Death Masks of Joseph & Hyrum Smith, June 27, 1844

Joseph and Hyrum had the innocent blood of many people on their hands including those in the “Mormon-Missouri War” and the aborted children of their polygamous wives. On that fateful day in June of 1844 the locals executed a Frontiersman’s just reward which began with their becoming exposed by William and Wilson Law and other signatories in the Nauvoo Expositor.

The public accusations of polygamy leveled against Smith by the dissidents forced him to respond. He did so in a speech to the community on 26 May 1844.1 Despite his long practice of taking plural wives2 and his issuance of a revelation — to close associates only — that justified polygamy, Smith continued publicly to deny all such charges. Moreover, those who accused him — including William and Wilson Law, who are named in the speech — were defamed as “false swearers” and “wolves,” whose charges were “of the devil.” Two months earlier, in another speech, he had accused the Laws and other dissenters of conspiring to murder him, and he repeated that charge here. As this document reveals, Joseph Smith employed public denunciation as an important means of counteracting his critics.3

Perhaps the best way to understand William Law is through the eyes of Missouri dissident John Corrill:

“John Corrill (September 17, 1794 – September 26, 1842) was an early member and leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and an elected representative in the Missouri State Legislature. He was prominently involved in the Mormon conflicts in Missouri before leaving the church in 1839 and publishing A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints.”4

Like Law, Corrill was castigated by Joseph:

“Corrill had risen to prominence in the church and played a key role in its eight-year sojourn on the Missouri frontier. Widely popular among the Latter Day Saints and respected by nonchurch members as well, his opposition to the prophet threatened to spread a rebellious spirit through the church and abet the charges of critics who were not Mormons. When, in fact, two months after Smith’s confrontation with Corrill, the church lay prostrate before its enemies and the prophet languished in jail, Smith blamed the disaster on Corrill and a handful of other dissenters, whom he described as ‘ill bred and ignorant’ men ‘whose eyes are full of adultery and [who] cannot cease from sin.’5

Corrill however is further along than Law in being recognized by modern historians for his integrity:

Today nearly all historians turn aside Joseph Smith’s fury at Corrill and acknowledge Corrill’s integrity, decency, and ability to hold fast to principle when the passion around him ran high. Rooted in strong beliefs arising from his Christian primitivism and his dedication to republican liberty, these qualities were manifest not only in Corrill’s actions, but also in his Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, which offers an insightful account of life in the church as he knew it and is, perhaps, the single most important source of information for events surrounding the Mormon War in Missouri.6

Law was harangued by Joseph just like Corrill over doctrine:

“When on August 31 Smith and Rigdon learned that Corrill had told some recently arrived converts ‘that he had no confidence in the revelation’ on communitarianism, they were livid and sought him out publicly. The prophet, beating his fists together, angrily told Corrill, ‘if you tell about the streets again that you do not believe this or that revelation I will walk on your neck Sir.’ Smith warned Corrill that Peter himself had told him that he had hung Judas for betraying Christ, implying the same sort of fate might await Corrill. Corrill’s behavior, he continued, endangered the dissenter’s salvation. If he did not change his ways, the prophet declared, he would keep him out of Heaven, even if doing so meant Smith meeting at its entrance with his fists.7

Jealousy and anger turned to threats and Corrill, like Law, was afraid for his life:

“I knew they were jealous of me as a dissenter, and that it was of no use for me to say any thing more; in fact, I felt it was necessary for me to look out for my own safety.”8

All the troubles in Missouri occurred over a single revelation which Book of Mormon Witness David Whitmer warned would cause the Missourians to tear down their press and drive them from the State:

Brother Joseph said as follows:

‘Any man who objects to having these revelations published, shall have his part taken out of the Tree of Life and out of the Holy City.’

