City of Nauvoo/Nauvoo Expositor
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How did the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor lead to Joseph Smith's murder?
|Joseph Smith, Jr.|
Questions and Answers
For an account of events which occurred before those described in this article, see entry:: Nauvoo city charter
Question: Was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor legal?
The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor led directly to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum
It is claimed by one critic of the Church that Joseph "could not allow the Expositor to publish the secret international negotiations masterminded by Mormonism’s earthly king."  Another claimed that "When the Laws (with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph ordered the destruction of the printing press, which was both a violation of the 1st Amendment, and which ultimately led to Joseph’s assassination." 
The Expositor incident led directly to the murder of Joseph and Hyrum, but it was preceded by a long period of non-Mormon distrust of Joseph Smith, and attempts to extradite him on questionable basis.
The destruction of the Expositor issue was legal; it was not legal to have destroyed the type, but this was a civil matter, not a criminal one, and one for which Joseph was willing to pay a fine if imposed.
Joseph seems to have believed—or, his followers believed after his death—that the decision, while 'unwise' for Joseph, may have been in the Saints' interest to have Joseph killed. For a time, this diffused much of the tension and may have prevented an outbreak of generalized violence against the Saints, as occurred in Missouri.
The destruction of the first issue was legal, but it was not legal to destroy the printer's type
It is claimed that "When the Laws (with others) purchased a printing press in an attempt to hold Joseph Smith accountable for his polygamy (which he was denying publicly), Joseph ordered the destruction of the printing press, which was both a violation of the 1st Amendment, and which ultimately led to Joseph’s assassination." 
The destruction of the Expositor issue (i.e., the paper itself) was legal; it was not legal to have destroyed the type, but this was a civil matter, not a criminal one, and one for which Joseph was willing to pay a fine if imposed.
Joseph did not order the action against the Expositor—it was the Nauvoo City Council (which included non-Mormons) which reached the unanimous decision and took the action they did.
The First Amendment is irrelevant to this discussion. In 1844, the First Amendment only applied to federal law; it had no application to state or local law until the passing of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War.
Question: What caused William Law to apostatize from the Church and turn against Joseph Smith?
William Law in 1836: "I assure you I have found [Joseph Smith] honest and honourable in all our transactions which have been very considerable"
A Canadian, William Law joined the Church in 1836 and moved to Nauvoo in 1839. After having lived near Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, William wrote to a friend:
I have carefully watched his movements since I have been here, and I assure you I have found him honest and honourable in all our transactions which have been very considerable. I believe he is an honest upright man, and as to his follies let who ever is guiltless throw the first stone at him, I shant do it.
William Law in 1844: "I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man [Joseph]"
- 8 January 1844
- William Law released as Second Counselor in the First Presidency; Joseph Smith noted that William “was injuring him by telling evil of him…” William considered his release to be “illegal,” since he had been called “by revelation,” but wrote “I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man [Joseph], consequently I am glad to be free from him."
One of William’s key concerns seems to have revolved around plural marriage
His non-member son, Richard, later recounted:
About the year 1842, he was present at an interview between his father and the Prophet Joseph. The topic under discussion was the doctrine of plural marriage. William Law, with his arms around the neck of the Prophet, was pleading with him to withdraw the doctrine of plural marriage, which he had at that time commenced to teach to some of the brethren, Mr. Law predicting that if Joseph would abandon the doctrine, 'Mormonism' would, in fifty or one hundred years, dominate the Christian world. Mr. Law pleaded for this with Joseph with tears streaming from his eyes. The Prophet was also in tears, but he informed the gentleman that he could not withdraw the doctrine, for God had commanded him to teach it, and condemnation would come upon him if he was not obedient to the commandment.
During the discussion, Joseph was deeply affected. Mr. Richard S. Law says the interview was a most touching one, and was riveted upon his mind in a manner that has kept it fresh and distinct in his memory, as if it had occurred but yesterday.
Mr. Law also says, that he has no doubt that Joseph believed he had received the doctrine of plural marriage from the Lord. The Prophet's manner being exceedingly earnest, so much so, that Mr. Law was convinced that the Prophet was perfectly sincere in his declaration.
