Ep 196 – Joseph Smith Assassination Plot
On this episode, we examine the times around General Conference of April 1844. Yes, the King Follett Discourse had been given, among many other interesting talks, but what was going on that may have contributed to it falling out of grand recognition we give it today? We examine the concomitant events of scandal after scandal burning the emptying fuel of the outrage machine. The Higbees, Fosters, and Laws create some problems for the prophet, most notably, they devise an assassination plot for Joseph Smith. Another man, Augustine Spencer, refused arrest by the city marshal, John P. Greene, and Charles A. Foster, one of the conspirators, draws a pistol on Joseph in broad daylight. With everything going on, it’s no wonder the King Follett Discourse wasn’t more noticed at the time it was given.
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The King Follett Discourse had been given on the 14th anniversary of the church’s founding. It was well-received and the propaganda machine cogs began to turn. A little context from the King Follett Biography by Joann Follett Mortensen:
No documentation survives about the response of King’s Family and friends to the sermon… that would forever be associated with King’s death as “the King Follett Discourse.” Certainly they would have been comforted to be told by their prophet that they would once again see King Follett and recognize him as they had on earth. Joseph Fielding, a British convert, recorded in his journal: “Joseph’s Discourse on the origin of Man, the Nature of God and the Resurrection was the most interesting Matter of this time.” More than fifty years later, Aroet L. Hale recalled it as “the gratest sermon that was ever preached in our Church.” Mary C. Westover, a young girl in 1844, wrote in 1906: “I though as I sat there that the Lord was speaking through Joseph.” Donald Q. Cannon reported in 1978: “My research assistants and I read some three hundreds journals at the LDS Chruch Archives and at Brigham Young University. Most did no comment on the discourse, however those who did made meaningful observations.” According to Cannon, examples of these observations were:
Wandle Mace: “a remarkable discourse” and “this most interesting and instructive conference.”
Edward Stevenson: “Grand funeral sermon of King Follett.”
Erastus Snow: “All were highly edified and highly delighted.”
Joseph Lee Robinson: The Prophet’s statements amazed him and caused him to wonder.
Alfred Cordon: “I was much delighted with the teachings and doings of the conference.”
This is notable. We tend to view the King Follett Discourse as the culmination of Joseph’s ministry, his swan song if you will. However, for most attendees it was just another sermon and didn’t particularly stand out among his other sermons. Yes, he did expound on theology that was unknown to many in the crowd, but most of the legacy of the King Follett Discourse, all of the hype, was manufactured or later remembered after it had reached mythical status. If that wasn’t the case then we’d find journal entries replete with people expounding on the greatness of the speech instead of simply casual mentions as the record actually contains. Also notable is that people remembered it more mythically than they recorded it in their journals. Two people who were children when the discourse was given even remembered in the early 1900s that the storm kicked up at the beginning of his speech and that Jo told the attendees to pray for good weather and the clouds parted around the grove, while the storm continued to rage all around them.
This illustrates how memory can be persuaded and even manufactured to the point that people truly believe what they say to be true, even if it isn’t even close to real and they only said it as a result of a half a century of propaganda about the event.
Why? Why wasn’t it more memorable when it was given? Why aren’t there hundreds of journal entries about the discourse? I hypothesize it’s because there was so much going on in the air around the discourse. Historically, it is greatly revered as a prominent milestone of Mormon history, but for the majority of those in attendance it wasn’t viewed as such at the time.
In order to turn the discourse into mythical status, the Mormon propaganda machine needed to grind into action, which began in the May 1, 1844 Nauvoo Neighbor when a traveler published a piece about their stay in Nauvoo during the 5-day General Conference when the sermon was given. The person’s name attached to the article is simply SISSIMUS. We’ll discuss that name in a bit. You’ll find a link to this article in the show notes but I’ll read a few extracts and preface it by saying it clearly reads as propaganda written by a member of the Mormon leadership or possibly an outsider who was being properly wined and dined by the prophet.
On the morning of the 4th of April… I arrived at the city of Nauvoo; I was taken to the house of my wife’s brother, and, after passing the visit ceremonies, I was conducted to the residence of General Joseph Smith, who was then in the Council Hall… The introduction was formal… he responded to the introduction with expressions that would do honor to any station in life—and command in expressions of dispute, his merit of the abuse and ill treatment from individuals claiming to be Americans.
An interesting point revealed in this is that whether or not this article was fabricated by the church leadership or it was an actual traveler who wrote the letter to the editor of the Nauvoo Neighbor, it shows that Jo would share his troubles and woes with just about anybody off the street. The Mormons were a persecuted people and he had to make sure every person who stepped foot in the city of Nauvoo knew it. Next, the person attends the dedication of the Masonic Hall where it reads as if the person was inducted into the society at sight. It’s kind of hard to see what is actually happening here but it reveals the issue many Masons had with Nauvoo. The Nauvoo Lodge was ascending too many men at too quick a pace. A person has to pay their dues and do their time before they are worthy to join the fraternity. Those who were given the status of Master Mason as a favor the way Jo did were seen as unworthy of the title by other Masons.
