Road to Carthage 1 - Avarice
On this episode, we examine money and power in early Mormonism.
Music by Jason Comeau http://aloststateofmind.com/
Show Artwork http://weirdmormonshit.com/
Legal Counsel http://patorrez.com/
I want to tell all of you a story. This is a story that’s been told millions of times by millions of people.
It’s a story we’ve spent nearly 6 years learning together; a story with heroes and villains, love and hate, saviors and murderers, devotion and betrayal, giving and taking away, peace and war, altruism and greed, achievements and slothfulness, starvation and gluttony, generosity and envy, detestation and lust, kindness and wrath, shame and pride; at the end of it all, this is a story about life and death itself. This is a story of humanity in all its glory and depravity.
Certain figures throughout human history are worth studying. These figures are often influential and frequently their legacy isn’t realized until long after their deaths. Why though? Why do we take note of these figures? I think it’s because they teach us something about ourselves that transcends the time in which they lived; they carry with them aspects of what makes humans… human.
There are, however, other reasons to focus on these individuals. In our case, this man started a religion that grew and flourished in frontier America and now boasts membership of more than 16 million people; it is the most politically powerful and wealthiest religion in America. American history, broadly, would be different had this person not founded the religion of Mormonism; this forces us to take a step back and ask how things got to be the way they are, the very purpose of studying history to begin with. The existence of what we see today requires explanation. In the context of Mormonism, we have the Book of Mormon. How did it come to be? How did the other books of Mormon scripture come to be? These questions are the first place to begin an understanding of the prevailing religion in Utah today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The founder of this religion truly defies description. He’s a man who is, by all measurements, stranger than fiction. The largest descendant religion from the cult Joseph Smith created has a sales force of tens of thousands of young adults, handing out his writings, teaching those who’re curious about this man’s life and legacy, seeking converts to the tune of hundreds of thousands every year. These missionaries will tell you about a young boy who, at the age of 14, was disenchanted with the religious world in which he lived. This young boy ventured into the woods and prayed to god to guide him to the correct religion. In an unexpected turn of events, Elohim and Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph. Jesus told him all the creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt. In a few short years after this first vision, young Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni and instructed over the period of 4 years in the ways of god. After this probationary period, Moroni led Joseph to a place known as Hill Cumorah where Joseph discovered ancient gold plates, written by ancient Israelite Native Americans who sailed to America in 2500 BC and 600 BC and believed in Christianity. They practiced the original religion created by God and completed by Jesus Christ, which was lost during the great apostasy, which Joseph restored when he translated those gold plates into english by the power of god. He was a great prophet who gave many revelations beyond the Book of Mormon, which were compiled together into the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. These with the Bible comprise the standard works of the gospel. If you simply agree to take the missionary’s copy of the Book of Mormon and schedule an evening visit, they’ll be happy to answer any questions you might have and teach you how families were together before birth and can be together for eternity.
These missionaries are clean and well-behaved looking young people. They’ll even help you do yard work or carry in the groceries if you need it. They’ll be happy to tell you they came out on this mission as soon as they graduated high school of their own volition and they even paid for everything themselves by working summer jobs and saving up before they left. These missionaries look so good, they don’t drink or party like nearly everybody else their age, they always smile and their work ethic is unparalleled; this religion must be a good place to raise a family.
You take a few lessons and learn more stories of how Mormon scripture came to be, the deeper doctrines, temple ordinances, the Plan of Salvation, the Word of Wisdom; anything you might want to know, they spoon feed right to your hungry mind. As long as you show willingness to listen to what they say and don’t give any pushback whatsoever, they’ll keep showing up with big smiles. But, god forbid, if you ask them about a rock and a hat, polygamy, the Kirtland Safety Society, or anything else which doesn’t fit perfectly into the scripted narrative they’re selling, those missionaries fall silent. They get shifty-eyed. They begin to reschedule visit times. They stop coming around so often. Eventually, they break all contact because you’re led astray by the ever-present force that is the adversary.
Around the world, in over 120 countries, in over 100 languages, this same script plays out in tens of thousands of households every single day. These young adults who know very little of how the world works, are telling unsuspecting people about the history of Mormonism and Mormon scripture. These are the people telling the story of Joseph Smith and the early church he formed.
There’s a problem, though. It’s all a lie. It’s a lie, carefully contrived and correlated for over a century and a half to be appealing, beautiful, and faith promoting. The lie runs so deep that these missionaries don’t know they’re telling you a lie. They were lied to their entire life, as were their parents and grandparents, great grandparents, and great great great grandparents who were converted by Joseph Smith themselves.
This lie has such a powerful hold on these kind and good-hearted young adults that the second a single iota of truth is introduced to them, they’re so thoroughly and unflinchingly taught to shut down their minds so no information can penetrate the mental barriers. With only a few exceptions which prove the rule, complete and total adherence to this lie is the only way to survive in the church. Members go their entire lives with these mental survival mechanisms acting as intellectual white blood cells to attack and eliminate any outside information which contradicts the lie.
But, with enough information, that mental immune system becomes overwhelmed. Cognitive dissonance causes enough discomfort that these people will begin to place forbidden questions onto the center stage of their minds. The information contagion needs only one question to take root, was Joseph Smith really a prophet of god, and from that single cell it can grow and expand into more questions. Given a nurturing mental environment, that question eventually becomes an afterthought as far more difficult questions push their way to the front of these people’s minds. Did Joseph Smith print counterfeit money? Did Joseph Smith manufacture a set of plates? Did Joseph command assassinations in the name of god? Did Smith commit treason? Did Jo rape teenage girls? What reason do I have to believe anything this monster ever said?
Once these questions are rooted deep within the synapses of a believer’s mind, the monolith which endowed an incredibly resilient system of beliefs into their minds begins to crumble. A new set of questions present themselves. Am I the only one with these questions? Who can I share these questions with? Where can I go to find a support system of people with the same questions? If the morals the church raised me with are flawed, what are my morals? Why was this information hidden from me for so long? How could I have been so stupid to believe this my entire life? Will my family shun me if I take off my garments? If the one true religion is false, are all religions false? If the church lied to me about its history, what else are they hiding?
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a cult. It has taught us a false narrative of its history to push its agenda. It has deliberately obfuscated, suppressed, or outright lied about how it came into existence because the truth really is stranger than fiction. The painstaking and tenuous process of revisionist Mormon history has been a fight raging among academics for over a century. In many ways revisionism in Mormon history is nearly as old as the religion itself. From the first satirical expose written while the Book of Mormon was being published, people devoted to exposing truth have been firing shots at the absurdity of Joseph Smith’s story since the beginning. When we consider the landscape, it’s never been a fair fight. Any time a fact fights a religious belief, that belief proves unrelenting and tenaciously resilient in spite of the facts. Doubt your faith before you doubt the facts falters in pathological immunity to doubt your doubts before you doubt your beliefs. People retreat to a comfortable lie before venturing into the uncomfortable unknown.
This aspect of the human condition gives the colossus of lies an upper hand in every fight for the mind, because it’s already won the heart. The fight for the mind has never been fair. The church has coordinated its history, suppressed documents, hidden uncomfortable truths behind partial lies, and constructed a fictitious narrative since day one. Backing this propaganda effort has often been a team of sophists masquerading as historians who’ve worked tirelessly to correlate the lies into an overarching narrative that passes the smell test. Millions of man-hours, billions of dollars, legions of apologists and historians paid by the church have waged an all-out information war against independent researchers with nothing more than a drive to search, learn, and teach.
For those of us who are independent researchers, the battle isn’t fair and we know it. We’re outgunned, outnumbered, outclassed, and underfunded. We don’t have missionaries, emotive hymns, threats of punishment in the afterlife, familial indoctrination and coerced compliance, monetary extortion based on salvation, correlated lesson manuals and armies of members who push them every sunday and most weekdays in seminary. But, we have one soldier in this battle who is, and remains, undefeated… information. The sanitizing light of information is an ally who never tires, never sleeps, and never retreats. This ally won’t shoulder the entire war for us, but it will never let us down if we show unyielding loyalty to it. More information will always hurt the correlated narrative of Mormonism because it relies on suppression of information to survive. Information with the reinforcement squad of skepticism will be our scout, attack, and defense squad as this war of information rages on.
Nothing short of total and complete iconoclasm will shatter this edifice of lies. Over the next 10 weeks, we’re going to explore the history of Mormonism the church refuses to teach. We’ll discuss stories within this religion and its founder, Joseph Smith, which tell a more complete narrative of this controversial figure and the cult he founded. Joseph Smith didn’t just translate the Book of Mormon, build a temple, get thrown into jail because of religious persecution, then get shot and died as a martyr. There’s so much more and the greatest sin against any historical figure is reducing their humanity down to a pathetically simplistic narrative to sell a religion. Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah is what we sing as children before we know what any of those words mean.
Today we begin the first of 10 episodes of Mormon history. We’ll cover the 4 main geographies of Mormon operation, New York, Kirtland Ohio, Missouri, and Nauvoo Illinois. Each of these locations contains numerous stories to highlight and examine through different lenses and each of the first 7 episodes in our 10 episode series will be doing just that. The church began in New York under Joseph Smith. Greener grass beckoned the prophet to Kirtland, Ohio where he joined with Sidney Rigdon and constructed a pseudo-democratic religious empire. Money troubles and dissent from within forced the prophet to Missouri, where the church had a foothold from its earliest days. War, and the resulting extermination order sent the Mormons packing to Nauvoo, Illinois, where Jo successfully constructed a theocratic empire, sovereign in its power and overt in its draconianism. This empire kept him and his closest friends safe in their criminality for years as they planned the overthrow of the world, until vigilante justice left the prophet and two of his brothers dead and his church without a supreme leader, inciting a multiple decades’-long schism crisis, spawning hundreds of child religions in existence today.
With the battlefield, and our path through it, laid ahead, let’s begin where it all started with the young man responsible for starting Mormonism. Joseph Smith grew up very poor in a largely uneducated family. An important point to make here is education and intelligence are different things. They’re often correlated but uneducated people can be smart and people with lots of degrees can be insufferable morons.
Jo’s parents, Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr., married in 1796. According to Lucy’s family history, her brother Stephen gave her a wedding gift of $1,000. But, as a harbinger of future events, Joseph Sr. lost the entire amount when he got suckered in an investment scam. He spent a bunch of money buying ginseng, and then arranged to export it to China. His business partner, a Mr. Stevens, ran off to Canada with the entire proceeds of the deal, leaving Joseph Sr. with $1800 in debt, shouldered by the entire Smith family. They sold their farm, which was worth $1500, for just $800 to cover a portion of the debt. The other $1000 came out of Lucy’s wedding gift, leaving the newlyweds with nothing. The impacts of this situation are far-reaching because, I would speculate, the lesson little Joey took from his dad getting scammed was that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who cheat, and those who get cheated.
