“Zion’s Noblest Sons are Weeping”

By February 15, 2008

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] Some even speculated that the church would not have even survived had it not been for the martyrdom which pulled them together.[4] 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.”[5] 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.?[6]

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.[7]

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.?[8] 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.?[9] 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”.[10] 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.[11]

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.?[12] 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?[13]

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.[14]


[1] William Hyde Journal, LDS Church Archives.
[2] Douglas J. Davies, The Mormon Culture of Salvation: Force, Grace, and Glory, (Aldershot, England: Ashgate, 2000), 230.
[3] George B. Arbough, Revelation in Mormonism: Its Character and Changing form (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1932), 126.
[4] David Williams, ?The Welsh Mormons,? The Welsh Review, 113-18.
[5] New York Herald, 8 July 1844.
[6] John Taylor, ?Editorial,? Times and Seasons, July 1, 1844. This writing was later included in the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 135).
[7] Eliza R. Snow, ?The Assassination of Gen?ls Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith?? Times and Seasons, July 1, 1844.
[8] Snow, ?Assassination.?
[9] 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.
[10] Pratt, ?Cry of the Martyrs,? in Times and Seasons, September 2, 1844.
[11] [Alexander Neibaur], ?Lamentation,? Times and Seasons, 15 July 1844, 591.
[12] Snow, ?Lines Written.?
[13] Pratt, ?Cry of the Martyrs.?
[14] Taylor, ?The Seer,? in Times and Seasons, January 1, 1844.

Article filed under Categories of Periodization: Origins Cultural History


  1. Thank you for this, Ben. So many things could be dissected and commented on, but I’ll for now just point out one. Pratt’s invocation of the founding fathers was part of a larger theme in his writings that drew upon republican discourse to construct the Mormon persecutions. Claiming continuity with the founding fathers (indeed, by talking to them as if they were present) was a means by which Pratt was able to present the Mormon community as heir to the true traditions laid by the founding fathers, and implicitly cast the opponents of the Saints as outside of the republican tradition. Ken Winn’s got some good stuff on this in Exiles in a Land of Liberty, although its good to supplement that with Benedict Anderson’s chapter on memory in Imagined Communities.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2008 @ 5:49 pm

  2. David: Why am I not surprised that the one thing you decided to comment on was P.P. Pratt? 🙂

    Comment by Ben — February 15, 2008 @ 5:59 pm

  3. Low hanging fruit, Ben.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  4. Well done. The memorial poetry is an excellent place to start. (Bear in mind that memorial poetry then was a genre unto itself and is probably relevant to martyrdom poetry.)

    What has struck me the most in studies of martyrdom is the sense in which it was part of working out the Providence of death, a theodicy of mortal misfortune on a simultaneously grand and personal scale. For a society that strongly emphasized the hand of God as the cause of major events (and death was the major event writ large and small), lives lost in the battles leading up to Armageddon required compelling explanation.

    You may also be curious to include the late 1844 writings of the Pacific missionaries, who wrote to HQ that they had heard rumors of Smith’s death that they knew were incorrect but “even if” he were dead, they would stick by the work.

    I still need to revise the martyrdom chapter, but if you’re looking for cross-cultural context, you may want to consider the kingly body.

    As for the apostrophe to founding fathers, it was also an attempt to equate Smith with a martyr of the Revolution. Their blood stained the same earth and, according to early LDS, was shed for the same cause–liberty, truth, and justice.

    your note on Lamentation is incorrect.
    it’s page 591, and the author is [Alexander Neibaur].

    Comment by smb — February 15, 2008 @ 10:52 pm

  5. It also occurs to me just now that it’s worth trying to situate the martyrdom within patriarchal blessings. JSJ was the first patriarch, and HS was the current patriarch, and the early blessings from JSS (and JSJ to a lesser extent) invest a great deal of energy in working out mortality, its past and future. (Neibaur’s Lamentation is “at the assassination of the Two Chieftains in Israel” a clear tie back to Jacob/patriarchal history).

    Comment by smb — February 15, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  6. This post reminded me of two accounts I found from members on stateside missions in 1844. I’m just going to paste the relevant paragraph from my manuscript to add to our discussion:
    Charles C. Rich, simply refused to accept the news of Smith?s murder when it reached him in New York. Rich blandly noted on 5 July that ?newspapers report excitement at Nauvoo,? and the next day observed that ?stories increase of Nauvoo and Joseph.? Two days later Rich noted with surprise that ?the papers report Joseph and Hiram [sic] shot, and the people believe it.? Rich, for his part, clearly did not believe it, and when he encountered a group of Mormons grieving the loss of their leader, he noted with satisfaction that he ?succeeded in some good degree in dispersing their anxious fears and strengthened them in unbelief of newspaper falsehoods.? By 11 July, however, Rich had broken through his denial and lashed out at the people and government of the United States which ?exulted? in the death of the Smith brothers. ?They might better,? Rich mused caustically, ?bemoan their own pending fate and that of our own happy country in fulfillment of his [Smith?s] predictions.? Apostle George A. Smith, too, reported his skepticism upon hearing the news of the murders. Smith and his traveling companions all ?pronounced the account a hoax.? The next day, however, Smith arrived at a Mormon congregation in Indiana that confirmed the news and, ?many gave themselves up to weeping.?
    Charles C. Rich Journal, 6-11 July, 1844, MS 1215, Box 1, Volume 1, Charles C. Rich Collection, LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.
    George A. Smith, ?Memoirs of George A. Smith,? MS 1322, Box 1, Folder 2, 252-253, LDS Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah. Smith?s memoir is a handwritten document in journal-style. The above quotes come from Smith?s entries for 13 and 14 July 1844.

