Section 135: The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum
Section 135 is not exactly a revelation, but rather an inspired eulogy of Joseph and Hyrum written by John Taylor. Elder Taylor was, of course, uniquely qualified to write this eulogy. Not only was he a capable writer and journalist, but he was there in the room when Joseph and Hyrum were murdered. Elder Taylor was himself seriously wounded with four balls, one of which, near his left knee, was never removed. The only other person in the room was Apostle Willard Richards who was, miraculously, not wounded.
A new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was promised for the end of June 1844. John Taylor was the man in charge of printing the book. And since he was wounded at Carthage, the book was delayed. He was not able to finish it until he had recovered, and it was finally ready for sale in October 1844. Because of his unique qualifications and because he was an apostle and the man in charge of publishing the new edition, he added this section to that edition before it was published.
Section 135 contains a rather graphic description of those agonizing moments of the martyrdom. One poignant incident not mentioned in John Taylor’s description was that after Hyrum had fallen to the floor, Joseph bent over the body of his lifeless brother and sobbed, “Oh dear, brother Hyrum!” (HC, 6:618).
Willard Richards’ “. . . escape was miraculous; he being a very large man, and in the midst of a shower of balls, yet he stood unscathed, with the exception of a ball which grazed the tip end of the lower part of his left ear. His escape fulfilled literally a prophecy which Joseph made over a year previously, that the time would come that the balls would fly around him like hail, and he should see his friends fall on the right and on the left, but that there should not be a hole in his garment” (HC, 6:619).
D&C 135 The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum
D&C 135:3 Joseph Smith, the Prophet . . . has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.
1 To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch. They were shot in Carthage jail, on the 27th of June, 1844, about five o’clock p.m., by an armed mob—painted black—of from 150 to 200 persons. Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls.
verse 1 Through the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum, a firm seal and a witness was placed on the divinity, not only of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon, but also on the Lord’s work of restoration in this final dispensation. Their deaths were a fulfillment of the divine law of witnesses (see commentary for D&C 5:11). This pronouncement puts the reader of these two books on notice that they are not ordinary books, but have cost the blood of witnesses to declare the truthfulness of both. The following statement by Joseph Fielding Smith is helpful in trying to understand the law of witnesses:
Every time keys were restored, two men received them. Why? Because it was necessary according to the divine law of witnesses for Joseph Smith to have a companion holding those keys; otherwise, it would not have happened. So, as Oliver Cowdery states, when John the Baptist came, he and Joseph Smith received the Aaronic Priesthood under his hands; and when Peter, James, and John came, he was with Joseph Smith.
It was Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith who received the keys in the Kirtland Temple on the 3rd of April 1836, when Christ appeared, when Moses appeared, when Elias appeared, when Elijah appeared. And every time when the keys of a dispensation were bestowed it was to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery—not Joseph Smith alone. Why? Just because of what the Savior said: “If I bear witness of myself, my witness is not true” (John 5:31).
If Joseph Smith had said, “I testify, and I testify alone,” his testimony would not be true. There had to be two, that the testimony might be valid.
Oliver Cowdery stood as assistant president of [the] Church. Now let me call your attention to this. In the Kirtland Temple in 1836, when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were behind the pulpit and received keys from heavenly messengers, there was a First Presidency of the Church and the Prophet had counselors, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams. But Sidney Rigdon and Frederick Williams did not go behind the veil, or the curtain, when it was drawn; they were not asked to kneel there behind the pulpit. It was Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Why? Because that was Oliver Cowdery’s place.
Now I am going to call your attention to something that is not, I regret to say, generally known. Oliver Cowdery was called to be what? The “Second Elder” of the Church, the “Second President” of the Church. We leave him out in our list of presidents of the Church, we do not include Oliver Cowdery; but he was an assistant president. Oliver Cowdery’s standing in the beginning was as the “Second Elder” of the Church, holding the keys jointly with the prophet Joseph Smith. He preceded the counselors in the First Presidency in authority, standing next to the prophet Joseph Smith. December 5, 1834, Oliver Cowdery was ordained by Joseph Smith, by the command of the Lord, an assistant president of the High Priesthood, to hold the keys of presidency jointly with the Prophet in the ministry . . .
