[This post is part of a series on Joseph Smith's Polygamy. To read from the beginning or link to previously published posts, go to A Faithful Joseph.]
In July 1843, Joseph Smith received a revelation regarding plural marriage. Critics would focus on the ten virgins, criticism of Emma, and impunity for wrongs short of murder. But the revelation forecasts Joseph’s impending death:
Behold, I [Jesus Christ] have seen your sacrifices, [Joseph,] and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.
Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God. 1
What was this escape Joseph was offered? And what was the sacrifice God required at Joseph’s hands?
Beginning of Troubles
In the fall of 1843, Hyrum Smith gave William and Jane Law the revelation to read. Hyrum likely also shared the good news that William and Jane could be sealed to one another for all eternity. 2
William Law met with Joseph, who confirmed “he had several wives sealed to him, and that they afforded him a great deal of pleasure… [but] Emma had annoyed him very much about it.” 3
Initially, it appears William and Jane wished to be sealed. But when Joseph inquired of the Lord about the matter, he was apparently informed William was not worthy, that he had been guilty of adultery. 4 William had been an Aide de Camp in the Nauvoo Legion. Chauncy Higbee and Jacob Backenstos, known to have engaged in illicit intercourse, had also served as Aides de Camp in the Legion. 5
Joseph told the Laws he would not perform the requested sealing. When Jane Law asked why she could not be sealed to her husband, Joseph refused to tell her it was because of her husband’s adultery. Later Jane came to Joseph, embracing him saying “if you wont seal me to my husband Seal myself unto you.” Joseph gently pushed her away and refused to perform the sealing. 6 This account is similar to the request of Ruth Vose Sayers to be sealed to Joseph, when her husband refused to believe in marriage in eternity.
In William Law’s diary months later, he characterized the encounter between Joseph and Jane as attempted adultery, claiming that Joseph had “lately endeavored to seduce my wife and ha[s] found her a virtuous woman.” 7
By the end of December, William Law failed to attend a meeting of the anointed quorum, the group of men and women who had received the ordinance of the endowment. A week later, he became the first endowed individual to be dropped from the anointed quorum. 8 The next day, January 8, 1844, Joseph informed William that he had been dropped from the quorum of the anointed and was no longer a member of the First Presidency.
Shocked, Law argued that the procedure used to drop his as a member of the First Presidency was incorrect. Reconciliations were attempted over the following months. As Law had requested, Law’s case was tried a second time in April 1844. This time he was excommunicated on grounds of apostasy.
I now roll off the care of the Kingdom of God
During the tension leading up to William Law’s excommunication on grounds of apostasy, it became clear that only one organization could be trusted to follow Joseph’s lead. The Quorum of the Twelve had endured the troubles surrounding John C. Bennett’s teachings of illicit intercourse together. Through their different experiences, each had come to accept the doctrine of plural marriage. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball had been intimately involved in the investigation that uncovered John C. Bennett’s guilt – particularly so if their respective 1842 plural wives had been victims of Bennett’s group of Strikers.
During the winter of 1843/1844, Joseph turned to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As Wilford Woodruff related, Joseph “called the Twelve Apostles together in the City of Nauvoo, and spent many days with us in giving us our endowments, and teaching us those glorious principles which God had revealed to him. And upon one occasion he stood upon his feet in our midst for nearly three hours declaring unto us the great and last dispensation which God had set His hand to perform upon the earth in these last days. The room was filled as if with consuming fire; the Prophet was clothed upon with much of the power of God, and his face shone and was transparently clear, and he closed that speech, never-to-be-forgotten in time or in eternity, with the following language:
Brethren, I have had great sorrow of heart for fear that I might be taken from the earth with the keys of the Kingdom of God upon me, without sealing them upon the heads of other men. God has sealed upon my head all the keys of the Kingdom of God necessary for organizing and building up of the Church, Zion, and Kingdom of God upon the earth, and to prepare the Saints for the coming of the Son of Man. Now, brethren, I thank God I have lived to see the day that I have been enabled to give you your endowments, and I have now sealed upon your heads all the powers of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and Apostleship, with all the keys and powers thereof, which God has sealed upon me; and I now roll off all the labor, burden and care of this Church and Kingdom of God upon your shoulders, and I now command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to round up your shoulders, and bear off this Church and Kingdom of God before heaven and earth, and before God, angels and men; and if you don’t do it you will be damned.”
