Political Assassinations: Joseph Smith Jr.
Chapter 19 of my recently released book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, discusses the murder of Joseph Smith Jr., founding father of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS), also known as the Mormons.
Much has been written about the Mormons; they remain a frequently misunderstood, often persecuted religious sect. To their defenders, they are pious and devout Christians who seek to do the Lord’s will, just as devoted to God as other Christians and people of faith across all denominations and religions, but they have been bitterly attacked by ignorant, vicious opponents intent on destroying the LDS church and its adherents. To detractors, Mormons are a dangerous cult filled with blasphemers who originally practiced polygamy and threatened mainstream Christianity with their strange ideas and customs.
Founding father Joseph Smith Jr. was one of the most controversial religious leaders in American history. He did not set out to found a religion, but the idea arose, he later claimed, in 1820 when the 14-year-old boy was visited by two “personages,” God the Father and Jesus Christ. This initial visit convinced the boy that the traditional view of Christianity as the trinity of Father, son, and Holy Spirit could not be true. He had seen two separate personages at the same time, which demonstrated to his satisfaction that traditional Christian doctrine was lacking in key respects.
Three years after his initial vision, an angel, Moroni, appeared, explaining that the North American continent was the site of God’s interaction with an ancient race. Moroni told Smith that several thin gold plates were buried in Cumorah, a hill near the Smith home. During the next four years, young Joseph attempted to retrieve the plates, which reputedly revealed word of God, but apparently he was not ready to complete his religious awakening. When he finally discovered the plates in 1827, they contained inscriptions about God’s revelations to indigenous North Americans in a language that only Smith could translate. He set to work. The translation, known as the Book of Mormon, appeared in March 1830, a month before Smith established his first church. Over time, he became so powerful and threatening to his frontier neighbors that he and his followers became targets of violence.
In 1844, after the Mormons had relocated to Illinois, a local newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, in its one and only issue, raised a hue and cry about Smith’s power as well as his commitment to polygamy. Incensed by the revelations, Smith ordered his private army, the Nauvoo Legion, to destroy the press. This reckless act—so reminiscent of the tactics employed by a mob that murdered an Illinois abolitionist, Elijah Lovejoy, in Alton, Illinois, in 1837—only increased public outrage over the growth of the Mormon Church. Smith reacted by declaring martial law and mobilizing the Nauvoo Legion, although eventually he realized he could not raise more forces than the Illinois state militia. Outnumbered, Smith had little choice but to surrender to the governor.
While incarcerated in the town of Carthage and awaiting trial for inciting to riot, Smith began plotting to have the Nauvoo Legion break him of jail. He did not realize how unpopular he had become with the frontier denizens outside of the Mormon Church. His increasingly erratic behavior, coupled with his public pronouncements that he was running for president of the United States, finally, irrevocably infuriated the masses. Before he could implement his escape plan, an enraged mob rushed into the jail and brutally murdered Smith and his older brother, Hyrum. Joseph Smith, glass-looker, religious zealot, prophet, and founding father of Mormonism was 38 years old.
Killers working inside a mob are difficult to fit into a typology of political assassins because the motives of the individual members are not known, or else they are difficult to separate from the mob mentality. The motives of individual participants can be as numerous, various, or amorphous as the hopes, desires, and fears of the individuals themselves. Persons acting as part of a mob will commit atrocities they might never have attempted alone. Working in tandem with other persons creates an illusion of anonymity and passionate camaraderie that defies reasoned discourse. Mob members may be actuated by an intense dislike for the target of their violence or they may be along for the ride, motivated by little more than a desire to take part in an action that is bigger and seemingly more important than they are. Human nature lends itself to mob activity. Publius recognized this phenomenon when he wrote in Federalist 55, “In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever character composed, passion never fails to wrest the sceptre from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob.”
Joseph Smith did not deserve to be killed—no one “deserves” to be murdered at the hands of an extralegal band—but he tempted the fates on the nineteenth century American frontier. The Mormons espoused an alien set of beliefs that upset their neighbors. Rather than smooth over differences by reaching out to the community and promoting tolerance and understanding, Smith courted controversy through intemperate rhetoric and divisive claims. Even when he sought to keep his affairs secret, as with his private preference for plural marriage, his actions leaked out into the community and caused no small measure of consternation among non-believers. If Joseph Smith’s example provides any lessons, it is that a stranger living among persons of different beliefs would be wise to emphasize inclusiveness and transparency in lieu of exclusivity and secretiveness. An iconoclast who ignores this insight does so at his peril.