The Nauvoo Expositor exposed Joseph Smith’s polygamy and was the lightning rod that led to Joseph Smith’s death. As Mayor of Nauvoo, Smith directed the city council to destroy the Expositor press. While polygamy was an explosive issue, it wasn’t the only reason Joseph wanted the press destroyed. In his book, “Origins of Power,” Dr. Michael Quinn makes the case that polygamy was a relatively minor reason for the destruction of the press. I asked Dr. Derek Sainsbury if he agreed with Quinn, and he did. What else was published in the Expositor that Joseph wanted suppressed?
GT: Well, let me ask you a question about that. I remember reading Michael Quinn. It was a long time ago that I read this, but one of the things that he said–going back to the Nauvoo Expositor, polygamy kind of always grabs the headlines. The Expositor published Joseph Smith’s polygamy. But the bigger issue, according to Quinn, was that Joseph was seeking alliances with England, France, Texas, which would have been considered treasonous. Can you talk about that? I’m assuming that that didn’t really happen in the Council of Fifty minutes or was speculation. Can you talk to that issue?
Derek: So, they sent a delegate to Texas to negotiate. Woodworth is his name. That’s an independent nation. So, the Council of Fifty considered themselves to be the kingdom of God on Earth, the political Kingdom of God that represents it on earth. There’s a reason why when Joseph Smith is headed to Carthage, he tells William Clayton to either burn or bury the minutes because they could be construed as treason. They didn’t consider it to be treason. But it could be construed that way. So yes, they did send a representative to Texas. They did formally call someone to go to Russia and to England. Those ambassadors, if you want to call them that, never left. But it gives you the mindset that they were acting like a government. They were pushing for the United States. They were pushing this idea of Joseph Smith for president. But then if that doesn’t work out, where can we go? So, then you have to start looking at where you go, who are you going to have to work with? If you go to Texas, you got to work with Texas. If you go to Oregon, which is contested property between the United States, Great Britain and Russia, then, of course, you need to be talking with those three countries as well. Does that make sense? The minutes show that these assignments were made. The only one that was made and actually reported back was the Texas one.
Derek: But yeah, the minutes also reveal that on the April 11th meeting, in the new Masonic hall had been built in 1844, they nominate Joseph as a prophet, priest and king over Israel, different from maybe the promises that might be found in an LDS endowment. So, this idea of making him a king over Israel, that ends up being leaked. It’s in the Nauvoo Expositor that he’s made himself [king.] They’re twisting it that he’s made himself King. They’re twisting it and so that’s…
GT: Well, I would think that would be an easy thing to twist because we hate kings, and even the Book of Mormon says it’s better that you do not have a king.
Over the years, few people have believed that Joseph Smith’s run for president was a serious candidacy. Why is that? Dr. Derek Sainsbury answers that question and discusses the role of apostles B.H. Roberts and Reed Smoot in downplaying Joseph’s POTUS run for the presidency.
Derek: When the political manifesto is put out, where we’re told [that] the Church will not tell you which way to vote or be involved in politics that way anymore. We have B.H. Roberts, and then several years later, Reed Smoot both not be seated in Congress because they’re Mormon. Roberts is still polygamist. Smoot is not and eventually Smoot does get seated. But it’s the longest and biggest investigation in senate history, as far as the number of things sent in and the number of things…
Derek: So, when the Smoot hearings are happening is the same time that B.H. Roberts, again, the person who didn’t get seated, who won election to Congress, but was never seated, is commissioned by the First Presidency, to write (how do I put this?) the history of Joseph Smith, what we used to know as the History of the Church to re-edit it and add commentary, which he does. Then he writes his own full-scale commentary of the whole thing. In both of those, which then become the backbone for Latter-day Saint historians, in both of those, he downplays it big time. It’s a footnote. “Oh, they were just trying to have a third way or…” Of course, he’s going to do that. Think of the context of what’s going on. Literally, the President of our Church is sitting in a Senate hearing, being grilled about everything that he said about whether he receives prophecies or whatever. They’re looking at everything we print, and everything they say. Are we really going to print something that says Joseph Smith wanted to be President of the United States? Absolutely not. So, as those electioneers are all dying, so the living memory of it is gone. At the same time, we’re trying to distance ourselves from politics, is when these books are written. And then those books are used for decades as the launching point if you’re talking about Church History. So, of course, the narrative has always been “nothing big, nothing big.” Until some non-Latter-day Saint historians and some–they were called the New Mormon Historians in the 60s and 70s started to pick up that, hey, maybe there was something more here. It’s just kind of continued to flourish.
Did you realize politics played a role in the Church downplaying Joseph Smith’s POTUS run? Were you aware of the reasons Joseph wanted the Expositor destroyed? What are your thoughts?
We Mormons generally like to consider ourselves a patriotic pro-family values type of people. And maybe that’s what we became eventually. The Church’s marketing / PR machine has certainly worked hard to create the image and many General Conference talks have reiterated those ideas. So when we read more about the Joseph Smith era and find out how he felt about America (he thought it was a corrupt and immoral experiment in democracy) and how he lived his personal life (let’s just say Emma was not enough), we hardly recognize the patriotism and traditional family philosophy that seems to be so important today in the Church’s narrative. The fact that he declared himself king is just icing on the cake.
