The Mormon Jubilee

Usually when we see this reference, we think about the semicentennial celebration of the Mormon arrival in the Great Basin. As I have worked on the martyrology of Joseph Smith, I have encountered an earlier Mormon Jubilee whose story bears telling.

As many will recall Lilburn “Buster” Boggs was the Missouri governor during the Mormon War of ~1838 and issued the instructions to the state militia that we have called “the extermination order.”[1] In May 1842, Boggs was shot and wounded, though not fatally. Suspicions immediately turned to the Mormons, and Smith’s loyal (and hairy) lieutenant, Orrin Rockwell, was arrested for attempted murder. Because Rockwell was assumed to be acting on Smith’s orders, Boggs arranged for extradition proceedings against Joseph Smith as a “fugitive from justice.” Several attempts were made to arrest Smith, and they contributed to the frequency with which, through latter 1842, Smith was on the lam as well as some of the more impressive excesses of the Nauvoo City Council/Municipal Court (it eventually became essentially illegal to arrest Joseph Smith in Nauvoo).

Finally Joseph Smith agreed to a hearing of habeas corpus on one of the warrants of extradition. Though he was hopeful that the attempted extradition was invalid on a technicality, it is clear that he worried about the possibility that he would be taken to Missouri and killed, a worry shared by many of his followers. He was taken to Springfield, where Butterfield argued his case, which boiled down to the fact that he could not be a fugitive from Missouri if he had not been in Missouri since before the crime (ie he would have committed the crime in Illinois, not Missouri). For whatever reasons, the writ of habeas corpus resulted in Smith’s freedom (an act he and his followers understood to mean his full and final acquittal of all charges).

Smith’s return from the trial was a show fit for a king. An initial hymn was written (by Wilson Law and Willard Richards) “the evening of the 7th of January 1843, and sung by the party who accompanied General Joseph Smith from Springfield, (where he had voluntarily been for trial on Habeas Corpus.) on his return to Nauvoo. Dedicated to all lovers of Illinois liberties.”[2]

The hymn was to be sung to the tune of either Auld lang syne or Na luck about the house, and it began with

And are you sure the news is true?
And are you sure he’s free?
Then let us join with one accord,
And have a jubilee.
We’ll have a jubilee, my friends,
We’ll have a jubilee;
With heart and voice we’ll all rejoice
In that our Prophet’s free.

The hymn stretched on, whimsically revisiting scenes and characters from the legal show and ended on a similar note

And now we’re bound for home, my friends,
A band of brothers true,
To cheer the hearts of those we love,
In beautiful Nauvoo.
We’ll have a jubilee my friends,
We’ll have a jubilee;
With heart and voice we’ll all rejoice,
In that our Mayor’s free.[2]

Eliza RS Smith[4] would write a similar expansive salute to the salvation of their prophet (her revered husband since the month after Boggs was shot). But such encomiums were not the end of the celebration. In what may be (this is not my area of expertise, and I am open to correction) the first expression of the use of fast offerings (a theme I will visit in another post), a church-wide fast of gratitude explicitly styled on Isaiah 58:6ff was enjoined on the Saints. Brigham Young, as the president of the Traveling High Council (ie Quorum of Twelve) wrote,

Feeling a deep sense of gratitude to our Heavenly Father, for the great blessings which he has conferred on us in the deliverance of our beloved President Joseph Smith, from the oppression with which he has so long been bound, the Travelling High Council invite the brethren in Nauvoo, to unite with them in dedicating Tuesday, the 17th day of January inst., as a day of humiliation fasting, praise, prayer and thank-giving, before the great Eloheim, that he will continue the outpouring of his holy spirit upon this people–that they may ever walk humbly before him–seek out and follow the councils given through his servant, and ever be united, heart and hand, in building up this stake of Zion and the Temple, where God will reveal himself to his people; that no strife or confusion may ever be found in our midst, but peace and righteousness may be our companions,–and as he has hitherto sustained his Prophet in all the difficulties he has had to encounter, so he will continue to do, until he has finished the great work committed to his charge, and that all those who have been called to his assistance in the holy ministry may be diligent and faithful in all things, that his hands may be staid on high, like unto Moses–that our enemies, if such we have, may repent, and turning away from their enmity, get forgiveness and salvation–and that they may have no dominion over the servants of God or his saints; but that Zion may flourish upon the mountains and be exalted on the hills, and that all nations shall flow unto it and be saved, we will humble ourselves with fasting and supplication, and sing praises unto our God, with the voice of melody and thanksgiving, for the deliverance he has wrought out for his servant Joseph, through the legally constituted authorities of our Government.[3]

While there are a wide variety of threads worthy of discussion (and please, go ahead), I am struck by the dramatic energy of the return of the Prophet, of the sense of existential unity that existed in the Mormon city, centered in the person of their God-sent leader, the way a society lived and breathed through the person of their seeric guide. I think I will remember the grand parade singing their own version of Auld lang syne when I am invited to participate in a Mormon communal fast.

[1] “Buster” I had to make up.
[2]”The Mormon Jubilee,” The Wasp 1:37 (14 Jan 1843): 1.
[3]Brigham Young and Willard Richards, “Proclamation to the Saints in Nauvoo,” The Wasp 1:37 (14 Jan 1843): 3.
[4] I was listening, Kristine.


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Extra kudos for footnotes 1 and 4, SMB. Do you think that the unity of Nauvoo will ever be repeated until Christ returns (put another way, can you envision a set of mormon circumstances and personalities that would permit that kind of jubilee)?

  2. I think that there are places where one could imagine the Mormon village persisting, though frankly at this stage the FLDS have an easier claim on such communities. I imagine something like this almost possible in parts of deep Mormon country, the towns whose names I do not know that border Brigham City toward Logan or in the vast expanses of uncivilized territory south of Nephi/Spanish Fork, but I have limited experience with the 21st century Mormon village.