At 2 o’clock I attended the dedication of the Masonic Hall; I was here honored with a position, that perhaps from some would meet a look of castigatious expression, but, considering the exhibition as I do, one of the character only belonging to the individuals, whose independence and firmness have associated with them through all the trials and forms of men that educated prejudice land heaped upon them for many years and sadly left innocent purity and abused virtue, spectacles of their brutality. Between four and six hundred masons… were here assembled from every quarter, and in their various grades were regaled; a superior band of music, and a stan of colors borne by the proper officer. The prophet and I were in this procession, arm in arm. Hyrum Smith, on this occasion was the W[orshipful]. M[aster]. When entered into the Hall a grander display of genius, of eloquence, of union, of harmony, and mystic grandeur was never in my recollection displayed… On this occasion, I was much delighted and instructed, and I had a fair opportunity of judging for myself in regard to the moral and religious habits, exercises, and tenets of these abused people called MORMONS, to which, I am in TRUTH, bound to assert, that the horrible charges made against them are zealously the adoptations of devilish edicts—That they are the people who have for Jesus’ sake borne the burthen of persecution, and faced the fiery pile, unwilling for the sake of a momentary enjoyment to renounce or abandon gospel truth.—This night meets my mind as if in the enjoyment of real confirmed happiness and through which I did, only to inspect, occasionally rouse in the unsuspected scenes of the past day from the happiest sleep. The… day of Conference opened to my mind the most agreeable sensations, and while reflecting on the various occurrences, which had so happily, and with so little expence been to my mind rehearsed and opened in honesty.
This is absolutely a sales-pitch from a Mason to other Masons about how great Nauvoo is. I even cut a bunch of the descriptions of the Lodge meeting from my reading just now because it’s just gratuitous details, but that only further makes my point. This person could not sing his praises high enough about how great Nauvoo is, how kind and personable the prophet is, how cheap it was to stay, and how great the lodge meeting was with amazing music and then he went to the inn, the Nauvoo House probably, with the highest feelings, had the most wonderful night’s sleep he’s ever experienced, then he woke up with a the most agreeable sensations when he reflected on the previous day. But he only further gets the VIP treatment from that point forward directly from the prophet. If you were a powerful person and wished to have a good weekend, let Jo know you’re coming into town and he’ll make sure you’re properly taken care of.
this morning Gen. Smith sent his coach to the house where I was, inviting me, with my wife, to visit him, and his companion. Obediently we complied and had the most happy interview, from whence he escorted us again to our home in the carriage, and from thence to the place appointed for the assemblage of the Conference; on my arrival there, I beheld the people gathering from every direction…
Then he goes on to describe the 10,000 people in attendance at the discourse, the “between four and seven thousand females, of all ages and statures, whose features condition the most solemn tones of a breathed utterance on my part declare that the CHASTENING CREATOR was present, and that man could be clad in virtue at such an interview.” Then he talks about the actual meeting when Hingepin Rigdon and Hyrum Sidekick-Abiff spoke. He relates the first vision story when “he [Joseph Smith] recognized himself fourteen years old, and this day he closed his guardian.” Rigdon “continued his history of the church, there were assembled 20,000 persons, where the tiding of Revelation to the world, and the DECREES OF HEAVEN were released… The portrayed Mormon church, by Elder Rigdon was to me a feast, to any curious hearer a store of knowledge, and to the enquirer for salvation, the way, the only true way, as the scriptures emphatically declare to the unprejudiced;…” The man then talks about witnessing some baptisms that day performed by Jo himself, to the tune of 30 people. He relates a couple of points of the discourse itself in relatively generic terms saying Jo “portrayed the designs of heaven,” he spoke “in tones of truth and taste, elegantly,” and Jo told the congregation of “his love and sympathies for the world and its present educated character.” His summary is about the only notable detail of the discourse observed by this person.
The many disputed points of long existing sectarians, the reproclamation of God’s words, and command to a fallen race of men in its true, unpolished, and remedial tone, character, and efficacy &c &c “Repent every one of you, and be baptized for the remission of sins.” “Except ye be born again of the water and fire, ye shall in no wise inherit the kingdom of heaven.”
Absolutely nothing about infants on thrones, eternal progression of gods, spirit energy, gods organizing order from universal chaos, the head god organizing a council of gods, nothing about other languages being spoken from German to Greek to Hebrew, nothing about men becoming gods or gods coming from mortal men, nothing about almost anything we discussed in the discourse itself last episode.
The author of this letter to the Nauvoo Neighbor editor does include answering some criticisms against Joseph Smith and the Mormons including speaking in tongues and, of course, polygamy, which we’ll be discussing in a minute.
It says: “that by some means the word was spread abroad, that the Mormons in Nauvoo, all were pledge to be in common, men and women, and that their stores were as if of one family.
Mr. Smith here satisfactorily remedied, and proved that this matter only existed at the instance of John C. Bennett, and a few other individuals, who in the estimation of the prudent classes, and professing Latter Day Saints population, stand inferior to hell’s king, or the devil.
That the charge as published was false and could by thousands be established.”