Lucy’s father let the newlyweds rent part of his Vermont farmland for a while until they got back on their feet. Then they moved to New Hampshire, where Jo Jr. had one of the most traumatic experiences of his life. There was a terrible epidemic of typhoid, and his sister Sophronia almost died. All the kids caught it and it was a really hard time for the entire Smith family. The illness resulted in Jo growing abscesses on his shoulder and his leg, the latter so bad that doctors wanted to amputate. Thanks to an experimental medical procedure, and Lucy’s vehement advocacy for her son’s future, Jo got to keep the leg, but he underwent an excruciating surgery without anesthetic and walked on crutches for a year. Amputation in the 19th-century meant damnation to a life of vagrancy and begging. It’s a harsh reality Lucy knew and wanted better for her son.
The family moved back to Vermont, where they had more financial failures. Extremely cold winters destroyed their crops three years in a row, and they barely managed to have enough crusty bread to feed the kids. Finally they decided to move to Palmyra, New York for better weather. Lucy had to sell everything they owned in order to pay their debts before they left, and Joseph Sr. had to borrow more money to pay for a wagon to carry them there. Lucy’s family history says she arrived in Palmyra with two cents in cash. Jo Sr., or BDC as we call him on the show, went ahead and looked for a job and land while Lucy brought the kids and their few remaining possessions with some troubles along the way. The coach they hired was piloted by a drunkard who tried to double charge them. Lucy commandeered the coach and brought her family to New York driving the coach herself.
Their first year in New York they apparently did alright, mostly because Lucy started a successful business to decorate furniture with painted oilcloth, a source of income for nearly her entire life. Joseph Sr. and his sons built a cabin and cleared some farmland by felling trees on a small plot. But the second year they barely made their mortgage payment. Lucy says they were “destitute of money, property, or acquaintance.” The only reason they kept the farm was because the eldest son Alvin worked himself to the bone earning money to pay the mortgage. Alvin managed to stabilize his parents’ finances and started building them a nicer house by 1824, but then he got sick and died, leaving the family without its primary provider.
What was Jo’s dad doing during all of this? Well, he and his sons worked as laborers for a local farmer named Jeremiah Hurlburt, but their relationship with him broke down and they ended up suing each other. He also ran a cake and beer shop out of his house, and he and his sons sold the beer and baked goods out of a little cart they pushed around town during the summers. But unfortunately, Jo Sr. dabbled a little too deep into company stock. Neighbors like Barton Stafford and Isaac Butts said that Joseph Sr. was a “noted drunkard.” Neighbor Lorenzo Saunders even told a story about Joseph Sr. getting drunk at the pub and bragging about how big his dick was. Apparently the other drunks tried to measure it and pushed a ruler through the seat of his pants. Historian Dan Vogel straight-up calls Joseph Sr. an “alcoholic.” We’ll discuss this further in another episode in the series.
So the Smith men mostly did odd jobs and didn’t have a very stable income or a great reputation in the neighborhood. Eps 1, 10, 11, 12, 16, and 20. One of the odd jobs they did was money-digging. At night they would go out and dig for Indian springs, old Spanish mines, or chests of pirate gold and other treasures. This may seem insane to us, but there was a whole treasure digging culture in New York, and a whole genre of stories about treasures guarded by spirits and ghosts. Eps 152, 153. The common practice of treasure diggers was to hire a diviner or seer to locate the treasure, and a conjuror or necromancer to bind the spirit so they could get the treasure before the binding spell broke. But if you committed some error in the ritual, like speaking out of turn, placing the iron or witch-hazel rods in the wrong place, speaking the incantation incorrectly, performing the spell under the wrong governing planet, or myriad other errors, the spirit would whisk away the treasure and cause it to sink. Damn Ground Gnomes are so elusive. Understandably, the treasure-digging group almost always committed some error or didn’t account for some variable and the treasure would be lost. Usually the conjuror still managed to walk away with a little pocket money from the person who hired them to begin with. The diggers themselves were probably comprised of some folks who understood it was all a con, and others who truly believed they’d eventually get the money located by the seer or diviner. However, other aspects of treasure digging were unabashedly a con. Treasure digs were also a fantastic way to launder counterfeit money, accusations which plagued Joseph Jr for much of his public life and contributed to his assassination in Carthage Jail.
Historian Dan Vogel in his biography of Joseph Smith has laid out really well how these conjurors basically were con artists preying on naive farmers by leading them on with the promise of treasure. Jo got pretty good at this hustle, probably under the watchful eye of BDC and other mentors equally steeped in the occult. Jo developed a reputation in the neighborhood for being a powerful seer. Ep 10. About 1823 he started telling stories about a golden book that was buried somewhere in the neighborhood-- an ancient record written on gold plates. One of the last things that Jo’s oldest brother Alvin said to him before he died? “Do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record.” With Alvin gone, Joseph Sr. drunk half the time, and Lucy at home trying desperately to support ten kids, Jo’s treasure-digging con offered a potential way to feed the family. Here’s one example, from a neighbor named William Stafford. According to Stafford, the Smiths
devised a scheme, by which they might satiate their hunger, with the mutton of one of my sheep. They had seen in my flock of sheep, a large, fat, black weather. Old Joseph and one of the boys came to me one day, and said that Joseph Jr. had discovered some very remarkable and valuable treasures, which could be procured only in one way. That way, was as follows: -- That a black sheep should be taken on to the ground where the treasures were concealed -- that after cutting its throat, it should be led around a circle while bleeding. This being done, the wrath of the evil spirit would be appeased: the treasures could then be obtained, and my share of them was to be four fold. To gratify my curiosity, I let them have a large fat sheep. They afterwards informed me, that the sheep was killed pursuant to commandment; but as there was some mistake in the process, it did not have the desired effect. This, I believe, is the only time they ever made money-digging a profitable business.
This language Stafford used here is super important. “Pursuant to commandment” and the weather being black particularly are both important ingredients to Christian occult magic. The lamb was to be used as the scapegoat for cleansing the diggers of any sins. They’d cast their sins into the weather, sacrifice it and spread its blood in a circle around the location of buried treasure, thus binding the treasure and its spirit guardian to the location long enough for them to unearth it and cast the guardian spirit off from the treasure. This is deeply rooted in Israelite Torah tradition of sacrificial offerings; they likely burned the lamb as offering once it had been bled out and then consumed the kosher meat.
D. Michael Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View deals with this synthesis of Christian beliefs and occult traditions. From page 70.
No known denunciation of the family ever used the phrase “faculty of Abrac,” even though Lucy Mack smith did. Neighbors accused Joseph Jr. and Se. of practicing certain treasure-digging ceremonies, and it was Lucy Smith who used the phrase linking these accusations to ritual magic. Mormon historian Richard L. Bushman observed that thereby Lucy “revealed a knowledge of magic formulas and rituals.” One Palmyra resident reported that the prophet’s mother also performed various forms of magic divination, including palmistry… Marvin S. Hill has concluded: “In her mind magic circles, sooth saying, and other magical arts were one with her religious activities.”
Even the dagger they likely used in slitting the throat of the lamb had magical significance. “the Hyrum Smith family has preserved as an heirloom the kind of dagger necessary for ritual magic.” which Quinn prints pictures of in his book. Today’s perspective of the occult being tied to satanism and evil spirits is a modern perspective. The division between white and black magic was highly observed by Jo and the family in order to be shown the gift and power of god in all their endeavors. Any biblical sins, adultery, fornication out of wedlock, debauchery, all were seen as habits and sins which needed to be cleansed in order for the human spirits to have any power over the ancient spirits which guarded the treasure.
The question then becomes, did Jo really believe in this magic or was it all a con? I think that’s a false dichotomy because both can be true. He made his meager living from clearly conning people with the hopes that one day the treasure they finally acquired would get him rich. Enough failed digs, however, will produce more deliberate cons to pay the bills. These cons weren’t confined to Jo alone as his dad had taught him the ways of a juggler-magician from a young age.
So when Jo got a job to go hunt for treasure in Pennsylvania for a guy named Josiah Stowell, who offered him “high wages,” guess who decided to come help, leaving his farm and family untended in order to chase treasure? None other than the village drunk, Joseph Smith Sr.
Unfortunately the next mortgage payment was coming up, and the creditors came around and started asking questions. Apparently Jo and his dad had left his brother Hyrum in charge of the farm during their absence, and Hyrum allegedly was cutting down the maple orchard and burning fence rails for fuel. A guy named Russell Stoddard who wanted to buy the farm notified the Smiths’ lender of all of this, and the lender evicted the Smiths from their farm and home well before their mortgage payment deadline. Lucy and the kids moved into Hyrum’s little cabin.
The Smiths started canvassing all their friends and neighbors for help, and fortunately they found someone who agreed to buy it and let them stay for one year in exchange for six months’ labor on his farm by Jo’s younger brother Samuel. At this point, the Smiths became renters instead of owners. When Lucy writes about all of this in her family history, she reports that they were absolutely devastated.
Here’s one more anecdote that illustrates just how poor the Smiths were. Stephen Harding once visited their shack during the typesetting of the Book of Mormon. Jo’s mother, Lucy, served him milk, rye bread, and raspberries for dinner, and then she lit a tin candlestick so they could read to him from the manuscript of the Book of Mormon. As she lit the candle, she remarked, “This is the only candle I can find in the house; I thought I had two, but mabby the rats has eat it up.” According to Harding, the candle was used up by 10 P.M.
Take a step back and consider this family culture in which Jo grew up. Jo’s psychology and his urgency about making money was an ever-present driving factor in his day-to-day life. His family was dirt poor. Not only did they have no cash on hand, but they didn’t own property and their reputation in the community was such that no sane person would give them any credit by which to extricate themselves from this destitution. Jo grew up on scraps, clothed in rags. In fact, Joseph Sr. in the late 1810s actually spent 30 days in a debtor’s prison, when Jo wasn’t even a teenager yet, for failing to fulfill the obligations of a business contract. The only way the Smiths were able to afford their Manchester farmhouse was because Alvin Smith’s industrious fortitude made him able to pay the first two payments as cosigner for the land deed. Alvin Smith was a bulwark for the family, a sturdy foundation around which the family could build some semblance of a life. His mysterious death in 1823 wasn’t just devastating because the family lost the eldest son; his death completely damned any prospect of the Smith family getting out of poverty.
