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In July 1843, Joseph Smith recorded a revelation regarding plural marriage. Critics would focus on the mention of ten virgins, criticism of Emma, and impunity for wrongs short of murder. But the revelation forecasts Joseph’s impending death:

Behold, I [Jesus Christ] have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you. Go, therefore, and I make a way for your escape, as I accepted the offering of Abraham of his son Isaac.

Let no one, therefore, set on my servant Joseph; for I will justify him; for he shall do the sacrifice which I require at his hands for his transgressions, saith the Lord your God. [1]

What had been Joseph’s transgressions? What was this escape Joseph was offered? And what was the sacrifice God required at Joseph’s hands?

Many hold that Joseph transgressed in marrying so many women, with the assumption that the marriages involved sexual coercion. However that narrative is inconsistent with the language of the revelation (D&C 132).

An alternate view is that Joseph transgressed by putting his wife above God. His escape could have been establishing Celestial marriage without being forced to act in a way that would break Emma’s heart. But the sacrifice required would be his death.

Beginning of Troubles

In the fall of 1843, Hyrum Smith lent William and Jane Law the revelation on Celestial marriage. Hyrum likely also shared the good news that William and Jane could be united as husband and wife for all eternity. [2]

Law claimed years later that Joseph met with him and confirmed “he had several wives sealed to him, and that they afforded him a great deal of pleasure… [but] Emma had annoyed him very much about it.” [3] However the events of 1844 make anything William Law might subsequently say about Joseph suspect.

It appears William and Jane initially wished to be sealed. But Joseph apparently became informed William was not worthy, that Law had been guilty of adultery. [4] Joseph may have learned of this through revelation, but the timing suggests the possibility his informant could have been Dr. Bennett. In any case, William had been an aide-de-camp in the Nauvoo Legion along with others known to have engaged in illicit intercourse, such as Chauncey Higbee and Jacob Backenstos. [5]

Joseph told the Laws he would not perform the requested sealing. When Jane Law asked why she could not be sealed to her husband, Joseph refused to tell her it was because of her husband’s adultery.

Later Jane came to Joseph. Embracing him, she said, “if you wont seal me to my husband Seal myself unto you.” Joseph gently pushed her away and refused to perform the sealing. [6] This account is similar to Ruth Vose Sayers’s request to be sealed to Joseph, when her husband refused to believe in marriage in eternity. However, William Law would not have willingly allowed his wife to covenant with Joseph for eternity.

William Law wrote in his diary months later, characterizing the encounter between Joseph and Jane as attempted adultery. He wrote  Joseph had “lately endeavored to seduce my wife and [has] found her a virtuous woman.” [7]

By the end of December, William Law failed to attend a meeting of the Quorum of the Anointed. This group of men and women women had received the ordinance of the endowment. A week later, Law became the first endowed individual to be dropped from the Quorum of the Anointed. [8]

The next day, January 8, 1844, Joseph informed William Law that he was no longer a member of the Quorum of the Anointed and was no longer a member of the First Presidency.

Shocked, Law argued that the procedure used to drop him as a member of the First Presidency was incorrect. Reconciliations were attempted for months. At Law’s request, his case was tried a second time in April 1844. Not only was the decision to remove Law from the First Presidency upheld, Law was ultimately excommunicated on grounds of apostasy.

The Conspiracy of Nauvoo

After being dropped from the Quorum of the Anointed in January 1844, William Law reached out to those of his former colleagues in positions of Church leadership and members of the Nauvoo Legion. William Law argued Joseph had to be deposed to preserve the purity of the Church.

The key conspirators were William and Wilson Law, Austin Cowles, Francis and Chauncey Higbee, Robert and Charles Foster, John A. Hicks [9] and his brother, and two merchants named Finche and Rollinson. [10] The conspirators sought to enlist others who were also disaffected to join them in the conspiracy. A series of meetings would be held to commit the conspirators to action.

Austin Cowles approached 19-year-old Dennison Lott Harris, [11] nephew of Martin Harris. Cowles asked Dennison to invite his father, Emer Harris, to the initial meeting as well. The Harris family, like Austin, had been staunch believers. But Martin Harris had been excommunicated in 1837.

Soon Dennison discovered that his good friend, 20-year-old Robert Scott, had also been invited to the meeting. Robert Scott, born to Irish parents, had known the Irish William Law since his infancy in Ontario, Canada. Robert Scott had often stayed in the home of William Law.

Emer reported the matter to Joseph, who counseled the older man to avoid the meeting. But 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 conspirators spent a lot of time organizing themselves, denouncing Joseph as a fallen prophet and discussing how Joseph could be overthrown.