The office of assistant president [was] to assist in presiding over the whole Church, and to officiate in the absence of the President, according to his rank and appointment.
So Oliver Cowdery, through that place as the “Second President,” preceded the counselors in the Presidency—naturally so. Why shouldn’t he? He had the same authority, had received the same keys with the prophet Joseph Smith every time the heavens were opened, and he was an assistant president of the Church and second witness of the dispensation of the fulness of times, which is the greatest of all dispensations, for it was necessary that there be two presidents, two witnesses standing at the head of this dispensation . . .
Unfortunately—at least unfortunately for Oliver Cowdery, who was called to this wonderful and responsible position, jointly associated with Joseph Smith holding all the authority and presidency in this dispensation—Oliver, in a spirit of rebellion and darkness, turned away. He lost his fellowship in the Church, the power of the priesthood was taken from him, and for a season he stood excommunicated from the Church. Fortunately he eventually overcame this spirit of darkness, but never again was he privileged to receive the keys of power and authority which were once placed upon him.
That this testimony of witnesses might be continued and made complete, the Lord chose another to take the place of Oliver Cowdery, and that other witness was the Patriarch Hyrum Smith. By revelation through Joseph Smith, Hyrum was called and ordained to the priesthood and standing once held by Oliver Cowdery. . . . [See the Commentary for D&C 124:91-96.]
Hyrum Smith became a president of the Church with Joseph Smith, which place Oliver Cowdery might have held had he not wavered and fallen from his exalted station. I am firmly of the opinion that had Oliver Cowdery remained true to his covenants and obligations as a witness with Joseph Smith, and retained his authority and place, he, and not Hyrum Smith, would have gone with Joseph Smith as a prisoner and to martyrdom at Carthage.
The sealing of the testimony through the shedding of blood would not have been complete in the death of the prophet Joseph Smith alone; it required the death of Hyrum Smith who jointly held the keys of this dispensation. It was needful that these martyrs seal their testimony with their blood, that they might be honored and the wicked might be condemned [D&C 136:39]. . . .
But here is another point. He had to die. Why? Because we read in the scriptures that the testimony is not of force without the death of the testator—that is, in his particular case, and in the case of Christ. It was just as necessary that Hyrum Smith lay down his life a martyr for this cause as a witness for God as it was for Joseph Smith, so the Lord permitted them both to be taken in that way and both sealed their testimony with their blood. Both of them held the keys to the dispensation of the fulness of times jointly, and they will through all the ages of eternity. Then naturally the Council of the Twelve came into its place, and by right Brigham Young became president of the Church (Doctrines of Salvation, 211-21).
2 John Taylor and Willard Richards, two of the Twelve, were the only persons in the room at the time; the former was wounded in a savage manner with four balls, but has since recovered; the latter, through the providence of God, escaped, without even a hole in his robe.
3 Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient time, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!
verse 3 “Joseph Smith . . . has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” This first sentence of this verse is apparently not sound doctrine, and the prophet Joseph would probably have been a bit embarrassed about it. Joseph himself taught repeatedly that there was a prophet who stood in the line of authority next to Christ. He holds the keys of salvation for every man on this earth. He holds the keys of this dispensation. Under his direction all of those keys were given to the prophet Joseph. He will stand with Christ and judge all mankind. Who is this great prophet? He is Adam. Eulogistically, this first sentence is nice, but theologically it is incorrect. On the other hand, remember that it took Adam 930 years to accomplish all he did on this earth.