They were poor partly through their own fault, and Jo’s dad being an alcoholic and a moronic businessman certainly exacerbated these problems. But the story they told themselves about why they were poor was that people kept cheating them for no reason. They’d gotten cheated on the ginseng deal, and then Russell Stoddard had cheated them out of their farm. When people speculate with excess wealth, they don’t often run into danger of losing their only home or not feeding their family. But, when people like the Smiths speculate with the little money they need to feed themselves, the way BDC did, they’re gambling with money they don’t have and the losses are far more immense and acutely felt.
Jo’s figured out that the only time he’d really made good for his family was when he was the one doing the cheating. You’re either the cheater or the cheated, so he made a career out of cheating people for the rest of his life.
In 1824, just 2 years after Harriet Tubman was born, a Christian revival rolled through town. This wasn’t uncommon as many preachers had, essentially, celebrity status. Now, if you will, dear listener, picture the scene. Joseph Smith at the age of 18 knows nothing but poverty and all the social consequences attendant with being stuck in the cycle of poverty. During this revival, a well-dressed man spends hours expounding on Bible passages to a crowd of hundreds. He seems very comfortable, the townfolk greet him eagerly and he pays them nothing but smiles and a few hours of sharing his wealth of knowledge. He’s not only well-dressed but well respected. After he finishes his hours of preaching, a collection plate passes around the crowd and people pull money out of their pockets and put it in the plate. By the time the plate hits the end of the crowd there’s possibly a few hundred dollars there. The preacher takes that money and thanks the people, telling them their offerings to the Lord are the widow’s mite and they’ll be blessed for it. Then, the guy hops in a chartered carriage and moves onto the next town to repeat the cycle.
For a young man growing up in poverty to see revival preachers with tailored suits and their entourages of followers fawning over them, it must have had a dramatic impact on Jo. Jo was on the precipice of manhood when he’d be expected to marry, have children, and provide for his family, all while helping out his aging parents and younger siblings because Alvin was gone. Sitting in the congregation and watching that collection plate circulate the crowd with enough money to keep the Smith family fed for months, what a dream it would be to have that coming to young Jo instead of the finely-clothed priestcraft on the stage. It’s in this context that he supposedly had his famous “first vision,” in which God appeared to him in a pillar of light “above the brightness of the son” and planted the seeds of the idea to start a new religion.
These visionary experiences were incredibly common at the time because this was the burned-over district during the Second Great Awakening. Rick Grunder, a historian and rare book collector, published in the late 2000s a book titled Mormon Parallels, which documents well over 2000 pages of what the title says; parallels to Jo’s story and theology. From Grunder’s introduction:
Most of the seeds of Joseph Smith’s texts and prophecies enjoyed popular cultural dissemination in forms familiar to non-Mormons before they grew into scripture of the latter day. In surprising depth and degree, much of what Mormonism presents as if it were its own, actually flourished at various levels of society before Joseph Smith declared it. Enough solid evidence of this is now documented in relialbe modern Mormon parallels, reasonably to suggest the presence - in Joseph Smith’s natural environment - of the small portions that remain for us to discover.
Throughout this work we see hundreds of stories with similar tendencies to Jo’s first vision. Grunder also notes in his introduction that “Joseph went to his grave only pledging - never delivering - the great, organic whole [of Platonic theology].” Indeed, “Joseph’s doctrinal pilgrimage was not direct progress from truth to further-enlightening truth. Just as often, it was modern scripture contradicting modern scripture, revelation changing revelation… Joseph progressed along roads that were already well-traveled, and varied.” Grunder here, taps into a concept worth highlighting. As Jo attended this 1824 revival among others, he wasn’t just realizing how posh the life of circuit-rider preacher could be, he was scoping out the potential market competition. If Jo was to compete, he must be more. If he was to rise above, he must be greater. If he was to take headlines, he must be more controversial. If he was to garner a following, he must be a better leader than others. More, more, MORE! Jo’s experiences throughout the early to mid 1820s shaped his mind into what he would become.
Meanwhile he made a little money as a treasure digger, and one of these stories he told was about a gold Bible. You want to stand out from all the other preachers, your claims have to be truly remarkable, even to the point of unbelievable. A rich farmer named Martin Harris, Not-So-Smarty-Marty, as we call him, was a bit of a religious nut and got excited about the gold Bible story. Jo experimented a little bit by asking Marty to help him out with $50 for the project, and Marty forked it over. How Jo did it is quintessential conman. He knew Marty was rich so he walked up to Marty and said that god told him the first honest man he met that day would give him $50. Either Marty gives him the money or he’s not an honest man. The manipulation tactics were so simple, yet so effective.
Now Jo knew he had a sucker on the line, and he reeled him in. He received a revelation asking Marty to pay the full cost of printing 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, to the tune of $3,000. In order to come up with the money, Marty mortgaged his farm. Jo promised to pay him back out of the profits from book sales. Jo set the retail price of the book at $1.75, and if they had all sold at the price then there would have been $5700 to split as profit. $1.75 was a big ask though, when most books at the time could be picked up used for a penny or two. But the books didn’t sell, they had to drop the price, and Jo decided Marty was too wicked to be entitled to a share of the profits anyway, so Marty never did get his money back, and eventually lost the farm and his abused wife in the process. Good for her. Eps 3, 4, 95. Once the religion started, the surplus of Books of Mormon ended up being traded as a commodity themselves. Jo’s first counterfeit money was actually a counterfeit history book he claimed was scripture.
Jo wrote the Book of Mormon and started to get it printed, but then Marty got cold feet about making the final payment to the printer. That’s when Jo received BoC 16, modern D&C 19: “thou shalt not covet thine own property, but impart it freely to the printing of the book of Mormon.” Marty again obeyed this commandment and forked over the money. Not long after this, Jo received another revelation about money. In the so-called “Canadian copyright revelation,” Jo commanded some men to go to Canada to sell the Book of Mormon’s Canadian copyright for some quick cash, because God had decided to let them all enjoy the “temporal blessings” of the holy work. The mission failed, and Jo ended up having to retract the revelation and admit that it was either “of man” or “of the devil.” The text of the revelation was probably destroyed if it ever was written down in the first place so all we have is later statements of the men who went to Canada.
Once the Book of Mormon was understood to be a flop and wouldn’t make Jo the money he was always chasing, a new strategy had to be devised. He started to realize that the Book of Mormon wasn’t going to make him a million bucks, but it might make him a million followers. Guess what followers have? Money. More followers makes more money, especially if tithing becomes a requirement. But he also realized that he had allowed some of his followers a little too much authority and a little too much freedom to challenge him. If you’re going to run a successful con, you have to CONtrol the situation. You see what I did there?... I’ll see myself out.
Jo had to deal with logistical constraints of the con. He made a few bold claims. You can tell people that you speak for god and when a few people believe you then, hey, life’s pretty great. But, when you claim that you translated an ancient history of Christian Israelite settlers of America from a book made of gold, people are going to ask questions. If you show the mark a set of forged metal plates, you have to be able to control his access by hiding it under a sheet, you have to be able to control his interpretation by describing the object to him, and you have to be able to control what he is and is not allowed to say to other people about the experience. You can’t let the mark investigate too much or ask too many questions, or your story may start to fall apart. The number of questions has to be limited because the answers to those questions have to go just far enough to let the phrase “you just have to have faith” pick up the slack, but not far enough that a person will ask more questions you can’t answer.
Pretty early on, Jo started establishing total control over his followers. It began before he even made the plates. In the early 1820s, Jo thought he might partner with other local treasure diggers. Apparently he promised them shares of the golden plates, but then he cut them out. After he claimed to have obtained the plates, they ransacked his parents’ barn in an attempt to find them and get their rightful share. In fact, the seer stone that Smith used to locate and then translate the plates was “borrowed” from a neighbor named Willard Chase, who found the stone while digging a well. When Chase asked Jo to return the stone, Jo refused. Jo also once showed a magician named Samuel Lawrence where the plates were buried, and Lawrence viewed the plates through his own seer stone and noticed some “spectacles” buried there too. Jo incorporated the spectacles into his story-- they eventually became the “Urim and Thummim”-- but he also feared that he’d lost control of the narrative by bringing in Lawrence. He dropped Lawrence from the project and claimed that he had shown him the wrong spot. Ep 9.
After he made the plates and authored the Book of Mormon, Jo went through a similar process of consolidating power over his religious followers. Initially he made it sound like everyone could receive revelation just like him, and maybe he would allow some of his followers to collaborate with him in founding and leading a church. But then he started to feel like he was losing control again, and he changed his tune. Eps 8, 18, 19, 22. This began a pattern in Jo’s ministry. He would grant offices within the church which retained some level of autonomy and control. As soon as people within those offices overstepped Jo’s arbitrary boundaries he’d walk back their power or he’d manufacture a new office above them and place himself in that new elevated position. Eps 23, 25.
In June 1829, the year Andrew Jackson was inaugurated, Joseph Smith received a revelation for David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery, two of his closest followers, telling them that “I speak unto you, even as unto Paul mine apostle, for you are called even with that same calling with which he was called.” Now, that’s interesting for a couple reasons. First, because neither David nor Oliver had been ordained to the office of apostle. In fact, the Apostle Paul in the New Testament wasn’t ordained either, and in Galatians he made a big point of the fact that he didn’t need to be ordained, so the comparison of Oliver and David to Paul implies that they have authority without any need for ordination. And secondly, the comparison to Paul also implies that David and Oliver have the authority to write scripture, just like Paul did.
In fact, Oliver didn’t just believe he could receive written revelations; he actually did receive some. According to an early convert named Ezra Booth who left the Church in 1831, Oliver “did in fact, issue some [written] productions, which he said bore the Divine impress; but Smith fixed upon them the stamp of devilish.” As a sort of compromise, Smith told Cowdery he
was permitted to "speak or to teach, at all times, by way of commandment unto the Church: but not to write them by way of commandment;" thus Cowdery is authorized to give verbal commandments to the Church by the inspiration of the spirit, which, if he afterwards writes, ceases to be inspiration; therefore, a commandment delivered orally, may be divinely inspired; but the same communicated, written verbatim, so far loses its former character, that it degenerates into a production of an infernal stamp. Here is a mystery, for aught I know, peculiar to Mormonism; and none but Mormonites, I presume, will attempt to unravel it.
Oliver Cowdery, Cowdung Allover… yeah, still not proud of that one, was briefly given Jo’s blessing to write scripture. As soon as it became a threat to Jo’s power, and Jo’s blessing was revoked. Ep 22. There’s a finite amount of power within any social structure like this and Jo wanted the power all to himself.