  3. I was also fascinated to see the use of Zion in the mountaintops with reference to the temple per se (the temple bluffs are no mighty mountains in Nauvoo) rather than my beloved Rockies.

  4. Steve, a related question is how a unity such as Nauvoo’s could possibly exist in a pluralistic society. That is, isn’t homogeniety (in this case religious homogeneity) a de facto pre-requisite for such a condition of unity? It seems like this very idea is the impetus behind Elder Oaks’s (apparently controversial) statement that unity within the Church is the goal, not diversity (meaning, of course, becoming of one mind religiously, and not implying that people of all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds should not be part of this religious unity).

    As someone who is in withdrawal from living in SLC — such a beautiful and comfortable setting and city — I must also admit that I do not miss the LDS, non-LDS divide there. SLC is no Nauvoo. By and large, LDS are treated very poorly in SLC (with many notable exceptions, of course, including the wonderful neighbors that I shared with SMB when we lived on the same street in SLC). As it currently stands, SLC could never approximate a unity of purpose, thought, or goals like Nauvoo. SLC is not an LDS city, contrary to what people might believe (although it might be the only place in the world where I could regularly see anti-Mormon graffiti spray-painted on the city sidewalks). LDS consitute the largest single religious body in the city, but do not consitute a majority of people in the city. Of course, the LDS could just abandon their priorities and positions and join with the non-LDS in a bid at achieving a type of unity.

    Sam raises the possibility that this type of thing might exist in some of the Mormon hinterland. It is true that there are still many dusty towns throughout Utah that are close to 100% LDS (though certainly not 100% practicing or active LDS). From my observation, having spent apparently much more time in these places than SMB (having family in Sanpete County has meant spending time in the towns immediately surrounding Manti pretty much every year), this unity also does not really exist in those towns either. That might be a result of lacking the central focus that the physical presence of the prophet gives (which is why SLC would be the natural focus of the investigation, rather than Ephraim or Monticello).

    This raises a related question of whether a completely secularized society can achieve such a unity. That is a tricky question and one that I have thought long about, particularly because of my own preference for the separation of church and state.

    Anyway, I’m just thinking off the cuff. I don’t have any answers, just random thoughts.

  5. Wasn’t that the case that Port got out of based on his testimony to the effect that, if he’d shot at Boggs, he’d have killed him and not just wounded him?

  6. I think that the local presence of the Prophet had to have had a galvanizing effect on the saints. He walked among them and people called him by his first name. That really is hard to replace. The charisma was within reach.

  7. My opinion is that it was the trials and persecution that united them. I think we have a hard time coming together like that today because life is too comfortable. We wouldn’t need to be the only ones in a community, necessarily. But we’d need something external to bring us together.

    I wish our ward or stake could find that unity, but be careful what you wish for, I guess.

  8. Rockwell reportedly made that argument, though he was ultimately let off for lack of evidence, as I recall.
    john f, thanks for the input on the rural areas. I think staples is right that a charismatic leader is helpful. i wonder whether anyone has done recent useful research on the nature of unity in the FLDS communities (rather than just talking about their fights with the LDS and the law).

  9. Mark IV says:

    Just a tangent, but I find it very interesting that BY refers to himself and the other apostles as “the traveling high council”. If I remember correctly, there was some conflict over jurisdiction between the apostles and the high council in Missouri, but I thought it had been resolved by the time we got to Nauvoo. When did we start calling them the quorum of the twelve? I can’t imagine anybody today saying traveling high council.

  10. Mark, that is really what the succession crisis was about. So I would say that jurisdictional disputes weren’t resolved until succession was.

  11. Stapley is correct. Remember that Nauvoo was a “stake of Zion,” so the authority of the Apostles was less than clear vis-a-vis the standing high council of Nauvoo. It was hard to maintain that Nauvoo was the “mission field,” but that was something like the logic of succession.

  12. Lilburn “Buster” Boggs? Seriously, I need to get one of those quotation marked nicknames.

    I think this Mormon city also thrived because of the sense of belonging to something new and world-changing (this and the next). It’s exciting to feel those feelings and while we might get those occasionally, they don’t happen very often. Plus it’s not so new and grassroots anymore.

  13. 9. I find it very interesting that BY refers to himself and the other apostles as “the traveling high council”.

    This appeared in minutes of the first high council in 1835, and in revelations to Joseph Smith in 1835, and in 1841.

    In 1880, the Church also declared a year of Jubilee in 1930 and asked members to write personal histories for their descendants to read in the Jubilee year. I treasure the one my g-g-grandmother wrote at age 34 of her family’s conversion and persecution in England when she was a girl, the miraculous healing of her father after being burned in a coal pit, crossing the plains and burying her mother at trail side, marriage and sealing in the Endowment House, and going on after her husband was killed in a snow slide.

    She writes in her last paragraph,

    I will now write to those who may be liveing of my ofspring 50 years hence. My Dear and Beloved children I have written you a short sketch of my life and your Fathers hoping that it will be interesting to you and that you will Preserve it and hand it down to your Posterity for Genera¬tions. I say unto you all, be humble and prayerfull, and always under all circumstances put your trust in the Lord and he will not forsake, for this is what I have learned by experience, and I want to Testify unto you that I know this to be the true Church and Kingdom of God established upon the earth, never to be thrown down, and I hope and pray that all my future generations may live so as to receive a testomoney for themselves of this work, and it is my desire that you may further carry out and Establish the work that I have commenced, so that when we have finished our probation here, we may receive an exaltation in our fathers kingdom.

    Her bouyancy and faith after the experiences she related have helped me through my trials.

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