And by thousands the denials of polygamy had been established, which lends far more credence to the fact that they were going on among the elite of the elite. The man apparently took up the accusations with Jo directly, and this was how the exchange is reported.
said he, I am indeed aware of the charges that you have unfolded, and for your satisfaction and all who feel an interest in the cause, you are only referred to the book of God, to the Bible, in its antiquated type in the Hebrew, and whose translation for party convenience and the like, and the sectional orthodox justification, have been curtailed, enlarged, transposed, and transformed are the varying causes. Take it in its purity and my tenets are those commandments, and obedience thereto, is the Rock whereon I build my hope, and have established so effectually,… the everlasting truths.
The person wraps up their letter to the Nauvoo Neighbor editor with
I am satisfied that Nauvoo is a place of knowledge and that wisdom will be justified of her children. SISSIMUS
Okay, first off, I never cease to be astonished at how little the Book of Mormon was used, especially in Jo’s late ministry. Everything goes back to the Bible because the Book of Mormon had extinguished its usefulness. Plus, most of the stuff Jo was teaching by 1844 was either nowhere to be found in the Book of Mormon, or was contradicted by passages in the book.
Second, this is pure propaganda. It even said, “Four clerks were engaged in noting these masterly sermons, and those who may feel an interest in their perusal, will feast mentally, as if on the richest luxuries of imagination. They will be published.” This letter, whether it was written by an actual traveler who happened to be a Mason whom Jo was currying favor, or it was written by Double Dub Phelps or another of Jo’s propaganda ministers, the point remains that it was created to hype up the King Follett Discourse and General Conference more broadly. Anybody interested in Mormonism, or even just interested in working with Joseph Smith, bring some money and political connections to the Kingdom on the Mississippi and you’ll be treated quite well with Jo sending his personal carriage to take you around town, you’ll eat well, and, of course, Nauvoo has four to seven thousand of the most beautiful women, and all the bad things you hear about the Mormons can be answered by an in-person conversation with the prophet, general, presidential candidate, theocrat himself. The main point I’m making here is that the King Follett Discourse, much like the Book of Mormon, wasn’t viewed at the time the way we view it today.
Third point to make, and this goes to the last word in the editorial, SISSIMUS. Pen names are as common today in online fora as they were in the 19th century. There’s no way to know who this was, but I’m led to believe it was one of Jo’s propaganda ministers. I asked a couple of folks what they could make of the word. A friend, co-presenter at the previous JWHA and soon to be copresenter at this year’s Sunstone, as well as patron of the show, Brian Kassenbrock, a German studies expert, helped me on the translation. Apparently sissimus was an adverb basically meaning greatest. From his email: ““Sissimus" occurs on page 91 of Versuch eiener Lehre der lateinischen Sprach mit dem Motto: nicht zu viel, nicht zu wenig, (Effort to Teach Latin on the Motto: not Too Much, not Too Little ), Munich 1816, as a form of the highest form for certain adverbs or adjectives, e.g. great, greater, greatest. It would fit into the German speaking community around Joseph well and it would seem that whoever used it was well educated and impressed by the sermon.” Essentially it was 19th-century German for third in the progression of great, or greatest. Clever name, to say the least. So we know what the moniker means, who is it? I haven’t found any other editorials in the Nauvoo Neighbor or Times and Seasons bearing the same name so I don’t have a larger sample size from which to triangulate the true author. However, I do have friends who’re historians of Nauvoo, one of which is an assistant professor at Sam Houston State University who recently published a book titled Kingdom of Nauvoo, Benjamin Park. I’d like to get him on the show once I’ve had a chance to read the new book, but I did tweet at him the screenshot asking if he had any idea who it was. He didn’t know off the top of his head who it was, but added “Given JS’s closest advisors and secretaries often wrote anonymous editorials as if they were outside observers, I wouldn’t put it past William Phelps or Willard Richards writing this.” The Nauvoo propaganda machine was a powerful tool and Double-Dub had long been helping to manufacture the propaganda, while White-out Willard Richards comprised the earliest prototype of the correlation committee to make sure everything fit in Jo’s early history and the broader scheme of the narrative they’re working to weave, and then John Taylor as editor would make sure to cull any grammatical mistakes to make it ready for mass-production. Ben Park also said it may have been Alexander Neibaur given the German heritage of the word, but Phelps would’ve certainly been capable of it.
I guess my overall point is, should we revere the King Follett Discourse the way we do today when it was clearly hyped up by the propaganda machine and obviously wasn’t viewed contemporarily the way it’s viewed today? Why wasn’t more notice taken at the time? I believe that times were so chaotic and scandalous at the time that the people merely viewed it as another sermon. Allow me to illustrate my point.
In that same issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, they continued to deny polygamy and increase interest in the Prophet’s presidential campaign.
Friends and Fellow Citizens:
I say to you before God and man, as to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his people, they are very different characters from what they are represtned to be, as to Smith he has every appearance of a good hearted, honest man, and his people are very industrious and mind their own business… As to the ladies of this place they have every appearance of being as intelligent as in any other place that can be found. As to the report of Gen. Smith’s spiritual wives—If I understand the nature of spiritual wife—it is all false. I have been lodging at Smith’s house some time and if there was any thing of the kind I must have seen something of it going on. I have seen a note in the Warsaw Signal… I will say to you the statement is all false and without grounds.
