood authority. It was not a practice to be indulged in by just anybody, under any conditions, without priesthood authority. It was a priesthood ordinance itself, not a license for indiscriminate sexual behavior by lustful men.
That much I know from my own study: Plural marriages were eternal sealings, with eternal goals. Beyond that, I cannot teach you much about Nauvoo-era plural marriage with any reliability. Plural marriage was taught privately, so we don’t have any sermons or writings that were intended to explain its practice in detail. We don’t know enough about it – at least I don’t, and most of the people I hear expressing strong opinions about it do not know enough about it – to offer any reliable expert knowledge. We do know that Joseph entered into plural marriages with a number of women, and we can identify some of them, but we do not know them all. We know that one or two wives were quite young, as young as 14, perhaps, and we know that some wives were already married to other men. We do not know exactly what was involved in these marriages: Some writers will defend to the death the claim that Joseph’s plural marriages did not involve sexual relations; others point to suggestions that “marriage” to Joseph meant exactly what “marriage” means to us. As far as I’m concerned, we do not know enough to pass judgment on this part of our history; studies continue, both by faithful scholars and otherwise.
William Law, like some of Joseph’s other associates, could not accept plural marriage in any sense. He knew that some Mormons who had somehow become aware of the new doctrine were teaching a badly garbled version, both in Nauvoo and away as missionaries. They used the concept of plural marriage as a way to seduce the women they were teaching about the gospel, twisting the doctrine of Section 132 into vile and wicked practice – and for William Law, that’s all plural marriage could ever be. Despite some attempted reconciliations with Joseph, William and Wilson Law were excommunicated and became bitter opponents to Joseph Smith.
Robert Foster and his brother Charles Foster were other converts who made great contributions to Nauvoo. They were more civic leaders than religious leaders. Their differences with Joseph Smith originated over financial matters. Robert Foster built a hotel on the hill near the Temple site, contrary to Joseph’s wishes that commercial properties be developed on the flat land where the Church owned so much property, in order to strengthen the Church’s economic position. Charles Foster publicly accused Joseph Smith of misappropriating funds that had been contributed for the Temple, and criticized Joseph as an impractical dreamer who could never hope to complete the elaborate Temple.
Chauncey Higbee and his brother Francis Higbee – dissidents were not always pairs of brothers, despite the examples I’m pulling out today! – had a falling out with Joseph over plural marriage: Chauncey Higbee was one of those who had attempted, maybe succeeded, in seducing women under a false guise of plural marriage; Francis Higbee became disenchanted when Joseph proposed marriage to woman he himself had been courting.
And there were others who had become upset with Joseph for these and other grounds, who claimed that Joseph was a false or fallen prophet. There seems to have been a fair amount of paranoia running through Nauvoo in these months: Mormons were afraid that dissidents would cause a repeat of the Missouri troubles; dissidents were afraid that they would be targeted by Mormon assassins they suspected filled Nauvoo. The internal dissensions were carried to the pages of newspapers in nearby towns, which were delighted to publish scandal and sensation, and did their best to stir up continued controversy.
The anger and resentment and accusations and recriminations reached a head at the beginning of June, 1844, when a new newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, published its one and only issue. The editorials in that issue labeled Joseph Smith a fallen prophet and called on Mormons to reject Joseph and return to some earlier version of “original” Mormonism. They claimed that Joseph blasphemed by teaching that the heavens held many Gods who organized matter rather than creating it from nothing. The paper referred to plural marriage as “abominations and whoredoms.” One editorial sought to stir up exactly the same political troubles that had driven the Mormons from Missouri: It claimed that the “old settlers” of western Illinois were being deprived of their political rights by the political unity of the Mormons. The Mormons, it claimed, wanted a theocracy and not a democracy. Hyrum Smith, a candidate for the Illinois state legislature, should be defeated because he would be only a puppet for Joseph Smith. Finally, it called for mob action against the Mormons in Nauvoo, by claiming that an armed mob who attacked the Mormons with the intent of restoring law and order was, in fact, not a mob, but an instrument of democracy.
Tensions between Mormon and non-Mormon, between Nauvoo and its neighbors, were running so high that summer that leaders were afraid that any further fanning of the flames would result in bloodshed. The Nauvoo city council met the day after the Expositor was printed, and continued their debate into a second day. They said the newspaper’s charges were libel subject to legal action. They then declared the Expositor to be a threat to public safety, a nuisance that must be abated. That evening, the city marshal and a posse went to the Expositor offices, carried the press, the type, all printed matter, and other items belonging to the press, into the street, and destroyed them, in part by fire.
From our position in 2013, our first reaction is probably to condemn the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor as a violation of the Constitutional right of freedom of the press. But in the context of the 19th century, that was not the case: Until the Civil War, the Bill of Rights was interpreted not as a blanket protection through the country, but only a limitation on the behavior of the federal government – states, counties, and towns were not bound to extend the same protections. The Illinois Constitution also held a provision regarding freedom of the press – but again, that limited only the action of the state government, not local jurisdictions, like the city of Nauvoo. In the 35 years before the Civil War, there were at least 16 instances of presses being destroyed in Illinois alone.
But whether this interpretation made the destruction of the press legal or not, the Nauvoo city council, and Joseph Smith as mayor of Nauvoo, certainly believed they had the legal right to destroy a press that was inciting violence, just as cities had the right to abate nuisances in the way of presses that published obscene material, or saloons and pool halls and houses of prostitution.
