Spencer McBride: As the Latter-day Saints in western Illinois watched metaphorical storm clouds gather on the horizon, they contemplated individuals and groups that could help protect their rights—and their very lives. They would appeal for help from almost anyone who might be able to assist them. Nearly all options were on the table. But they needed help, and they knew they needed it soon.
The peril the Saints faced and the desperation they were feeling inspired innovative legal, political, and geographic strategies. Those strategies are what we are talking about in this episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host Spencer McBride.
Spencer McBride: Episode 2, “Appeals for Help.”
Spencer McBride: Even before the December 1843 kidnappings of Daniel and Philander Avery, Joseph Smith and other church leaders were exploring options for the long-term security of the citizenship rights of the Latter-day Saints. While church leaders hoped to keep the main body of the Saints in Nauvoo, they were open to relocating if necessary.
The first of these options for the long-term security of the Saints centered on presidential politics. Could they find a presidential candidate who would support their petitions for redress? Could they find a presidential candidate who would use the power of the United States’ federal government to protect the rights, property, and lives of the Saints?
Historian Christian Heimburger of the Joseph Smith Papers explains.
Christian Heimburger: In November of 1843, Joseph Smith and other church leaders renewed their efforts to petition federal authorities for redress for the persecutions and property losses that the Latter-day Saints had endured in Missouri between 1833 and 1839. In addition to drafting two memorials to Congress and publishing appeals to the citizenry of several eastern states, church leaders decided to write letters to five potential candidates for the presidency of the United States. This distinguished list of candidates included a former president in Martin Van Buren; former vice president John C. Calhoun; two-time presidential hopeful Henry Clay, who was consequently seen by many as the front runner in the election; and former secretary of war Lewis Cass.
Spencer McBride: The fifth prospective presidential candidate was former vice president Richard Mentor Johnson.
Each of the letters to the five prospective presidential candidates asked the same question: “What will be your rule of action relative to us as a people, should fortune favor your ascension to the chief magistracy?” In short, if a candidate was willing to commit to protect the Saints and to ensure that they were treated fairly, then the Saints would support him for president. This was in keeping with the political strategy for voting that they had publicly expressed earlier.
Christian Heimburger: Three of the five candidates replied with what can only be described as terse, noncommittal responses. Whig candidate Henry Clay, who was initially favored by Joseph Smith, responded that while he sympathized with the Latter-day Saints’ sufferings under injustice, he could “enter into no engagements, make no promises, give no pledges, to any particular portion of the people of the U[nited] States.” John C. Calhoun, a Democrat and outspoken proponent of states’ rights, told Smith that the Latter-day Saints’ case did not fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, which he asserted was one of limited and specific powers. Democrat Lewis Cass similarly told Smith that he did not think the president had the power to award redress when the state of Missouri and Congress had rejected it.
Spencer McBride: So, none of the men expected to run for president was willing to commit to using the office of the presidency and the powers of the government to protect the rights and lives of the Latter-day Saints. So, how did Joseph Smith receive these responses?
Christian Heimburger: Not well. I guess you could say that he was disillusioned. In late December, he instructed William W. Phelps to respond to Cass and Calhoun and to “[show] them the folly of keeping people out of their right and that there was power in government to redress wrongs.” The letter to Calhoun, which was later published in the Times and Seasons, was full of anger and invective. Joseph Smith once told the Nauvoo City Council that the “state[s] right[s] doctrine[s] is what feeds mobs.” In contrast to Calhoun, who believed that the federal government did not have the right to intervene between the Latter-day Saints and Missourians, Joseph Smith and other church leaders felt strongly that the federal government not only had the authority but the sacred responsibility to guarantee the constitutional rights to the free exercise of religion, including and, perhaps especially, for unpopular minority groups such as the Latter-day Saints. What America needed, according to Joseph Smith, was a stronger federal government that would guarantee equality when the states themselves abridged it. It wasn’t until 1866, after all, that Congress finally passed a constitutional amendment prohibiting the states from depriving their citizens of life, liberty, and property without due process of law.
Spencer McBride: These matters were weighing heavily on Joseph Smith’s mind in early 1844. January 29 was a bitterly cold morning in Nauvoo. That morning Joseph Smith met with a group of church leaders to discuss the presidential election later that year.
Jessica Nelson: So, by this point, Joseph Smith and his associates had received back the responses of some of these presidential potential candidates. So they met together to discuss them and figure out what the Saints’ path forward should be.
Spencer McBride: That’s Jessica Nelson, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers Project.