William Law was excommunicated
- 18 April 1844
- William Law excommunicated. Austin Cowles of the Nauvoo high council, James Blakeslee, Charles G. Foster, and Francis M. Higbee joined him in leaving the Church, and he was supported in his opposition to Joseph by his brother Wilson. They announced the formation of a ‘reform’ Church based upon Joseph’s teachings up to 1838, with William as president.
William even decided that Joseph Smith’s opposition to Missouri (and the treatment the Saints had received there) was “unChristian"!
The hostile spirit and conduct manifested by Joseph Smith, and many of his associates towards Missouri . . . are decidedly at variance with the true spirit of Christianity, and should not be encouraged by any people, much less by those professing to be the ministers of the gospel of peace.
Williams had financial quarrels with Joseph
William had economic quarrels with Joseph, and was probably too fond of his own financial state, rather than helping the poor of the Church. William and his brother Wilson had bought the higher land on the outskirts of Nauvoo; the Church (through Joseph) owned the land in the river bottom. Joseph declared that new arrivals should purchase lands from the Church (this was in part an effort to help liquidate the Church’s debts), but William objected to this plan as prejudicial to his own financial interests.
Hyrum presented Law and his wife with the revelation on plural marriage, which affected Law greatly
William was probably also troubled by the death of his wife and daughter even after Church leaders had prayed for them. Hyrum presented Law and his wife with the revelation on plural marriage. Long after the fact, William reported his reaction:
Hyrum gave it [the revelation] to me in his office, told me to take it home and read it, and then be careful with it, and bring it back again…[My wife Jane] and I were just turned upside down by it…We did not know what to do.
Law ultimately called Joseph a "demon"
It is not clear whether Jane and William Law were ever sealed. Alexander Neibaur and Hyrum Smith both reported that Joseph told William he could not seal him to Jane because the Lord forbade it; Neibaur indicated that this was because William was “a Adulterous person.” There is no evidence of this other than Neibaur's statement however.
In the clash that followed, William began “casting the first stone,” at Joseph’s supposed failings, and the man which he had once admired as honourable and without cause for complaint became, in his newspaper, a “demon,” a power-mad tyrant, a seducer, and someone who contributed to the early death of young women.
Question: Did Joseph Smith or his associates attempt to reconcile with William Law before he published the Nauvoo Expositor?
Prior to the publication of the Expositor, Hyrum Smith, Almon W. Babbitt, and Sidney Rigdon attempted to reconcile William Law to the Church
William Law announced he would reconcile only under the condition that Joseph publicly state that the practice of polygamy was "from Hell":
I told him [Sidney] that if they wanted peace they could have it on the following conditions, That Joseph Smith would acknowledge publicly that he had taught and practised the doctrine of plurality of wives, that he brought a revelation supporting the doctrine, and that he should own the whole system (revelation and all) to be from Hell.
The Nauvoo Expositor declared that Joseph was "“blood thirsty and murderous...demon...in human shape”
Shortly afterward, on 7 June 1844, the first (and only) edition of the Nauvoo Expositor was published. It detailed Joseph’s practice of plural marriage, and charged him with various crimes, labeling him a “blood thirsty and murderous...demon...in human shape” and “a syncophant, whose attempt for power find no parallel in history...one of the blackest and basest scoundrels that has appeared upon the stage of human existence since the days of Nero, and Caligula.”
Question: How was the decision reached to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor?
Destruction of Expositor
- 8 June 1844
- Nauvoo city council meets regarding the Expositor.
- 10 June 1844
- The city council declares the Expositor a public nuisance and threat to the peace. This was not mere exaggeration; there were sixteen episodes of mob violence against controversial newspapers in Illinois from 1832 to 1867, and so the leaders’ fears of civil unrest were likely well-founded. The city council therefore ordered the press and the paper destroyed.
- This was done. The decision to suppress the Expositor, while legal for the day, worsened a tense situation (in the years following the Expositor suppression, similar tactics would be used in 1862, 1893, 1918, and 1927).
Historically, presses which violated community ideas of what was proper were a genuine risk to the public peace. Elijah Lovejoy, an anti-slavery editor of The Saint Louis Observer was killed by a pro-slavery mob in 1837.
