Death Cannot Conquer The Hero: Joseph Smith’s Body and The Evolution of an Icon

*Note: This is introductory research and makes no claims to exhaustiveness

The body of Joseph Smith plays a prominent role in Mormon lore about the early Saints.  The early Saints often commented on how they expected the Prophet to look, walk, or talk.  Yet how the Saints perceived Joseph’s body shape-shifted as the worlds in which they lived changed.   Embedded in Joseph’s body (or the memory thereof) are the fears, insecurities, and hopes for the Mormon community in the 19th-century.

As always, memory troubles the historical narrative.  The Joseph depicted before the 1844 assassination differs a great deal from the Joseph remembered after it.  All accounts of his childhood come to us from late reminiscences that bear the marks of a generation of memory-making.  Pomeroy Tucker recalled Joseph to be an unimposing figure: “a dull-eyed, flaxen-haired, ragged boy” thought to be “proverbaly good-natured…very rarely if ever indulging in any comabtive spirit toward any.”  Another neighbor remembered him to be “big-bodied with small hands for his size” (John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, 37).  Joseph’s friend and benefactor, Newell Knight, recalled that one of Joseph’s most “peculiar characteristics” was his physical prowess: “I never knew any one to gain advantage over him” (Newell Knight Autobiographical Sketch).  Joseph’s mother presents a much more intimate and vulnerable picture of young Joseph. Lucy tells the story of her son’s string of childhood illnesses: typhus, infection, and pain marked his childhood (Lucy M. Smith, Biographical Sketches, chpt. 16).Having dodged several assassination attempts, illness, and mind-numbingly painful surgery, Joseph was acutely aware his own body’s vulnerability.


Joseph Smith’s Leg Surgery

The first real evidence of notice observers gave to Joseph Smith’s body surfaced once Joseph hssumed his role as president of the Church.  When Jonathan Crosby met him, he thought him nice enough but a “queer man for a prophet.” When Brigham and Joseph Young met him in 1832, they met Joseph while he was he chopping wood.  Joseph Young was taken aback at the spectacle: “I expected…I should find him in his sanctum dispensing spiritual blessings.” (John Turner, Brigham Young, 31). That Joseph displayed physical prowess shocked the Young brothers but not to the point of repulsion.  Brigham just picked up an axe to help out.

His ordinariness caused Saints and outsiders to question the exact nature of this strange religious sect; when Joseph wanted to toy with pretentious pastors, he asked them to engage with him in physical competitions of strength.   Yet observers both within and outside the Church recalled the almost paralyzing steadiness of his eyes. With the “serene and steady penetrating glance of his eye,” Parley P. Pratt wrote, he could “penetrate the deepest abyss of the human heart, gaze into eternity, penetrate the heavens, and comprehend all worlds.”  A St. Louis newspaper editor also noticed that “the Prophet’s most remarkable feature is his eye…almost veiled by the longest, thickest light lashes you ever saw belonging to a man” (Henry Lewis, The Valley of the Mississippi Illustrated, 250). Yet Joseph was acutely aware of his own physical imperfections.  His childhood leg surgery had left him walking with a limp noticeable to all.  An 1832 tarring and feathering broke loose one of Joseph Smith’s teeth, leaving his voice with a distinctive whistle for the next ten years.  But his reputation as an athlete became renowned, even besting a Missouri guard in wrestling in spite of his own weakened condition (Baugh, “Joseph Smith’s Athletic Nature”).  His body was not Olympian; it was rough-hewn, revealing the vulnerabilities of a frontier life coupled with the drive and dedication his followers knew so well.

Mastery: 1844-1900

In June 1844, Joseph Smith submitted himself to arrest at Carthage Jail.  He had long understood that he had a limited lease on life. His childhood traumas had taught him that much.  But it wasn’t in his temperament to roll over and die, even when he knew what fate had in store.  While awaiting trial at Carthage Jail, Joseph had a small pistol smuggled into his cell, but the gun misfired, leaving Joseph severely outarmed.  He was dead in a manner of moments.


The Death Masks of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

The funeral procession seared the Saints.  Zina Jacobs, one of Joseph’s plural wives, recognized how vulnerable the Saints actually were: “Little did my heart ever think that mine eyes should witness this awful seen [sic]” (Jacobs Diary, June 29, 1844).  Lucinda Harris, also a plural wife, was seen “standing at the head of Joseph Smith’s body, her face covered [as] her whole frame convulsed with weeping” (“The Prophet’s Death,” Deseret Evening News, 1875).  Fearful of desecration, the Saints hid the corpses in the Mansion House while bags of sand were “buried” in the public tomb.  The bodies were later buried in the Nauvoo House Garden.  That fall, Emma Smith requested that they be exhumed and reburied underneath the “bee house.”   Before the burial, the gravediggers cut a lock of Joseph hair and gave it to Joseph’s pain-scarred widow.  The destruction of the house and erosion of the soil made it impossible for later family members to identify the site.  The ongoing efforts to move the corpses prevented the Saints from sacralizing (or antagonists from desecrating) any gravesite. The graves were not be marked until the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints feared that floods would destroy the corpses.  For the next 75 years, few knew exactly where Joseph’s and Hyrum’s bodies rested. In 1928, the RLDS church exhumed the corpses and  marked the grave (Susan Easton Black, “The Tomb of Joseph”)

In spite of his efforts to develop an ecclesiastical bureaucracy that would survive him, his death dashed the Church into competing factions and left the Saints craving vengeance.  Joseph had taught the Saints that they could establish an eternal network that could transcend death. But  Joseph was ripped from the Saints in the walls of a dingy prison.  Left vulnerable, the Saints were forced to accept or reject the theology their slain leader had given them.

