When Joseph the Prophet and Hyrum the Patriarch were murdered, the Mormon community felt as if the worst event possible had happened. When word came back to Nauvoo concerning the Martyrdom, the news fell on distraught and sorrowful ears. “My soul sickened and I wept before the Lord and for a time it seemed that the very Heavens were clad in mourning.” Days later, nearly ten thousand mourners viewed the bodies when they were brought to the Mansion House, and many more attended the funeral which was then held. For the next year, much of the talk in Nauvoo circled around the death of their beloved leader and prophet.
As sad as the news was for the saints, it remarkably brought a rejuvenation of dedication. As one scholar has noted, “There is a transformation of charismatic power into a continuing influence that follows the death of certain leaders. In this case the Mormon Prophet’s death became a source of moral and communal power for subsequent group development.” Others have said that Joseph’s death came at the right time because it “unified his followers…and provided a useful element of tragedy and perspective.” Some even speculated that the church would not have even survived had it not been for the martyrdom which pulled them together. When the New York Herald boldly declared that Joseph’s death would “seal the fate of Mormonism,” the result was not what they expected. They felt that it would seal the church into ruins, and that “the ‘latter-day saints’ have indeed come to the latter day.” But, instead, it helped seal the church to the fate of establishing a stable and organized religious organization that is still growing today. For some reason, the martyrdom brought power and purpose to the Church; a power and purpose which can still be felt today when a member of the Church speaks about the event.
Much has been written on this topic, as well as the reactions that followed, but possibly the most telling ideological window in understanding this event is what was written immediately after it took place. One of these sources is the Church’s newspaper the Times and Seasons, and specifically in the poetry found on the last page. These writings captured the feelings of Joseph’s friends and family shortly after they received the news themselves. It reveals their immediate feelings of sorrow, anger, reverence, and hope. It also gives a glimpse into why the killing of their revered prophet did not lead to a termination of their faith, but rather a blossoming of their religion.
While many interesting and important ideas can be found in this poetry (I’m sure Sam will be able to expound on this topic much more than I am able to), I could find four main themes constant throughout the poems. Although there are many examples which could be given, I will only give one or two for each theme.
1. The Legacy of Joseph
The Saints had always held Joseph Smith in high regard, even during his life. This love, as expected, grew exponentially as the news reached them that he had been killed. They immediately saw him as a sacrifice in their behalf, and labeled him as a martyr for the truth, situating him with the prophets of the past. In their mind, Joseph had “ascended to heaven,” as soon as the bullets pierced his body. As John Taylor penned shortly after it happened, Joseph “lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his work with his own blood.”
In a poem written by Eliza R. Snow, she writes a plea to God which states,
We mourn thy Prophet, from whose lips have flow’d
The words of life, thy spirit has bestow’d-
A depth of thought, no human art could reach
From time to time, roll’d in sublimest speech,
From celestial fountain, through his mind
To purify and elevate mankind:
The rich intelligence by him brought forth
Is like the sun-beam, spreading o’er the earth.
Other ideas connected to this theme was comparing Joseph’s martyrdom to Christ’s crucifixion, emphasizing that he gave his life willingly, and anything else that portrayed him more as a glorious and triumphant rather than defeated and shamed.
2. The Impending Fate of the Persecutors
As glamorous as the poets painted Joseph Smith, they also condemned those behind the vicious deed with equal force. Snow calls them “wretched murd’rers” that were “fierce for human blood.” In a poem written for Joseph’s child, David Hyrum, she explains that he will never meet his father because he was killed “by the hands of wicked men.” Parley Pratt, answering his own question of “who, so cruel, or so hard in heart” would martyr the prophets, says that it was “some demon from the courts of hell”. An unnamed Jew (most likely Alexander Neihbaur) calls them “falst brethren” and pleads for God to
Give ear unto [the saints’] cries until thou lookest
And shewest down forth from heaven – taking vengeance
And avenging their blood – avenging thy people and thy law,
According to thy promices made.
3. The Loss of Freedom and Civility in the United States
If prior events, such as the expulsion from Jackson County, the Extermination Order, and President Van Buren’s deny for redress, had weakened the Church’s faith in the current nation, then the Martyrdom would have completely abolished it. Their prophet, who was running for the office of United States President at the time and always an outspoken advocate for the constitution, was killed by lawless men while under the custody of the state militia. They were now coming to the conclusion that there was no peace or safety found within the boundaries of the country they lived in. The constitution, which they saw as inspired of the Lord, was not being obeyed by those who were in charge. This led to a current condition which allowed lawlessness to reign. This was “an hour when peace and safety,” Eliza R. Snow wrote, which “the civil banner fled. In a day when legal justice,” she continued, “covers its dishonor’d head.” Parley P. Pratt emphasizes this in his poem:
Shades of our patriotic fathers! Can it be,
Beneath your blood-stain’d flag of liberty;
The firm supporters of our country’s cause,
Are budcher’d while submissive to her laws?
4. The Prophet’s Continued Mission
Possibly the most comforting condolence for the saints after the death of Joseph was that they knew Joseph’s mission had not ended. The Mormon theology of death allows for the thought of a continued mission beyond the grave. They knew that not even death could keep Joseph from fulfilling his purpose.This gave the saints at least three reasons to be comforted. The first is that they gained comfort to know that Joseph was now free from the troubles that plagued him throughout his life. He could now perform his work without the distractions of mobs, apostates, and the government. Second, they felt that he could do as much, and possibly more, work for the Church on the other side of the veil. And last, this gave them hope and encouragement to fulfill their duties so that they could see him again. John Taylor’s “The Seer” exemplify these points.
He’s free; – he’s free; – the Prophet’s free!
He is where he will ever be,
Beyond the reach of mobs and strife,
He rests unharm’d in endless life,
His home’s in the sky; – he dwells with the Gods,
Far from the furious rage of mobs.
He died; he died – for those he lov’d,
He reigns; – he reigns in realms above,
He waits with the just who have gone before,
To welcome the saints to Zions shore;
Shout, shout ye saints – this boon is given,
We’ll meet our martur’d seer in heaven.
 William Hyde Journal, LDS Church Archives.
 Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace, and Glory, (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000), 230.
 George B. Arbough, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing form (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1932), 126.
 David Williams, “The Welsh Mormons,” The Welsh Review, 113-18.
 New York Herald, 8 July 1844.
 John Taylor, “Editorial,” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1844. This writing was later included in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 135).
 Eliza R. Snow, “The Assassination of Gen’ls Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith…” Times and Seasons, July 1, 1844.
 Snow, “Assassination.”
 Eliza R. Snow, “Lines written on the birth of the infant son of Mrs. Emma, widow of the late General Joseph Smith,” in Times and Seasons, December 1, 1844.
 Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs,” in Times and Seasons, September 2, 1844.
 [Alexander Neibaur], “Lamentation,” Times and Seasons, 15 July 1844, 591.
 Snow, “Lines Written.”
 Pratt, “Cry of the Martyrs.”
 Taylor, “The Seer,” in Times and Seasons, January 1, 1844.