Jessica Nelson: And, ultimately, they decided to nominate Joseph Smith for president and begin the political process and journey of establishing him as a candidate. And, obviously, this is a large undertaking, and they have several reasons behind this, and it’s connected to not just a statement about what they think the federal government should do but also a means by which they can keep trying to pursue this redress that they’re interested in.
It wasn’t a simplistic idea or some far-fetched dream but a practical means by which they can keep pursuing that which they are most interested in, which is securing redress and finding a way to secure compensation for what they had endured in Missouri, and how to work for reforms within a federal system that just was failing people that could be classified as minorities.
Spencer McBride: Within days of agreeing to run for president, Joseph Smith worked with his scribe William W. Phelps to draft a campaign platform. The result was a pamphlet titled General Smith’s Views on the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States. The central plank of the platform was constitutional reform that would empower the national government of the United States to ensure the protection of religious minorities when states failed to do so. This is the issue that had driven Joseph Smith into the presidential race, but he was not a single-issue candidate. His campaign platform addressed some of the most relevant and controversial issues in the country at that time.
Jessica Nelson: A significant aspect of his presidential campaign platform was to abolish slavery by 1850.
Spencer McBride: This was a radical and innovative proposal. Joseph Smith proposed that the United States government would end slavery by purchasing the freedom of every enslaved man, woman, and child in the country.
Jessica Nelson: He also advocated for a national banking system that would enable economic growth within the country and within regions that were outside of the main economic centers or where people in commerce were flowing in new areas, and so having a national bank would help with that.
Spencer McBride: Joseph Smith also called for the territorial expansion of the United States, criminal justice reform, and more. The constant theme of his entire platform was caring for those Americans living on the margins of society, making sure that the country was a place of equality for all.
On February 8, 1844, Joseph Smith’s campaign platform was read to a public audience in Nauvoo and heartily approved of by the city’s citizens. Phelps then sent it to the printer.
Christian Heimburger: Not long after the ink on General Smith’s Views dried, church leaders printed fifteen hundred copies of the pamphlet and distributed them to political leaders and newspapers around the country. Then, in early 1844, church leaders dispatched over three hundred electioneering missionaries from Nauvoo to cities around the country with a plan to hold a nominating convention in Baltimore in July. These missionaries included ten members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, various elders, priests, deacons—and one woman—ranging in age from sixteen to sixty-six. In terms of political activism, the sheer number of electioneers was unparalleled for this period in American history.
Spencer McBride: This was a time in American political history when presidential candidates did not openly campaign for themselves. Instead, they sent friends and supporters to do the campaigning for them. And so, this large group of electioneering missionaries set to work.
Christian Heimburger: They mailed letters to relatives. They often walked hundreds of miles and sometimes spoke to large groups. They even started a political newspaper in New York to promote Smith’s candidacy. Some of the missionaries were received with enthusiasm, while a great many were met with skepticism and antagonism.
Spencer McBride: Many focused their electioneering efforts on their extended families.
Jessica Nelson: Very interestingly, many of these campaign missionaries went to areas in the country where they had previously lived or where they had family. So, they went back to Vermont and went back and visited family or their in-laws or friends, neighbors that they had known because they had previously lived in that area. And part of what they did is publicize and share Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign platform, they printed pamphlets and leaflets and showed and distributed those, but also they did a lot of preaching and did a lot of sharing the gospel with family members, with friends, with people in these towns.
Spencer McBride: The prospects of Joseph Smith winning the presidency in 1844 were incredibly slim. Most onlookers would have concluded that only a miracle would have allowed Joseph Smith to win the election. And some observers asked if the campaign was simply about publicity for the Saints’ plight? More cynical observers might have argued that it was Joseph Smith seeking greater political power.
Christian Heimburger: On the surface, it could appear that way to outsiders. And many in the Anti-Mormon Party had accused him of wanting to have power, of consolidating power, of abusing the law to his own ends. But I think that if you look back in the four months before he announces his candidacy, you can see this chain of events that happened that really helps you understand how much the Saints had tried to get redress for the persecutions in Missouri. You see the rise of the Anti-Mormon Party and the danger that’s posed by them. You have the Avery kidnappings, which is an ever-present thing for a couple of months, where there is real fear and danger that a mob could come in and kidnap Joseph or really any of the Latter-day Saints as they did the Averys.
Spencer McBride: This was the context in which Joseph Smith received the three responses from potential presidential candidates. It was in this perilous context of needing to protect his people and their rights from the violence threatened by many of the church’s critics that Joseph Smith ran for president of the United States.
