Joseph Smith Was Killed in 1846

By April 1, 2008

Joseph Smith was killed in 1846 by a mob in Alton, Illinois, near the Illinois-Missouri border.  Unless I am mistaken, the foregoing statement is quite obviously false on two accounts (1846; Alton).  Yet, I was quite surprised to find that the source of this mistake is a well-known historian of U.S. religious history.

In 1846, shortly before being killed by a mob in Alton, Illinois, Joseph Smith had stood for president of the United States.[1]

This sentence is placed in a paragraph where Mark Noll outlines George Q. Cannon’s article, “Emancipation of the Slaves: The Prophet Joseph’s Plan–Results of Its Rejection” within his recent work, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (2006).[2] Because there is no other reference in the endnotes, I thought that perhaps George Q. Cannon made the mistakes and Noll had simply repeated them.  Yet, in checking Cannon’s article, I found that he does not mention when nor where Smith was killed.  So, I am unsure where Noll found this information, perhaps someone could enlighten me.  I thought it was particularly strange given that 1846 was not an election year.

I do not think Noll’s mistake is unforgivable, and certainly much graver errors have been and are made in historical studies. Further, Noll’s work, as you know, is very good and insightful.  So, I wonder how often similar mistakes are made with regard to Mormon history. What similar errors have readers of the JI come across?  This also has led me to wonder about facts relating to events I am less informed about.  I am interested to know how frequently these errors surface in historical works generally.  To what can we attribute these errors, specifically with regard to Mormonism?

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 80.

[2] George Q. Cannon,  “Emancipation of the Slaves-The Prophet Joseph’s Plan-Results of Its Rejection,” Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star (London) 25, no. 7 (Feb. 14, 1863): 99-101.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. You know, it seems like I run into stuff like this all the time and roll my eyes. But I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I have to admit though, 1846 and Alton, seem just bizarre.

    Comment by J. Stapley — April 1, 2008 @ 10:02 pm

  2. I thought the same thing, if it were one or the other I would have found it strange, but to have both is very interesting. The two of them together (Alton and 1846) leads me to think he may have one particular source.

    Comment by Jordan W. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  3. I remember an ethics class I took in College that’s text mentioned “John Smith and the gold bible” in context with polygamy. It was a passing reference.

    Comment by Matt W. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  4. Well, I think I know where the Alton mistake came from. In 1837, abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was lynched by a mob in Alton, Illinois.

    Comment by David G. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:10 pm

  5. That’s interesting David, great find! Perhaps Noll has so much information in his head that it runs together at times:) Fortunately for me, I don’t have much information up there at all.

    Comment by Jordan W. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:15 pm

  6. This reminds of Charles Sellers’s summary of the Book of Mormon as a record of the Nephites and Amanites in The Market Revolution.

    Comment by Christopher — April 1, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  7. That’s my guess, Jordan. I suspect that Noll was just sloppy and conflated the two deaths. I can’t explain the 1846 date though. But I’m not surprised. The details of our history is usually butchered in books that address bigger arguments. Don’t you remember reading Martin Marty’s Pilgrims in their Own Land for Underwood’s class and how several people got really upset by Marty’s lack of attention to detail?

    Comment by David G. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:18 pm

  8. If I remember right, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis is actually a collection of lectures Noll have on the subject that were combined to produce a narrative in book form. Perhaps not much editing went into the published form of the book as a result.

    Comment by Christopher — April 1, 2008 @ 10:20 pm

  9. When this sort of thing comes up I always like to drag Charles Sellers out of the cellar for a whipping, though I vaguely recall The Market Revolution‘s been mentioned herebouts before.

    Another thing I’ve noted is how much people still depend on Brodie. Makes me wonder what subfields I gloss over in my own work I’m butchering.

    Comment by matt b — April 1, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  10. Ah, Chris beat me to it. Pity.

    Although, actually, I’m going to retract that last word.

    Comment by matt b — April 1, 2008 @ 10:25 pm

  11. David, yes I do remember that. Again, I think this must go on much more than I suspected, but I don’t notice it because I don’t specialize in whatever topic is being discussed. Chris, you are right. The book is a series of lectures and in his Acknowledgments he states that,

    more room is afforded the personal voice and a certain measure of speculation beyond exhaustive documentation than would be appropriate in a full-scale monograph.

    Not that I think the errors I brought up are included in “personal voice” or “a certain measure of speculation” but the documentation and editing process was less stringent.