And another editorial:
I have read Gen. Smith’s views on government matters are as good as I ever saw. I think he would come as near suiting all parties as is necessary. I think you must all behold the kind of ship that we have had for some years back. If you will read his circular impartially you must agree with me, and if you do, why not support Smith for President, you must all agree that he has wrought miracles in the world, a man standing up under such circumstances must undoubtedly make a good president.
Combatting sexual scandals in the midst of running a presidential campaign was foremost on everybody’s mind. The April 1844 General Conference wasn’t known at the time to be Joseph Smith’s last general conference, otherwise people probably would have taken more notice of his speech. Beyond that, with the onslaught of the fake news Warsaw Signal and New York Tribune, just like today, people were getting worn down by outrage fatigue.
And outrage it was. Scandals have a diminishing return to stop a person from committing more scandals. The first scandal, the first outrage happens, and if the people don’t do something about it, like they rarely do, the next scandal carries less weight and public force. Multiply scandal by scandal and eventually people are sick enough of the cycle they stop paying attention or caring because the scandal is the new baseline.
However, there were those who remained vigilant in the face of a constant losing outrage battle. The Higbees, the Laws, and the Fosters.
All three of these families have tangled with Jo a few times, largely around the issue of polygamy. Polygamy would prove to be the ultimate downfall of the prophet. Back on episode 173 we read through a pamphlet titled A Voice of Innocence From Nauvoo. It’s a rag of propaganda full of denials that polygamy was happening and it was done in response to the Orsimus F. Bostwick trial against Hyrum Smith where Smith had sued Bostwick for slander and the Nauvoo court, chaired by Jo, had fined Bostwick. Bostwick’s lawyer was Francis M. Higbee, who, with his brother Chauncey Higbee, had suspected Jo of foul play in the death of their father 2 years previous. This was insult to injury and Francis Higbee threatened to appeal the case to the county seat, Carthage. Jo’s reply was fitting for a man losing control of the situation.
Vogel HoC 6:276
I told Higbee what I thought of him for trying to carry such a suit to Carthage; it was to stir up the mob, and bring them upon us.
At a public discourse Jo gave on March 7th, he railed against Higbee and Bostwick for seeking appeal and their general frustration with the Nauvoo Municipal Court system. We’ll talk extensively about Francis and Chauncey Higbee in an episode coming up VERY soon so stick around for that. Here’s what Jo said about Francis Higbee and Bostwick.
Those who complain of our rights and charters are wicked and corrupt, and the devil is in them.
The reason I called up this subject is, we have a gang of simple fellows here who do not know where their elbows or heads are; if you preach virtue to them, they will oppose that;… and if there is any case tried by the authorities of Nauvoo, they want it appealed to Carthage to the circuit court. Mr. Orsimus F. Bostwick’s case had to go to Carthage; our lawyers will appeal anything to the circuit court.
I want the people to speak out, and say whether such men should be tolerated and supported in our midst; and I want to know if the citizens will sustain me when my hands are raised to heaven for and in behalf of the people… and as long as I have a tongue to speak, I will expose the iniquity of the lawyers and wicked men.
To these remarks, another member of these three families, Charles Foster, spoke up and Jo fined him $10 on the spot for disturbing a church meeting, which was also an ordinance of Nauvoo. Jo also suspected Charles Foster of being the author of the New York Tribune article we read on episode 192, which burned a fire through Nauvoo, the surrounding non-Mormon settlements, and the nation at large with the size of the New York Tribune’s readership. Jo didn’t have any proof it was Charles Foster, but he was a man guided by hunches and gut feelings and he thought he had this one nailed.
Another issue cropped up with the Foster brothers, Charles and Bob-the-builder Robert D. The situation was reported in this same issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor, meaning it had probably happened in the second or third week of April 1844.
To preface what happened that day, Jo suspected these families were in a plot to assassinate him. On March 24 he’d given a speech that is quite remarkable because it reads full of desperation, like he’d just received intel of the conspiracy.
I have been informed by two gentlemen that a conspiracy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith, his family, and all the Smith family, and the heads of the church. One of the gentlemen will give his name to the public, and the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath and make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows:--Cha[u]ncey L. Higbee, Dr. Robert D. Foster, Mr. Joseph H. Jackson, William and Wilson Law. And the lies that C.L. Higbee has hatched up as a foundation to work upon are—he says that I had men’s heads cut off in Missouri, and that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill and put out of the way. I won’t swear out a warrant against them for I don’t fear any of them, they would not scare off an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of them. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it.
Yeah, but the king is never guilty and Jo couldn’t just imprison these guys on the word of one of his cronies telling him there was a plot to assassinate him without running the risk of them issuing a writ of habeas corpus and Jo being in violation of the constitution. He had a weird relationship with the constitution. He was happy to leverage it for his benefit and abided by some of the amendments while ignoring or choosing to interpret others however he pleased. However, with how much legal trouble he’d been through with writs of habeas corpus, maybe imprisoning these guys was too hypocritical for even Jo to palette. He continues
I will give the name of one of the gentlemen who have divulged the plot; his name is M.G. Eaton, he will swear to it; he is a bold fellow. Joseph H. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive in two weeks, not over two months anyhow.
