Abstract: A well-known account from early Church history describes how, in the spring of 1844, two young men, Dennison Lott Harris and Robert Scott, helped protect Joseph Smith from dissidents plotting against his life. Almost completely unknown, however, is Dennison’s account of his subsequent role as a firsthand witness to events that appear to have taken place on the morning of 26 March 1844, just prior to the meeting in which Joseph Smith gave his “Last Charge” to the Quorum of the Twelve and “roll[ed] the kingdom off [his] shoulders” onto theirs in the presence of the Council of Fifty. This article provides the background necessary to understand all these events and publishes for the first time a complete, annotated transcript of Dennison’s 1881 verbal statement to First Presidency counselor Joseph F. Smith. In addition, the article includes a discussion of the significance of apostolic succession then and now, drawing in part on the encounters of Catholic scholars John M. Reiner and Stephen H. Webb with Mormonism. In the Appendix, I reproduce an 1884 article from The Contributor that gives a secondhand version of Dennison’s account of the conspiracy of Nauvoo.
For those who embrace the claims of the Restoration, there is no more significant event in the months immediately preceding the martyrdom of Joseph Smith than what occurred on 26 March 1844, when the Prophet announced to a gathering of trusted brethren that he had conferred all the keys and powers that he held on selected members of the Twelve, assuring continuity in the leadership of the Church after his impending death. We possess several firsthand accounts of the meeting where this took place.1 However, because none of them were written until several months afterward,2 and since all of them were recorded by [Page 24]parties with potential self-interest due to their roles as participants, some have expressed frustration and doubt as to whether or not the incidents really happened as they have been reported. For example, a member of an online discussion group wrote the following:3
I hope I don’t come across as argumentative, but I am hoping we have something other than the later recollections of those who had an incentive to remember a secret meeting where Joseph gave them, rather than their competitors to church leadership, special authority. It seems rather convenient to me that these recollections occur as their authority to lead the church is challenged. Nobody can remember a date? Nobody can provide meeting minutes, despite the fact that meetings minutes were religiously kept in other circumstances? I mean, we have loads of minutes from the Nauvoo High Council, the Council of Fifty, Relief Society, sealings, second anointings, endowments, etc., but nothing at all from the time when Joseph provided the element necessary for the work to continue after he died? If there is nothing we know of, then I suppose I have to live with that fact. I wanted to see if anyone else knew of something I had missed. Apparently not.
Actually, there is an account of these events that addresses some of these concerns. A young man named Dennison Lott Harris appears to have been a firsthand witness of the preliminaries to the Council of Fifty meeting where Joseph Smith gave his “Last Charge” to the Quorum of the Twelve, stating that he had “roll[ed] the kingdom off [his] shoulders”4 onto theirs. Although other contemporaries testifiied of having heard the Prophet repeat similar words on other occasions,5 Dennison Lott Harris is currently the only outside observer who claims to have heard Joseph Smith speak of the event on the very morning it occurred, seemingly just prior to the “Last Charge” meeting itself. Although Dennison’s account was not recorded until decades after the events he reports took place, I find his description both a good fit to known circumstances and not implausible with respect to aspects of the situation for which we have no other informants. Speaking of the portion of Dennison’s account that tells of the conspiracy of Nauvoo, Brian C. Hales concludes:6
As a historical document, it has been largely dismissed because it came late … and because it contained information that was not verified by corroborative sources. Notwithstanding this general reaction, my research indicates that its reliability may be greater than previously assumed.
[Page 25]Following a brief overview of the statement and its significance, I will discuss its historical background and provenance. I will describe some of the difficulties with the statement. Then I will provide a conjectural timeline of events, followed by an annotated transcript of the original 1881 statement. The article continues with reflections on the significance of apostolic succession in the restored Church, with a focus on the encounters of Catholic scholars John M. Reiner and Stephen H. Webb with Mormonism. In Appendices 1 and 2, I reproduce an 1884 article that gives a secondhand account of Dennison’s story about the conspiracy of Nauvoo and a statement by its author.7 Appendix 3 provides a perspective on the 1844 apostasy of William Law.