The Spirit of God came upon me [David Whitmer] and I prophesied to them [Sidney Rigdon & Joseph Smith] in the name of the Lord that if they sent those revelations [‘the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood’ -D&C 63:29] to Independence to be published in a book, the people would come upon them and tear down the printing press, and the church would be driven out of Jackson County. Brothers Joseph and Sidney laughed at me.9

Corrill summarized Joseph’s fruit as follows:

I have left you, not because I disbelieve the Bible, for I believe in God, the Saviour, and religion the same as ever; but when I retrace our track, and view the doings of the Church for six years past, I can see nothing that convinces me that God has been our leader; calculation after calculation has failed, and plan after plan has been overthrown, and our Prophet seemed not to know the event till too late.10

Governor Ford made a similar observation:

The most successful imposter in modern times; a man who though ignorant and coarse, has some great natural parts, which fitted him for temporary success, but which were so obscured and counteracted by the inherent corruption and vices of his nature that he never could succeed in establishing a system of policy which looked to permanent success in the future.11

Any success attributed to Joseph should be credited to The Holy Book of Mormon and to the highly capable people it brought to his fold:

Running on in his voluble style, he said: “The world persecutes me, it has always persecuted me. The people at Carthage, in a public meeting lately, said, ‘as for Joseph, he’s a fool, but he’s got some smart men about him.’ I’m glad they give me so much credit.12

There is a side to Joseph Smith long obscured, the final Joseph Smith:

As I entered the hall I saw a large, well dressed individual seated on a trunk at the further end of the hall, quietly smoking a cigar, who was pointed out to me as Joseph Smith. He was over six feet tall, of heavy build, with broad shoulders, light hair and complexion, light blue eyes, a long nose, a retreating forehead, large brain, and short neck.”13


“Mr. Marks: He had been for ten years very intimately acquainted with the prophet, and regarded him as a most singular and eccentric man. Smith fully believed that he was to found a church that would live forever, and at times showed strange freaks of personal behavior.14

Mormon history writers have given the least attention to what happened in Nauvoo:

NO aspect of the Mormon conflict has been less thoroughly and critically examined than the developments within Nauvoo in 1843 and 1844 that led to dissent, repression, and violence.15 For too long the trouble in Nauvoo has been understated rather than understood. The vast majority of scholars interested in Mormon history have been believing Latter-day Saints for whom the Mormon past is a sacred drama, and a thoroughgoing scholarly examination of the assertions, conflicts, and events that culminated in the Expositor affair inevitably challenges cherished Mormon conceptions of the past. These scholars, honest in intent and sound in methodology, have seldom explored beyond the safe boundaries of the Latter-day Saint faith story to analyze the Expositor affair for what it was, an ethical protest by some Nauvoo church members against what they believed was oppression from an ecclesiastical institution gone awry. Such an interpretation undermines the Mormon myth of innocence, the image of virtuous Saints being persecuted by an immoral mob.16

A contributing factor in the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum was the little known Council of Fifty:

The Expositor allegations and the subsequent reaction triggered the immediate events leading to the death of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Although the affair has been described many times, none of these accounts takes into consideration the existence of the Council of Fifty in Nauvoo in 1844; yet an examination of its role in the controversy provides a new dimension to understanding the causes of the death of the Smith brothers.17

It was said of William Law:

“We are impressed with the goodness of heart, the honestly of purpose, the hatred of imposition under guise of religion and politics, and the remorse of soul in being caught in the meshes of such a corrupt and deceitful class of religious adventurers and speculators, displayed by the good old man; and we see, as well, the innocent, unsuspicious and confiding gentleman and Christian becoming a dupe in the system by the pretension and sophistical arguments of the delusion. Many fearful deeds and horrible acts were perpetrated in Nauvoo, of which he knew nothing, and only whisperings and innuendoes caught his ear of many of the dark plots and secrets. But when their trickery and treason became so bold and daring his eyes with those of many other good men and women, were opened and they saw more and more that shocked their sensibilities and they exposed the hypocrisy and schemes of the unholy priesthood. Like an honest man, that had the courage of his convictions, he dared to beard the lions in their dens, dared to speak out, and try to counteract the designs of the leaders.”18