- Joseph and the city council might well have had memories of what happened in Missouri when some members of the Church became frustrated with the lack of legal redress for their mistreatment by Missouri citizens.
Missouri probably also set the stage for the legal decision to suppress the press. In 1833, the Evening and Morning Star, the LDS paper in Independence, was subject to being "razed to the ground" at the unanimous decision of the mob committee established to drive out the Mormons. The mob's ultimatum later stipulated that the Mormons were not to publish anything before leaving.
- The law of the day probably gave Joseph and the council the right to destroy the offending issue; however, since they had also ordered the press and type destroyed, they violated property laws. Joseph later said he would be happy to pay for the damages. Critics are inconsistent when they complain about the Nauvoo city council's decision to suppress the Expositor (an action that was legal) and yet do not also acknowledge that Mormon presses had been destroyed by mobs acting with no legal authority whatever.
- Despite the fact that the Expositor's suppression was legal, the destruction of the press appeared high-handed to Church critics, and other newspapers began to call for the Mormons’ expulsion or destruction. Joseph and others were arrested on charges of “riot.”
Question: Why did the Nauvoo City Council feel it was necessary to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor?
One member recorded that Joseph told him that the destruction of the press was necessary for the Saints’ safety
It is claimed that Joseph "could not allow the Expositor to publish the secret international negotiations masterminded by Mormonism’s earthly king." 
The reality was that the Joseph and the City Council were concerned that the paper would cause turmoil among the Saints.
One member stated,
Brother Joseph called a meeting at his own house and told us that God showed to him in an open vision in daylight [meaning that this was not something he had just conjured up in dreams of the night] that if he did not destroy that printing press that it would cause the blood of the Saints to flow in the streets and by this was that evil destroyed.
Joseph foresaw his own death as a result of the turmoil that was already occurring
Given Joseph’s numerous presentiments of his own death, it may well be that he knowingly chose this course of action to spare the members’ lives at the cost of his own. Said Joseph to Elizabeth Rollins:
I must seal my testimony with my blood.
Some has supposed that Br Joseph Could not die but this is a mistake it is true their has been times when I have had the promise of my life to accomplish such & such things, but having accomplish those things I have not at present any lease of my life I am as liable to die as other men.
Question: What was John C. Bennett's role in the events leading up to the death of Joseph Smith?
The apostasy of John C. Bennett
- May 1842
- John C. Bennett is tried before a Church court. He confessed to “wicked and licentious conduct toward certain females in Nauvoo,” and of past acts of exploiting of women he had attended as a doctor. He may also have performed abortions. He had also frequented, and perhaps operated, a brothel. (Bennett was not alone in this; with his encouragement Chauncy and Francis Higbee—who would write attacks on Joseph Smith in the Nauvoo Expositor—also participated in immoral acts and were disciplined for it.)
Bennett claimed that the doctrines he was using to seduce women in Nauvoo were the same as those taught privately by Joseph Smith with regard to plural marriage
Bennett’s apostasy caused particular problems because he claimed that the doctrines he was using to seduce women in Nauvoo were the same as those taught privately by Joseph Smith with regard to plural marriage. Thus, Joseph and the Church spent a great deal of time denying Bennett’s charges, while trying to keep plural marriage from becoming common knowledge for fear of the Church’s enemies.
Bennett left the Church and Nauvoo, and spoke widely about the “evils” of the Church and its leaders to non-member audiences. He also wrote a book and made a good deal of money telling stories against the Mormons; he was later to be associated with Sidney Rigdon’s splinter group and the “Strangite” break-off group, but he soon left them as well.
Orson F. Whitney said this about Bennett:
In May, 1842, the treachery and rascality of a man whom the Mormon leader had befriended and loaded with honors, became known to his benefactor. That man was Dr. John C. Bennett, Mayor of Nauvoo, Chancellor of its University, and Major-General of its legion. He had become associated with the Saints soon after their exodus from Missouri. Though a great egotist, he was a man of education, address and ability. That he had little or no principle was not immediately apparent. Considerable of a diplomat and possessing some influence in political circles, he rendered valuable aid in securing the passage by the Illinois Legislature of the act incorporating the city of Nauvoo. Hence the honors bestowed upon him by the Mormon people. Prior to that, and subsequently, he was Quartermaster-General of Illinois. Bennett professed great sympathy for the Saints. He joined the Church and apparently was a sincere convert to the faith.