Some revelations written by David Whitmer’s brother-in-law Hiram Page also contributed to Smith’s crackdown. At this point in his career, Jo was receiving all of his revelations through that seer stone that he had stolen from Willard Chase. Jo often talked about the stone as if the power of revelation resided in the stone, not in himself. Oddly enough, Jo’s early movement showed some democratic tendencies as he also insisted that anyone had the right to such a stone if they could find one. This became a problem because Hiram Page had a stone of his own, and he started producing written revelations for the Church.
We don’t know much about Hiram Page’s revelations, except that they gave instructions regarding the order of the Church and the location of Zion, the New Jerusalem, and Jo considered them to be “entirely at variance” with his own revelations. In Doctrine and Covenants 28, which Jo received in September 1830, he commanded that “no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.” Everyone else was just a spokesman like Moses’s brother, appointed to parrot his words to the rest of the Church. Jo declared Page’s revelations Satanic and had them burned and Page’s seer stone destroyed by grinding it into dust and scattering it to the wind. To add insult to injury, he commanded Oliver Cowdery to be the one to deliver the verdict to Hiram Page, Ollie’s brother-in-law. Jo had slapped down Oliver, and now he made Oliver be the one to slap down Hiram Page. Talk about manipulative. Jo really knew how to break a person’s spirit and crush a revolt, which would serve him well as his church grew and expanded. Eps 8, 23.
To bring us into the Kirtland period, let’s look at one more example. In late 1830, a small group of missionaries including Oliver Cowdery and Parley Parker Pratt, who we call P-cubed, converted a Baptist congregation in Kirtland. Jo moved there in early 1831 and made it his new Church headquarters, quickly establishing dominance over the former Baptists and relegating their former minister, Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, to the same “spokesman” role that he’d given Cowdery and Whitmer. Ep 24.
Once Jo teamed up with Hingepin Sidney Rigdon, everything accelerated. Rigdon’s followers, by in large, converted to Jo’s church, providing a much-needed membership injection of restorationists hell-bent on building Zion, the new Jerusalem. With great membership comes great responsibility and Jo needed to create new roles to rein in these new converts.
Kirtland got a little bit wild before Jo arrived, with lots of people “getting the power” and receiving revelations and such. We’ll discuss this more on episode 3 of our series, where we’ll discuss that which is delicious to the taste and desirable. There was one girl named Laura Hubble whom Rigdon had recognized as a prophetess and “literally saluted her with what they called the kiss of charity.” That’s according to Ezra Booth. When Jo arrived in February 1831, he “declared her an imposter” and received a revelation that’s now D&C 43, reiterating that Jo was the only one appointed to receive commandments for the Church, and that “none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him.” Even if he became a fallen prophet and lost his gift, the revelation gave him sole authority to appoint his replacement. In other words, the Church is accountable only to Jo, and Jo is accountable only to God. No exceptions, period, full stop. Power grabs like this became common as Jo’s empire expanded and he greedily aspired to the ultimate leadership position.
Soon after his arrival to Kirtland, Jo firmly established the principle that only he was allowed to receive written revelations for the Church and that the other Church leaders were just his salespeople-- sorry, his spokespeople. But he hadn’t really justified or institutionalized his power yet, so that became his primary focus early on in Kirtland. Eps 19, 22, 24, 25.
Now, Mormon theology today divides the priesthood into two orders: Aaronic and Melchizedek. According to Joseph Smith’s 1838 history, Jo and Ollie first learned about these two priesthoods in May 1829. First, the biblical John the Baptist appeared as a resurrected angel to the two men and ordained them to the lesser, or Aaronic, priesthood. Then, some undetermined time later, the biblical disciples Peter, James, and John also appeared as resurrected angels and ordained Jo and Ollie to the higher, or Melchizedek, priesthood. If you’ve ever been a member of the LDS Church, you probably know this story. What you probably don’t know is that it never happened; Jo made it up later, which is really funny because this discrepancy in the historical record has caused a lot of headaches for apologists who need the full priesthood restoration to have occurred in 1829.
What happened in May 1829 is that Jo and Ollie baptized each other and ordained each other to the office of elder. That’s it. No John the Baptist, no Peter, James, and John, no greater and lesser priesthood. Those were all later fabrications. Every time Jo retold this story, he added more details and embellishments that eventually transformed the story into what it is today. Those offices and arbitrary lines between priesthoods, the high priesthood, apostles, all the hierarchical structure of the church today evolved slowly out of necessity, spurned by Jo’s desire to stay on the highest level of his expanding religious pyramid. According to early Mormon apostles David Whitmer and William E. McLellin, these details did not exist in the earliest versions. They weren’t even apostles until after Zion’s camp in 1834, eps 30, 31. In an 1885 interview, D-day David Whitmer said, “I never heard that an angel had ordained Joseph and Oliver to the Aaronic priesthood until the year 1834, 5, or 6.” And in a couple letters from the 1870s, William E. McLellin said that despite having heard JS tell the story of the Church’s founding some 20 times, “I never heard of john the Baptist ordaining Joseph and Oliver. I heard not of James, Peter, and John doing so.” “Today, I do not believe the story.”
Right there we have our first red flag contradicting Joe and Ollie's claims of angelic priesthood ordinations. This priesthood restoration supposedly happened 5 years before D-Day David Whitmer first heard about them in Ohio in 1834, but nothing was said about this until 1834? Ollie and Joe supposedly had an angel of God, the same angel that baptized Jesus, descend from heaven and ordain them to the AP by laying his ghostly hands on their heads. Then after that, P, J&J, the three biggest heavy hitter apostles of Jesus, supposedly descended and ordained Ollie and Joe to the MP. Joe and Ollie had personal experiences with the 4 most important people in all of Christology, aside from Jesus himself, and didn't think it was necessary to mention it to D-Day on their week long journey from Harmony to Fayette, a mere two weeks after it reportedly happened? If it really did go down this way, wouldn't that be the only thing that Joe and Ollie could talk about for the entire move? This was supposed to be the event that the literal entirety of Mormon authority comes from, and they just forgot to mention it? Just slipped their minds?! Are you serious?! Apologists claim that Jo tailored the story to different audiences for different purposes and that the event was simply too sacred to tell some folks, milk before meat and all that nonsense, but these were two guys in the highest-ranking offices in the church and absolutely no contemporary record mentions it until the mid-1830s.
Now, you may say, Bryce, I read about these angelic ordinations in Joseph Smith’s history, that’s in the Pearl of Great Price, that’s scripture, are you insinuating that Mormon scripture is somehow flawed? I read about it in Doctrine and Covenants too! Section 27 includes a long description of the angelic ordinations. And the revelation is dated August 1830, so that proves that story dates to earlier than 1830, right? Great, Whitmer and McLellin made a mistake and Jo is vindicated! You’re an anti-Mormon, Bryce! Yeah, sure, that’s cool. One thing, though… Everything in Section 27 about the angelic ordinations was added to the revelation years later. Jo also added lines to Section 7. MyBoM eps 101, 110. Yeah, Joseph Smith quietly went back and edited divine revelations supposedly from God to match whatever latest lie he was telling. Mormons get super offended when people say “Oh my god!” because that’s taking the Lord’s name in vain. How vain do you have to be to say I’m speaking for god and he said this one thing and then go back and change what goddamn god said years after he said it to make a lie true?! The arrogance is appalling! And you wonder why other Christians think Joseph Smith was an anti-Christ.
This revisionism definitely caused problems for Jo, because Professor Bill McLellin, D-day David Whitmer, and Ollie Cowdery all eventually left the Church. Well… left the church or were excommunicated and told they had 2 days to leave town or the Danites would be waiting outside their door. Ep 43. They noticed that Jo was doing things like changing the revelations and making up new priesthoods. So why bother going to all this trouble? Why did Jo take that risk? Simple: he had to explain from where his authority came. If it came from him and Oliver mutually bapturbating and ordaining each other elder, then it’s really hard to justify the idea that Jo has special authority and everyone else needs to get that authority from him. Priesthood keys aren’t very useful if all doors are opened with the same key. But, even today, every man in the church when they’re given the priesthood gets their certificate which traces their priesthood back to that day in 1829, even though it was a later fabrication. It’s a lie because Jo was jealous of his power.
But if it came from resurrected biblical apostles, and there are structured priesthood “orders” with Jo at the head, well, that makes Jo the conduit to authority. And the hierarchy of priesthood offices becomes a kind of authority ladder that you can only climb if you show fealty to the one true prophet.
Jo’s insatiable palette for power was merely one aspect of his avarice, but money was also central to his plot. Money was what this was about from the beginning and with power comes money; the two concepts go disturbingly hand in hand. Jo hatched all sorts of money-making schemes during his time in Kirtland, Ohio, mostly because he was addicted to shopping on credit.
For instance, Jo built the Kirtland Temple on credit at a cost of about $40,000. To pay for it, he opened a mercantile store and bought $80,000-$90,000 worth of store goods on credit in New York. He also built a steam mill and bought a bunch of expensive farms. These businesses all eventually failed. To cover all these losses, Jo introduced a kind of socialism to the Church, asking people to sign over all of their property to Church ownership and to work their own farms as stewards. He also extracted donations from the members at every opportunity, and he sent missionaries out to bring people to Kirtland, then sold city lots to the new arrivals at more than what he paid for them. Jo was a terrible businessman and no amount of money was ever enough.
Even bleeding the parishioners dry of nearly every cent they could muster wasn’t enough, because let’s be honest: most of them were dirt poor to begin with and that was before the Jo scourge hit Kirtland. Yet Jo continued to spend money he didn’t have. At a time when the Church was somewhere between $40-60,000 in debt, Jo spent $8,000 to hire a Hebrew teacher to teach a 7-week course. A carpenter at the time made about $1 a day, maybe $1.50; Jo paid this Hebrew teacher more like $163 a day. That was an insane amount of money in 1836. He also bought some Egyptian mummies and papyri for about $2,400, which was about $2,000 more than their assessed price. These mummies and Papyri proved to be one of Jo’s greatest blunders, because he declared these papyri to be the writings of Abraham and Joseph before he actually bought them, which gave the broker, Michael Chandler, leverage to charge a lot more money. Fortunately for Jo, he was able just borrow the $2400 from a couple of his followers and never pay it back. As the church neared 1835, these patterns were becoming incredibly taxing and burdensome. 1835 is also the year Charles Darwin landed on the Galapagos Islands!