Yet Joseph Smith was realistic about his electoral prospects. He seemed to have recognized that there was little chance that he would win. But the campaign was part of his determination to try every possible avenue to redress and protection for the Saints. Some of those avenues involved leaving the United States altogether.
Spencer McBride: In order to understand and evaluate all of the church’s options and to organize the work of sending out appeals for help, Joseph Smith organized a group called the Council of Fifty.
Matt Grow: The Council of Fifty was an organization established by Joseph Smith and others in March 1844.
Spencer McBride: That’s Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Matt Grow: And at that time, there’s growing pressure against Joseph and the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo. That pressure is going to culminate in Joseph Smith’s death a few months later, and Joseph and other leaders are pursuing multiple paths to try to protect the religious rights of the Saints.
Spencer McBride: But the chain of events that led to the formation of the Council of Fifty started in nearby Wisconsin Territory. Several church leaders who were working in that place to obtain lumber for the construction of the Nauvoo temple were considering where the Saints could move for the protection of their community. Some of these men wanted to move the Saints to Texas. In February 1844 they wrote two letters to Joseph about their idea. Jessica Nelson explains.
Jessica Nelson: Joseph Smith received these letters that were written on the fifteenth of February 1844. They were delivered to him on March 10, 1844. After reading them that night, he gathered some of his close associates and church leaders, members of the temple committee to talk about this. They decided they were going to meet again the next day to discuss the ideas further. And so that’s when the Council of Fifty was more or less formally established was March 11, 1844.
Spencer McBride: The name of the council derived from the eventual number of council members, although that number fluctuated over time. But the focus of the council quickly expanded beyond the question of moving to Texas. The council deliberated about other avenues for protection. Looking ahead to the prophesied reign of Jesus on the earth following his second coming, the council also considered what the government of God on earth might look like. This meant the inclusion of more members.
Jessica Nelson: Those who were invited to participate in the Council of Fifty included men in Nauvoo and outside of Nauvoo, many of whom were local church leaders or apostles. But, also, we know from the records that we have that there were several members of the Council of Fifty who were not members of the church.
Spencer McBride: Matt Grow explained to me the inclusion of non–church members in the Council of Fifty.
Matt Grow: Interestingly, Joseph Smith also invited three men who were not Latter-day Saints who were residents of Nauvoo to join the council. And he said he did that explicitly to show that in the kingdom of God, or in the government that he envisioned might one day govern the Latter-day Saints and others, that there would be religious freedom—that Joseph wouldn’t discriminate against people because they were of a different religion but that all would be welcome.
Spencer McBride: The Joseph Smith Papers has published the minutes of the Council of Fifty and they are available on josephsmithpapers.org. Council members spoke freely and, at times, disagreed with each other. But they were unified in their primary purpose: exploring avenues for the protection of the Latter-day Saints’ rights and of their lives.
The Council of Fifty helped manage Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign and, along with the Nauvoo City Council, petitioned the United States Congress multiple times. They petitioned to make Nauvoo a federal city. If granted, that petition would enable the federal government to send the army to protect the Saints if they were once again attacked by mobs. With similar intent, the Saints petitioned to have Joseph Smith commissioned as an officer in the United States Army. They also petitioned Congress to grant the Saints a liberal tract of land in the western territories that were not yet formed into states. All these petitions, along with Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign, were aimed at finding a way for the Saints to remain in the United States.
And if those measures failed, the council considered moving the main body of church members outside the country. They considered moving to territories such as California, or to Oregon, or to Mexico, and even began preliminary conversations with the president of the independent Republic of Texas. The goal of these appeals for help was to ensure freedom and rights for the Saints, particularly their religious freedom. And if they had to leave the country, they considered setting up a government of their own that could protect these freedoms. Matt Grow explains.
Matt Grow: So, the men in the Council of the Fifty discussed the potential options for where the Saints might settle if forced to leave the United States. And they discussed what government might be established by them elsewhere. They used the word “theocracy,” or “theodemocracy,” to describe their intentions. So, they’re envisioning a government, a kingdom of God on the earth which would establish righteousness, but they didn’t believe that such a government would be controlling of the people under its domain. They believe that a system of government in the kingdom of God would allow for free discussion, would have dissent, open dialogue, freedom of religion, individual rights, and so on.
Freedom of religion was very important to them. They traced their troubles in Missouri to religious prejudice, to what happens when people don’t have religious rights: they’re driven out, property is stolen and men, women, and children are abused and killed. And all of this had happened, they reminded themselves, in a land that proclaimed religious liberty, in a land that was seen as enlightened and particularly protective of religious rights. And sometimes outsiders today wonder if the emphasis that Latter-day Saints place on religious liberty is a recent one, a new theme, something born out of culture wars or as a defense mechanism against an increasingly secular society. But it’s not. Religious liberty is deeply ingrained into the fabric of who we are as Latter-day Saints. We’ve been talking about it and emphasizing and caring about religious liberty since the days of Joseph Smith.