    Comment by Jordan W. — April 1, 2008 @ 10:34 pm

  12. Makes me wonder what subfields I gloss over in my own work I?m butchering.

    Amen. Though I don’t get the impression that there are thousands of Methodists waiting to jump all over every (sometimes obscure) detail I miss in my research and writing on early American Methodism.

    Comment by Christopher — April 1, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  13. Well, Terryl Givens misdated the Reformation by a couple of years, and called Brigham Young’s sleigh the “Julia Dean Hayne” (that was the actress’s married name, but the sleigh was never anything but “Julia Dean”) in People of Paradox. No big deal, but gaffes like that, and like your 1846/Alton martyrdom, make you wonder how sound an author’s theories are when they’re built of shaky bits.

    Thank heavens my own work is always 100% correct. Yes siree, *I’ve* never been known to refer to Brigham Young as “the then-governor” in a Tribune column about an 1867 event, or in another article get wrong the number of wagons burnt by Lot Smith. Fortunately, *my* work is ALWAYS error-free.

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 1, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  14. Yeah I dont even enter arguments like these. I find when I cast stones… well lets just say I have been known to have photos with the wrong people identified in my journalism days. In a small town, they NEVER let you forget that.

    Comment by JonW — April 1, 2008 @ 11:11 pm

  15. As I have been reading book after book and then book review after book review, I find that most historians get a fact or two wrong. I think that often it is the result of relying on memory instead of fact checking. I think editors generally only catch errors if they are obvious to anyone or if a book falls close to their own research. The people who do catch these errors are usually the peer reviewers, but it sounds like this book might not have gone through that process. I don’t think it is a big deal unless you consciously provide false information or that false information is an important part of your argument. Just my take on the whole matter.

    Comment by Joel — April 2, 2008 @ 6:59 am

  16. One common source of mistakes in work by big name historians: research assistants.

    Comment by SC Taysom — April 2, 2008 @ 7:57 am

  17. I hadn’t thought of RA’s, but I’m sure you’re right.

    Comment by Joel — April 2, 2008 @ 8:20 am

  18. I checked some other books by Noll for discussion of Mormonism/Joseph Smith. In his 1992 book A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, he writes: “The migration of Smith and his followers to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831 began the series of moves that eventually led the main body of Mormons on a Great Migration to the basin of Salt Lake (1846-1848). Before he could make that heroic trek, Smith was killed by an angry mob in Carthage, Illinois. Brigham Young, a master organizer, succeeded him and directed the move to Utah. Before they left, however, a segment of Joseph Smith’s early followers, apprehensive with the content of Smith’s later visions, the autocratic nature of his leadership, and the practice of plural marriage, broke away to form the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (p. 196). On the previous page, Noll indicates that Smith lived from 1805-1844 (p. 195).

    In his The Old Religion in a New World (2002), Noll writes that “Smith and his followers moved first to Kirtland, Ohio, and then to Western Illinois, where Smith was killed by a mob incensed by his autocratic politics” (p. 102). Again, he indicates that Smith lived from 1805-1844.

    Five pages later, Noll notes: “As an indication of mounting dissatisfaction with abolition, acts of violence increased. One of the more publicized of these events occurred in 1837, when a New England-born abolitionist, Elijah P. Lovejoy, was slain by a mob in Alton, Illinois, that had been angered by Lovejoy’s promotion of abolition in his newspaper” (pp. 107-108).

    Comment by Justin — April 2, 2008 @ 10:09 am

  19. Jon, I don’t think anyone here is casting stones, that, or anything like it, was certainly not intended in the original post.

    Comment by Jordan W. — April 2, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

  20. […] mistake.  Jordan W. over at Juvenile Instructor observed these mistakes in non Mormon books which do not focus on Mormonism. At least it seems like it to me (Page 235): The death of Joseph Smith ended a religious journey […]

    Pingback by Getting it wrong, recounting Mormon history « Banner, Sword, and Shield — May 7, 2008 @ 10:46 am

  21. It’s a great example that we can’t believe that everything we read is true. Everything must be taken with the proverbial grain of salt. The Bible on down, the only books I believe are okay, word for word, is the Book of Mormon and Jesus the Christ.

    Comment by ML Brown — June 14, 2008 @ 12:02 am

  22. [Edited for relevancy: Sergio does not attempt to address the content of this thread, and instead provides a rant on Book of Mormon historicity and the superiority of the Secular Left.]

    Comment by sergio lepore — April 19, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

  23. Well, that’s it, folks. sergio lepore has single-handedly convinced me of the folly of religion. What, oh, what shall I do now?

    Tennis, anyone?

    Comment by Ardis Parshall — April 19, 2009 @ 3:17 pm


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