    Comment by SC Taysom — February 15, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  7. SMB: Thanks for the correction on the “Lamentation”. I had mentioned in the text that it was probably Neibaur, but your backing makes me more confident. Also, I don’t know where I got the wrong page number…

    Comment by Ben — February 15, 2008 @ 11:45 pm

  8. Some even speculated that the church would not have even survived had it not been for the martyrdom which pulled them together.

    A modern variant of this argument is in Moore’s Religious Outsiders, where he argues that

    A certain poetic truth attaches to the notion that Smith glimpsed the necessity of his own death. Although one may confidently state that Smith did not plan his death, he knowingly courted it and did not forget to prepare his followers for it. Scholars have marveled that a comparatively young religious sect, founded on the flimsiest of religious claims, managed to survive once its charismatic founder had died. Yet, to entertain whimsically a counterfactual proposition, suppose that Smith had not died a martyr. What else would have confirmed so dramatically the correctness of the Mormon endeavors? What else would have proved so convincingly what before had been merely a rhetorical boast, that Mormons were a separate and holy people? What would have maintained a community that was on the verge of flying apart? Everything in Mormon prophecy prepared the Mormons not merely to survive the severe rupture of the founder’s death, but to find renewed dedication in it. (37-38)

    While there are certainly some assumptions that need to be unpacked here, I think that Moore is right that the martyrdom proved to be a unifying event for Mormon identity and memory. It would be interesting to do a comparative study of martyrdom memory among the different restoration groups to look for any major variations.

    Comment by David G. — February 15, 2008 @ 11:46 pm

  9. Ben, sorry I’m an easily distracted skimmer. it was certainly neibaur. someone should track down the accounts from Addison Pratt and Ben Grouard (sp?). They’re fascinating (all in T&S that i’ve seen).
    david, i agree that variant martyrologies would be interesting, particularly given the influence of Lucy Mack and Emma on the RLDS movement, as well as Strang’s mystical mimicry and William’s capitalization of his fraternal ties with JSJ.

    Comment by smb — February 16, 2008 @ 12:00 am

  10. Great post, Ben. John Taylor’s poem (later adapted to music and included in the LDS Hymnal until the 1985 Hymnal) “O Give Me Back My Prophet Dear” is interesting in that it seems to include elements of at least 3 (and possibly 4) of the themes you suggest here.

    David, I think the study of how these different groups used memory of the martyrdom would be fascinating, but wouldn’t the number of LDS groups that surfaced following the martyrdom suggest that the martyrdom was not a unifying event in Mormonism collectively?

    Comment by Christopher — February 17, 2008 @ 7:47 pm

  11. Chris: That is a bit of a problem with Moore’s thesis, since he seems to assume that there would be one “objective” image of the martyrdom that people would rally around. I think that Moore is aware of this problem since he a few paragraphs later discusses the RLDS as a group that went a different route than the Brighamites. As Castelli argues, chroniclers of martyrdom do not simply preserve but rather create martyrdom. I think that what happened is that several images of the martyrdom emerged in the years following JS’s death, and each group used it’s own version of the significance of JS’s death to promote unity within the group. Dean Jessee’s article on the writing of the martyrdom shows that many of the elements of the story that we tell in the Utah church were not recorded until the 1850s, which would of course necessitate that our narratives would differ to some degree from those of other groups that did not go west.

    Comment by David G. — February 17, 2008 @ 8:10 pm

  12. Moore’s a bit more sophisticated than all that.

    One of those letters I mentioned is T&S 6: 980, letter of Dec 6, 1844.

    Comment by smb — February 18, 2008 @ 12:03 am

  13. from the files

    Talks about stories about Joseph Smith?s death. ?this was his third death. The last news of him, stated that he was fleeing from the west, and declaring he was unable to raise the dead, or cure the cholera. Of course his followers begin to fear that he may be liable to mortality.?
    Eli Gilbert, ?Huntington, Ct, Sept. 24, 1834,? Messenger and Advocate 1/1 (Oct 1834), 10.

    Comment by smb — February 19, 2008 @ 7:12 pm


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