Sidney Rigdon took the stand to follow up on Jo’s remarks about this assassination conspiracy.
A conspiracy does exist with the persons that have been named, It is one of those kind of associations that Could not exist in any thing except against the kingdom of God.
That logic is baffling to me but he wasn’t speaking this to a logic-driven crowd. Basically, only the one true church would have people in the leadership ranks trying to kill the leader. What couldn’t you justify with this logic? Kill this person because they’re against the Kingdom of God. Steal those horses because the people who own them are against the kingdom of God. Our temple was vandalized because we’re the one true kingdom of God. You see how this is a purely emotive statement and therefore has absolutely no logical construction or requirements?
I have viewed the nations of the earth and the way they are relaxing in power and the course they are pursuing. One hundred years will not pass away till there would not be a man or woman on the earth, and nothing but the hand of God can save it, and this is why God would send Elijah to do his work, for all the power the nations will soon have is to destroy each other. (If only Rigdon knew what nukes can do). For soon nation will be against nation party against party the rich against the poor and the poor against the rich until they are destroyed from under heaven.
He goes on for a bit longer in his typical blowhard fashion, but then Jo took the stand.
In relation to the power over the minds of mankind which I hold, I would say it is in consequence of the power of truth in the doctrines which I have been an instrument in the hands of God of presenting unto them, and not because of any compulsion on my part. I wish to ask if ever I got any of it unfairly? If I have not reproved you in the gate? I ask, did I ever exercise any compulsion over any man? Did I not give him the liberty of disbelieving any doctrine I have preached if he saw fit? Why do not my enemies strike a blow at the doctrine? They cannot do it, it is truth and I defy all men to upset it. I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, “repent ye of your sins and prepare the way for the coming of the Son of Man, for the Kingdom of God has come unto you and henceforth the axe is laid unto the root of the tree, and every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, God Almighty (and not Joe Smith) shall hew it down and cast it into the fire.
These are not just ethereal and abstract concepts; these are words of a growing tyrannical regime that’s continuously being backed into a corner. The outrage fatigue plaguing the mass of Mormons suffering under the growing pressure of Joseph Smith’s thumb was a trend which couldn’t be relied upon as it only takes one sharp prick to cut the thumb’s tissue. From the side of the outrage fatigue creating the outrage in the first place, it felt like a shrinking world; the walls of Nauvoo were closing in and greater control was the only option. The more the people remained subservient, the less Jo had to legitimately worry about his life.
One more person took the stand during this March 24th meeting named Orson Spencer. He puts a bow on the issues here even though his talk came before Hingepin Rigdon’s.
While listening to Prest. Smith’s remarks, I thought of a figure, i.e., if a physician was going to dissect a body, he would not be likely to begin at the limbs, but cut the head off first. So the adversary of the Saints has laid a plan to cut off the head of the church with the intention of scattering and destroying the whole body. It was so in the days of Jesus Christ, the enemies of truth sought to kill him, that the body might be destroyed;…
Here he gets to the crux of the evolving power dynamic in Nauvoo, the Kingdom on the Mississippi, that the more persecution aimed toward the prophet, the more people fight the kingdom, the more power is granted to Jo. That’s true, until it wasn’t when the guy was dead.
I once heard a man say who was opposed to this work, “that it might be true, but it gave Joseph Smith power.” True, said I, but if his power be subordinate to the power of God, it is right. If a man set up a kingdom by the power of God, then let others seek power from the same source. God sets up kingdoms and pulls down kingdoms; this makes men mad who will not submit to the kingdom of God. We all know the result of the power of Moses, who was the representative of God.
Orson Spencer was drowning in the Kool-Aid with this statement. Nations will rise and fall, but this nation we’re building happens to be led by god, therefore we have total right to take over the government and rule how we see fit. Anybody opposed to our kingdom will go mad because they’re opposed to the will of God. This mentality has killed hundreds of millions of people throughout human history. Orson Spencer really drives the point home, with one of the very VERY few allusions to the Book of Mormon given over the pulpit in Nauvoo.
Judging from what is past, how will it be when God sets up his kingdom in the last days? Whether there is a conspiracy now or not, I don’t know; but no doubt there will be, if not now, for it has always been so. In the days of the Nephites they had their Gadianton robbers. I have not any doubt but that the apostates will join with the other wicked powers to try to put down the power of God, and I am glad to have the power of the kingdom of God tested; and when it is fully tried, it will stand. I care not what sacrifice I am called to make for such a kingdom; if it is friends, wealth, or even life, at the purchase of such a kingdom it is cheap… How often men lay down their lives for their country and other purposes; how much better, then, to die for the cause of Zion. Good and righteous men will administer justice and rebuke evil. The church should be cleansed from bad men, and the Lord will take his own way to cleanse the church.
