When Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred by a mob of angry men June 27, 1844, in Carthage, Illinois, Church members were spread throughout the United States, England and even further. In response to the news, they wrote about their feelings of grief and fear as well as their testimonies of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Prophet Joseph Smith had been running for president of the U.S. when he and his brother Hyrum were killed. The election efforts covered the Eastern states and some of the Southern states in June 1844. All of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, except for John Taylor and Willard Richards, were electioneering at the time of the martyrdom.
Around 400 Saints were serving on the campaign trail for the Prophet when word of the martyrdom traveled through sensationalized news articles and rumors faster than letters could — but many Saints doubted the truthfulness of what they heard.
Brigham Young, who would later serve as the second president of the Church, wrote to Willard Richards on July 8 about the rumors being propagated. “Sometimes the Mormons are all killed; sometimes they are half killed, and sometimes the blood is knee deep in Nauvoo,” he said.
Additionally, while traveling with Orson Pratt in New Hampshire, Brigham Young spoke to local members about the rumors, testifying that the Lord’s work would continue.
“The death of one or a dozen could not destroy the priesthood,” he said, “nor hinder the work of the Lord from spreading throughout all nations.”
Both Orson Pratt and Brigham Young received formal news of the deaths on July 16. The confirmation shook Brigham Young to the very core, wrote Ronald W. Walker, a late Church historian.
“I felt then as I never felt (before),” Brigham Young later said. “My head felt as tho my head (would) crack.” But the despair lifted “like a clap” when he realized the priesthood was still on the earth.
Vilate Kimball wrote from Nauvoo to her husband, Heber C. Kimball, who was in Baltimore attending the Democratic Party National Convention on June 30, 1844, about the martyrdom of the Prophet and Hyrum.
She wrote: “I shall not attempt to discribe the scene that we have passed through. God forbid that I should ever witness another like unto it. I saw the lifeless corpes of our beloved brethren when they were brought to their almost distracted families. Yea I witnessed their tears, and groans, which was enough to rend the heart of an adamant. Every brother and sister that witnessed the scene (felt) deeply to simpathyze with them. Yea, every heart is filled with sorrow, and the very streets of Nauvoo seam to morn. (Where) will end the lord only knows.”
“Great God and is it so was the emotions of my heart,” he wrote. “Can it be so O Father, and they will be done; if so incline my heart to resignation and cause my heartfelt greaf to cease.”
While serving in New York, Orson Hyde wrote to Church members in England to disclose news of the deaths. In his July 10, 1844, letter, he said: “Be not cast down, neither go a fishing. Our principles still live, though our prophet is dead. But Jesus Christ still lives, and let all the Saints be humble and faithful, and let the elders stand firm at the post of duty, and cry aloud and spare not, and ere long some of us will come to your help.”
Reuben Hedlockwas serving as the president of the British Mission when he heard of the martyrdom. “I am determined to stand or fall by the truth,” he said, “and discharge the duties that devolve upon me, in the fear of God and not of man, and will exert all my powers in building up the kingdom of God.”
He continued: “If they have killed two prophets of God, it is what the same spirit caused their fathers to do in ancient day; but the arm of the Lord is not shortened, that it cannot save — nor his ear dull, that it cannot hear: they may kill the body, but cannot prevent the righteous from coming forth in the first resurrection to share the blessings of the Almighty, while those accursed wretches will be banished from the kingdom.”
Addison Prattwas the furthest away from the body of the Saints in Tubuai, a small island in French Polynesia. On Feb. 20, 1845, Brother Pratt wrote to Brigham Young about the rumors he heard from shipmen coming to the island.
He called the gossipers “Mormon eaters,” but said “all the satisfaction such fellows get from me is, that if one half of the church is shot, and the other half have denied the faith, I know the work is true, and by the help of God I am determined to make all the noise I can about it, and spread this gospel to the ends of the earth, the Lord giving me time and strength to do it.”
Brother Pratt did not hear from a confirmed source of what had happened to Joseph and Hyrum until July 1, 1845, over a year after they died.
The Expositor, a paper written primarily by recent dissenters of the Church, set about to “stir up controversy over practices and teachings with which they strongly disagreed,” ChurchofJesusChrist.org said. Under the direction of the city council and mayor/Church president Joseph Smith, the paper and press were destroyed and charges for inciting a riot led to Joseph and Hyrum’s arrest.
In a message by Gov. Ford in Dec. 21, 1844, regarding the disturbances in Hancock County, he said the news of the deaths “seemed to strike every one with a kind of dumbness. As to myself, it was perfectly astounding.” He believed a civil war might ensue in Illinois because of Joseph’s death and “anticipated the very worst consequences.”
Gov. Ford said at first, the “murder should be fully enquired into; and some of the guilty brought to trial; yet, I was never anxious to proceed with the full rigor of the law.”
— The content in this article was contributed to by Jeffrey Mahas, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers Project.