Dennison Lott Harris, 1825–1885, son of Emer and Deborah (Lott) Harris and nephew of Book of Mormon witness Martin Harris, gathered with his parents to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. He was nineteen years old in March 1844, when the events in Nauvoo recounted in his statement seem to have taken place. Harris came west with the Saints to Utah in 1852, served a mission to the Navajo in 1854, participated in the Echo Canyon campaign of the 1857-58 Utah War, and brought provisions to the handcart companies on three different occasions. After a time living in Virgin City and Paragonah, he moved to Monroe. At the age of fifty-two, he was set apart as the bishop in Monroe and served until his death in 1885.8
Dennison’s statement begins by telling of how he, along with his friend Robert Scott, was asked by the Prophet to attend and report the proceedings of a series of meetings in which disaffected members of the Church proclaimed Joseph Smith as a fallen prophet and were plotting to take his life. Afterward, the Prophet made them promise to say nothing about their role in these events for many years, knowing that any disclosure might endanger their lives. However, in 1881, Dennison arranged for President Joseph F. Smith to hear his story as secretary to the First Presidency George F. Gibbs took it down in shorthand. Although the original statement he made about the “conspiracy of Nauvoo” has never before been published in its entirety, various versions of the story of his heroic role in defending the life of Joseph Smith have circulated publicly since 1884.9
What seems to have been forgotten, so far as I have been able to determine, is Dennison’s account of a second incident that appears to have taken place later in the same month.10 Dennison tells of how one morning, as he passed Joseph Smith’s Red Brick Store in a wagon, he was asked by [Page 26]Elder Willard Richards to assist him in filling “barrels and buckets” of water and hauling them to the second floor of the store for use in giving the apostles “their endowments.”11 After they had finished, Dennison remembered the Prophet declaring, in words reminiscent of later written testimonies of some of the Twelve: “This day I am going to roll this kingdom off my shoulders on to the shoulders of these my brethren [i.e., selected members of the Quorum of the Twelve who were present at the time], for them to preach the Gospel and gather Israel and build up the Kingdom upon the foundation which I have laid.”12
If taken at face value, the incidents that Dennison describes seem to have occurred as part of a prologue to the meeting where Joseph Smith delivered his “Last Charge”13 to nine members of the Twelve in the presence of other brethren who had gathered at his invitation. More specifically, most scholars now accept that the “Last Charge” was given on 26 March 1844 at the morning session14 of a meeting of the Council of Fifty, an organization that Joseph Smith had recently formed by divine commandment “to establish the political kingdom of God on the earth.”15 Leonard Arrington summarizes the key moments of the “Last Charge” as follows:16
As if he had a foreboding of his impending death, Smith … gave them a dramatic charge to “bear off the Kingdom.” As they later recounted the moving experience, the Prophet seemed depressed and opened his heart about his “presentiments of the future.” He explained that “some important scene is near to take place,” that perhaps he would be killed, and that as a precaution … the Twelve [had received]17 all other keys and powers that he held. Then, if God wills, “I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared. …” He counseled them about what lay ahead, then continued,18
saying, while he walked the floor and threw back the collar of his coat upon his shoulders, “I roll the burthen and responsibility of leading this Church off from my shoulders on to yours. Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest a while.”… After he had thus spoken, he continued to walk the floor, saying: “Since I have rolled the burthen off from my shoulders I feel as light as a cork. I feel that I am free. I thank my God for this deliverance.[Page 27]
Circumstances in which the statement was made. Immediately prior to the morning session of the Ephraim Utah Stake Conference on Sunday, 15 May 1881, Dennison Lott Harris, Bishop of the Monroe, Utah Ward, approached First Presidency counselor Joseph F. Smith with a request. For nearly four decades Bishop Harris had held in confidence information about his role as a nineteen-year-old boy in two important incidents that had taken place in the spring of 1844 in Nauvoo. At last, he felt it was time to relate these stories to President Smith so they could be preserved permanently as part of the history of the Church.
Accordingly, after the morning meeting, Bishop Harris accompanied President Smith, Elder Franklin Spencer, and secretary to the First Presidency George F. Gibbs to the home of Ephraim South Ward Bishop Carl C. N. Dorius. Over a meal between conference sessions, Bishop Harris related his stories while Brother Gibbs took notes in Pittman shorthand. Expressing subdued frustration at the constrained circumstances under which he was obliged to do his work, Gibbs commented: “As the afternoon meeting had been announced to commence half an hour earlier than usual (so as to give Prest. Taylor and party an opportunity to make Moroni and Fountain Green that evening on their [way] home) the time at our disposal to hear Bro. H. also to eat dinner was not sufficient to enable him to do justice to it. He told it in his own way and had to hurry at that.”24 No doubt the typescript was made after Gibbs returned to his office in Salt Lake City.[Page 28]
Description of the document. The only extant version of the verbal statement exists as an eight-page typescript original preserved at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah.25 The document was [Page 29]formally reviewed and cleared for release in January 2015, and on 29 March 2016, I received written confirmation that the document was out of copyright and could be used without restriction.26
On 23 March 2010, I was kindly assisted by Jay Burrup of the Church History Library, who had previously catalogued the Joseph F. Smith papers, in an effort to locate a manuscript behind the typescript.27 After a preliminary search, I found an affadavit from a church member regarding early incidents in church history that, like the Dennison Harris statement, had been recorded by George F. Gibbs in 1881.28 The affidavit was in the form of a longhand manuscript in the handwriting of Gibbs, giving us hope that a similar manuscript might exist for the Harris statement. However, after completing a more complete search for an original manuscript, Burrup wrote me to say that he “had no luck in finding the document in the Joseph F. Smith papers.”29 In light of our lack of success, Burrup mentioned the likelihood that Gibbs typed the Harris statement directly from his shorthand notes and then disposed of them immediately afterward.