Governor Thomas Ford, in his history of Illinois, styles Bennett "probably the greatest scamp in the western country." But this was not until long after the Mormons, thrice victimized, had become aware of his villainy.
Question: Was Joseph Smith responsible for an assassination attempt on former Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs?
An unknown assailant shot former Missouri governor Boggs through his window, severely wounding him
- 6 May 1842
- an unknown assailant shoots former Missouri governor Boggs through his window, severely wounding him. Later, John C. Bennett encourages Boggs to press charges against the Mormons for their alleged role in the attack.
It was assumed that Orin Porter Rockwell and the Latter-day Saints were responsible for the shooting
- 8 August 1842
- a warrant is issued for Joseph Smith’s extradition to Missouri to face charges in the attempted murder of Boggs; the claim is that Joseph Smith was an “accessory before the fact,” and encouraged Orin Porter Rockwell in the deed. Joseph easily proved he had been in Illinois on the day of the shooting (hundreds of miles from Missouri) and obtains a writ of habeas corpus.
- December 1842
- the state Supreme Court of Illinois finds that the writ voiding the governor’s warrant was illegal. However, Joseph went before a federal judge to again challenge the warrant, and this court found that the warrant “lacked foundation” since it went beyond the statements which Boggs had made in his affidavit. The state Legislative Assembly considers repeal of the Nauvoo charter, but does nothing.
- February 1843
- Joseph Smith announces he will run for President of the United States.
- June 1843
- Missouri again attempted to extradite Joseph for trial. Joseph proceeded to Nauvoo, was welcomed by cheering crowds, and was again granted a writ of habeas corpus by the Nauvoo municipal court, voiding the warrant. The city council then made it illegal to arrest Joseph within Nauvoo, and gave the mayor (Joseph Smith, since the excommunicatin of Bennett) power to approve any outside warrants. This only increased the non-Mormons’ sense that Joseph was combining religious and civil power in an effort to put himself “beyond the law.”
- 12 July 1843
- Joseph dictates the first written record of the revelations on plural marriage: DC 132:.
Question: What is the timeline of events that led to Joseph Smith's death in Carthage?
There were attempts to arrest Joseph after the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor
- 13 June 1844
- The Nauvoo municipal court released Joseph on a writ of habeas corpus, finding that the charge of “riot” was unsubstantiated since the destruction of the press had been orderly.
- 14 June 1844
- Thus cleared, Joseph Smith (as mayor) took his seat as judge over the municipal court, and cleared all others charged the day following his own release. This recurrent mix of religious, executive, and judicial power again infuriated the anti-Mormons.
- 17 June 1844
- Joseph and others consented to be brought before another court, headed by a (then non-Mormon) justice of the peace, Daniel H. Wells. Wells again discharged them, but did not have the authority to acquit them.
- 18 June 1844
- Joseph Smith declares martial law in Nauvoo and calls out the militia to protect the city from anti-Mormon mobs.
Governor Ford writes to tell Joseph that he must face charges
- 22 June 1844
- Governor Ford writes to tell Joseph that he must face charges before the same judge that issued the writ for his arrest, because only this will appease the public. This requires Joseph to appear in a very hostile community, where feelings against the Mormons run high.
- 23 June 1844
- Joseph and Hyrum leave Nauvoo to seek refuge over the Mississippi. Some members appeal to Joseph to return, believing (contrary to Joseph’s promise) that the members of the Church would be despoiled and driven out if he did not. Joseph agrees to return, stating, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.”
Governor Ford guaranteed the safety of Joseph and others if they went to Carthage
- 25 June 1844
- the state governor (Thomas Ford) believed that only a state trial would calm the furor over the Expositor. Joseph and fifteen others therefore received guarantees of safety and presented themselves in Carthage. They were freed on bail pending the October arrival of the circuit court. However, Joseph and Hyrum were jailed by a writ issued by Robert F. Smith, a Methodist minister, justice of the peace, and captain of the Carthage Greys militia. Joseph and Hyrum were accompanied to the jail by John Taylor, Willard Richards, Dan Jones, Stephen Markham, and John S. Fullmer. The latter three left to run errands, and were not readmitted, leaving only Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards.
