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On the evening of March 31, 1844, [1] Joseph Smith crouched in a skiff floating in the Mississippi river. Just upstream stood the large brick home [2] of William Law, former Assistant President in the Church Joseph had founded. According to Joseph’s informants, the brick home was filled to bursting with hundreds of men ready to swear an oath to kill.

Joseph’s informants were two youths, Dennison Harris and Robert Scott. They had been invited to the first of the seditious meetings. Prompted by Dennison’s uncle, Emer Harris, the two young men told Joseph Smith of the invitation. Joseph cautioned Emer to avoid the meetings, predicting the conspirators would kill Emer if they determined he was not a full sympathizer. Dennison and Robert, however, were young. They would not be scrutinized as thoroughly as the older men. Joseph asked that the young men attend the meeting, pay strict attention to what was said, make no commitments, and report the entire matter back to him.

In the first meeting the leaders denounced Joseph Smith. Joseph was head of the Mormon Church, Mayor of Nauvoo, Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion, and recently announced candidate for the Presidency of the United States. [3] Beyond the unusual concentration of power that resided in Joseph, there were stories that Joseph had secretly married several young women. Those assembled argued that Joseph must be overthrown. They proceeded to organize for the conspiracy.

By the end of the second meeting, the conspirators began to say that Joseph would have to be killed. Reporting this to Joseph, Robert and Dennison discussed what they should do about the third meeting.

If the young men failed to show up, it seems they feared the conspirators would kill them for what they had already heard. If they did attend, they would be pressed to be part of the planned murder. If they refused to agree with the planned murder, it was possible they would be killed.

Joseph hoped the conspirators would spare the young men because they were so young. But he counseled them: “Don’t flinch. If you have to die, die like men, you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater. But I hardly think they will shed your blood.” [4]

The evening of the third meeting, Joseph and a bodyguard [5] waited nearby on the river in a skiff. Despite Joseph’s earlier assurances, he may well have been concerned the young men might be killed. If so, the conspirators would likely take the bodies to where the river ran close behind William Law’s large brick home. Joseph stood ready to rescue the young men if possible.

To Joseph’s relief, he eventually saw the two youths emerge and run down the river’s edge about a quarter mile. Joseph Smith joined the young men near the Red Brick Store, hidden from view by a board fence, orchard trees, and shrubbery. In the chilly warmth of that late March evening, Dennison and Robert recounted what had occurred.

As anticipated, the hundreds who attended the third meeting were asked to swear a solemn oath to destroy Joseph Smith. Robert and Dennison reported they had evaded the matter as long as possible. When they could delay no longer, they refused, saying Joseph had never harmed them, and they were unwilling to participate in killing him.

“If you do not take that oath, we will cut your throats,” one of the leaders said. Knives were drawn and muskets cocked. The young men were forced to the cellar. Once more they were told to take the oath or die. They refused again. But before the fatal blows, someone cried out, “Hold on!” Though roughly two hundred men had sworn an oath to kill Joseph, at least one of them was not ready to kill these two young men. There were practical reasons to spare the young men. Violence might shatter the group’s murderous resolve. There would be bodies to dispose of. Dennison or Robert’s families might know enough to make accusations.

Though spared, Robert and Dennison were threatened with certain death if they revealed what had transpired in the meetings or who had participated. With that, they were escorted away from the Law home.

Robert and Dennison had suggested they could take a dip in the river to explain the delay getting home. [6] With this, their guards had let them go.

Despite their promise to the conspirators, Robert and Dennison reported everything, including the names of leaders of the group [7] and the fact that at least 200 men had signed the oath.

By the light of a waxing gibbous moon, Joseph reportedly whispered his response to the conspiracy and their accusations:

“They accuse me of polygamy and of being a false prophet. But I am no false prophet… I am no imposter. I have had no dark revelations. I have had no revelations from the devil. I made no revelations–I have got nothing up of myself.

“The same God who has thus far directed me and strengthened me in this work gave me this revelation and commandment on Celestial and plural marriage.

“This same God commanded me to obey it. He said unless I accepted it and introduced it and practiced it, I and my people would be damned and cut off from this time hence.

“There are those who say that if I do so, I will be killed. What am I to do?

“If I do not practice plural marriage, I shall be damned, along with my people.

“If I do teach it and urge it and practice it, they say I will be killed. And I know they are right.