By the end of the second meeting, the conspirators claimed Joseph would have to be killed. Concerned for his young informants, Joseph said he hoped they would be protected by their youth. Even so, he advised:

“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.”

Those who attended the third meeting were required to swear a solemn oath to destroy Joseph Smith. Robert and Dennison reportedly refused, saying they were unwilling to participate in killing Joseph.

They were told, “If you do not take that oath, we will cut your throats.” The young men were forced to the cellar and again told to take the oath or die. They refused.

Then someone cried out, “Hold on!” Someone suggested the boys’ families might know enough to make accusations. Robert and Dennison were threatened with certain death if they ever revealed what had transpired in the meetings or who had participated. With that, they were escorted away from the home of William Law.

Approaching the river, the young men saw Joseph Smith and John Scott waiting in a skiff. [12] After running down river to a secluded location, Robert and Dennison made their report. At least 200 men had signed the oath.

Joseph spoke, denying the charge he was a false prophet or had gotten revelations from the devil. He affirmed that he was under commandment to accept and introduce and practice Celestial and plural marriage. If he did not do so, Joseph insisted, he and the Mormon people would be damned and cut off. He acknowledged the threat he would be killed. But if the choice was between death and damnation, Joseph would choose death. [13]

Before letting the young men go, Joseph counseled them not to speak of this to anyone for 20 years or more. [14] Decades later Dennison told the tale to Brigham Young, who said the story clarified matters he had never understood before. In 1884 Dennison related the story to Horace Cummings. Horace wrote the story down, conferring with John Taylor. Like Brigham before him, John Taylor both confirmed aspects of the story and admitted the tale answered questions he had had about those final days of Joseph’s life in Nauvoo.

I Now Roll Off the Care of the Kingdom of God

During the tension leading up to William Law’s excommunication on grounds of apostasy, it became clear that only one group of individuals could be trusted to follow Joseph’s lead. Most in the Quorum of the Twelve had come together to combat John C. Bennett’s teachings of illicit intercourse. The leading apostles had fully accepted the doctrine of Celestial marriage, including the need for a plurality of wives in some situations. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball had been intimately involved in the investigation that uncovered John C. Bennett’s guilt. They had been actively involved in spreading a correct understanding of Celestial marriage and plural marriage.

During the late winter of 1844, Joseph turned to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. As Wilford Woodruff related:

Joseph “called the Twelve Apostles together in the City of Nauvoo, and spent many days with us in giving us our endowments, and teaching us those glorious principles which God had revealed to him. And upon one occasion he stood upon his feet in our midst for nearly three hours declaring unto us the great and last dispensation which God had set His hand to perform upon the earth in these last days. The room was filled as if with consuming fire; the Prophet was clothed upon with much of the power of God, and his face shone and was transparently clear, and he closed that speech, never-to-be-forgotten in time or in eternity, with the following language:

“ ‘Brethren, I have had great sorrow of heart for fear that I might be taken from the earth with the keys of the Kingdom of God upon me, without sealing them upon the heads of other men. God has sealed upon my head all the keys of the Kingdom of God necessary for organizing and building up of the Church, Zion, and Kingdom of God upon the earth, and to prepare the Saints for the coming of the Son of Man. Now, brethren, I thank God I have lived to see the day that I have been enabled to give you your endowments, and I have now sealed upon your heads all the powers of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods and Apostleship, with all the keys and powers thereof, which God has sealed upon me; and I now roll off all the labor, burden and care of this Church and Kingdom of God upon your shoulders, and I now command you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to round up your shoulders, and bear off this Church and Kingdom of God before heaven and earth, and before God, angels and men; and if you don’t do it you will be damned.’ ” [15]

When Joseph had tried to create a written constitution for the Council, he said the Lord responded, “Ye are my Constitution and I am your God and ye are my spokesmen, therefore from henceforth keep my commandments.”

John Taylor said: “It is expected of us that [we] can act right—that our interests [are] bound up in the K[ingdom] of God. That we should consider we are not acting for ourselves, but we are the Spokesmen of God selected for that purpose in the interest of God and to bless and exalt all humanity. We acknowledge him as our God and all men who enter this body must acknowledge him here.”

Orson Pratt said, “In the Church we take the Law of God and his Priesthood as the Constitution of his Church—here in this Council we have a living constitution not a written one—which we must conform to.” [16]

Conferring the Mantle – Notes

Joseph had feared he might be taken from the earth without sealing the keys of the Kingdom of God upon the heads of others. But by the spring of 1844, he had successfully rolled off the future leadership of the kingdom onto the proven shoulders of Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. If he died, the Church would not die with him.

