Book Review: Witness to the Martyrdom by Mark H. Taylor

Witness to the Martyrdom, by Mark H. Taylor (2nd Edition). Published  by Deseret Book.

Taylor, a great grandson of President John Taylor, shares the background to this book. He notes that a portion of John Taylor’s account of Joseph Smith’s murder floated around the family for generations. When a young family member was ready, a copy would be made for that person. Unfortunately, no one he knew had the complete version of the story of the martyrdom.

Taylor searched for years, and finally found a full version of his ancestor’s account. John Taylor wrote about the martyrdom in the mid 1850s while working for the Church in the Northeast United States. Willard Richards, the only other eye witness, had recently died. The Church Historian requested John Taylor to provide the account for the official record, which he complied with the help of others who were at Carthage at the time.

Fast forward a few years, John Taylor is back in Utah. The great British explorer and author, Sir Richard F. Burton, traveled to Utah in 1860 to get material to write his 1862 book, “City of the Saints.” He was eager to meet with John Taylor, knowing he was with Joseph Smith at the time of his death. On arriving at Salt Lake City, Burton spoke with some gentlemen about the Church and its history. Only after several minutes of discussion did Burton realize he was speaking with John Taylor.  Taylor spoke frequently with Burton during his stay, and offered to him a copy of his account of the martyrdom. Burton readily accepted this gift, and put it in the appendix of his finished book.

Mark H. Taylor was able to use this information to extract the full account and share it with his readers.

It is a very interesting account from John Taylor’s viewpoint. He begins by describing the political landscape of Illinois:

The political party were those who were of opposite politics to us. There were always two parties, the whigs and democrats, and we could not vote for one without offending the other, and it not unfrequently happened that candidates for office would place the issue of their election upon opposition to the “Mormons”, in order to gain political influence from religious prejudice.” (pg 26)

In some areas, anti-Mormons were so ubiquitous that Taylor quotes Governor Ford’s history of Illinois, noting, “In the county of Ogle they (anti-Mormons) were so numerous, strong, and well organized, that they could not be convicted for their crimes.”

John Taylor frequently referenced Ford’s writings to support his claims for the Mormons in Nauvoo and against those who opposed them. Still, Taylor exposes Governor Ford as either an idiot, who could not see the dangers awaiting Joseph Smith in Carthage, or as a willing shill for the enemies of the Church.

Taylor was involved as an intermediary between Governor Ford and the prisoners Joseph and Hyrum Smith. He notes the various vile people that frequented the meetings, including several excommunicated members, such as William Law. As one case was dismissed, Joseph and Hyrum were brought up immediately on charges of treason. Taylor notes that Ford promised to protect the Prophet and take him to Nauvoo with him, but let him anyway.

Two issues brought up that I was not aware of is that of the three companies of state militia in Carthage, Governor Ford took two with him to Nauvoo, leaving the murderous Carthage Greys behind to “protect” Joseph and Hyrum.  Second, after the murders were completed, a cannon was fired to notify the people in the area that the murders were completed. When Ford heard the cannon fire, he immediately left Nauvoo and returned to the  capitol. Either he knew what was going to happen, or one of his aides did.

Taylor writes with an indignant style towards those who were involved in the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, yet supports many of his statements from other sources, primarily Ford.

Living just a few hours away from Nauvoo and Carthage, I have the opportunity to visit frequently. To sit in the upstairs room of Carthage jail, see the door where John Taylor used a cane to bat down guns being shoved through the doorway, the floor upon which Hyrum fell silent, the bed that Taylor hid underneath when he was seriously wounded, and the window that Joseph fell out, are all made alive by reading John Taylor’s account.

Some may argue with John Taylor’s views regarding the rightness of destroying the printing press or other actions of Joseph Smith. But it is all semantics, when one considers a mob of hundreds, with the quiet support of a governor, had murder in their hearts and blood on their hands.

This volume makes the Martyrdom alive again. It is real. It is a story of heroes and villains, and we are blessed with an eye witness account of it. If you struggle with your testimony of modern prophets, this book will help you regain that burning in your bosom. You will find a friend in the apostle John Taylor, and pause again at the great work that was sealed with the blood of prophets.



5 thoughts on “Book Review: Witness to the Martyrdom by Mark H. Taylor

  1. I’ve read the first edition of this book. It had the same effect on me that you describe, bringing the prophets alive and giving me a sense of the heroism. I really recommend it too.

    One of the limitations of movies is the outsideness of perspective, so even when there is a life-threatening situation, you’re just an on-looker. But when reading John Taylor’s account, I was better able to see it through his eyes, and experience the emotions, particularly when he described his injuries and his feeling at the time that he was about to die too.

  2. Was this fuller account written before or after John Taylor’s 1856 General Conference address?

    I’d be curious to know how key facts compare to both John’s September 1844 deposition and the facts he would have learned after 1856 about Dennison Harris’s tale came to light.

    I suppose like many Church leaders privy to disciplinary hearings, he knew far more than he would ever document.

  3. In order to create a stained glass panel depicting John Taylor singing to Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards on the afternoon of the martyrdom, I visited the jail and made close observations. I had visited Carthage Jail several times before and had been touched by the experience, but with the aim in mind of recreating the scene I spent more time and thought about it more intently. As Lucinda observes, reading a first hand experience is powerful, and trying to recreate the scene in art has a power of its own. As I proceeded with the project I was blessed in several ways. As an example, I wanted to find a piece of glass to represent the sultry summer day outside the window and I found it at a local glass store as soon as I started searching. Many others have turned their artistic talents to depicting the events at Carthage, including Gary Smith and Liz Lemon Swindle. Some have captured the violence, some the pathos. I advise parents to introduce their children to the scene itself if possible. Nauvoo is worth visiting, but I would put the Sacred Grove, Liberty Jail, and Carthage Jail at the top of the list of any Church History trip.

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