“But we have got to observe it. It is an eternal principle. It is given by way of commandment, not merely by way of instruction.” [8]

Before letting the young men go, Joseph counseled them not to speak of this to anyone, not even their own fathers, for 20 years or more. [9] Dennison Harris would keep the secret regarding the conspiracy for decades. [10] There is no record suggesting Robert Scott ever told the tale.

In three months Joseph would be dead, shot by a mob of over one hundred men, many with blackened faces to hide their identities. Yet those who picked up the baton of leadership from Joseph would continue undeterred. Joseph’s successor, widower Brigham Young, would publicly proclaim plural marriage a central tenet of the Mormon faith. Yet the number of polygamists was never more than a minority of all Mormon men. The norm for Mormon families became Celestial marriage, which unites a wife and her children to her husband for all eternity, regardless of whether the man had ever previously been married.

The tension evident in the months prior to Joseph’s death would expand, eventually provoking extreme national opposition to Mormons and their “polygamous” lifestyle.

Then, during the lifetime of Joseph’s contemporaries, plural marriage [11] was put aside with the Manifestos of 1890 and 1904. For the modern student seeking understanding over a hundred years after the Manifestos, the origins and purposes of plural marriage are a murky matter, provoking titillation, disgust, outrage, and disbelief.

Despite this troubling past, the modern Mormon Church continues to thrive, even as some other Christian denominations have gone into decline. Yet for many, the secretive past regarding plural marriage festers like a wound, denied the light and air that might allow it to heal.

This book attempts to shed light on this troublesome subject, airing out a space in Mormon history and doctrine that has been kept dark and closed.

Prelude to a Killing – Notes

A few months before Mormon founder Joseph Smith died in June 1844, he learned of a conspiracy among his followers. Hundreds of men had sworn an oath to participate in his murder. Despite acknowledging that death was certain, Joseph maintained that his actions related to Celestial Marriage and plural marriage were commanded by God. Joseph and his entire people risked damnation if they did not embrace this commandment.

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[1] March 31, 1844, The three meetings Dennison Harris attended were on Sundays. The Council of Fifty was formed on 26 March, where Joseph indicated he might be killed. Baugh, Alexander L. and Richard N. Holzapfel, “I Roll the Burden and Responsibility of Leading This Church Off from My Shoulders on to Yours: The 1844/1845 Declaration of the Quorum of the Twelve Regarding Apostolic Succession,” BYU Studies, Vol. 49, No. 3, 2010, pp. 5-19. Joseph’s acknowledgement that he might be killed is on p. 18. Footnote 20 on p. 13 provides the support for the date falling on March 26, 1844.

[2] William Law owned a stately brick home at the edge of the river, just south of Parley Street.

[3] Joseph Smith announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States on January 29, 1844, shortly after stripping William Law of his leadership positions. Law was excommunicated in April 19, 1844, more than two weeks after the third seditious meeting held in his home on the river. See Joseph Smith: Campaign for President of the United States By Arnold K. Garr https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/02/joseph-smith-campaign-for-president-of-the-united-states?lang=eng

[4] Cummings, Horace, “Conspiracy of Nauvoo,” The Contributor, 1884, p. 253. Online 21 Jun 2014 at http://tinyurl.com/1884-Contributor.

[5] The bodyguard was John Scott, Robert Scott’s brother.

[6] This mention of a dip in the river suggests that the weather had turned warm.

[7] The two leaders of the conspiracy were William Law, formerly Joseph’s counselor in the Presidency of the Church, and Austin Cowles, a member of the Nauvoo High Council.

[8] Cummings, Conspiracy of Nauvoo, The Contributor, 1884, p. 253.

[9] The Contributor, Volume V, p. 260, 1884. It appears Joseph may have hoped he could flee and remain hidden for twenty years. However he was ultimately not able to escape as hoped.

[10] Dennison Harris related the tale to Brigham Young sometime before Young’s death in 1877. The printed version of the tale was published in 1884, forty years after Joseph’s death.

[11] Plural marriage, where a living man was married to multiple living women, was put aside. Modern Mormon doctrine allows a man to be eternally united (or sealed) to all the women who had been his wives. Modern Mormon practice also allows sealing ordinances to be performed on behalf of deceased women uniting them to all of their husbands, though most expect that only one of these ordinances would be binding in eternity.