Joseph died in his thirty-ninth year! We may certainly say that no prophet ever did so much for mankind in so short a period of time. Also, vicarious work for the dead was saved for this dispensation, and in that sense Joseph has contributed uniquely to all other dispensations. Also, through the prophet Joseph, more of our Heavenly Father’s children have had and will have an opportunity for salvation than at any other time in the history of the world. This is true because of the various roles of the Prophet. He was the legal administrator of the Lord on this earth and head of the dispensation of the fulness of times. Also, under Joseph’s direction the gospel will be preached to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. Temples have been and yet will be built in which the work for the living and the dead has been and yet will be available. No other prophet has brought forth more scripture than has Joseph Smith. Through him, the Lord revealed to the world the Book of Mormon; the writings of Moses, Enoch, and Abraham, as found in the Pearl of Great Price; the Doctrine and Covenants; the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible; and many other inspired and revealed statements among his recorded sermons and personal history. As John Taylor observed at a later time:
He understood things that were past, and comprehended the various dispensations and the designs of those dispensations. He not only had the principles developed, but he was conversant with the parties who officiated as the leading men of those dispensations, and from a number of them he received authority and keys and priesthood and power for the carrying out of the great purposes of the Lord in the last days, who were sent and commissioned specially by the Almighty to confer upon him those keys and this authority, and hence he introduced what was spoken of by all the prophets since the world was; the dispensation in which we live, which differs from all other dispensations in that it is the dispensation of the fulness of times, embracing all other dispensations, all other powers, all other keys and all other privileges and immunities that ever existed upon the face of the earth (JD, 20:174-75).
Christ supersedes them all, however, in that he accomplished his work in only three years!
By some of those outside the Church, we have been accused of worshipping Joseph Smith. We do not. But we do testify solemnly of the divine calling of this vital prophet of God!
A hymn composed by John Taylor labels these two fallen prophets as “two of the best of Adam’s race” (“Oh Give Me Back My Prophet Dear,” Hymns 1948, number 137, volume 1). John Taylor paid apt tribute to the two martyrs. Of Hyrum he said, “If ever there was an exemplary, honest, and virtuous man, an embodiment of all that is noble in the human form, Hyrum Smith was its representative” (B.H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor, 42).
The devastating loss felt by the saints at the death of Joseph was expressed by John Taylor when he wrote, “I felt a dull, lonely, sickening sensation . . . when I reflected that our noble chieftain, the prophet of the living God, had fallen, and that I had seen him and his brother in the cold embrace of death, it seemed as though there was void in the great field of human existence to me, and a dark gloomy chasm in the kingdom, and that we were left alone. Oh, how lonely was that feeling!” (Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War, 1846-1847, 51-52).
“sealed his mission and his works with his own blood, and so has his brother Hyrum” Sealing their works and missions by giving their lives removed all responsibility from Joseph and Hyrum, putting the responsibility for judgment on the hearer of that testimony and observer of those works. This was a needful act for Joseph Smith. President Brigham Young observed: “He sealed his testimony with his blood; consequently we can, with impunity, believe on him a little better than if he were living. When he was living, his testimony was not in force upon the people as it is now” (JD, 18:242). Elder Joseph Fielding Smith also taught the principle of binding testimony through the shedding of the Prophet’s blood: “The shedding of their blood . . . bound that testimony upon an unbelieving world and this testimony will stand at the judgment seat as a witness against all men who have rejected their words of eternal life” (Improvement Era, June 1944, 364). This truth is reflected in the revelation given through President Brigham Young: “Many have marveled because of his death; but it is needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned” (D&C 136:39).
“Hyrum Smith” The role of Hyrum at Carthage was not only that of a brother but also of the Assistant President of the Church and a second witness to the testimony of the Restoration. Oliver Cowdery had been chosen as the Assistant President of the Church, but when he apostatized, Hyrum was called to replace him. In all the principal events of the Restoration—the coming forth of the Book of Mormon; the restoration of the priesthood by John the Baptist and Peter, James, and John; the restoration of the keys in the Kirtland Temple—Oliver Cowdery was present with Joseph Smith. Had he not left the Church, he would have been at Carthage to seal his testimony along with the Prophet; however, he did not remain faithful to his testimony, and Hyrum was called to stand in his place to give his life as a second witness (see D&C 124:91-96).