But all the debt added up, and the church edged towards bankruptcy by 1836. You can’t run a church without any money, and when that church has an overall debt gap of over $1 million of today’s currency, with no way of bouncing back, no exports, and no way to vastly increase tithing income, we’re really looking at some serious problems. Jo got desperate, and what he did next to help with the money problem was a last ditch effort which failed spectacularly. Here’s Ebenezer Robinson’s account of what happened from his autobiography:
“A brother in the Church, by the name of Burgess, had come to Kirtland and stated that a large amount of money had been secreted in the cellar of a certain house in Salem, Massachusetts, which had belonged to a widow, and he thought he was the only person now living who had knowledge of it, or to the location of the house. ... His statement was credited by the Brethren, and steps were taken to try and secure the treasure. … We soon learned that four of the leading men of the Church had been to Salem, Massachusetts, in search of the hidden treasure spoken of by Brother Burgess, viz: Joseph Smith, Jr., Hyrum Smith, Sidney Rigdon and Oliver Cowdery. They left home on the 25th of July, and returned in September.”
That’s right. Jo traveled hundreds of miles over more than two months to chase a story of buried treasure. How classic Jo is that?... According to Robinson,
“We were informed that Brother Burgess met them in Salem [Massachusetts], evidently according to appointment, but time had wrought such a change that he could not for a certainty point out the house, and soon left. They however, found a house which they felt was the right one, and hired it. It is needless to say they failed to find that treasure, or the other gold and silver spoken of in the revelation.”
After failing to get the treasure, Jo received a revelation in which God told him the divine purpose of the trip hadn’t been to get worldly treasure, but to get spiritual treasure. “Concern not yourselves about your debts, for I will give you power to pay them,” the Lord said. Jo hung out in Salem for a month to do some missionary work to allay the embarrassment of having made this trip for nothing, and then he returned home.
Jo the treasure-digger got hoodwinked by a treasure digger. Burgess was hired by Joe, using church funds while it was hopelessly in debt, to help them find buried treasure to pay off that debt. Jo and friends made the trip, went digging around without finding a single shekel, while spending a fair amount of money to live in Salem for a month. Merely ten years after Jo fraudulently told Bossman Josiah Stowell he knew where hidden buried treasure was and got himself hired to help find it, this guy Burgess did the same thing to Jo and his friends. Sometimes history gives us these little gems of poetic justice through irony. Ep 35.
Robinson ends his discussion of this incident by saying, “Failing to secure the Salem [Massachusetts] treasure, and no demand for city lots, with their debts pressing heavily upon them, it evidently seemed necessary that some ways and means should be devised to extricate themselves from their present embarrassments. To this end a banking institution was organized, called the ‘Kirtland Safety Society.’” Whether out of anger for the failure in this treasure-diggin trip, or simply conceived of through desperation, the Kirtland Safety Society, also known as the Kirtland Bank, was formed.
The Kirtland Bank got its start on November 2, 1836. That’s the same year Thomas Crapper was born! When people say they’re going to the crapper, that guy was the reason, even though the word “crap” didn’t originate with him, it’s just… a crappy coincidence... According to the History of the Church vol. 2, on that date “the brethren at Kirtland drew up certain articles of agreement, preparatory to the organization of a banking institution, to be called the ‘Kirtland Safety Society.’ President Oliver Cowdery was delegated to Philadelphia to procure plates for the institution; and Elder Orson Hyde to repair to Columbus with a petition to the legislature of Ohio, for an act of incorporation, which was presented at an early period of their session, but because we were ‘Mormons’ the legislature raised some frivolous excuse on which they refused to grant us those banking privileges they so freely granted to others. Thus Elder Hyde was compelled to return without accomplishing the object of his mission, while Elder Cowdery succeeded at a great expense in procuring the plates, and bringing them to Kirtland.”
The Mormons are desperately poor, Jo’s running out of credit, and bills are way overdue. Jo decides to found a bank, and the first thing he does is send Oliver Cowdery off to Philadelphia to get some printers’ plates done up for printing money. By the way, there are rumors about Jo’s family having been involved in counterfeiting money all the way back to Vermont, so it’s fully possible that he was trying to take the family money-printing business legit with a state-recognized bank charter. The legislature’s decision to deny the bank a charter caused some problems. Cowdery had bought these expensive metal printing plates that said “Kirtland Safety Society Bank,” but they had been denied a legal charter for a bank. In fact, according to Ebenezer Robinson, Cowdery returned to Kirtland with not only the printing plates, but also with $200,000 worth of bank bills already printed, “which would be worthless unless some way could be devised by which they could be used.” It was illegal to print money without a charter, and the state denied it and Jo REALLY needs money, he ALWAYS needs more money, he can never have enough money!
So, how did they solve the problem? One of these geniuses came up with a plan to have their counterfeit cake and eat it too. They just incorporated their company as the “Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company,” and they hand-stamped “Anti” before “Banking” and “ing Co.” after “Bank” on every single bank note. Boom! Two hundred thousand dollars worth of anti-bank notes, redeemable at your local anti-bank. They weren’t printing money, they were simply printing certificates which were as good as money as long as the bank remained solvent and had enough capital specie to cover all the printed money… Buuuuuuut… that would quickly become a problem because they didn’t have any investment capital; Jo and his buddies only had debt, which isn’t a great place from which to start a business, especially a bank… or anti bank ing company.
The articles of agreement for the anti-bank are absolutely hilarious. They declared the capital stock of the bank to be worth not less than $4 million… IN 1836!, which is about $108 million of 2020 money. They just wrote on a piece of paper that they had more than a tenth of a billion dollars and expected people to invest with that promise. Can you imagine going on Shark Tank and telling the sharks you’re starting a bank with no capital, tons of debt, and you want them to buy in at a $4 million valuation? Are you serious? The articles also allowed the bank’s 7 directors, including Jo, to be compensated without limit. Also, stockholders in the bank could at any time be required by the directors to pay in more money, which was really pretty exploitative, especially when Prophet Jo was telling all his followers to invest in the bank because it was God’s bank and would “swallow up all other banks on earth.” That’s a quote. The whole Kirtland bank is such a unique and incredible confluence of desperation, ignorance coupled with idiocy, deliberate dishonest, and fraud all driven by gluttony of money. It’s such a remarkable time of Mormon history and these guys knew what they were doing.
Kind of like an investor who bought into Enron in August 2000, Jo managed to start a bank just when the nation was “peak bank” and heading into the Panic of 1837, when hundreds of private banks collapsed. In March 1837, President Andrew Jackson announced that the US federal government would no longer accept paper money from private banks for purchasing land. This devalued the paper money issued by private banks and caused a run on banks across the country, with people trying to redeem their paper bank notes for gold and silver coins. Lots of banks went out of business because they didn’t have enough specie, and holders of their bank notes lost everything. This was massively deflationary and sent the country into a 7-year depression. Ep 38.
In Kirtland, the crisis was made worse by the fact that some of the Church’s top leaders, including David Whitmer, Jacob Bump, and Warren Parrish, decided Jo was a false prophet because he had prophesied that the bank could never fail; this in addition to a number of other events like the Fanny Alger incident and Jo’s handling of the Missouri crisis, among others. These guys went around collecting bank notes and taking them to the bank to redeem them for gold and silver. Jo cut his losses by resigning his directorship and putting a couple of fall guys in charge, and then he denied all responsibility for the bank’s failure.
The dissenters obviously didn’t buy it. Lyman Johnson, Orson Pratt, and Warren Parrish brought charges against Jo and Sidney Rigdon in the high council for lying and extortion, among other things. Parley P. Pratt gave a sermon railing against Jo for his sins. Creditors and law enforcement officers also started to come after Jo to collect on his debts. Jo eventually got all the dissenting apostles excommunicated. By the end of 1837 about 40-50 dissenters had been excommunicated, including Book of Mormon investor Martin Harris. Even not-so-smarty Marty, who got suckered into funding the Book of Mormon, recognized the Kirtland Bank as a money-making scam. The dissenters founded their own church called the Church of Christ. They still believed in the Book of Mormon, but they rejected Prophet Jo. His own leadership essentially excommunicated Jo from their new Kirtland church after forming it.
Jo won the struggle for control of the Church, but he lost the struggle for control of the temple, which got foreclosed and turned over to the Church of Christ. He also lost the struggle for control of the city. A court fined Jo and Rigdon each $1000 for illegal banking practices, and a an angry mob burned down the Church’s printing office. At least, that’s how the story is told. Far more salacious and disturbing version of events also exist. A man named Grandison Newell, who was owed a lot of money by Jo, claimed that Jo had attempted to assassinate him. The printing office also didn’t burn down until it had transferred ownership in the courts and a guy in the early 1900s claims his dad was instructed by the prophet to burn the press building down to keep it from falling in the hands of apostates. It was a chaotic time in Kirtland for the prophet so he and Hingepin Rigdon fled Kirtland on December 22 under the cover of night and went to Far West, Missouri, where there was another branch of the Church, in a wagon that Jo’s faithful henchman Bloody Brigham Young had appropriated from a Church member.
From Kirtland to Missouri was a move spurned by desperation and death threats. Missouri had a larger church than what existed in Kirtland and Jo’s lust for power upon his arrival in Missouri resulted in numerous excommunications, restructurings of the leadership, and Jo beginning to write his own history.
We won’t spend a lot of time in Missouri, because Jo wasn’t there for very long and we’ll have plenty more to say about this period in future episodes within this series. But the main things you need to know are that before Jo arrived, the Missouri Mormons had had years of conflict with the non-Mormon citizens, who had pushed the Mormons out of several different counties. Finally they had cut a deal that the Mormons would stay in Caldwell County, and they could have that county all to themselves as long as they didn’t go try to settle neighboring counties. That truce held until Joseph Smith arrived and immediately decided to break the truce and to start settling neighboring Daviess County.
William Swartzell, one of the settlers sent to Daviess County, complained about the unfair way that land was allocated there. Church leaders got first pick of the land allocations, and “the least among the brethren were the least noticed and got the least land.” He also complained that the law of consecration made it impossible for anyone to leave the Church if they had doubts, because if you left then you forfeited all of the property you had signed over to the Church, and you left destitute and penniless. The law of consecration made this an inevitable result. Once all your property is owned by the church, or consecrated to the bishop’s storehouse, it remains in the possession of the church. This may have been the most brazenly greedy of all Jo’s revelations.