Spencer McBride: By April and May 1844, the future of the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo was still unclear. They were exploring all their options, hoping and praying that at least one of them would grant them the protection they needed to live according to their beliefs and to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.
Spencer McBride: Protecting the Latter-day Saints and considering the best possible avenues for preserving their rights demanded a lot of Joseph Smith’s time and attention. But not all of it. Of all the responsibilities that Joseph Smith bore, he prioritized his family and his responsibility to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. He loved to study the scriptures and to teach the women and men around him the revelations he received as a prophet.
Adam Petty, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, summarized some of the main topics that Joseph Smith preached about in 1844.
Adam Petty: He gives a number of public discourses. We have notes people took of some of them, so we have an idea of what he’s saying. We don’t have exact transcripts, but notes that different observers made. And one of the things he emphasizes quite a bit is temple worship. At that point, the Nauvoo temple’s nowhere near being finished. And so, there’s a sense of urgency on Joseph’s part that we need to finish this temple.
Spencer McBride: Joseph Smith delivered sermons in 1844 about the need to finish the temple as expeditiously as possible. He did this, in part, by explaining the eternal significance of rituals—or what church members then and today call “ordinances”—that would take place in the temple when it was completed.
Adam Petty: He talks about proxy ordinance work for the dead. So, these are the sort of things that Joseph is talking about in 1844. And one of the interesting things that he points out is the need to not just be baptized for the dead but do other temple ordinances for the dead as well.
Spencer McBride: The Latter-day Saints had been performing baptisms for the dead in Nauvoo since 1840, and, since 1841, they had been using the baptismal font in the basement of the unfinished temple for these baptisms. But Joseph Smith instructed church members that there were other ordinances that they would soon be able to perform for and in behalf of deceased relatives. These included the endowment ceremony and the sealing ceremony. However, they needed to complete the temple first.
Adam Petty: Let me just read you a quick passage from the 21 January 1844 discourse. And he asked a question, he says, “How are they”—meaning the Saints—“to become Saviors on Mount Zion?” And he says, it’s by “building their temples, erecting their baptismal fonts and going forth and receiving all the ordinances, baptisms, confirmations, washings, anointings, ordinations, and sealing powers upon our heads in behalf of all our progenitors who are dead and redeem them that they may come forth in the first resurrection and be exalted to thrones of glory with us.”
So, he has this sort of expanded view that we need to do all these ordinances, and this is why building this temple—and he’s talking in the shadow of the temple when he’s teaching them this, they can see the unfinished temple next to him—that this is why this matters and why it needs to be done.
Spencer McBride: It would be three decades later that the Saints started performing many of these ordinances for deceased family members in temples. In 1844, Joseph Smith tied these teachings on the temple and the importance of temple ordinances to the larger subject of salvation and the moral redemption of humankind. On this topic, Joseph Smith expanded his public teachings on the nature of God and of human spirits and on the divine potential of men and women. To church members in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith’s teachings in 1844 required them to open their minds and their hearts to a conception of the purpose of life and the eternal destiny of men and women that extended beyond what was traditionally taught in other Christian churches of the day. But, as Chase Kirkham of the Joseph Smith Papers explains, Joseph Smith and others understood these teachings as a natural expansion of previous teachings on the subject of salvation.
Chase Kirkham: So, Joseph had been thinking about questions of salvation throughout his life. And he came out of a culture, a religious culture, that was also very occupied with issues of salvation. Joseph Smith’s teachings in 1844 can be challenging to understand if you try to make sense of them by separating or isolating particular teachings and principles from their broader context. But if you place his teachings from 1844 against the backdrop of Joseph’s attempt to understand salvation, then the logic of these principles begins to appear.
Spencer McBride: Chase told me how Joseph’s teachings in April 1844 about the nature of God and the relationship of humankind to the divine fit into the way that Joseph Smith thought and taught about salvation.
Chase Kirkham: In general, when you’re talking about salvation, you’re trying to understand three things. First, you’re trying to understand the nature of humanity or what it means to be human. This is important, because humans are the ones who need to be saved.
The second thing you’re trying to understand is the works of Jesus Christ. He’s the Savior. He’s the Mediator. He’s the Redeemer.
And the third thing you’re trying to understand is the nature of God, because God is the architect of salvation.