- 26 June 1844
- Governor Ford meets with the prisoners. He then disbands all the militia companies, except the hostile Carthage Greys.
Governor Ford left the hostile Carthage Greys to guard the jail
- 27 June 1844
- Ford leaves for Nauvoo, leaving two companies of Carthage Greys to guard the jail, while Ford takes a third to Nauvoo. He did not keep his promise that the prisoners could go with him to Nauvoo. After Ford’s departure, the discharged Warsaw militia company attacked the jail. The Carthage Greys gave only token resistance; they had loaded their weapons with gunpowder but no bullets. The Warsaw company stormed the jail, and murdered Joseph and Hyrum. John Taylor was severely injured; Willard Richards was unharmed.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 16. ( Index of claims )
- John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
- John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).
- William Law to Isaac Russell, 29 November 1840, Archives Division, Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah, as cited in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994), 11; cited by Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 173.
- William Law, "Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844" (William Law's Nauvoo diary), as cited in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1994), 46; cited by Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 176.
- Joseph W. McMurrin, "An Interesting Testimony / Mr. Law’s Testimony," Improvement Era (May 1903), 507–510.
- Wilson may or may not have been a member. He was not a member when he came to Nauvoo, but is later mentioned as having been “excommunicated.” We have no record of his baptism.
- Nauvoo Expositor, “Resolution 4”, (7 June 1844): 2; cited in Lyndon W. Cook, "William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter," Brigham Young University Studies 22 no. 1 (Fall 1982), 47–72.
- Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter."
- Dr. W. Wyl interview with William Law in Shullsburg, Wisconsin, 30 March 1887, published in The Salt Lake Daily Tribune, 31 July 1887, 6; cited by Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter"
- See Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter."
- William Law, "Record of Doings at Nauvoo in 1844," 13 May 1844; cited by Cook, "Nauvoo Dissenter"
- Francis M. Higbee, “Citizens of Hancock County,” Nauvoo Expositor (7 June 1844).
- Dallin H. Oaks, “The Suppression of the Nauvoo Expositor,” Utah Law Review 9 (1965):874. (Key source)
- Oaks, 897–898.
- "Today in History, November 7," United States Library of Congress. off-site
- Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1922), 134. See also Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:390–395. Volume 1 link; Anonymous, "A History, of the Persecution, of the Church of Jesus Christ, of Latter Day Saints in Missouri," Times and Seasons 1 no. 2 (December 1839), 18. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 1:338–339. Volume 1 link
- James B. Allen and Glen M. Leonard, Story of the Latter-day Saints, 2nd edition revised and enlarged, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1992), 208. ISBN 087579565X. GospeLink (requires subscrip.)
- Richard N. and Joan K. Ostling, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, (New York:HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), 16. ( Index of claims )
- Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 114; citing Diary of George Laub, BYU Special Collections, 18.
- Journal of Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, BYU Special Collections, 7; cited by Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 103.
- Joseph Smith, Discourse of 9 April 1842, Wilford Woodruff Diary; cited in Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of Joseph Smith, 2nd Edition, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 112.
- Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:18–19. Volume 5 link
- Susan Easton Black, Who’s Who in the Doctrine and Covenants (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1997), 14; see also Zeruiah N. Goddard, affidavit, August 28, 1842 in Affidavits and Certificates, Disproving the Statements and Affidavits Contained in John C. Bennett's Letters (Nauvoo, no publisher, 31 August 1842); cited by Danel W. Bachman, “A Study of the Mormon Practice of Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith,” (1975) (unpublished M.A. thesis, Purdue University), 225.
- Bachman, “Polygamy Before the Death of Joseph Smith,” 225; citing L.D. Wasson to Joseph Smith, 29 July 1842 in Times and Seasons 5:891-892.
- Orson F. Whitney, History of Utah, 4 volumes, (Salt Lake City: George Q. Cannon and Sons Co., 1892-1904), 1:193–194; cited in Roy W. Doxy, Latter-day Prophets and the Doctrine and Covenants, Volume 4, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 255–257.