4 When Joseph went to Carthage to deliver himself up to the pretended requirements of the law, two or three days previous to his assassination, he said: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I SHALL DIE INNOCENT, AND IT SHALL YET BE SAID OF ME—HE WAS MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD.”—The same morning, after Hyrum had made ready to go—shall it be said to the slaughter? yes, for so it was—he read the following paragraph, near the close of the twelfth chapter of Ether, in the Book of Mormon, and turned down the leaf upon it:
5 And it came to pass that I prayed unto the Lord that he would give unto the Gentiles grace, that they might have charity. And it came to pass that the Lord said unto me: If they have not charity it mattereth not unto thee, thou hast been faithful; wherefore thy garments shall be made clean. And because thou hast seen thy weakness, thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father. And now I . . . bid farewell unto the Gentiles; yea, and also unto my brethren whom I love, until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ, where all men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood. The testators are now dead, and their testament is in force.
verse 5 The quotation in this verse, which was read by Hyrum, probably aloud to Joseph, on the morning he departed for Carthage, is from Ether 12:36-38. This quotation deals with the rejection of the Book of Mormon by the Gentiles. It reminded Joseph and Hyrum, as it had Moroni, that they had done all they could, that the blood of the people was not upon them, the prophets, and that they would stand as judges of the people.
“The testators are now dead, and their testament is in force.” This final sentence in this verse is not part of that quotation.
6 Hyrum Smith was forty-four years old in February, 1844, and Joseph Smith was thirty-eight in December, 1843; and henceforward their names will be classed among the martyrs of religion; and the reader in every nation will be reminded that the Book of Mormon, and this book of Doctrine and Covenants of the church, cost the best blood of the nineteenth century to bring them forth for the salvation of a ruined world; and that if the fire can scathe a green tree for the glory of God, how easy it will burn up the dry trees to purify the vineyard of corruption. They lived for glory; they died for glory; and glory is their eternal reward. From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified.
verse 6 “best blood of the nineteenth century . . . From age to age shall their names go down to posterity as gems for the sanctified” When the angel Moroni first appeared to Joseph Smith on September 21, 1823, he informed the Prophet that his name would be had for good and evil among all nations (JS-H 1:33). Because Joseph and Hyrum lived righteous lives and fulfilled the mission given to them by the Lord, it was in very deed righteous blood that was spilt in Carthage Jail. Joseph and Hyrum take their place among other prophets and apostles who have sealed their testimonies with their blood. They truly became “gems for the sanctified” and others to look upon and honor “from age to age.”
7 They were innocent of any crime, as they had often been proved before, and were only confined in jail by the conspiracy of traitors and wicked men; and their innocent blood on the floor of Carthage jail is a broad seal affixed to “Mormonism” that cannot be rejected by any court on earth, and their innocent blood on the escutcheon of the State of Illinois, with the broken faith of the State as pledged by the governor, is a witness to the truth of the everlasting gospel that all the world cannot impeach; and their innocent blood on the banner of liberty, and on the magna charta of the United States, is an ambassador for the religion of Jesus Christ, that will touch the hearts of honest men among all nations; and their innocent blood, with the innocent blood of all the martyrs under the altar that John saw, will cry unto the Lord of Hosts till he avenges that blood on the earth. Amen.
verse 7 “their innocent blood on the banner of liberty, and on the magna charta of the United States” For a discussion of why the innocent blood of Joseph and Hyrum is on the two objects representing freedom, see the commentary for D&C 136:34-36.
Brief Historical Setting
Brigham Young and the other traveling apostles did not learn of the assassinations until July 16 and were not able to reach Nauvoo until August 6. They found the saints subdued, shattered, and confused by the loss of their leaders. Though they needed desperately to find another leader, the method of orderly succession to the Presidency had not yet been clearly established. Sidney Rigdon offered himself to become the Church’s “guardian,” asserting that no one could take Joseph’s place. Brigham Young contended that the Twelve held all the keys necessary for church leadership, and that as President of the Twelve, he was the rightful heir of the Presidency. At a dramatic meeting on August 8, where both men spoke, the saints voted overwhelmingly to sustain Brigham and the Twelve as leaders of the Church.