So, in his 1844 teachings, Joseph Smith is tackling the question of salvation by examining what it means to be human, what did Jesus accomplish, and what is the nature of God the Father? And I think these questions, that this is the best context to begin a serious study of Joseph Smith’s teachings during this time.
The highest mode or expression of salvation according to Joseph Smith is eternal life, which he defined in April 1844 as knowledge of God’s character. And he based this on a passage from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ.”
Joseph also said at this conference, quote, “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.”
So, the logic here is that when you’re studying God’s nature, you’re also learning about yourself. The search for eternal life is simultaneously a quest to know God and is a journey of self-discovery.
Spencer McBride: Joseph did not present these expanded teachings on salvation, the nature of God, and the potential of humans to become more like Him, as a dictated revelation in the voice of the Lord, like many of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants. Instead, he presented them as revelations he had received by the Holy Spirit, revelations that came as a result of his prayerful study of the scriptures. For example, in discourses he delivered in the spring of 1844, Joseph Smith cited biblical verses such as Romans chapter 8, verses 16 and 17, which state, “The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be glorified together.”
Chase Kirkham: This is instructive because Joseph Smith’s most profound teachings—those which were special to him—were those received by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Joseph ultimately received his most profound insights about the nature of God the same way that Latter-day Saints are taught today to seek after revelation, which is to study scripture, consider the implications of what you’re reading, and then to base your beliefs on those things, confirmed to you personally by God’s Spirit, which is described in scripture as the peace “which passeth . . . understanding.”
Undoubtedly, Joseph’s visions and heavenly visitations affected his understanding of God’s nature, but I find that there’s an important message in his declaration that his teachings about God came from the Holy Ghost.
Spencer McBride: With the benefit of hindsight, knowing what would transpire later in the year, many historians have wondered about the burst of revelatory teachings that came from Joseph Smith in 1844. If we look to what Joseph Smith said about it, the prophet clearly felt a sense of urgency for church members, an urgency to prepare their minds and their hearts to receive the things of God, to prepare them to live righteous lives, to prepare them for the temple, and to prepare them for eternal life.
Adam Petty: There’s one instance in one of these 1844 discourses where Joseph really opens up, and I think it’s worth sharing with people. And it’s at the end of the 21 January discourse. And he talks about some of the frustrations he’s had, and I think this is really telling.
He talks about the Latter-day Saints. And he says, “But there has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn dodger for a wedge and a pumpkin for a beetle; even the Saints are slow to understand. I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God, but we frequently see some of them after suffering all they have for the work of God will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions, they cannot stand the fire at all. How many will be able to abide a celestial law and go through and receive their exaltation? I am unable to say, but many are called and few are chosen.”
Spencer McBride: The urgency Joseph Smith felt was also influenced by his fear that the Saints would be scattered by their critics and avowed enemies before he could finish what he understood to be one of the primary purposes of his ministry.
Adam Petty: One other thing that I think is telling that he says in that discourse, he says, “My only trouble at the present time is concerning ourselves that the Saints will be divided and broken up and scattered before we get our salvation secure”—particularly talking about the temple. So, you think about his actions in ’44 in light of those statements, that he’s frustrated, he can’t quite get the Saints ready. And certain people, when he’s tried to teach them things, they “fly to pieces like glass.” He’s afraid they’re going to be scattered before the temple’s done.
Spencer McBride: And so, Joseph Smith leaned in to preaching to the Saints in Nauvoo. He relished his role as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He loved to teach gospel principles and to expound the scriptures.
Still, while many of the Saints in and around Nauvoo relished the teachings of Joseph Smith, others struggled with those teachings. For some former church members in Nauvoo who were already disaffected from the prophet—and for some church members who were heading down that same path—some of the prophet’s teachings in 1844 compounded their desire to oppose and to publicly criticize the president of the church.
Spencer McBride: As the month of May 1844 drew to a close in Nauvoo, church members in that city rejoiced over the teachings they were receiving from the man who they believed was a prophet of God. Yet dissenters in the city were actively trying to hurt Joseph Smith. While some leveled actual threats against Joseph Smith’s life and the lives of his family members, others attacked the church he led. Meanwhile, the Anti-Mormon Party in Illinois was as determined as ever to drive Joseph Smith and the Saints from the state, even if that required the use of violence. They were just waiting for the right opportunity to move against the Saints. That opportunity for violence came in June 1844. And that is where we will pick up the story in the next episode of Road to Carthage: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.
Spencer McBride: If you are interested in learning more about the history discussed in this episode or in exploring the papers of Joseph Smith, visit josephsmithpapers.org.