Related accounts. In a statement made on 8 August 1932, Horace Cummings, the author of the better-known 1884 Contributor version of Harris’ story, said that the genesis of his article was when he personally heard Dennison Lott Harris relate the story of the conspiracy of Nauvoo to his parents “during the spring conference of 1883.” He also stated:30
Before submitting the article to the press, … at the request of President John Taylor, I read it to him line by line as he was in Nauvoo at the time the narration deals with and the incident happened and of course was with the Prophet at the time he was killed. He was familiar with many of the things to which the article refers and added certain elements to the story. When completed, President Taylor gave it his hearty approval for publication as a valuable document concerning Church history which had never been previously published.
Within the annotations for the transcript of the Harris statement given later in the present article, I include a few minor details that appear in the Contributor article that are not part of the 1881 narration.31 Significantly, however, although the 1884 article by Cummings was said to have been derived from an independent telling of the story, it matches the 1881 account closely in structure, and in some places the wording is nearly identical. Tellingly, the misspellings of two of the names of the conspirators given in the 1884 article match the 1881 account precisely.
[Page 30]If Horace Cummings had no access to the 1881 account when he wrote his 1884 article, we must suppose that Harris remembered and repeated significant portions of the account nearly verbatim in each instance, and that the substance was captured exactingly in the separate notes of Gibbs and Cummings. However, it seems unlikely that Cummings would have been able to capture Harris’ words in longhand with the same precision and detail that Gibbs captured them in shorthand. In addition, while I see no reason to question Cummings’ statement that he read the article to President John Taylor, I am doubtful about his claim that “certain elements” were added to the account as a result. In comparing the 1881 and 1884 accounts, I saw no instance where details about the events not mentioned in the 1881 statement might have been known independently by President Taylor and contributed to the 1884 article.
Cummings asserts that sometime prior to 1877 another version of Dennison’s account was told to Brigham Young and recorded by George F. Gibbs, at that time acting secretary to the First Presidency:32
The first time that it [i.e., Harris’ story of the conspiracy] was revealed was at the dedication of the St. George Temple, when Brother Harris revealed it to President Brigham Young, whereupon President Young called in Brother Gibbs who took the narration in shorthand for church record purposes.
Cummings’ assertion that Dennison related the story to Brigham Young “at the dedication of the St. George Temple” resembles an undocumented Harris tradition that was published in 1983 by a family biographer:33
The year before Brigham Young died, Den invited him to stay at the Harris family home in Monroe while enroute to St. George. Den then related the foregoing story. President Young said it cleared up many otherwise unanswered questions concerning the plots against the Prophet.
The fact that no other record made by George F. Gibbs of Dennison’s account has been found other than the one recorded in Ephraim in 1881 raises a question as to whether or not Cummings may have conflated two different events or perhaps was mistaken altogether about a meeting having taken place between Harris and Brigham Young. In the records relating to the 1881 and 1884 accounts, there is no evidence to suggest that either President John Taylor, President Joseph F. Smith, or George F. Gibbs were aware of an earlier version of the story when they heard it in 1881 or 1883.[Page 31]
Dating of the events described by Harris. Harris states that the events relating to the conspiracy meetings occurred “in the spring of 1844.”34 If we accept his recollection that the meetings of the conspirators took place on three successive Sundays at face value, and if we assume that the last of the three meetings took place one week prior to Joseph Smith’s public disclosure of the conspiracy on the temple stand on 24 March, we arrive at the conjectural timeline that follows in the next section. This timeline also accords with Harris’ remembrance of an encounter with Joseph Smith and the Twelve at the Red Brick Store happened “two or three weeks” or “a few months” after the conspiracy meetings.
Unfortunately, William Law, who seems to be the only diarist among the conspirators, has a gap in his 1844 journal for the presumed dates of the conspiracy meetings. The last entry prior to the lacuna is 13 January, five days after Law heard from Joseph Smith that he had been released as counselor in the First Presidency. Entries in the journal resume on 29 March, five days after Law had been publicly named by Joseph Smith as one of the group who had conspired against his life.35
Another possibility for dating the meeting assumes that Dennison was mistaken about the order of events, and that the first conspiracy meeting he attended took place in April, following his encounter with Joseph Smith and the Twelve at the Red Brick Store on 26 March. William Law was excommunicated on 18 April and records in his 21 June 1844 diary entry that: “Since our Conference April 21st we have held public meetings every sabbath day.”36 The Warsaw Signal reported that on 12 May 1844 “there were about three hundred assembled at Mr. Law’s house in Nauvoo,”37 roughly matching Dennison’s statement that for the third meeting they attended in the home of William Law, the crowd numbered “in the neighborhood of 200 persons.”38
Mitigating against the likelihood that the meetings Harris described occurred in April, however, is not only that such a timeline contradicts the sequence of events in the Harris statement, but also that the meetings from 21 April onward were described as being “public” (per William Law). This stands in contrast both to Harris’ descriptions of the closely guarded meetings he attended, and also to a separate description of a “secret” meeting to be held in March (per Joseph Jackson).39 Moreover, the primary concerns of the April meetings seem to have been plans for the publication of the Nauvoo Expositor and reform — the organization of a new church, with William Law at its head.40 In his report, Harris describes no such agenda. Instead, his statement focuses on efforts to stir up additional support to help [Page 32]carry out with immediacy the murderous intentions that were fomented by individuals enraged at Joseph Smith and his teachings. A conspiracy of this sort, forged in secret meetings, is not only reported by Harris, but also in two separate affadavits, made in late March by men loyal to the Prophet and exposed to the public by Joseph Smith on the 24th of the same month. That the series of sabbath meetings at the Law home that began on 21 April paralleled those described by Harris with regard to timing, location, and estimated number of attendees might simply imply that the public meetings that began on 21 April resumed the same pattern that had been established previously for a series of secret meetings held in March.