On the day William Law was excommunicated, April 18, 1844, Joseph organized the Council of the Kingdom. When Joseph had tried to create a written constitution for the Council, he said the Lord responded, “Ye are my Constitution and I am your God and ye are my spokesmen, therefore from henceforth keep my commandments.” John Taylor said: “It is expected of us that [we] can act right—that our interests [are] bound up in the K[ingdom] of God. That we should consider we are not acting for ourselves, but we are the Spokesmen of God selected for that purpose in the interest of God and to bless and exalt all humanity. We acknowledge him as our God and all men who enter this body must acknowledge him here.” Orson Pratt said, “In the Church we take the Law of God and his Priesthood as the Constitution of his Church—here in this Council we have a living constitution not a written one—which we must conform to.” 9
The Conspiracy of Nauvoo
Following his excommunication in April 1844, William Law reached out to those of his former colleagues in positions of Church leadership and members of the Nauvoo Legion. William’s message was clear: Joseph had to be removed to preserve the purity of the Church. The key conspirators were William and Wilson Law, Austin Cowles, Francis and Chauncey Higbee, Robert and Charles Foster, John A. Hicks 10 and his brother, and two merchants by the name of Finche and Rollinson. 11 The conspirators sought to enlist others who were also disaffected to join them in the conspiracy. A series of meetings would be held to commit the conspirators to action.
Austin Cowles approached 19-year-old Dennison Lott Harris, nephew of Martin Harris, excommunicated in 1837 even though he’d been one of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon. Cowles asked Dennison to invite his father, Emer Harris, to the initial meeting as well. Soon Dennison discovered that his good friend, 20-year-old Robert Scott, had also been invited to the meeting. Robert Scott, born to Irish parents, had known the Irish William Law since his infancy in Ontario, Canada, often staying in the home of William Law.
Emer reported the matter to Joseph, who counseled the older man to avoid the meeting. But Joseph asked that the young men attend the meeting, pay strict attention to what was said, make no commitments, and report the entire matter back to him.
In the first meeting, the conspirators spent a lot of time organizing themselves, with some talk denouncing Joseph as a fallen prophet and proceeded to consider how Joseph could be overthrown.
By the end of the second meeting, the conspirators began to say that Joseph would have to be killed. Reporting this to Joseph, Robert and Dennison discussed what they should do about the third meeting.
If they failed to show up, it was likely the men would murder them for what they had already heard. If they did attend, they would be pressed to be part of the planned murder and possibly killed if they refused to agree. Joseph hoped the conspirators would spare the two because they were so young, but he counseled them: “Don’t flinch. If you have to die, die like men, you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.”
As anticipated, all who attended the third and final meeting were required to swear a solemn oath to destroy Joseph Smith. Robert and Dennison evaded the matter as long as possible. When they could delay no longer, they refused, saying Joseph had never harmed them, and they were unwilling to participate in killing him.
“If you do not take that oath, we will cut your throats,” one of the leaders said. Knives were drawn and muskets cocked. The young men were forced to the cellar. Once more they were told to take the oath or die. They refused again. But before the fatal blows, someone cried out, “Hold on!” Roughly two hundred men had signed the oath. Apparently at least one of them wasn’t ready to shed innocent blood, or at least they weren’t sure they could get away with having shed innocent blood. Eventually the crowd decided it was less of a risk to let the young men go than deal with the consequences of killing them. Not only would there be bodies to dispose of, Dennison or Robert’s families might know enough to make accusations. The death of these two innocents would threaten the resolve of the group. Joseph was a filthy polygamist in their eyes, but actual murder would likely shatter the conspiracy and send remorseful individuals straight to Joseph to confess. Besides, Robert was like a son to William Law, which had been the reason Law had been so certain Robert would be willing to support the conspiracy.
Robert and Dennison were threatened with certain death if they ever revealed what had transpired in the meetings or who had participated, and they were escorted away from the Law home.
Robert and Dennison left their guards, suggesting they could take a dip in the river to explain the delay getting home. 12 As they drew near the bank, the found Joseph with Robert’s brother, John, in a skiff hidden by the bank. They’d been afraid the young men would be murdered, and the bodies dumped in the river.
Robert and Dennison reported everything, including the names of leaders of the group and the fact that at least 200 men had signed the oath. As they spoke there at the river, Joseph said:
They accuse me of polygamy and of being a false prophet. But I am no false prophet… I am no imposter. I have had no dark revelations. I have had no revelations from the devil. I made no revelations–I have got nothing up of myself.
The same God who has thus far directed me and strengthened me in this work gave me this revelation and commandment on Celestial and plural marriage.
This same God commanded me to obey it. He said unless I accepted it and introduced it and practiced it, I and my people would be damned and cut off from this time hence.
There are those who say that if I do so, I will be killed. What am I to do?
If I do not practice plural marriage, I shall be damned, along with my people.
If I do teach it and urge it and practice it, they say I will be killed. And I know they are right.