There was opposition to Brigham’s leadership, and splinter groups formed under the leadership of individuals who claimed the Presidency for themselves. The most significant of these included the Church of Christ headed by Sidney Rigdon, the Strangites led by James J. Strang, and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints organized in 1851 by Jason Briggs. The leadership of the Reorganites was eventually assumed by the Prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III who had remained in Nauvoo with his mother Emma. This group rejected the doctrines revealed through Joseph during the Nauvoo period, including polygamy, plurality of Gods, baptism for the dead, temple ordinances, the literal gathering of the saints, and the establishment of an earthly kingdom.
After the murders of Joseph and Hyrum, there followed a short respite from persecution and harassment lasting until about September of 1845. During this period, Brigham Young gave major emphasis to the missionary program both in the eastern states and in the British Isles. He also stepped up the construction work on the temple so that as many saints as possible could share in those sacred ordinances before the saints had to begin their trek west.
The enemies of the Church had assumed that the destruction of Joseph would be fatal for the Church’s existence. When it became apparent that the Church showed promise of surviving, the hostility toward and harassment of the saints began afresh.
Strong prejudice against the Church in the Illinois legislature resulted in a repeal of the Nauvoo city charter in January 1845.
The capstone was laid on the temple, and its construction was finished in May 1845.
Brigham knew from the moment he assumed the leadership of the Church that the saints would be leaving Nauvoo. In response to the renewed harassment of the saints, they agreed in the fall of 1845 to leave Illinois. The agreement was that the saints would leave in the spring—when the “water runs” and the “grass grows”—but tensions increased so that they had to leave earlier than planned. The first wagon crossed the Mississippi River on February 4, 1846. President Young crossed on February 15. Brigham intended that he would lead an advance party ahead to find a settling place and plant crops for the saints who would follow later. However, a steady stream of Nauvoo saints began to follow him out of the city. The saints had been forced to sell homes and property for a pittance. By September 1846, Nauvoo, or, as Brigham had renamed it, “The City of Joseph,” stood almost empty.
After camping briefly at the Sugar Creek Camp, nine miles west of the Mississippi, an aggregate of the twelve thousand saints in about twenty-five hundred wagons, and thirty to fifty thousand head of stock pushed on across Iowa. By late spring or early summer they were settled temporarily on the eastern shore of the Missouri River at Kanesville (later Council Bluffs) and in Winter Quarters, across the river. Winter Quarters is now Florence, Nebraska, a suburb of Omaha.
In the spring of 1846, the Church appealed to the president of the United States, James K. Polk, for any financial assistance that might be available to the saints for their intended migration to the west. This request by the Church coincided with the United States’ declaring war on Mexico. An army was needed to march to California to take possession of that area. Apparently as an act of good faith, President Polk saw an opportunity to help the saints and help fulfill a national need as well. The United States Army agreed to accept a volunteer force of about 500 young Mormon men who would serve for one year and march the 2,000 miles from Council Bluffs to California. For this service, each man would be paid $42, amounting to a total payroll of about $21,000. The Church accepted the army’s offer, not only because of the money which would obviously prove helpful, but because they wanted to demonstrate their loyalty to their country.
At the expense of much personal and community sacrifice, this force of volunteers was raised. In July the Mormon Battalion left Council Bluffs for Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After being outfitted, they embarked on the colorful expedition. They arrived in San Diego in January 1847. Part of their pay was sent back to their families to be used for the trek west. After their period of service, in July 1847, they were disbanded. A few re-enlisted, some remained in California to take advantage of the gold rush, but most returned to their families in the Great Basin of Utah.
Brigham Young had fully planned to be in the Great Basin by the summer of 1846, but the wet and muddy roads through Iowa and the lack of preparation by the saints so delayed them in their journey that they decided to remain in Winter Quarters and continue on the next spring.
Finally on January 14, 1847, the Lord spoke through Brigham Young concerning the “Camp of Israel” [D&C 136 -Word and Will of the Lord for the Camp of Israel].
Life for the saints in the winter of 1846-47 was difficult because of the weather and the meager provisions available to them. As many as one in thirty died.
- Michael J. Preece