The fourteenth volume in the Documents series, published in April 2023, features ninety-nine letters, deeds, accounts of discourses, minutes of meetings, memorials to the nation’s leaders, poems, and other documents, telling of a tumultuous period in Joseph Smith’s life and depict a region on the brink of civil war.
Alex D. Smith, Adam H. Petty, Jessica M. Nelson, and Spencer W. McBride are historians for the Church History Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The final half year of Joseph Smith’s life was a time of turmoil and conflict, a period that witnessed continually escalating hostility between the Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois, and their neighbors in the surrounding area. In late 1843, after news arrived that a Latter-day Saint man and his son had been abducted to Missouri from their homes in Hancock County, Illinois, the region surrounding Nauvoo sat on the verge of civil war. In the closing weeks of the year, militia units were mobilized and the Nauvoo City Council passed extreme ordinances designed to protect Smith and other Nauvoo citizens. This volume covers January to mid-May 1844—ending only six weeks before Joseph Smith’s assassination.
The growing animosity between the Saints and their neighbors in Hancock County and across the river in Missouri and Iowa Territory prompted Joseph Smith and other church leaders to seek solutions for protecting their people. The previous year, Smith had written to prospective candidates for the upcoming presidential election, asking each man what his position would be toward the Saints if he were elected. After answers to the letters proved unsatisfactory, in January the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and other Nauvoo leaders nominated Joseph Smith as a candidate for the presidency. Hundreds of missionaries were soon sent out to campaign for Smith across the country.
Meanwhile, the Saints continued to implore the federal government for protection and redress for losses sustained years earlier when they were expelled from their homes in Missouri. As the church’s situation in Illinois became increasingly tenuous, for the first time Smith and his associates began to seriously consider removal from the United States altogether. Under Smith’s direction, a new organization known as the Council of Fifty was established to form the nucleus of a theocratic government in anticipation of the millennial return of Jesus Christ. The council focused its attention on spreading news of Smith’s campaign, petitioning Congress, and exploring options for relocating the church to the West.
Closer to home, Warsaw Signal editor Thomas Sharp and other enemies of the Saints became more vocal in their criticism of Joseph Smith, launching attacks frequently centered on Smith’s power and the practice of plural marriage. Peacemaking responses from Nauvoo newspapers were insufficient to abate the burgeoning regional enmity. The opposition Joseph Smith faced externally was exacerbated by longstanding rivalries with other religious and civic leaders in Nauvoo itself. New rifts with erstwhile friends and colleagues generated an onslaught of litigation targeting Smith personally.
Notwithstanding contention and assaults, Joseph Smith led his church and community, serving as president of the church, Nauvoo’s mayor, lieutenant general of the city’s militia unit, and judge of the mayor’s and municipal courts, among other offices. He continued to expand the Saints’ understanding of religious doctrine through sermons, including his famous funeral discourse for church member King Follett at the church’s April conference in Nauvoo.
In all, the pages of Documents, Volume 14 capture the urgency and complexity of some of the final months of Joseph Smith’s life as he worked to build Nauvoo and lead his people toward a kingdom of God on earth while his opponents closed in.
Declaration of the Latter-day Saints’ Desire for Peace
Editorial, 16–17 February 1844
“For general information it may be well to say that there has never been any cause for alarm as to the Latter Day Saints. The legislature of Illinois granted a liberal charter for the city of Nauvoo; and, let every honest man in the union, who has any knowledge of her, say whether she has not flourished beyond the most sanguine anticipations of all; and while they witness her growing glory: let them solemnly testify whether Nauvoo has willfully injured the country, county, or a single individual.”
Closing Statement of the Funeral Sermon for King Follett
Discourse, 7 April 1844, as Published in Times and Seasons
“You never knew my heart; no man knows my history; I cannot tell it. I shall never undertake it; if I had not experienced what I have, I should not have known it myself. I never did harm any man since I have been born in the world. My voice is always for peace, I cannot lie down until all my work is finished. I never think any evil, nor any thing to the harm of my fellow man.—When I am called at the trump of the ark-angel, and weighed in the balance, you will all know me then. I add no more. God bless you all. Amen.”