With respect to the timing of the events reported as having taken place at the Red Brick Store, Dennison seems confident that they occurred after the conspiracy meetings. The imprecision in his description (“a few months after the thing I have related – perhaps it was two or three weeks, I do not now remember, I did not rivet dates on my mind”41) is not surprising, given the passage of time and the fact that exact dates are more easily forgotten than other, more salient details of personal events. If we can trust Dennison’s recollection of the Prophet’s words (“This day I am going to roll this kingdom off my shoulders…”42), he would seem to have been speaking on 26 March 1844, consistent with scholarly consensus on the dating of the “Last Charge” meeting.43 Based on that assumption — and because it is known that the meeting started at 9:00 am that morning44 — the encounter with Dennison would have had to have taken place prior to that time. The need for some specific instruction to the Twelve prior to the morning session with the entire Council does not seem implausible. Moreover, it would have been prudent for the attendees of such a confidential meeting to stagger their arrivals so as not to attract undue attention.
Although the possibility that Joseph Smith’s statement to Harris about his delegation of responsibility to the Twelve occurred sometime after 26 March 1844 cannot be ruled out, it seems unlikely to me that Dennison would have misremembered the gist of the Prophet’s implication that his charge to the Twelve was imminent, rather than retrospective.
Performing an endowment on the same day as the “Last Charge” meeting. Dennison Harris understood that the barrels of water he helped gather and raise to the upper story of the Red Brick Store were needed because “Brother Joseph wanted to give them (the Twelve) their endowments.”45 That the Prophet had requested James H. Rollins to help bring water to the upper floor of the Red Brick Store for endowments on at least one other occasion lends credence to the kind of situation described in the Harris account.46 However, Dennison’s understanding that the endowments were to be given to the Twelve is a puzzle because[Page 33]
all the apostles who were or could have been present for the “Last Charge” meeting had already been endowed, and all except Amasa Lyman also had been sealed to their wives and had received the fulness of the priesthood.48 Although one might argue that the endowment might have been (re)done for the sake of the Twelve at an additional time for symbolic or instructional purposes, on this occasion it would seem not only “uncalled for” and “unnecessary,” but also “inappropriate.”49 Moreover, since it is known that during the morning session of the Council of Fifty meeting on 26 March there was “no discussion of or exercise of priesthood keys, no ordinations, no ordinances, no discussion of temple teachings or other church doctrine,”50 any such ordinances would have had to have been performed at an unseasonably early hour (inconsistent with other endowment sessions, which were performed in the afternoon) so they could be completed and the upper floor could be set up for the 9:00 am Council meeting.
In light of these considerations, it seems possible that in his account, Harris inadvertantly conflated two events — his encounter with Joseph and the Twelve at the Red Brick store on 26 March “two or three weeks”51 after the conspiracy meetings and another occasion when some of the Twelve were called upon to assist in giving the endowments to other brethren later that spring (“a few months after”52). Confirming the plausibility of a [Page 34]timeframe in the later spring for such an event, James H. Rollins related an experience where he was asked to bring water to the upper story of the Red Brick Store for use in giving endowments to “some of the brethren.”53 He said that this took place “a few days” before another event that occurred ”about the first of May” 1844.54 Moreover, it is known that John P. Greene and Sidney Rigdon received their endowments on 11 May 184455; that Almon W. Babbitt and William B. Smith received theirs on 12 May 184456; and that Lyman Wight received his on 14 May 1844.57 These endowments, all given prior to Brigham Young’s departure from Nauvoo on 21 May 1844,58 would fit Harris’ recollection of an event that would have taken place “a few months after”59 the meetings of the conspiracy in March. And a date of either the 12 or 14 May would be consistent with his remembrance that the Prophet was intending to give endowments to “the Twelve” (i.e., either to William B. Smith or Lyman Wight).
Sometime before 3 March 1844, Austin A. Cowles, a neighbor,61 may have invited Dennison Lott Harris and his father, Emer, to a meeting of conspirators that was to be held on the following Sunday at William Law’s brick house. Dennison learned that Robert Scott, who had been reared by William Law,62 had also been invited to the meeting. Emer went to the Prophet and was told that he should not attend the meeting himself but that he should send the boys to him to receive instructions.
In harmony with the guidance received in the morning from Joseph Smith, Robert Scott and Dennison Harris may have attended a meeting of the conspirators on this date and learned of their murderous intentions against the Prophet.
On this date, Harris and Scott may have attended their second meeting and then reported to Joseph Smith. The Prophet told them that they should attend a third time.