We should lift up our voice against wickedness of all kinds. But will the rulers of our land to it? No, they will not; they will be cowards until there is no man to fight and then be brave. When government will not do it, some man should take the helm of Government that will do it. Will it be called treason if the God of Heaven should set up a kingdom? May the Lord give you more and more of his Spirit, light and intelligence until you are cemented together in union and love: Amen.
This is pretty dangerous rhetoric and speeches like this being given over the pulpit capture the religious supremacy as much as they create it. Mormonism was to be the kingdom of God, and everybody opposed to the mission of the church are enemies. We see where that landed the church but prior history to 19th-century American history teaches us where it could have landed the church. Rigdon even makes the case during his speech that the Catholic church was responsible for killing 50 million people by this time throughout the medieval age. Orson Spencer’s speech really makes clear the general mentality of probably the majority of the Nauvoo Mormons at this time.
Orson Spencer also had a brother. Something happened with his brother, named Augustine. Augustine and Orson Spencer got in a fight and when a friend of the prophet who’d just given a speech like that is in trouble, Jo backs them up… to a point, I guess. Jo honored loyalty and Orson Spencer was loyal in addition to being an alderman in the Nauvoo Government. When Jo heard of the fight, he ordered John P. Greene, the city marshal, to arrest Augustine. A warrant was issued, and Pistol Packin’ Porter Rockwell was on the lookout for Augustine Spencer.
At this time, Rockwell ran the Nauvoo taxi service with a carriage he was given after his return from Missouri in 1842 when Governor Lilburn Boggs was shot. As the city’s taxi driver, Port saw who entered the city, who left, and who was going where when. Beyond that, he heard all the gossip as people rode around and chatted among themselves. Port wasn’t just the destroying angel of the Prophet, he was also one of his little tweety birds about the town who was a constant conduit of information to Jo.
Before marshal John P. Greene could find Augustine, Jo and Pistol Packin’ Porter happened upon him and Porter served him with the warrant and demanded Spencer accompany him and Jo to the Mayor’s office. Now, the implications of this are pretty crucial to understand. When an enemy of the prophet was discovered and they didn’t hold much social clout the way the Laws, Higbees, or Fosters did, it wasn’t uncommon for them to not be seen again. Either they’d flee or they would no longer need to flee because they had a visit from Porter Rockwell or one of the Danite Regulators like King Follett was before his death. Beyond that, the city jail was in the marshal’s office, but Jo had his own private jail cell in the Nauvoo Mansion, which also contained an office from which he conducted the majority of his business. What happened in the Nauvoo Mansion jail cell was anybody’s guess.
So, when Jo and Pistol Packin’ Porter told Augustine Spencer that he’s going to the jail at the Mayor’s office, what might have gone through his mind? What would go through your mind if you were being arrested by Robert Duvall AND Marlon Brando. Understandably he refused to go. The most ironic part of this is that he was found at an attorney’s office where this all went down. I’d be willing to bet he was trying to get out of the warrant.
When Augustine Spencer refused to be arrested, Jo told Porter to go fetch John P. Greene, the Marshal. When Greene got there, he attempted to arrest Augustine Spencer, who again refused. This situation began to get completely out of control with men yelling at each other inside this small office, Jo furious because his orders were being refused, Port unable to do much because this was broad daylight and he usually operated under the cover of nightfall, and John P. Greene unable to physically remove Augustine Spencer from the office. Marshal Greene ran out into the street where he snagged the first three men he could find, attempted to deputize them and commanded them to arrest Augustine Spencer to be taken to Jo’s personal jail cell in the Mayor’s office.
The three men Greene attempted to deputize were the wrong choice. They were Chauncey Higbee, who’d become the recent target of Jo’s character assassination, we’ll discuss it in coming episodes, and the brothers Foster, Charles A. and Robert Bob-the-builder. Robert Foster had recently been excommunicated, which we’ll discuss very soon as well, but he was still the surgeon general of the Nauvoo Legion, Charles A. Foster was in the Nauvoo Legion as well, and Chauncey Higbee was an Aide-de-camp to John C. Bennett before Wreck-it Bennett had defected and published his exposes. Chauncey Higbee was a Bennett crony and not loyal to Jo, but he was never officially relieved of his command in the Nauvoo Legion, he’d just been excommunicated around the same time as Bennett for similar charges of spiritual wifery. Chauncey Higbee hated the prophet, plus there were those old suspicions surrounding his father’s death. Robert D. Foster hated the Prophet. Charles A. Foster was more loyal to his brother than the prophet. These were three of the worst possible guys for Marshal Greene to deputize to help Jo and Porter Rockwell affect an arrest of an enemy one of Jo’s cronies.
When Greene commanded these officers in the Nauvoo Legion to arrest Augustine Spencer, they refused. But it escalated beyond that. Jo approached them to reinforce the command from his position as Lieutenant-General and Commander-in-chief of the Nauvoo Legion. Higbee and the brothers Foster swore they would not assist the General and Marshal, instead yelling back that “they would see the mayor and the city d---d, and then they [still] would not.” Without the help of these three conspirators Jo had named in a sermon 3 weeks prior as attempted to assassinate him, Marshal Greene eventually subdued Augustine Spencer and left with him in cuffs to the Mayor’s jail.