This was an amazing post! It lined up some major puzzle pieces that didn’t make sense. Thank you so much!
With the number of times Smith was jailed, and persecutions like Hawn’s Mill and being kicked out of Ohio and Missouri, I don’t think it was unreasonable that Smith thought democracy had serious problems. (I don’t deny some problems were self inflicted, but polygamy wasn’t the reason they were kicked out of Ohio or Missouri.)
This was fascinating. I learned several things I never knew and was never curious about before. It has created new curiosity, though.
Yes, I was aware. If we all read more and open our minds to history it can help us on our journey to try to be loving and kind.
For example, I recommend everyone read Benjamin Park’s *Kingdom of Nauvoo* and Joanna Brooks’s, *Mormonism and White Supremacy,* which newly cover all of this (obviously not that they’re the first or only books that do) and so much more.
I read something about the Expositor destruction last week. Elder Oaks was talking about how we need to analyze historic events in light of the period. He used the Expositor as an example, saying that as he researched the incident from a legal standpoint, he learned that judging what happened with a modern view of freedom of the press is inappropriate because the law that made it illegal to destroy a press hadn’t been passed at the time. So that event and things like past racism should be given a pass because of the times.
I think a wider view is appropriate. Freedom of the press is #1 in the Bill of Rights. When a law was ultimately passed making something like what happened at the Expositor illegal it was because destroying a press is wrong. It was wrong before the law was passed – not illegal, but wrong. A distinction lost in Oaks’ analysis.
The church seems to routinely make excuses when apologies are more appropriate. E.g. racism was always wrong. Even when there were plenty of contemporaries back in the day that didn’t think so – it was wrong. And there were millions of fellow citizens that thought it was wrong. The Gospel Topics Essays are full of excuses and exculpatory ways to look at events and policies and doctrines when a simple confession and apology is what is in order.
I tend to agree with Elder oaks on this one. Destroying presses was quite common in the period. Let’s not forget that the Mormon press was destroyed in 1832 simply for welcoming “Free people of color” to the state of Missouri. Was a single person prosecuted? No.
Another non Mormon example from about 1840 was the destruction of Elijah Lovejoy’s press for printing anti-slavery messages in St Louis. Lovejoy was also assassinated. It was unfortunately much too common to destroy presses for printing unpopular things. The difference between Joseph Smith and the others is Joseph tried to get a legally binding order of a public nuisance, unlike the vigilantes of his day who destroyed property and lives extra-judicially.
Of course we shouldn’t forget that Missouri and Illinois followed frontier justice. Remember Joseph and Hyrum were victims of mob violence and not a single person was found guilty. So I think we should take these events into consideration when judging Joseph.
Clearly Joseph made a life threatening mistake but the mobbers saw no consequences for similar actions.
Rick, I did not disagree with Oaks that destroying presses was common nor that it was not illegal at the time of issuing the order to destroy the Expositor. I said it was wrong and cited as evidence that such acts were ultimately made illegal. I made no sweeping judgments of Joseph’s character, work, or legacy.
The 1832 destruction of the Mormon press as well as Lovejoy’s press was wrong. They were also not committed by the principals of the Expositor so that cannot be viewed as a mitigating circumstance nor as serving tit-for-tat justice. The fact that the perpetrators of those instances were never persecuted does not make the Expositor raid right.
That you think this should be taken into account when judging Joseph’s role in the Expositor raid is evidence that you too think the Mormon and Lovejoy press perpetrators were wrong. So why would we not judge similar actions against the Expositor as being wrong?
Cloaking the Expositor raid with an administrative order does not make it *not* wrong. I also don’t give Joseph – the prophet, president of the church, mayor, commander of the largest standing army in the country, and chief influencer of the pursestrings – cover to hide against any action resulting from his requests to the city council.
The mobbers that murdered Joseph and Hyrum were wrong. That the mobbers were not brought to justice was wrong. Neither of which should have a bearing on how one looks at Joseph’s role as a principal in the preceding raid on the Expositor.
“Everyone’s doing it” is not a moral defense.
I applaud your ability to turn the other cheek. Clearly your armchair quarterback analysis shows you are much more righteous than the rest of us.
It seems that your and my ability to turn the other cheek are on a par today.
I said nothing about my righteousness or that of anyone else.
You and I agree that the following things were wrong: 1832 destruction of the Mormon press, the 1840 destruction of the Lovejoy press, Lovejoy’s assassination, the failure to bring anyone to justice for these, frontier justice, Joseph and Hyrum’s murders, and that no mobbers were brought to justice.
I also think the raid on the Expositor press was wrong. As you pointed out, it certainly had catastrophic consequences. But for the passing of a handful of years, it would have also been illegal.
The only adverb I used to describe the Expositor raid was “wrong”. No damning rhetoric or inflaming language or vitriolic condemnation. Just wrong. All things considered, I don’t think I can give Joseph a pass – I still think it was wrong.
I really enjoy your posts. I have no desire to offend or alienate you. I have silently agreed with you a hundred times. I hope this disagreement does not engender rancor in your heart.