Joseph Smith presided at the first organizational meeting for the Council of Fifty. The members were strictly enjoined to keep the existence and proceedings of the meetings of the Council confidential.[Page 35]
Joseph Smith met with the Council of Fifty.
Joseph Smith met with the Council of Fifty.
Abiathar B. Williams (1806–1875)70 and Merinus G. Eaton (1812-??)71 were approached by Joseph H. Jackson, Robert D. Foster, and Chauncey L. Higbee with accusations against Joseph Smith. These included the insinuation that the Prophet had tried to seduce Foster’s wife.72 Williams and Eaton were strongly urged to join a “secret meeting, … probably tomorrow evening: but, as it was not decided, he could not say positively as to the time.”73
In the morning of 17 March, Harris and Scott may have gone to see Joseph Smith as they had been instructed. The Prophet told them this, their third meeting, would be their last and that the conspirators would “come to some determination,” but that they should not join or speak in [Page 36]support of the conspiracy. After a dangerous escape from the meeting, Harris and Scott met with Joseph Smith and John Scott, Robert’s brother and a bodyguard to the Prophet. Harris said that after “considerable conversation,” “Joseph put a seal upon our mouths, and told us to tell nobody not even our fathers for 20 years.”
Joseph Smith met with the Council of Fifty.
In order to counter the accusations against the Prophet that Robert D. Foster had made in the presence of Williams and Eaton on 15 or 16 March,77 Joseph Smith rode with William Clayton and Alexander Neibaur to secure a statement from Foster’s wife.78 Joseph Smith’s journal mentions that he “spent the day in councelling,”79 i.e., in a meeting with Foster’s wife. Though some have proposed that the “Last Charge” occured on this day, there could have been no meeting held that involved Willard Richards or Wilford Woodruff, who spent their day otherwise engaged, apart from the Prophet.80
Joseph Smith preached at 10 AM. His journal records: “on the stand I related what was told me yesterday by Mr [Merinus G.] Eaton. That Wm. [Page 37]Law. Wilson Law. R[obert] D. Foster. Chaunc[e]y L. Higbee. & Joseph [H.] Jackson had held a caucus, design[n]ing to destroy all the Smith family in a few weeks.”83 No doubt out of concern for the safety of Harris and Scott, Joseph Smith did not mention them as additional informants.
If the Harris statement can be trusted in this regard, Joseph Smith stood on the porch with the Twelve gathered around him sometime before 9:00 am on this date86 and declared to Dennison: “This day I am going to roll this kingdom off my shoulders on to the shoulders of these my brethren [i.e., selected members of the Quorum of the Twelve who were present at the time].”87
Dennison’s remembrance seems to anticipate events that took place sometime between 9:00 am and 12:00 pm on the morning of 26 March when the Prophet gave the “Last Charge” to nine members of the Quorum of the Twelve in the presence of members of the Council of Fifty.89 On 19 March 1897, President Wilford Woodruff summarized his recollection of this event as follows[Page 38]:90
I bear my testimony that in the early spring of 1844 in Nauvoo, the Prophet Joseph Smith called the Twelve Apostles together and he delivered unto them the ordinances of the Church and the Kingdom of God; and all the keys and powers that God had bestowed upon him he sealed upon our heads. He told us that we must round up our shoulders and bear off this kingdom or we would be damned. … At that meeting, he began a speech of about three hours upon the subject of the Kingdom. His face was as clear as amber, and he was covered with a power that I have never seen in an instant in the flesh before.
It should be noted that Wilford Woodruff’s statement telescopes events that occurred over an extended period of time as if they all happened on 26 March 1844. All the ordinances, keys, and powers mentioned had already been given to the apostles prior to that date.
Merinus G. Eaton and Abiathar B. Williams made affadavits before Daniel H. Wells about the statements Joseph H. Jackson, Robert D. Foster, and Chauncey L. Higbee made to them on 15 or 16 March.[Page 39]
On the evening of this day, a council was held where Robert D. Foster, Wilson Law, William Law, Jane Law, and Howard Smith were excommunicated from the Church. Suspecting their own lives were threatened, Foster and Higbee swore they would “shoot the Mayor” (Joseph Smith).93
In a renewed effort to oppose the Prophet, William Law began holding public meetings in his home each Sunday, beginning 21 April. On 28 April he became president of a new, short-lived church. If the conspiracy meetings attended by Harris did not occur in March, the three successive Sunday of 21 and 28 April and 5 May might provide a second option for dating. From his careful study of the matter, Andrew Ehat concludes William Law’s antagonism to the Prophet would have reached its zenith about this time.
Dennison described how, subsequent to the conspiracy meetings, he drove his wagon, at the request of Elder Willard Richards, down to the river to fill barrels and buckets of water and haul them to the upper story of the Red Brick Store for use in giving endowments. Joseph Smith’s journal records that endowments were given to five of the brethren on these dates, including two apostles.[Page 40]
Sunday, May 15: 15 May 1881
VERBAL STATEMENT97 OF BP. DENNISON L. HARRIS
Of Monroe, Sevier Co., Utah, made by him to President Jos.