But we have got to observe it. It is an eternal principle. It is given by way of commandment, not merely by way of instruction. 13
Before letting the young men go, Joseph counseled them not to speak of this to anyone, not even their own fathers, for 20 years or more. 14 Decades later Dennison told the tale to Brigham Young, who said the story clarified matters he had never understood before. In 1884 Dennison related the story to Horace Cummings. Horace wrote the story down, conferring with John Taylor. Like Brigham before him, John Taylor both confirmed aspects of the story and admitted the tale answered questions he’d had about those final days of Joseph’s life in Nauvoo.
Joseph had feared he might be taken from the earth without sealing the keys of the Kingdom of God upon the heads of other men. But by the spring of 1844, he had successfully rolled off the future leadership of the kingdom onto the proven shoulders of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. If he died, the Church would not die with him.
However, in censuring William Law, Joseph had created an implacable enemy, willing to kill. Law and his followers claimed their anger was based on polygamy. Ironically, many of the leading conspirators were the same men who had engaged in illicit intercourse under John C. Bennett’s tutelage, possibly including William Law himself.
Hundreds of men now stood at the ready, to rise up and murder the man they had recently revered as a prophet of God.
Future Planned Posts:
Collecting the Sorrowful
For Eternity and Time
Fifty Years in the Wilderness
Days of Defiance
God’s Strange Act: A Legacy
- D&C 132:50, 60, available online at http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng, retrieved 17 June 2014. ↩
- Hyrum had served a mission to the East with Law in 1841, so was particularly close to him. However it is significant that Law, though a member of the Quorum of the Anointed, had not already been exposed to the doctrine of plural marriage before fall 1843, as members of the Quorum of the Anointed had been taught and experienced the sealing ordinance starting in May 1843. It is possible Joseph had an inkling of Law’s lack of worthiness, which would explain the delay in exposing him to the doctrine. It is unclear whether Hyrum approached Law with Joseph’s permission or not. Law’s description of meeting with Joseph is late and antagonistic, supporting the possibility that the event might not have occurred as Law portrays. ↩
- William Law, Affidavit, 1885, cited in Mormon Polygamy: A History, by Richard Van Wagoner, 1989, p. 65. ↩
- Alexander Neibaur, May 24, 1844, journal entry. Also corroborated by William Clayton, June 12, 1844, journal entry and Hyrum Smith, June 17, 1844, Nauvoo Neighbor. Though these three accounts are recorded in 1844, the wording in each is consistent with the possibility that the inquiry occurred in fall 1843. Joseph Jackson claimed in January 1844 that Joseph had been attempting to convince Jane Law of the correctness of the doctrine for “some two months.” ↩
- See Joseph Smith Papers, Officers of the Nauvoo Legion, available online at http://josephsmithpapers.org/bc-jsp/content/jsp/images/content/library/pdf/chart12.pdf, retrieved June 22, 2014. ↩
- Neibaur, May 24, 1844, journal entry. Cited in Mormon Polygamy: A History, by Richard Van Wagoner, 1989, p. 71. ↩
- William Law, May 13, 1844, journal entry. Cited in Lyndon W. Cook, William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter, BYU Studies, Vol 22 No. 1 (1982), p. 65 in footnote 82, available at https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/BYUStudies/article/view/5255, retrieved June 22, 2014. ↩
- Cook, p. 66, footnote 87. ↩
- Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Prophet’s Final Charge to the Twelve,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 495–524, available online at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-smith-prophet-and-seer/prophets-final-charge-twelve-1844#_ednref57, retrieved June 22, 2014. ↩
- John Allen Hicks was a few years older than Joseph Smith and had been The President of the Elders’ Quorum in Nauvoo. His familysearch record is available online at https://familysearch.org/tree/#view=ancestor&person=KNWK-S19, retrieved June 22, 2014. It is not clear which brother was with him, though Robert Francis Hicks seems possible. Hicks was of Irish extraction, like Law, and had joined the Church in Canada. William Law, Robert Francis Hicks, and Robert Scott would all end up moving to Wisconsin after leaving Nauvoo. ↩
- Most of these men had served together as prominent officers in the Nauvoo Legion, when Bennett was in charge. ↩
- This mention of a dip in the river suggests that the weather had turned warm, placing the date of the meetings in mid-May. ↩
- Joseph Smith, as conveyed via Dennison L. Harris to Horace Cummings, commented on by John Taylor. Horace Cummings’ version was published in the Contributor in 1884, and was included in Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smiths Polygamy, Volume 3, Chapter 15. ↩
- The Contributor, 1884, available online at http://tinyurl.com/1884-Contributor, retrieved June 21, 2014. Also see Dallin Oaks, Following the Pioneers, available online at https://www.lds.org/general-conference/print/1997/10/following-the-pioneers?lang=eng, retrieved June 22, 2014. ↩