One of the most consequential crimes in American history occurred on a summer day in 1844 when a mob stormed a jail in Carthage, Illinois and murdered Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum. The killing of Joseph Smith, the charismatic founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, America's most important homegrown religion, led to a schism among Mormons and the trek west to Utah of Brigham Young and his followers. The story of the 1844 murders and the trial that followed is much less known than it deserves to be--largely owing to the over-sensitivity of American textbook writers on all matters religious. Events so pivotal in the history of the Mormon Church, which today boasts a worldwide membership of over 14 million and exerts an important influence on debates of moral issues ranging from same-sex marriage to gambling to euthanasia, deserve a broader understanding.
Smith Orders the Destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor
The early 1840s were a time of growing tension between Mormon and non-Mormon settlers in Hancock County, Illinois. In April 1839, Joseph Smith, having escaped from a Missouri jail where he was being held on state treason charges, arrived in northwestern Illinois, near the banks of the Mississippi River, to join Mormons who had begun to locate there in large numbers. Soon, the new city of Nauvoo was established and became a magnet for Mormons from the eastern U.S., Canada, and Europe. By 1844, Nauvoo, with a population of 12,000, rivaled Chicago for the title of the largest city in the state of Illinois.
The growing Mormon economic and political influence in Hancock County did not sit well with all county residents.... Continued