In the wake of Joseph’s death, the Saints needed to believe that their leader could not be cut down so easily.  Memorials of the slain prophet emphasized that Joseph continued to exercise power over the Saints beyond the grave. “Tell the world,” W.W. Phelps said at Joseph’s funeral, “that the great name of Joseph Smith will go down to unborn worlds.” Joseph “is an angel now.”  The “vials of wrath ought to be poured out upon the wicked…who can do it better than Joseph?”  (Phelps funeral sermon, June 29, 1844).   In 1847, Brigham remembered nostalgically how Joseph could take profound truths, “circumscribe [them], & wound it round his finger.” Joseph’s knowledge rivaled “the Angels that av been myriads of years with God” (General Church Minutes, May 23, 1847).

As rivaling factions jockeyed to take over the Church, the Saints evoked the spirit of Joseph to establish the prophetic legitimacy.  At various times, followers of  claimed to have a visionary experience from Joseph Smith.  In 1855, George Miller, a former follower of Brigham Young, ‘”saw Joseph Smith in the heavens in a glorified state.” Joseph spoke to Miller:  “God bless you, brother Miller. I am instructing my successor in the prophetic office, how to manage and conduct the affairs of the church.”  Miller understood the message as an endorsement of the Strangites (George Miller, Letter, July 4, 1855).  A supporter of the Twelve in Cincinnati saw Joseph “appear[ing] unto me” as he “stretched a rod across the City” to protect her from the impending floods of December 1847. (Cincinnati Member, Letter to Twelve, Cincinnati, 1848).  Sidney Rigdon claimed that it had been “shown to him that this Church must be built up to Joseph and that all the blessings we receive must come through Joseph.”  Rigdon “had been ordained [spokesman] to Joseph and he must come to Nauvoo & see that the Church was governed in a proper manner” (William Clayton Journal, August 7, 1844). Brigham Young convinced the Saints that the Twelve held the right to leadership.  Some witnesses remember seeing Young miraculously take on Joseph Smith’s voice and appearance (Jorgenson, “A Collective Spiritual Witness”).  Seeing the countenance or hearing the voice of Joseph Smith had become the standard measure of legitimacy in the post-martydom period.

Joseph’s presence was felt in the realm of Mormon popular and visual culture as well. Most Saints had to rely on word of mouth regarding the details of the martyrdom, but details of the killings had become a part of the Latter-day Saints’ oral culture.  Early in 1845, Hosea Stout saw the martyrdom’s first artistic rendering done by W.W. Major (Hosea Stout diary, March 7, 1845).  On August 6–only two days before Brigham Young had miraculously assumed Joseph’s appearance, Stout paid 12.5 cents to see  Philo Dibble’s traveling lecture series exhibiting artist Robert Campell’s “splendid painting representing THE MASSACRE of JOSEPH AND HYRUM SMITH” (Nauvoo Neighbor, July 30, 1845).

In 1846, Brigham’s Saints left these relics of the restoration behind, but their bodies continued to serve as rallying icons for the Saints’ still simmering anger towards their persecutors.  It was commonplace to speak of avenging the “blood of the prophets”–“the best blood of the nineteenth-century” (D&C 135:6).  The Smith brothers’ bodies lay as a hidden–but altogether real–testament to the wickedness of the United States; their murders had sealed its fate (Deseret News, May 30, 1855, 4).

But the martyrdom needed to be visualized in order for it to be internalized.    In 1848, church leaders gave their official approval to  to Dibble’s presentation.  He showed the Saints the Smith brothers’ death masks, a painting of Joseph Smith before the Nauvoo Legion and a depiction of his death (Stout had initially opposed being included in the painting, for it also depicted men who “betrayed the prophet & patriarch to death & also other men who had disgraced their calling as officers”).   For the first time, the Saints as a body were allowed to visualize the death of their beloved leader.  Wilford Woodruff thought the exhibition to be “one of the most interesting sceneries ever presented to man” (Wilford Woodruff journal, April 7, 1848).  Even the national gallery of art in London could not compare.    The presentation was so popular that John Taylor used the death masks to make small busts of the brothers to be sold to the Utah Saints.   Dibble included other paintings in hispresentations, but those of Joseph Smith’s life and death were by far the most popular.

By the end of the century, Joseph assumed a stature that transcended mere mortality. He first book length hagiography of

Cannon: "His physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit"

Cannon: “His physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit”

Joseph Smith was written by a man who never knew him: George Q. Cannon.  Relying upon the memories of an aging population long molded by persecution and the rose-colored lens of hindsight.  Cannon said of Joseph: “His physical person was the fit habitation of his exalted spirit” that seemed to “combine all attractions and excellence” (Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, xxv-xxvi).  Dibble’s exhibition had remade Joseph into a demigod, the realization of Mormons’ hopes to attain the status of deity.

Though flawed, Joseph’s body grew in the public eye from being odd, “queer,” and ordinary to being an evidence of God’s mandate.  No matter one’s brand of Mormonism, Joseph’s presence validated them. Joseph Smith’s body–whether as a corporeal reality, a supranatural spiritual sensation, or a dearly-held memory–demonstrated the dangerous realities of mortality while, at the same time, presenting the Saints evidence of God’s mandate; no matter one’s brand of Mormonism, Joseph’s presence validated them.



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