In censuring William Law, Joseph had created an implacable enemy, willing to kill. Law and his followers claimed their anger was based on polygamy. Ironically, many of the leading conspirators were men who had engaged in illicit intercourse under John C. Bennett’s tutelage.

Hundreds of men now stood at the ready, to rise up and murder the man they had recently revered as a prophet of God.

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[1] D&C 132:50, 60, online 17 Jun 2014 at http://www.lds.org/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/132?lang=eng.

[2] Hyrum had served a mission to the East with Law in 1841, so was particularly close to him. But Law, though a member of the Quorum of the Anointed, was not exposed to the doctrine of plural marriage before fall 1843, though other members of the Quorum of the Anointed had been taught and experienced the sealing ordinance starting in May 1843. It is not known why Joseph may delayed exposing Law to the doctrine. Hyrum likely approached Law without Joseph’s permission. Law was a leader in the conspiracy to kill Joseph prior to giving this account, suggesting Law’s portrayal of the conversation might be suspect.

[3] William Law, Affidavit, 1885, cited in Mormon Polygamy: A History, by Richard Van Wagoner, 1989, p. 65.

[4] Alexander Neibaur journal entry of May 24, 1844. Also corroborated by William Clayton journal entry of June 12, 1844, and Hyrum Smith in the June 17, 1844 Nauvoo Neighbor. Though these three accounts are recorded in 1844, the wording in each is consistent with the possibility that the inquiry occurred in fall 1843. Joseph Jackson claimed in January 1844 that Joseph had been attempting to convince Jane Law of the correctness of the doctrine for “some two months.” Hyrum Smith had also related to the Nauvoo City Council on June 8, 1844, that William Law had confessed to adultery. See The Nauvoo City Council and High Council Minutes, John S. Dinger editor, Signature Books, Salt Lake City, 2011, p. 241-242.

[5] See Joseph Smith Papers, “Officers of the Nauvoo Legion,” online Jun 22, 2014 at http://josephsmithpapers.org/bc-jsp/content/jsp/images/content/library/pdf/chart12.pdf.

[6] Neibaur journal entry of May 24, 1844. Cited in Mormon Polygamy: A History, by Richard Van Wagoner, 1989, p. 71.

[7] William Law journal entry of May 13, 1844. Cited in Lyndon W. Cook, “William Law, Nauvoo Dissenter,” BYU Studies, Vol 22 No. 1 (1982), p. 65 in footnote 82, online Jun 22, 2014 at https://ojs.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/BYUStudies/article/view/5255.

[8] Ibid., p. 66, footnote 87.

[9] John Allen Hicks was a few years older than Joseph Smith and had been The President of the Elders’ Quorum in Nauvoo. His familysearch record is online 22 Jun 2014 at https://familysearch.org/tree/#view=ancestor&person=KNWK-S19. It is not clear which brother was with him, though Robert Francis Hicks seems possible. Hicks was of Irish extraction, like Law, and had joined the Church in Canada. William Law, Robert Francis Hicks, and Robert Scott would all end up moving to Wisconsin after leaving Nauvoo.

[10] Most of these men had served together as prominent officers in the Nauvoo Legion, when Bennett was in charge.

[11] Dennison would convey the tale decades later, a delay requested by Joseph Smith. The Contributor, 1884, online 21 Jun 2014 at http://tinyurl.com/1884-Contributor. Also see Dallin Oaks, “Following the Pioneers,” Ensign, online 22 Jun 2014 at https://www.lds.org/general-conference/print/1997/10/following-the-pioneers?lang=eng.

[12] John and Robert Scott were brothers to Sarah Scott [Mulholland Mullinder], who would marry Heber Kimball after Joseph’s death and had reportedly covenanted with Joseph Smith during his lifetime.

[13] Joseph Smith, as conveyed via Dennison L. Harris to Horace Cummings, commented on by John Taylor. Horace Cummings’s version was published in The Contributor in 1884, and was included in Brian C. Hales, Joseph Smiths Polygamy, Volume 3, Chapter 15.

[14] The Contributor, 1884.

[15] Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, “The Prophet’s Final Charge to the Twelve,” in Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel and Kent P. Jackson (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2010), 495–524, online 22 Jun 2014 at http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/joseph-smith-prophet-and-seer/prophets-final-charge-twelve-1844#_ednref57.

[16] Wilford Woodruff, The Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star, Volume 49, p. 722. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, Chapter 2, Joseph Smith: Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.