Hail to the Prophet!

“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.”


  1. Thanks, Brad.

    Let others howl that this borders on worship. Hogwash!! A great but flawed man lived a flawed but great life – and we should NEVER hesitate to make that point crystal clear. What I love most about Joseph is precisely the constant beatings he took (from man, but, more importantly from God) – and that he recorded those beatings for all of us to see.

    I don’t want a sanitized saint. I want a bloodied and conflicted and agonized and noble and bombastic and gentle and loving prophet – someone whom I can try to emulate, since I see in him not only my potential but also my griefs and sorrows and failings. Truly, “Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah.”

  2. Often lost in this is Hyrum’s role in convincing Joseph to turn back. We don’t give Hyrum nearly enough credit sometimes. Joseph was the prophet, but Hyrum made the Church run.

  3. Indeed, queuno. The martyrdom deprived the Church not just of our founding prophet but of his immediate successor (he was actually co-President of the Church at the time of the killings).

    Losing Hyrum was almost as tragic for us as losing Joseph.

  4. Amen, queuno.

    I forget that too often. I have thought that Hyrum was the Lehi (Nephi the Latter’s brother) of the early Church – mentioned as not a bit behind his brother in power and righteousness but largely ignored in scripture.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Despite this sentiment, which I completely respect, I distinctly dislike talking about the prophet Joseph Smith on the Sunday before Christmas. The DAMU denizens and antis already ridicule “Smithmas” — today in sacrament, the talks on J.S. just turned me off. Wifey wanted to walk across the street to the good old Lutherans. Only my unrighteous dominion prevented disaster.

  6. Steve,
    Speaking of walking out of church in a strop…The wife did it once. Child two was a baby and hating sacrament meeting that particular day. Usual weeping and wailing. It’s 12.57 and the final speaker has just stopped talking. The bishop gets up and then invites someone who’s leaving the ward to bear her testimony. Said someone comes up to the stand and plonks her scriptures down. It is now 1.05 and it is clear we will be going another 15 minutes. Baby is crying, wriggling, kicking toys, and smearing food all over the place. Wife stands up and marches out of the chapel with kids in tow, muttering (loudly), “the spirit leaves the meeting at 1.00.” I bring up the rear, feeling embarrassed yet proud at the same time. We blamed post-natal hormones in the end and all was forgotten. Rebecca hates me telling this story…

    I was just defending the hymn “Hail to the Prophet” the other day, so I’m on board 100%. It is rather unfortunate, though, that he had to be born on December 23. We should start a movement to commemorate the Martyrdom instead.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Steve, please tell us you’re kidding. Your ward had talks on JS yesterday? Don’t you guys do a Christmas program, like, uhhh, every other ward in the Church?

    We had a very nice Christmas program yesterday; basically a narrator read the the Christmas story, interspersed by musical numbers, including one awesome African number sung be a black sister (who converted this past year) and backed by a swingin’ RS choir (many of which sisters had never swung before in their lives).

    All of which is to say that my ward rocks.

    Ronan, I often remind the bishopric when the martyrdom date is approaching that it would be a good time to focus a sacrament meeting on JS, which they always appreciate, as it is often off of their radar screen at the time in the hustle and flow of the year.

  8. What Kevin just said. We had a Christmas program, and because I was just contagious enough that teaching Primary was out of the question, I can testify that so did the ward after us. I’m not sure about the ward before ours, but they usually do the same thing.

    I hadn’t known that the folks in Nauvoo were upset with Joseph and Hyrum for leaving. I wonder how much guilt was mixed in with the often-remembered grief when the news came from Carthage.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Ooo, good thought, Sarah. I never considered the guilt that would have intermingled with the grief of those who urged Joseph and Hyrum not to abandon their friends and come back, but now that you mention it I’m sure there was some.

  10. We had a sort-of Christmas program yesterday. We sung Christmas hymns and the Bishop gave a short talk about the Season, but the rest of SM was taken up my a just-returned Sister Missionary basically bearing her testimony.

    In primary, my lesson manual called for the lesson on Paul and the road to Damascus. I tossed that and we had a rousing discussion ( Valliant 12’s) about Christmas, where our modern traditions came from, and how the 6 boys in my class would feel if an angel appeared to them and confirmed their fiance was pregnant with the child of the Lord.

    I’m with Steve though- last year we had a JS SacMeeting the Sunday before Christmas, and it was hard not to leave.

  11. The DAMU denizens and antis already ridicule “Smithmas”

    Hmmm… they ridicule the temple, the BofM, priesthood, garments, and pretty much everything any Mormon ever says or does. I can’t care about that, and it certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give Joseph some love this week.

  12. We had two weeks of Christmas programs in a row. Musical instruments including Flutes, violins, harps, cellos etc.

    Sorry for those that did not….

  13. Amen, bbell.

    Our meeting was four members discussing their favorite hymns of Christ and why they meant so much to them. They chose “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” (a beautifully touching memory from the sister’s mission), “I Feel My Savior’s Love” (Primary song shared by a college student), “Come, Follow Me” (a father who had to adopt to have children) and “I Stand All Amazed” (the concluding talk on “confused by the Grace that so fully He proffers me”). I have rarely felt the Spirit that strongly for that long.

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