The Mormons’ decision to break their promise to stay in Caldwell County led to a big fistfight in Daviess County on election day, when the Mormon settlers turned out to vote as a bloc for their favorite political candidates, and the non-Mormon citizens tried to stop them. The fight escalated into a war, and as part of that war, Mormon troops looted and burned the non-Mormon towns of Gallatin and Millport in Daviess County. When the Mormon soldiers first arrived in these towns, they claimed to have found them abandoned, the citizens supposedly having fled. According to Apostle Thomas B. Marsh, “The prophet, on hearing the property was left, commenced a reply, and said: ‘we had better see to it.’ . . . The same evening a number of footmen came up from the direction of Mill Port laden with property which I was informed consisted of beds, clocks and other household furniture. . . . During the same time, a company, called the Fur Company, were sent out to bring in fat hogs and cattle, calling the hogs, bears, and the cattle buffaloes.” Ep 44.
Granted, this was war time, and stuff like this happens in a war. Also, a lot of new Mormon immigrants had arrived, and they needed food. But I’m not sure that justifies burning the towns and stealing things like clocks and furniture. The same people who would defend Jo’s actions here would probably also condemn the recent rioters who looted a Target after the death of George Floyd, even though there were similar forces at play. Notably, though, they had scriptural justification for these actions, so that’s a pretty significant difference from what we see in mid-2020. Jo’s revelation from 1832 stating that the property of the gentiles will be consecrated to the church gave these holy warriors all the reason they needed to burn, plunder, and pillage their sinful gentile neighbors. Eps 45, 46, 47.
This all resulted in the surrender of the Mormon twin cities of Far West and Adam Ondi-Ahmen, which we’ll also discuss in coming episodes of this series. This landed Jo, Hyrum, and many other church leaders in Liberty Jail and other Missouri prisons for months. Governor Lilburn Boggs signed the extermination order and the next Mormon mass-exodus commenced, this time to the receptive arms of Illinois where they eventually built their own city, Nauvoo.
When Jo arrived at what would become Nauvoo after his escape from Missouri, he almost immediately started in with the land speculation. The Mormons needed a home and if he could make some money off them in the process, that’s just gravy. He bought huge swaths of land on both sides of the Mississippi with the intention of turning around and selling it back to Mormon converts who immigrated to Nauvoo. Jo and the other church leaders didn’t purchase and lay out just one town site; they purchased and laid out several town sites. This was a very ambitious real estate scheme with one massive flaw. Jo didn’t actually have any capital, he made these purchases on a 20-year payment plan with no down payment, at interest of about 8% per year, He also apparently traded away some unwanted land deeds from Missouri and Ohio. Beyond that, the Mormons had just been removed from their homes in Missouri and were exponentially destitute from the events of the previous 3 years tracing all the way back to the Kirtland Banking Company. How do you build a city and make money on nothing more than credit off the backs of poor refugees? Jo showed us that it could be done, but that only the most short-sighted of plans could keep it running. There were no grand plans which would posture Nauvoo as an economic powerhouse he dreamed it would become. It had the location and industrious population to make it happen, but the ability to execute any long-term plans quickly fell away when short term plans proved more appealing or provided speedier gratification to the prophet and his pseudo-wealthy elite. Like a country running on a multi-trillion dollar deficit and handing half a trillion dollars to 500 extremely wealthy people, that bill is going to come due eventually.
According to Jo, “When I made the purchase of White and Galland, there were one Stone house, three frame houses, and two block houses, which constituted the whole city . . . and the place was literally a wilderness.” So he probably thought he was getting in cheap and laying the groundwork to sell at higher prices once settlers started arriving and driving up property values. But in reality, he drastically overpaid for much of this land. For some added context, at this time the average price for land was between $2.50-13 per acre nationwide. In one purchase, from Horace Hotchkiss, the divinely inspired Prophet Joseph Smith agreed to pay around $229 per acre. He paid around 32 times the expected market value at most generous estimates. Another purchase, from Isaac Galland, may not even have been legal, because the deeds were disputed. Eps 53, 56, 95.
Part of Jo’s plan to finance the land purchases was to lobby Congress for reparations for the persecution in Missouri. In 1839 he sent the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on a mission to England to get more converts to bring in more tithing, and had them stop along the way in Washington, D.C. to deliver petitions. He and his brother Hyrum Smith each believed they should receive a $100,000 for what they had been through. But of course no reparations ever materialized. Side note: the apostles didn’t take much money with them, so they had to beg from the poor members along their route in order to pay for passage. Eps 57, 58, 61.
While the Apostles were headed on this crucial mission, Jo improved the area around his own house on Water street very first. If he was indeed the altruistic prophet for the people he claimed to be, he would be living in a shack until every other Mormon had a brick home, but he did the exact opposite. He knew what was going on too. He knew he was speculating on land values and the people knew it just as much as him. These business deals may have been sold as divine providence, but anybody with a brain in their skull knew Jo was speculating on land and these land speculators from which he was purchasing the land were largely setting Nauvoo’s economic trajectory on a disaster path to serve their own love of money. Everybody was trying to get rich quick in the earliest days of Nauvoo by foisting hundreds of thousands in debt on the backs of the destitute Mormon refugees. You have to be a special kind of malevolent to profiteer off this much pain and suffering.
The thing is, Jo wasn’t crazy to be optimistic about real estate prices. The Mormons had a golden opportunity to turn Nauvoo into a sprawling metropolis with unrivaled access to the largest shipping river in the United States and realize an incredible potential to become the next biggest manufacturing center in the state of Illinois. Add into that the fact that Nauvoo was surrounded by fertile farmland to sustain the population and a bunch of land speculators had Nauvoo slated as the next Chicago with the massive influx of Mormon population. A lot of people, including the prophet, had a realistic optimism for the future of the city and the money they’d make with Nauvoo growing so quickly. For comparison, the population of Chicago on the 1840 census was just under 4.5k, whereas Nauvoo ticked in at a cool 2.5k. Nauvoo briefly surpassed Chicago in population with the influx of Mormon refugees climbing that population to around 12-15k by 1845.
However, Nauvoo’s population was mostly too poor to pay the high prices Jo was asking to recoup his costs and pay his debts. The perpetual state of poverty Jo had run the Mormons and the church at large into wasn’t an easy hole to dig themselves out of, and that state of poverty was a dark cloud overhanging the Mormons’ every moment during the struggling years of the Nauvoo settlement. Buying land with regular specie for the average Mormon was completely impossible, so credit was extended to them by Jo who was operating on nothing but credit himself. The Mormons beginning their settlement efforts were already running in the red, and they constructed their settlements on top of an ever-growing mountain of debt. Understandably, Jo used the land in his possession to issue favors to those who showed fealty to him. He exchanged choice property for demonstrations of loyalty like any good mafia boss.
Understandably, Jo just giving land to his buddies in exchange for goods or services led to extremely volatile land prices because Jo might pay one guy an acre for a couple bushels of corn and another guy would be paid an acre for a few weeks’ worth of working construction for the church. Jo’s hunger for money also made it so he frequently placed himself as a middleman in every possible transaction. If any transaction going on around town could be brokered through land he owned, he stood to make a little money from it and he’d seize the opportunity.
To make matters far worse, Jo didn’t really like rules and regulations. There was no overseeing body or committee who were supposed to control the volatility, nor did anybody with an education or background in economics serve as advisor to the prophet. Jo was in control of everything and was trustee-in-trust of all church assets and monetary affairs. Very early into the Nauvoo years, Jo made an utter and complete mess of things, keeping terrible records or no records at all, not recording his debts and assets with any reliable system, and having no standardized value for acreage. This only compounded the problems of exorbitant land prices for which he purchased the land to begin with. Essentially, Jo was making a ton of business transactions, but often wasn’t worrying about all that bothersome paperwork to make things official, just a gentleman’s handshake agreement and maybe a signed bill of sale with the one true prophet was enough to allay most people’s concerns.
By mid-1840, the very beginning of the Irish Potato Famine, Jo knew how much of a tangled web Nauvoo finances were and was trying to pass his own monetary problems off to the High Council. They knew just as much as he did that nothing was in order and all debts assumed by the Church were essentially Jo’s own debts in his own name so they didn’t want to get anywhere near the plutonium that was Jo’s finances. So they left Jo in charge, and he continued to make a mess and accrued a debt of nearly $200,000 in his name alone. His tangled web of finances remains unresolved and largely mysterious even to historians today. Understandably, after his death, the financial stress left on Emma to untangle Smith assets from the Quorum of Apostles claimed church assets became a central catalyst of conflict between Emma and Bloody Brigham. Eps 72, 95
Just like in New York and Kirtland, Jo’s drive for money also ran hand in bloody hand with his drive for power. The two are inextricable. Jo’s drive for power in Nauvoo was absolutely ravenous. It starts with the Nauvoo City Charter, which Jo collaborated to write with Robert B. Thompson and John C. Wreck-it Bennett in 1840.
The charter was mostly a copy-paste job from the Springfield Illinois charter, but with some modifications that gave the Mormons unique privileges. For instance, the charter gives the city government exclusive power to regulate ferries, which Jo would eventually use to give himself a monopoly over the local ferry business because it was quite lucrative. It also designated the mayor as head of the city council, and the mayor and city councilors as justices of the peace, thus combining executive, legislative, and judicial power in the person of the city mayor, which of course would be Jo, giving him powers he greatly abused, once Wreck-it Bennett was ousted.
But the most important section in the charter was Section 25, authorizing the creation of a large city militia called the Nauvoo Legion, making it answerable to the mayor and entitling it to the use of state armaments. The treason charges against Jo in Missouri concerned his raising and maintaining an unauthorized militia and using it to fight the militia forces of the state. This provision assured that he wouldn’t get in trouble for this again. Every good mafia boss dreams of having a state-sanctioned army at their command but rarely get it. Jo was exceptionally corrupt in many ways. Ep 66 we read through the entire Nauvoo charter and discussed it extensively.
The Illinois state legislature ratified the Nauvoo charter without much debate. Politicians knew the Mormons would be an important voting bloc, and they also felt bad for the Saints after their experience in Missouri. Both Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglass voted to approve the charter and personally congratulated Wreck-it Bennett upon its passage. Plus it was a pretty busy legislative session, so they probably didn’t even read it to begin with. More than a dozen similar charters were rubber-stamped through that same year. In any case, these politicians could hardly have anticipated that the Nauvoo Legion would prove to be a military force superior to any other western militia and nearly a third the size of the US Army within 3.5 years, more than twice the size of any state militia. They could hardly have guessed that in addition to being prophet and trustee-in-trust of the Church, Jo would also make himself mayor of Nauvoo, head of the city council, justice of the peace, and lieutenant-general of the Nauvoo Legion all at once. Jo was building a theocracy, and the Nauvoo charter laid the foundation in subtle modifications to dry, boring legal boilerplate that made no one blink twice. Upon Nauvoo becoming a legally-recognized entity, Jo successfully married the three pillars of social control, government, military, and religious, into a single body. This was unprecedented in American history, but common enough in world history that the American constitution attempted to build in multiple barriers to stop this from ever becoming possible. With the three pillars of social control, and three pillars of government under his control, Jo became untouchable.