1.   Joseph Smith, Jr., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts ( Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1912), 6:408-12. back
2.   Todd Compton has documented. back
3.   John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, Cultures in Conflict, A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, Utah State University Press, 1995, p. 138. Finally the Mormon Church has admitted that Joseph’s marriages were both sexual in nature AND to already married women: “For a Church-approved work to state that polygamy involved ‘conjugal relations’ and use the term polyandry is landmark” (The Joseph Smith Papers, Journals, Volume 2: December 1841–April 1843). back
4.   Wikipedia continues: “Historian Richard L. Bushman’s noted 2005 biography, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, described Corrill as rational, coolheaded, and cautious, illustrating the ‘clash between Mormonism and republicanism’ when he questioned whether he must sacrifice his freewill or autonomy to the Kingdom of God. Bushman’s book used Corrill’s A Brief History as source material on the early church. Corrill’s account has been called ‘perhaps, the single most important source of information for events surrounding the Mormon War in Missouri.’ In contrast, historian Susan Easton Black described Corrill as bitter and his published history as a product of his apostasy.” back
5.   Scot H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith(Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987, p. 222-23 cited in Winn, Kenneth H. (1994), “‘Such Republicanism as This’: John Corrill’s Rejection of Prophetic Rule,” in Roger D. Launius; Linda Thatcher, Differing Visions: Dissenters in Mormon History, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 45. back
6.   Ibid. back
7.   Peck, Reed Peck Manuscript, pp. 8-9, 12 as cited in Winn, pp. 64-65. back
8.   Corrill, Brief History of the Church, pp. 36-37. back
9.   David Whitmer, An Address to all Believers in Christ, p. 55. back
10.   Corrill, p. 44. back
11.   Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois, p. 354. back
12.   Manufacturers and Farmers Journal and Providence and Pawtucket Advertiser – 25 Sep 1843. back
13.   Dr. Richmond, in Chicago Times, reprinted in Deseret News,November 27, 1875, p. 2, col. 1. back
14.   Dr. Richmond, in Chicago Times, reprinted in Deseret News, November 27, 1875, p. 3 col. 1. back
15.   fn. As an example of the inattention given to this matter in church histories, Leonard J. Arrington and Davis Bitton, in The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-day Saints, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), 77-78, devote only one short paragraph to the whole topic of dissent at Nauvoo and the destruction of the Expositor. None of Smith’s critics are named, nor are their purposes, views, or rights considered. Even article-length studies frequently ignore such key matters as the formation of the Reformed Mormon Church, the wide-ranging critique of Smith and the Mormon theocracy in the Expositor, and the forcing of the dissenters from the community. For another example see George R. Gayler, “The ‘Expositor’ Affair: Prelude to the Downfall of Joseph Smith,” Northwest Missouri State College Studies 25 (February 1961): 3-15, and Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 (Winter 1965): 862-903. For more recent studies that relate the dissent at Nauvoo to the overall ideological clash between Mormons and non-Mormons, see John E. Hallwas “Mormon Nauvoo from a Non-Mormon Perspective,” Journal of Mormon History 16 (1990): 53-69; Kenneth H. Winn, Exiles in a Land of Liberty: Mormons in America, 1830-1846 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989); and Lyndon W Cook, William Law: Biographical Essay, Nauvoo Diary, Correspondence, Interview, Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994. back
16.   John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius eds., Cultures in Conflict: A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, Utah State University Press, Logan, UT, 1995, p. 111. back
17.   Klaus J. Hansen, Quest For Empire, Michigan State Press, 1967, p. 156. back
18.   “An Interview With William Law,” The Daily Tribune: Salt Lake City, Sunday Morning, July 31, 1887, Introduction. back