F. Smith98 in the presence of Elder Franklin Spencer,99 at the house of
Bp. Dorius100 of Ephraim, Sanpete Co., Utah, on Sun-
day Afternoon, May 15th, 1881.
Reported by George F. Gibbs.101
Statement of Bishop Dennison L. Harris of Monroe, Sevier Co., as related by him in the presence of Presidents Jos. F. Smith and Franklin Spencer at Ephraim, Sanpete County, Sunday, May 15th, 1881, and reported by G. F. Gibbs.
In the spring of 1844 I was invited by Austin A. Cowles,102 who was at the time a member of the High Council, to attend a secret meeting; I was also asked to invite my father.103 The meeting was to be held on the following Sunday, at Wm. Law’s104 brick house. There was another young man by the name of Robt. Scott105 who was also invited by Wm. Law to attend the same meeting — being intimate friends we found out during the week that both of us had been invited to attend the same meeting.106 I told my father about this meeting, and he went immediately to Bro. Joseph, who lived some 2½ miles distant, and informed him of the same. Joseph told my father to send the boys to him, but for him (my father) not to go to the meeting nor to pay any attention to it. When Sunday morning came Robert Scott (the young man referred to as my intimate friend) and I went and saw Brother Joseph. After telling him about receiving the invitation, he instructed us to go to this meeting and pay strict attention and do the best we could to learn, and remember all the proceedings. We went. At that meeting they were counselling together and working up the system and planning how to get at things the best. They were opposed to the doctrine of plurality of wives,107 which was the cause of their conspiring against Joseph.” On being asked who were present, Bro. Harris said:108 “as near as I can recollect, Wm. and Wilson Law, Austin A. Cowles, the Higbees — Francis and Chauncey,109 Robt. Foster110 and Brother,111 and two of the Hickes [Hicks].112 I am positive of those; and there were a great many others of a similar character. Marks113 was not present at all. I think Jason W. Briggs114 was there; also Finche [Finch]115 and Rollinson [Rollosson],116 merchants and enemies to the Church, were there. This was the first meeting. They were plotting how and what they could do against Joseph.[Page 41]
-2-Verbal Statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
The next Sunday, we attended again, having received an invitation to come back. And when they told us to come again on the next Sabbath they told us to keep quiet what had passed at the meeting, and to say nothing to our fathers, or anybody else. We reported to Joseph the proceedings as far as they went. Joseph said: ‘Boys, come and see me next Sunday morning, and go on to the meeting. We did so. They went on with their arrangements, and agreed to make further arrangements during the week. They worked this up considerably that Sunday, and still gave us an invitation to attend the following week. Joseph told us to go again, this being the third Sunday, and was desirous that we should see and learn all that took place this day, for, said he, ‘this will be your last meeting, this will be the last time they will admit you into their council, and they will come to some determination; but be sure, he continued, that you make no covenants nor enter into any obligation whatever with that party: be strickly reserve [strictly reserved], and make no promise either to conspire against me or any portion of the community: be silent and do not take any part in their deliberations. That day we were received and welcomed by Wm. Law and Austin Cowles. We passed up the alley; on each side there were men with guns and bayonets on them; and when we got to the door there were men on guard armed in the same way. Before we went to this meeting Brother Joseph said to us: Boys, this day will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will as you are so young, but they may. If they do I will be a lion in their path. Don’t flinch, if you have to die, die like men, you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crown can be no greater. But, said he, again, I hardly think they will shed your blood.
We went, as I have said, to the house of meeting and passed the guards. There was a great deal of counselling going on with each other. And every little while Austin Cowles would come and sit by my side and put his arm around my neck to ascertain how I felt with regard to their proceedings; and at the same time Wm. Law would do the same thing with Robert Scott. They talked about Joseph denouncing him and accusing him. We told them that we did not know anything against Joseph or about the things they were charging him with, that we were only young men, and therefore had nothing to say. They would then try to convince us by relating things to us against him; but we told them that we knew nothing about them, and did not understand them; that[Page 42]
-3-Verbal Statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
we had been reared in the Church and had always esteemed Bro. Joseph highly. Robert had been reared by Wm. Law, and I had been a neighbor of Austin Cowles and consequently they esteemed us as friends, and we did them. They continued to persuade us, we being the only ones who did not sympathize with their proceedings; but they failed to convert us.
