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Joseph Smith

On This Day: Mormon Church Founder Joseph Smith Killed by Mob

June 27, 2011 05:00 AM
by Jordan Termine
On June 27, 1844, a mob shot and killed Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, after breaking into the prison where he was held on treason charges.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith Killed by Mob

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Joseph Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830, and centered his church in western Missouri, where he believed “‘Zion’ would be ‘gathered’ in anticipation of Christ’s second coming,” explains the Missouri Digital Heritage.

His new religion faced public persecution from people who feared the LDS belief in the “theocratic union of spiritual, economic, and political matters” under a single priestly leader, as well as other “unorthodox” doctrines such as plural marriage, says PBS.

The Mormons had many conflicts with non-Mormon settlers in Missouri through much of the 1830s. In 1838, an election riot sparked the Missouri Mormon War, and the governor of Missouri ordered the Mormons to either leave the state or be “exterminated,” writes Missouri Digital Heritage. About 8,000 Mormons left the state over the next year, with many following Smith to Nauvoo, Ill.

“Almost overnight, [Nauvoo] grew from a village of religious refugees and new converts to the point where it rivaled Chicago as the largest city in Illinois,” writes PBS. Nauvoo gained substantial economic and political power, sparking jealousy in some established neighboring towns.

By 1844, Smith was president of his church, mayor of Nauvoo, lieutenant general of the Nauvoo Legion and candidate for president of the United States, and he became the natural focus for his neighbors’ ire.

When Smith and the town council ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor—a newspaper that criticized Smith in its sole issue—Illinois Gov. Thomas Ford ordered Smith to stand trial in nearby Carthage for breaching the First Amendment. Ford then ordered Smith to be jailed on a completely new charge, treason, without bail or a hearing.

Smith and his older brother Hyrum entered the Carthage jail on June 25. With only an anti-Mormon militia guarding the jail, a mob of roughly 200 men easily stormed the jail in the early evening of June 27.

Joseph and Hyrum Smith tried to defend themselves with pistols; Hyrum was soon shot in the nose, exclaiming, “I am a dead man!” Joseph tried to escape up a stairway.

“History of the Church,” a seven-volume history of the Church of LDS written during the 19th century, gives an account of Smith’s “martyrdom.” He “sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. ‘O Lord, my God!’”

Biography: Joseph Smith (1805–1844)

Joseph Smith Jr. was born on Dec. 23, 1805, in Vermont, but poverty forced his family to move often. The Smiths, a Christian family, were living in upstate New York when a teenage Joseph started claiming to have religious visions.

He claimed he was visited by an angel three times, telling him of hidden records inscribed on golden plates. Saying he had translated these plates into the Book of Mormon, Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1830.

As the church he founded grew in popularity and controversy, Smith often suffered at the hands of non-Mormons, including being tarred and feathered in Ohio and imprisoned for several months in Missouri. The hostility toward him and his religion would eventually lead to his death.

“The Lord Jesus Christ called Joseph Smith as a prophet to prepare the way for His coming in glory,” writes a Web site maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “Joseph Smith's life is a testimony to the reality of that calling.”

Reference: Mormonism

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