However, Jo wouldn’t simply take this insubordination from people he’d thought 3 weeks ago were trying to kill him. Like dogs who try to bite a terrible owner, Jo tried to beat them to make them stop biting. He told Pistol Packin’ Porter to arrest all three of them, Chauncey Higbee, Charles Foster, and Bob-the-builder Robert D. Foster and fine each of them $100.00 “for refusing to assist the officer when called upon.” Which is a legitimate military charge, they disobeyed orders, but the orders were bogus in the first place and Jo was a tyrant. The more people who simply acquiesce to a tyrant’s commands without standing up, the more said tyrant is appeased and the more their power grows.
Charles Foster took the charge of standing up to the prophet, with Jo’s destroying angel by his side. He pulled out a double-barreled pistol and pointed it straight at the prophet’s heart. This was the moment Porter Rockwell was born for. He immediately attacked Charles Foster and the pistol “was instantly wrenched from his grasp.” Disarmed and reeling from the attack by Jo’s destroying angel, Charles Foster, Bob-the-builder Robert Foster, and Chauncey Higbee exchanged harsh words with the prophet and his enforcer saying, “declaring that they would thank God for the opportunity of shooting [Joseph Smith].”
They were all fined and all appealed their cases to the circuit court at Carthage. The public attacks became even more powerful against Higbee and the Fosters as the remainder of April continued into May 1844.
The Nauvoo Neighbor stated:
These individuals have lately become very notorious. R.D. Foster is the magistrate who was fined a few weeks ago for gambling; Higbee a respectable limb of the law who was fined for insulting the city officers; and C.A. Foster is a candidate for fame, lately fined for disturbing a religious congregation.
The character assassination conspiracy was in full swing against the Fosters, Higbees, and Joseph H. Jackson, in addition to William and Wilson Law. Now, the Law family was also beginning to make some problems for the church, but in a more subtle way. William Law was in the presidency of the church on the left hand of the Prophet. He carried a lot of sway publicly, but Jo had labeled him a Judas and began investigations into him and William Marks. We discussed that back on episodes 178 & 179. Wilson Law was never into the church as much as William Law, but both the Law brothers owned a fair amount of property in Nauvoo. They’d privately expressed interest in divesting themselves of their Nauvoo assets. The only reason for doing this would be to leave the church and both of the Laws knew far too much to leave quietly. Wilson Law was in the Government and Nauvoo Legion, William Law was in the government, Nauvoo Legion, and church presidency.
The departure of the Laws would spell disaster for Jo because they’d both seen the blueprints and partially assembled Mormon war machine, Talos, and their impending expose could make greater waves than John C. Wreck-it Bennetts did because Jo was on the national stage running for president. All of these people spelled disaster beyond simply Jo suspecting them of conspiracy to murder him. What would be worse for Jo than loss of his life? Loss of his status and legacy. Each of these men had enough knives to effectively murder their Caesar in his own capital, but not just physically. At the end of the day, Jo cared about his bodily well-being but he cared much more about his name and image. The greatest fear a fraud carries to their pillow every night is the specter of public scrutiny. If the world found out how much of a fraud he was, his tyrannical empire would crumble in a second.
The only way to combat these men was character assassination. They were too high-profile for literal assassination as their disappearances as critics of the prophet would raise too many questions. So, Jo, White-out Willard Richards, and Double-dub Phelps set out to murder their image and credibility in the Nauvoo press. If they could be branded as enemies of the church before their coming expose, maybe it would eventually blow over like the Bennett expose had done.
However, the Nauvoo Neighbor didn’t just include overt character assassinations of these men, it also included little queues for those eagle-eyed readers who’d sworn their oaths to protect the prophet and each other even at the loss of their own life.
A strange little couplet appeared in the first May issue of the Nauvoo Neighbor with some choice words capitalized, one of which was misspelled.
Truth shines; the just advance,
Or why do saints maintain their righteous cause?
Because the Lord by CHAUNCE’s.
Will never, never, FOSTER unwise LAWS!
Not “chance,” but “CHAUNCE”. Also, FOSTER and LAWS are all capitalized. This was the new conundrum the Danites were tasked with answering. These are three targets in the local Nauvoo press and only those who knew the signals could read the true message.
The heat was turning up with the Fosters, Higbees, and Laws. This public display of power will continue to evolve and mutate in the coming weeks of the podcast.