The furor over the destruction of the press grew so great that ten days later, Thomas Ford, governor of Illinois, arrived at the county seat in Carthage to investigate. While he apparently did not dispute Nauvoo’s right to destroy the newspaper, he thought the city council had acted improperly in ordering the destruction without allowing the newspaper’s owners to defend themselves before the city council. He declared that as mayor, Joseph had broken the law by acting without allowing that defense, and summoned Joseph to Carthage to stand trial for that action. Joseph’s refusal to submit, Ford said, “shall make it necessary to call out the Militia. I have great fears that your city will be destroyed and your people, many of them, exterminated.”
Joseph did not want to place himself in the hands of his declared enemies, of course, but after debating his options, he, with a party of his closest friends and advisors, rode to Carthage to stand charges of “riot” and “treason.” Joseph and Hyrum were placed in Carthage Jail – supposedly for their own protection, not because they were at risk of becoming fugitives. Over the next three days they received a number of visitors, attended some preliminary court matters, and prepared for trial. Friends smuggled in two pistols that were given to Joseph and Hyrum to defend themselves if it became necessary. Outside the jail, matters continued to grow more serious: Governor Ford announced plans to take an armed force to Nauvoo to search for counterfeiting equipment someone had accused the Mormons of operating, then canceled his plans on the fear that his own men would turn into an armed mob destroying Nauvoo and driving its citizens out of Illinois. Then Ford himself left Carthage to go to Illinois, leaving the Carthage Greys, the local militia unit, to guard Carthage against Mormon attack. Instead, the militia became the attackers, surrounding the Carthage Jail.
John Taylor, who was with Joseph and Hyrum and was seriously wounded in the attack that came on June 27, wrote an eyewitness account that has been incorporated into the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 135. Let’s read verses 1 and 2 of that section:
1 To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch. They were shot in Carthage jail, on the 27th of June, 1844,about five o’clock p.m., by an armed mob – painted black – of from 150 to 200 persons. Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls.
2 John Taylor and Willard Richards, two of the Twelve, were the only persons in the room at the time; the former was wounded in a savage manner with four balls, but has since recovered; the latter, through the providence of God, escaped, without even a hole in his robe.
There are a lot of rumors and folk tales about the events in and around the Carthage Jail. Is there anything anyone wants to ask about? If I don’t know the answers today, I will find out.
It’s probably just because I’m getting old, but it seems to me that we used to talk a lot more about Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders than we do today. Today we talk more about doctrines and principles than about how those doctrines and principles were restored. That is probably putting the emphasis where it belongs, if we could only do one or the other – I think we can do both – but I wonder whether the Latter-day Saints really know Joseph Smith anymore or can really understand the greatness of the man and our debt for what he did, serving as the Prophet of the Restoration when knowledge and power that had been lost from the world was returned.
In Doctrine and Covenants 135:3, John Taylor makes the claim that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” In the time we have left, let’s discuss some of the mission of Joseph Smith that justifies this claim.
What are some of the doctrines that Joseph restored, that either were unknown or imperfectly understood before the Restoration?
[Suggestions from the manual:]
Truths about the Godhead (D&C 130:22-23) – why is it important that we know this about God?
22 The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit. Were it not so, the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us.
23 A man may receive the Holy Ghost, and it may descend upon him and not tarry with him.
Authority of the priesthood – D&C 110:11-16
11 After this vision closed, the heavens were again opened unto us; and Moses appeared before us, and committed unto us the keys of the gathering of Israel from the four parts of the earth, and the leading of the ten tribes from the land of the north.
12 After this, Elias appeared, and committed the dispensation of the gospel of Abraham, saying that in us and our seed all generations after us should be blessed.
13 After this vision had closed, another great and glorious vision burst upon us; for Elijah the prophet, who was taken to heaven without tasting death, stood before us, and said:
14 Behold, the time has fully come, which was spoken of by the mouth of Malachi—testifying that he [Elijah] should be sent, before the great and dreadful day of the Lord come—
15 To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the children to the fathers, lest the whole earth be smitten with a curse—
16 Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands; and by this ye may know that the great and dreadful day of the Lord is near, even at the doors.
Truths about our origin and relationship to God – D&C 76:23-24 – What difference does it make to know we are “begotten sons and daughters” rather than merely “creatures”?
23 For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
24 That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God.
Plan of Salvation
Salvation of the dead
Temples and temple ordinances
Began work of taking the gospel to all nations and gathering Israel
Law of consecration
Word of Wisdom
Information about the building of the latter-day Zion
Articles of Faith
When Moroni visited Joseph Smith in 1923, he told Joseph that his “name should be had for good and evil among all nations.” (Joseph Smith–History 1:33) I’ve seen that to be true in my research: The newspapers in Australia carried news of Joseph’s martyrdom – and mostly spoke of his name with evil – only weeks after the martyrdom. I recently found a letter written in 1901 from the west coast of Africa in what would later become Ghana, 50 years before we previously knew that people in that part of Africa were aware of the Church, asking for information about Joseph Smith and the gospel. It doesn’t matter how far from Temple Square you go, or how early you look, once Joseph Smith had begun his mission his name and reputation has spread far faster than missionaries could carry it. And that reputation never seems to be neutral: Joseph’s name is held up for good or evil in the extreme. [bear testimony] Joseph was a good man, a virtuous man, a man called of God and found worthy by God. What I have to say may have no effect on those who speak evil of his name – but I will always be found on the side of speaking good of him.