With city charter in hand, Jo started passing acts to set up the city government. He divided the city into wards; this first use of the word “ward” in Mormon history was a municipal rather than ecclesiastical unit of organization. He also passed a religious freedom act that made it a crime to disrupt a religious meeting, to participate in a mob, or to disobey a civil officer in executing his duty. In some ways the act was surprisingly progressive, because it protected Muslims as well as Christians. But while it primarily seems designed to prevent any further persecution of the sort the Saints had faced in Missouri, it also gave Jo sweeping powers to violate freedom of speech which he frequently abused.
For instance, three years later Jo ordered the city marshall to arrest Augustine Spencer for alleged assault, and the marshall asked for help from Chauncey Higbee, Robert D. Foster, and Charles Foster. Charles Foster resisted and pointed a pistol at Jo’s chest before it was removed. These three men considered the arrest to be unjust and refused to help, so Jo ordered them arrested too, because they had violated the religious freedom act by disobeying a city official executing his duty. Ep 197.
Jo also incorporated a bunch of businesses. For instance, he set up the Nauvoo Agricultural and Manufacturing Association, with $100,000 of capital stock to be sold to subscribers, and Jo to act as one of the commissioners to sell the stock. He also set up the Nauvoo House Association in much the same way. These businesses didn’t actually have assets; they were just paper companies set up with an arbitrary value of stock, much like the Kirtland Anti-Bank Company had been. When you don’t have money, just print some! It worked so well for Jo before, how could it possibly go awry this time?! Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This was criminal insanity.
We’ve been talking about how the city and city ordinances made the offices of mayor and major-general really powerful and laid the groundwork for him to occupy both offices, but I should add one caveat here, which is that Jo didn’t make himself mayor right away. First he gave that office to his left-hand man, John C. Wreck-it Bennett. Bennett was more politically experienced and better-connected than Jo, and I think Jo was basically apprenticing under Bennett. Besides, Jo already had a lot on his plate running the Church and land deals, so he probably found it easier to have a figurehead running the city than to run it himself anyway. As long as Bennett remained loyal, having him as mayor and lieutenant-general wasn’t functionally any different from Jo doing those jobs himself. They lived together in the Homestead anyway so Jo felt he could trust Bennett for over a year and a half.
With Bennett’s help, Jo spent a couple years consolidating his theocracy in Nauvoo, which came in handy in June 1841 when Missouri officials made an effort to rearrest Jailbreak Jo so he could finally be tried on those treason charges from back in 1838. Unfortunately for Missouri, Jo had planned for this. By June 1841, he not only controlled the Nauvoo city government and the Hancock County government, but also had people in the government of neighboring Adams County, including master of chancery Charles A. Warren. So, when a posse from Missouri arrested Jo and tried to carry him away through Adams County, Warren immediately put into effect the contingency plan for this scenario: he issued a writ of habeas corpus and ordered Jo brought before the Adams County court. The posse complied with the order, and a hearing date was set for a few days later. A writ of habeas corpus, by the way, is a Constitutional right that allows an arrested person to challenge the legality of the arrest, a power Jo REALLY liked and vigorously expanded in Nauvoo on repeated occasions.
Meanwhile, a bunch of Jo’s most dangerous enforcers, including murderers William Hickman and Hosea Stout, showed up to make sure the arresting officers made no attempt to whisk Jo away before the hearing. They found Jo in the charge of Adams County sheriff Thomas King and an officer from Missouri. That night Sheriff King mysteriously fell ill, which wouldn’t be the first time that one of Jo’s enemies got sick or died at a super convenient time. We’ll talk about that in a few episodes as well.
Three days after all this went down, a hearing was held, with notorious friend of the Mormons Stephen A. Douglas sitting as judge. Douglas knew he needed to pander to the Mormons to get their votes in an upcoming election, or else he would lose. The short version of this story is that Jo’s lawyers argued that the Missouri grand jury indictment of Jo for treason was obtained through fraud and bribery and motivated by religious persecution, and that Missouri’s real goal with this indictment was to stir a mob against Joseph Smith to get him vulnerable to vigilante justice. Their argument was bolstered by the fact that an angry mob gathered just outside the courthouse and erected a makeshift gallows. The lawyer for the prosecution, meanwhile, seemed drunk, fell sick in the middle of the proceedings, and fled from the courtroom puking all the way. Once again, super convenient timing.
Ultimately, Judge Douglas ruled that due to a chain-of-custody issue with the indictment, it was no longer valid and Jo had to be set free. Jo marched out of the courtroom surrounded by 60 bodyguards and the local sheriffs to protect him from the mob. To add an extra wrinkle to this story, there was a rumor, reported by Sidney Rigdon, that Illinois governor Thomas Carlin deliberately issued an illegal writ in order to lure Jo to come to this courthouse, but that he had a legal writ ready to be served on Jo after the trial. If there was another writ waiting, Jo’s bodyguards never let the officers get close enough to serve it. But, from all we can tell it was just a rumor. Ep 89.
This was the first, but certainly not the last, time that Jo would exploit the right of habeas corpus to escape arrest in the Nauvoo era. Having used it successfully once, he passed a bunch of laws to expand habeas corpus rights in Nauvoo so that all a prisoner had to do was write an explanation of why they shouldn’t be detained, and the writ of Habeas Corpus would be granted. Arresting officers who refused to honor the city’s habeas corpus writs could be arrested by city authorities and jailed in Nauvoo. Eps 134, 136, 138, 165, 171.
Jo’s Nauvoo theocracy faced one of its first big challenges in May 1842 when John C. Bennett was excommunicated. We’ll get into some of the reasons for that in a coming episode, but for now it’s enough to say that Bennett’s departure left a huge power vacuum in the city. We called it the Bennett Meltdown because the void and destruction left behind after his violent departure and subsequent expose forever scarred the Kingdom on the Mississippi. Jo took over as mayor, but I think he knew he wasn’t really qualified to lead the Nauvoo Legion, which he wanted to be a genuine military force. So he appointed James Arlington Bennet (who by the way was not related to John C.) to replace John C. as major-general and inspector general of the Legion. That ultimately didn’t work out, because James Arlington wasn’t a Mormon, lived a thousand miles from Nauvoo, and wasn’t willing to move to the city in spite of this honorary appointment. But Jo and James Arlington exchanged a bunch of bromance letters in which they fantasized about founding a new empire together in the West.
Weirdly, Jo also appointed another unrelated non-Mormon Bennett who also lived a thousand miles from Nauvoo, as James Arlington’s aide-de-camp. This third Bennett, James Gordon Bennett, was a newspaperman who had written negative articles about Mormonism in the past and who also had no intention of moving to Nauvoo. But like James Arlington, he fantasized about a Western empire and the role he might play in it. He published an article in which he asked, “May not this wonderful Mormon movement be the signal for a new religious revolution? Is not Joe Smith its master-spirit, and General Bennett its military spirit? . . . They can already dictate to the State of Illinois, and if they pursue the same policy in other States, will they not soon dictate to Congress, and decide the Presidency?” The tone of this Bennett’s article is disputed as I tend to read it with a fair bit of snark and sarcasm, however, the sentiment he conveyed was absolutely true. The Mormon empire, and Jo’s penchant for criminal regimes, placed the Mormon kingdom on a dangerous trajectory for “a new religious revolution”.
If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. Was Jo obsessed with guys named Bennett who had delusions of grandeur? Apparently John C. Bennett recommended the other two Bennetts for the job and Jo followed his recommendation, so maybe it was John C. Bennett who was obsessed with other narcissistic Bennetts. They were all kindred scoundrels, Ep 115. For their part, as much as they genuinely liked the idea of a western empire and the military spirit of Mormonism, the Bennetts were mostly just having a bit of fun with Jo. They thought this whole thing was a gas, although James Arlington took it more seriously than James Gordon did. Within a few months, Jo got real and appointed a Nauvoo Mormon named Wilson Law as the Legion’s major-general instead. Ep 132 talks all about these three Bennetts.
As long as we’re in 1842, the year Mary Rudge, the first competitive female chess player who faced purely male competition and won, let’s mention 1842’s gubernatorial election. The Mormons were a powerful swing voting bloc, and they weren’t committed to either major national party, so they courted both. They finally settled on the Democrats, throwing their votes to Thomas Ford for governor of Illinois. They also elected Crazy William Smith, the prophet Jo’s younger brother, as Nauvoo’s representative to the Illinois legislature.
Thomas Ford was a smart guy. He knew that the Mormons had gotten him elected, but he also knew that they were a problem, so he always threaded a very delicate needle in his dealings with them. The court records from the Missouri-Mormon war had been released at the beginning of his campaign year and Ford undoubtedly read the record to understand how the Mormon population could quickly spiral out of control during his tenure. For instance, Jo sent the new Governor Ford a letter asking him to acquit Jo of the outstanding warrant from Missouri signed by his predecessor, Thomas Carlin. Ford replied that he believed the outstanding warrant to be illegal, but that he didn’t think it wise to nullify it by executive order; Jo needed to come to Springfield to have the case heard before the Supreme Court of Illinois. Jo took him up on this the following year; he traveled to Springfield with a lawyer and a hundred bodyguards and successfully got the writ nullified. Ep 162.
By 1843, Jo had intelligence that Missouri officials were crafting an airtight extradition order to come after him again. His response was to establish a new Nauvoo city police force, with a mandate to “arrest all persons who may be found in said city at unusual hours and under suspicious circumstances, and bring such person or persons before the captain of police, who may in his discretion detain such person or persons until such time as the mayor or some alderman can examine into the nature of the charges against him or them.” Now if any marshals, constables, or sheriffs came to Nauvoo looking for Jo, the police could detain them while he made his escape. Jo stacked the police with his closest and most violent cronies, purely Danites through and through.
Around the same time, Nauvoo held its citywide elections. Joseph Smith was elected and all his cronies were given their same positions in the city government they’d held before, or their power was expanded by appointing them to new boards and offices in addition to their old positions. This was no election, it was a fledgling dictatorship masquerading as a democracy. And, more importantly, it was what Jo always wanted.
During the swearing in of the new city councilors, Jo “prophesied” to the city recorder that it would be best for the council never to impose any taxes or fees. If they would just cut all unnecessary expenses and deregulate the city, then “Capitalists would come in from all quarters and build mills, factories and machinery of all kinds; new buildings would arise on every hand, and Nauvoo would become a great city.”