Finally they went on to administer the oath to those present. Each man was required to come to the table and hold up the Bible in his right hand, when Bro. Higbee117 would say: Are you ready? When the man being sworn answered yes, he would say: You solemnly swear before God and all holy angels and these your brethren, by whom you are surrounded, that you will give your life, your liberty, your influence, your all for the destruction of Joseph Smith and his party, so help you God’. Each one was sworn in that way, numbering in the neighborhood of 200 persons;118 and they were all sworn before we were called upon. There were also three women brought in119 who testified that Joseph Smith and others – Hyrum among them, had tried to seduce them into this spiritual marriage and wanted them for their wives and also wanted to lie with them. They also made oath before this justice; after which they were escorted out of the room, by way of the back door. After all in the room had taken the oath but Robert and me, we were labored with by those two brethren William Law, and Austin Cowles. They sat us together side by side, with Bro. Cowles on one side and Bro. Law on the other. Their arguments were to try to convince us that Joseph was wrong; that he was in transgression, that he was a fallen prophet, and that the Church would be destroyed except action be taken at once against him — a strong one, one that would tell, ect.120 We told them that we were young, that we were not members of the High Council, and that we knew nothing at all about their charges. They then told us that Joseph had read the revelation on celestial marriage to the High Council and that Joseph had instructed them in this revelation, and that he had tried to make them believe it.121 After laboring with us in this way with a view of trying to get us to take the oath, we told them we could not do it. They then told us that they were combining and entering into a conspiracy for the protection and salvation of the Church, and that if we refused to take the oath they would have to kill us; they could not they said, let us go out with the information that we had gained, because it would not be safe to do so. And some one spoke up and said, ‘Dead men tell no tales.” They gathered around us and after threatening they perceived that we could not be122
[Page 43]-4-Verbal statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
that we could not be frightened into it, they again commenced to persuade and advise us in this way: Boys, do as we have done; you are young, you will not have anything to do in this affair, but we want that you should keep it a secret and act with us. We then told them that we positively could not. They then said that if we did not yield to their requirement that they would have to shed our blood; and they went so far as to start us down stairs in charge of two men armed with guns with bayonets, and Wm. and Wilson Law, Austin Cowles and one of the Fosters started down stairs into the cellar, and there they said they would cut our throats if we refused to take the oath. We told them positively that we would have to die then because we could not receive the oath, but that we desired to be turned loose. They said they could not turn us loose with the information that we had received, because it would not be safe to do it. They then walked us off with one man on each side of us armed with sword and bowie knife and two men behind us with loaded guns, cocked, with bayonets on them; we were started to the cellar, but we had not gone more than about 15 feet when some one cried out, ‘hold on’, let us talk this matter over. We were stopped, when they commenced to counsel among themselves; and I distinctly remember one of them saying, that our fathers knew where we were, and that if we never returned it would at once cause suspicion and lead to trouble. They became very uneasy about it, for if they shed our blood it would be dangerous for them, as it was known where we were. Finally they concluded to let us go if we would keep our mouths shut. We were escorted out and then they hated to let us go; they took us toward the river, and still cautioned us about being silent and keeping secret everything we had seen and heard, for, said they, if we opened our mouths about it, they would kill us anywhere, that they would consider it their duty to kill us when ever or wherever the opportunity afforded either by night or by day. I told them it would be to our interest and to our peace and safety never to mention it to anybody. They said they were glad we could see that, and after warning us in strong terms, and before the guard left us, I saw Brother Joseph’s hand from under the bank of the river, he was beckoning us to him.123 They turned back but were yet watching us and listening to us, and one of us said, Let us go toward the river. The guard made answer and said, Yes, you better go to the river.124 With this we starked [started] off on the run, and we ran past where Bro. Joseph was, and Bro. John Scott125 was with him; he was one of his body guard. They slipped
[Page 44]-5-Verbal statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
around the bank and came down to the same point where we were; and these men, the guard went back. We all walked down the river quite a piece, nearly a quarter [of a mile126], nearly opposite Joseph’s store under the bank near Joseph’s residence (it was in the afternoon); We got in a little kind of wash, and were inside Joseph’s inclosure where the board fence came into the river.127 Joseph said, Let us sit down here. We sat down. Joseph said, Boys, we saw the danger you were in; we were afraid you would not get out alive, but we are thankful that you got off. He then asked us to relate the results of the meeting. We told him all that had happened. We also told him the names of those who were there. After Joseph heard us he looked very solemn indeed, and he said, O Brethren, you do not know what this will terminate in. He looked very solemn, and not being able to control himself he broke right out. Bro. Scott rose and putting his arms around Bro. Joseph ‘s neck, said, O Brother Joseph, Brother Joseph, do you think they are going to kill you; and they fell on each others neck end wept bitterly for sometime; and we all wept. After Joseph recovered himself, Brother John repeated the same question; Bro. Joseph lifted Bro. John’s arms from off his neck and said, I fully comprehend it. But he would not say that he was going to be killed. But he said in the conversation, Brethren, I am going to leave you, I shall not be with you long; it will not be many months until I shall have to go. Bro. John said, Brother Joseph, are you going to be slain. He never answered; but he still felt very sorrowful. After considerable conversation Joseph said that he would go away and would not be known among the people for 20 years or upwards. Finally he said, I shall go to rest; but he did not say a word about dying.
You know Brother Joseph, (here the speaker addressed himself to Bro. Jos. F. Smith) that the Prophet started over the river, just before he gave himself up, to go away;128 it might be that he intended or meant that he would leave the place, and it might be that he knew that his life would be taken. I could not say as to that.
Before leaving Joseph put a seal upon our mouths, and told us to tell nobody not even our fathers for 20 years. He cautioned us very seriously, and I did as he told me.