Now, to illustrate a point that I stated earlier, do you, the listener, even remember that we started this episode with talking about the King Follett Discourse? Maybe you do, but I’d be willing to be that you got caught up in everything else that was going on around the time it was given and that detail just kind of slipped your mind. That’s the point I’m trying to illustrate; with everything else going on, the King Follett Discourse wasn’t at the front of people’s minds! The Nauvoo kingdom was plagued by outrage, scandal, dissent and speeches about assassination attempts to kill the prophet. It was a city ruled by chaos to the point that the Mormons didn’t know if they would have a home for another year. Look, their resettlement to Nauvoo from Missouri was haphazard and desperate at best. They had no reason to believe this city was their permanent home and there were politicians running on campaigns of revoking the Nauvoo Charter. That would, in a legal sense, literally remove their legal right to be a city. The city government was so corrupt it required a cleansing fire. The outspoken citizens like the Fosters, Higbees, Laws, Joseph H. Jackson, and a select few others, merely bore the brunt of the corruption, but that corruption infected the every-day lives of every person living in the city. People may resign their mental faculties to herd mentality just to get by without cognitive dissonance, but the lack of infrastructure, the overt favoritism of the Mormon aristocracy, the constant theft going unpunished, the inability for citizens to leave their homes at night, the officers from other militias or states barging into town and demanding the arrest of Joseph Smith from time to time, all the rumors of polygamy and all the deception and secrecy required to practice it while keeping the general membership insulated from it; all of these issues are just the tip of the iceberg revealing seriously troubling issues in Nauvoo.
That herd mentality may keep people paying their tithing and going to every public meeting, but at the end of the day each and every one of those 15,000 people had to deal with the fact that life sucked and they needed a reason to explain why. Why is life so hard? Why is all of this happening? Why can’t I find a stable job to feed my family? Why does Heber Kimball only visit me when my husband is away? Why do mommy and daddy fight so much? Why doesn’t my best friend talk to me anymore when we were best friends only a few weeks ago? The only explanation they could find was the explanation given to them every Sunday, in every speech by every leader in the church they looked up to. We’re being persecuted because this is the one true church and the world is a fallen empire of sin. We need to build the kingdom of God to overcome the worldly Kingdom of the Adversary.
For the majority of these people, they were in mental survival mode; their rational faculties had been traumatized out of them for years and the only solace they had was what they knew, the church. That’s how you create a body of unwavering sycophants with undying fealty to their prophet priest and king of Zion, the New Jerusalem. Jo had abused these people to the point that they couldn’t possibly consider their circumstances through a rational lens and he had their loyalty because he taught them everything they needed to think instead of how to think.
When humans are in survival mode like the Mormons at this time, the animal side wakes up and the rational parts grow quieter. Food, shelter, a leader, and an enemy, that’s what homo sapien needs to survive; all the thinking is done all that’s left is action and obedience. This behavior rest fundamentally at the core of religious belief and Jo had fostered all the constituent pieces to the mind-control recipe. These are foundations of every religion. Belief and lower-level primitive thinking. No questions, no doubts, no searching for answers, just black and white hivemindedness with a common enemy to hate. Jo could see these strings and he knew which ones to pull. Then, when he opens up with a sermon about expansive and thought-provoking theological evolution, only few noticed. He hadn’t formed a community of theologians, he had conditioned a commune of soldiers, and therein lies the real danger of his power.
Too often, people don’t want to search for answers, they want answers. People want the reward at the end of the journey, not to experience the journey itself. A person may want these higher endeavors but a person quickly surrenders those pursuits when their people face existential threats. Why don’t we see more mentions of the King Follett Discourse in contemporary journal entries or letter correspondences? Because these people were to preoccupied with survival and too worn out by the constant onslaught of outrage to care.
To think that institutionalized trauma and mind-control mechanisms devised here haven’t survived in Mormon culture today would be a disturbing error and ignoring the real history of what makes Mormons, Mormons. The protectionism, the defaulting to figures of undue authority, the paper-thin pseudo-intellectualism that burns to ash at the slightest ray of critical thought, these variables evolved millions of years ago and were harnessed and tuned perfectly to create what we see today. Without something better, people locked into this cycle may never escape.
That’s going to do it for our main segment today.
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A little anecdote for you. At last year’s Sunstone Symposium, I met Dan Vogel in person for the first time. Dan Vogel, of course, is one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Joseph Smith history alive. I had recently done the Mormon Stories podcast episode about the Spalding theory and few historians are more critical of the theory than Dan Vogel. I asked him what he thought about it and he said he was hoping for or expecting something new or groundbreaking in my presentation but thought it was overall fair. This struck me because it illustrates what my job really is. Of the tens of thousands of Mormon Stories listeners, I’m certain very few knew all the information I presented there before hearing it from me. The feedback from that episode shows to me that VERY few people are conversant and knowledgeable about the history discussed in the community of Mormon history. So, while Dan Vogel and Cheryl Bruno, another of my Mormon historian friends, were hoping I’d drop a new bomb on them about Spalding, they were both disappointed because I didn’t present anything new… to them. But, for the VAST majority of people listening to that episode, almost all of it was new to them. Mormon history academia is a fast-paced field of research and my job is to take that information and communicate it to people like you who aren’t familiar with the sources, authors, publications, books, and documents that the niche Mormon history community is. Yes, Dan Vogel is a big fish, but he swimming in a little pond. I’m trying to dig out the shores of the pond and expand it while filling it with more little fish and water. My job is Mormon history communication and the fact of the matter is I need those historians as much as they need me to get more people interested in this fascinating aspect of American history. This is my job, this is my passion, and those who support the show make that passionate dream a reality.
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