At this time Jo had over $100,000 in debt to his name, mostly because of the land purchases we discussed earlier. He wanted to build up Nauvoo’s economy really fast and finance everything with debt, while also cutting taxes. He had tried to file for bankruptcy in 1842, but was unsuccessful. It’s incredible, isn’t it? Jo started as a poor boy in rags who thought socialism was great, but once he climbed the social ladder through a steady and constant onslaught of lies and manipulation, he’s a libertarian capitalist. So weird how we can see that transition right in front of us. If only twitter were a thing during the Nauvoo era, Jo would make a great presidential candidate.
So, no taxes, tons of debt, no factories in the city, no wealth coming into the city, most of the converts were destitute before they made it to Nauvoo regardless of whether they came from Missouri or Europe. How was Jo running his empire? More lies, and more counterfeit.
Let’s start with the lies. Jo had this hotel called the Nauvoo House, and he wanted it built with volunteer labor. So Jo took the Lord’s name in vain and told everyone that it was a commandment from God to build it, and that it was just as important as the temple. Here are his exact words: “The building of the Nauvoo House is just as sacred in my view as the Temple. I want the Nauvoo House built; it must be built, our salvation depends upon it. . . . Brethren, hurry on to the Nauvoo House thus, and you will built it. You will then be on Pisgah’s top, and the great men will come from the four quarters of the earth, will pile the gold and silver into it till you are weary of receiving them.” I feel like that quote encapsulated Jo’s life more than any of his statements, except maybe telling people he has more to boast of than Jesus. This is a close second. I command you in the name of god to build me a hotel so I can get rich. If he tried that manipulation tactic in 1826 he’d be laughed out of town… he was laughed out of town. Well, not really laughed so much as chased with torches and pitchforks, but you get what I mean. But, since he’d built his reputation and was surrounded by legions of sycophants, this was regarded as legitimately the words of the almighty god.
What more do we need to understand Jo’s motivations than him telling everybody to hurry up and finish the Nauvoo House so he could finally be rich? That kind of says it all, doesn’t it?
Jo also told the Saints to bring all their gold and silver and their building materials and donate them to the project. If they refused, they were basically stealing from God. “If any are hungry, or naked,” he said, “don’t take away the brick, timber, and materials that belong to that [Nauvoo] house, but come and tell me, and I will divide with them to the last morsel, and then if the man is not satisfied, I will kick his backside.” That started generous, but once again ended with violent resolution. If somebody is hungry, don’t use materials designated for the Nauvoo house to feed yourself, I’ll take care of all your problems. I’ll feed you. I’ll be your savior. And if you aren’t satisfied, prepare to have your backside kicked. If they aren’t killed by your kindness, kill them with your Danites. Ep 139.
Obviously in addition to taking donations for the Nauvoo House, Jo was also taking donations for the temple. The temple building committee sometimes took donations in money, but usually in goods. Then it would issue people who worked on the temple some vouchers in exchange for their work, which they could use to purchase goods from the temple building committee store. This had the effect of raising capital, getting labor done on the temple at nearly no cost, and created a new form of money to exchange, the temple store vouchers. Once people realized the Nauvoo House and Agriculture certificates were worthless, this new system became the new form of money that’s not actually money.
Thus far this was pretty brilliant, but if we consider the implications for just a second it’s incredibly manipulative. Any donations made to the temple building committee were recorded in the Book of the Law of the Lord, or the BoLoL as we’ve called it on the show. Jo portrayed the BoLoL as an earthly equivalent of the Book of Life. If your name was recorded in it then you were saved, and what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. If your name wasn’t recorded in it, then you were not allowed access to the temple. So this was basically a spiritual extortion scheme. Ep 191.
This, and many other schemes predicated on pure lies were one aspect of financing the Mormon empire of debt. What about the counterfeit, the bogus? Well, around the same time that Jo created this temple committee scheme to get people to volunteer work and possessions and telling the city council not to raise taxes, he also seems to have developed a pretty large counterfeiting operation. He’d probably dabbled in this before, but in 1843 bogus money was everywhere in Nauvoo. Some of the hottest collector items among Mormon artifact collectors today are Nauvoo bogus coins. Bogus means counterfeit coins. Jo recruited a bunch of different people into his bogus-making operation, including not only Mormons like Theodore Turley and Peter Haws, but also non-Mormons like Joseph H. Jackson, Edward Bonney, and Marinus G. Eaton, an old family friend from Vermont. We don’t have a ton of details about this operation because it was understandably very secretive, but there’s enough evidence to say it existed. Eventually the whole Quorum of the Twelve apostles, in addition to Joseph H. Jackson, would get indicted for counterfeiting after Jo’s death. Use a counterfeit $20 bill in Minneapolis and it's a death sentence, run an entire counterfeiting operation and people call you the prophet of the restoration and sing praise to you every Sunday. America’s pretty great. White collar crime like this was simply Jo’s forte. It was how he lived. He breathed criminality, he slept on a bed of lies.
Jo’s avarice for power couldn’t be reined in. Let’s hone in on politics to run us out for today’s episode and mark complete the first in our 10-part series to finally bury Jo and his legacy once and for all. In 1843, the Whig candidate for Congress in Nauvoo’s Congressional district was Cyrus Walker, said to be the best criminal lawyer in western Illinois. By this time Jo had been involved in dozens of legal cases and knew the power of having a good lawyer, so he promised Walker the Mormon vote in exchange for Walker being his attorney after Jo was arrested in Dixon, Illinois and rescued by his Danites. Eps 144-147. Walker agreed. He made Mormon rights a prominent part of his political platform, and stopped campaigning and worked the rest of the election season as Jo’s lawyer. Jo swore multiple times from the pulpit that the Mormons would vote for Walker.
But while Walker offered a carrot, the Democrats offered a carrot and a stick. The Democratic candidate Joseph Hoge also made Mormon rights a part of his platform; that was Hoge’s carrot. The stick was the threat of dispatching the Illinois militia. In June 1843, Jo was arrested by sheriffs from Missouri, but a Nauvoo court ordered his release under a writ of habeas corpus. The sheriffs then went to the Democratic Illinois governor and asked him to call out the militia to go raid Nauvoo and take Jo into custody.
Two days before the election, a prominent Democrat promised a Mormon agent that the Democrats wouldn’t call out the militia if the Mormons voted Democrat. So the day before the election, Jo flipped and told his followers that his brother Hyrum had had a revelation that they should vote for the Democrats instead of Walker. Hoge trounced Walker in Hancock County. The Whigs lost their minds, and the Whig newspapers started a full-fledged campaign to expose Joseph Smith and bring him to justice. Agitation by Whig newspapers probably contributed to Jo’s assassination 9 months later and certainly became a pea in the bed of Democrat Governor Ford’s and Jo’s friendship. So much for Hyrum’s revelation. Ep 162.
In late December, Jo undertook an even bigger political project than manipulating an election. He dispatched Orson Pratt to lobby Illinois legislators to pass into law a document titled the Memorial to Congress. The memorial claimed that because of the persecution they had constantly faced, the Mormons and their city of Nauvoo should be treated not as a city, but as a sovereign US Territory. It also proposed that the mayor of Nauvoo be authorized to call upon the US Army to defend against mobs and state militias, and that the Nauvoo Legion be paid wages by Illinois state taxes rather than by taxes paid by the citizens of Nauvoo. Considering that the non-Mormons of Illinois were already outraged about how much power the Nauvoo charter gave Joseph Smith, this attempt to expand that power to the federal level was a pretty brazen and frankly pretty absurd power play. Eps 165, 197, 201.
And now, finally, we come to 1844 and Jo Smith’s run for the presidency of the United States. 1844 is also the first year a telegraph was sent by Samuel Morse. The 1844 election pitted Martin Van Buren for the Democrats against Henry Clay for the Whigs. Both Van Buren and Clay had rejected Mormon requests for redress after the Mormon War in Missouri-- Van Buren coldly and Clay snarkily. Jo refused to support either candidate, and instead he announced himself as an independent candidate for president of the United States. His platform, ghostwritten by W. W. Phelps, included some noble sentiments like buying all the black people out of slavery, but also some terrible sentiments like expansion into Canada and Mexico and annexation of Oregon and Texas.
And this was no token campaign effort, either. Jo dispatched nearly 300 missionaries to every corner of the US to promote his campaign, including such prominent church leaders as Sidney Rigdon and Parley P. Pratt. Although Jo didn’t have a chance, the Mormons seem to have believed he could win. On January 29, 1844, Jo recorded in his journal that he drank a toast to the statement, “May Nauvoo become the empire seat of government.” which provides a window into his truly revolutionary mindset if one of his first plans was to relocate the national capitol.
In connection with Jo’s presidential campaign, he also founded a secret council called the Council of Fifty. Ep 168, 169, 170. The Council of Fifty was constituted as a shadow government of the kingdom of God on earth. Members were sworn to secrecy under penalty of losing their heads. Not satisfied with shooting for president of the United States, Jo had himself anointed king of the kingdom of God on April 11, 1844. Interestingly, the Council of Fifty included three non-Mormons, including two of Jo’s counterfeiting buddies and an inventor named Uriah Brown, from whom Jo hoped to buy the designs for an experimental flamethrower weapon which could be mounted on a submarine, which he would sell to the Russian Emperor to form an alliance to overthrow the powers that be.
Any analysis of Joseph Smith and early Mormonism leaves many questions and unsolvable puzzles. There are, however, many trends and actions we can use the basis of economic analysis to understand, follow the money. With money comes power and the inverse is often true as well. Jo’s pure, unadulterated, rapaciousness drove so many of his actions and decisions which preceded his actions. Whether it was power, money, possessions, women (which we didn’t even get into this episode), followers, land, public adoration, or any other quantifiable commodity, more was never enough for Joseph Smith. More, more, MORE! He could never be satisfied. He was proud of what he made and did, but jealous of what he could make or do. He never acquired his wealth through honest, hard labor; every moment of his life was marked by dishonesty and quick, easy money that often wasn’t his. He convinced some wealthy parishioners to devote every worldly possession to building up the kingdom of god and when that wasn’t enough he sought consumption of every institution known to humanity in the 1840s with a deeply-rooted desire for himself to be on top of his own system of theocratic governance. The voice of his people didn’t matter and when Jo was challenged he was likely to lash out and act violently to get his way, whether that was kicking the backsides of his followers or committing war crimes against militias of a state, it didn’t matter. Jo’s voice was the voice of god and nothing would satisfy his manifest destiny of materialism and transcendent authoritarianism.
I want to tell you so many more stories from early Mormon history, but I realize that no matter how many pages of script I write, it’s simply never enough.
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