“I am very much resigned to my lot knowing I am Justified and have done the best that could be done give my love to the children.”
Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 27 June 1844
“Is it not better that the blood of two guilty wretches, whose crimes had long awaited the vengeance of Heaven, has been shed and thus by cutting off the fountain head to dry up the steam of corruption?”
Warsaw Signal, Editorial, 29 June 1844
On 24 June 1844 the stalwart Porter Rockwell rowed a leaky skiff across the Mississippi River eastward toward Nauvoo. Just hours earlier, Rockwell had completed the same trip in the opposite direction, discreetly shuttling Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum out of Nauvoo to escape west. The Smith brothers had instructed Rockwell to bring provisions — especially horses — to aid their flight, and to make arrangements for their families to leave Nauvoo and meet them later. Joseph and Hyrum, who spent the previous night bailing water from the beleaguered sea craft with their boots while Rockwell rowed, waited patiently on the Iowa side for his return and word on conditions in the embattled Mormon city.
When he arrived in Nauvoo Rockwell found chaos, confusion, and fear. Some of the Smith brothers’ closest associates and friends questioned the honorableness of their flight and accused them of sacrificing the lives of the saints in Nauvoo — certain to be scapegoated in their absence by surrounding citizenry enraged by revelations of polygamy secretly practiced by Mormon leaders and by the recent destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor printing press — to save their own skin. Vilate Kimball wrote her husband, Heber, about the trial of faith undergone by the Nauvoo saints at this time: “to think that Joseph should leave them in the hour of danger.”
Instead of provisions and horses, Rockwell returned to Joseph and Hyrum with a message from Emma. She encouraged the brothers to return and surrender, to submit to what Governor Ford promised would be a fair trial, and save the city from the sacking that would surely accompany efforts to track down the elusive fugitives. As the brothers weighed the options, one of those present put the question bluntly: “You always said that if the Church would stick to you, you would stick to the Church, now trouble comes you are the first to run.” Joseph asked Hyrum’s opinion, and was told that they should surrender, even if doing so resulted in their own deaths. Joseph agreed and they returned across the flooded river.
We all know how this story ends. Most of us have also heard that, as he prepared to formally surrender, Joseph characterized his impending fate as that of a “lamb to the slaughter.” Joseph understood that submitting himself to his enemies was the only remaining possibility for saving his people — his fellow saints, his friends and loved ones, those whom he would follow to hell, the “loveliest place and best people under the heavens.” Joseph was a man of many faults, but lackluster love toward his neighbors was not one of them. His niece, Mary, later wrote that Joseph told his mother: “I go as a lamb to the slaughter, but if my death will atone for any faults I have committed during my life I am willing to die.”
Joseph was acutely aware of his own shortcomings, and they haunted him even as his own impending death grew nearer and more inevitable. He deeply loved his fellow saints and, as their leader, likely felt a shared sense of responsibility for their faults as well. As LDS we are often fond of pointing out those Christ-like attributes embodied by great prophets. Joseph’s love for his friends was immovable, and his willingness to lay down his life for them testified to the greatness of that love. Joseph’s parting words to his mother speak volumes to the question following the example of the Savior.
At this time, as we ponder the miraculous, inscrutable forces that enable the death of one to save many, and seek to more fully model our lives according to the example of Christ, let us remember and celebrate the birth and tragic death of a man, a Prophet and Seer of the Lord, who “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”