There was one thing that Joseph said which I have not related. He said: they accuse me of polygamy, and of being a false prophet and many other things which I do not now remember; but, said he, I am[Page 45]
-6-Verbal statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
no false prophet, I am no impostor; I have had no dark revelations, I have had no revelations from the devil. I have made no revelations; I have not got anything up myself. The same God that has thus far dictated and directed me, and inspired me and strengthened me in this work, gave me this revelation and Commandment on Celestial and Plural marriage; and the same God Commanded me to obey it. He said to me that unless I accept it and introduce it and practise it, I together with my people should be damned and cut off from this time henceforth. And they say if I do so and so they will kill me. What shall I do! What shall I do! If I do not practise it I shall be damned with all my people; if I do teach it and practise it and urge it, they say they will kill me, and I know they will. But said he, we have got to observe it, that it was an eternal principle, and that it was given to him by way of Commandment and not by way of instruction.”129 That is about all.
Bro. Harris then related the following circumstance in connection with Joseph’s giving the Twelve their endowments:
“This little circumstance took place a few months after the thing I have related – perhaps it was two or three weeks, I do not now remember, I did not rivet dates on my mind. I was passing Joseph’s brick building which was used for a store,130 when Bro. Willard Richards came out and beckoned me. As we approached each other he said, Good morning Brother Harris! And shook hands with me. I was on my wagon, and I thought as though he wanted to chat. He walked along, and I drove on, he walking alongside of my wagon. It was an ox team I had but I asked him if he was going my way, and if he would ride. He said, Yes, if you please. He got up and rode. As soon as he was seated in the wagon he said, I have a message for you: Bro. Joseph wanted me to come and see you. As soon as he saw you coming he remarked – There, brethren, we are alright now; the time has come; —
— there is the man I want;131
/there’s the boy I can depend upon and trust. Brother Richards, will you go and see him and tell him what I want.” Then Bro. Richards told me that Brother Joseph had met in that building with most of the Twelve,132 and they had been waiting for some one that Joseph could depend upon to assist them. He then told me that Joseph desired me to drive around to the river where he (Bro. Richards) would meet me with barrels and buckets133 to assist him to get some water up to the
[Page 46]-7-Verbal statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
house in which the brethren had gathered,134 that Brother Joseph wanted to give them (the Twelve) their endowments.135 I went to the river according to request, and found Bro. Richards there with barrels and buckets. We loaded up the wagon, and drove up to the house the back way. The Twelve were on the poarch136 above with block and tackle with which they drew the barrels of water up. Bro. Joseph was with them and assisted. Bro. Joseph said to me: – This day I am going to roll this kingdom off my shoulders on to the shoulders of these my brethren, for them to preach the Gospel and gather Israel and build up the Kingdom upon the foundation which I have laid; for I shall not be known among the people for many years, or for 20 years; I am going to rest, and these, my Brethren the Twelve have got to preach the Gospel and gather Israel, etc.137 In answer to a question, Bro. Harris, said “Joseph was then addressing himself to me, while the Twelve stood around him, on the poarch. “He then said to me, You are the only witness on the earth138 to what I am about to do; I wanted you as a witness, and I have been waiting for you. Then turning to Bro. Brigham, he said, Brother Brigham when this Temple (the Nauvoo Temple) is finished will you see to the giving of this young man his endowments as I will give them to you today? Bro. Brigham answered: I will, Brother Joseph. Bro. Joseph remarked again I request you to do it. Bro. Brigham promised in his firm way that he would do it. Brother Joseph then told me that was all I could do for him, and I drove off. Bro. Young fulfilled his promise. When he was ready for me he sent Bro. Milo Andrus139 to inform me that Bro. Brigham would give me my endowments if I would go to the Temple.140 I went and received them.
This statement was made under the following circumstances: Bro. Harris spoke to Bro. Jos. F. immediately before the forenoon meeting of Sunday saying that he would like to relate the foregoing to him; consequently an appointment was made, and Bro. Jos. F. asked me to be present to take what Bro. Harris might say in short hand. The time appointed was after the morning meeting. As the afternoon meeting had been announced to commence half an hour earlier than usual (so as to give Prest. Taylor and party an opportunity to make Moroni and Fountain Green that evening on their [way] home) the time at our disposal to hear Bro. H. also to eat dinner was not sufficient to enable
[Page 47]-8-Verbal statement of Bp. Dennison L. Harris, cont’d: 15 May 1881
him to do justice to it. He told it in his own way and had to hurry at that. G. F. Gibbs, Reporter.
The question of authority was central to the acceptance of many early converts that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”141 Often, a satisfying answer to this question was found in claims of apostolic succession.142 Matthew J. Grow provides the following example:143
In 1846, Oran Brownson, the older brother of the famed Catholic convert Orestes A. Brownson, penned a letter to his brother recounting a dream Orestes had shared with him much earlier. In the dream, Orestes, Oran, and a third brother, Daniel, were “traveling a road together.” “You first left the road then myself and it remains to be seen whether Daniel will turn out of the road (change his opinion),” Oran wrote. At approximately the same period in which Orestes converted to Catholicism “because no other church possessed proper authority,” Oran joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because he believed that “proper authority rests among the Mormons.”
Despite Joseph Smith’s early affection for Methodism,144 one of his final sermons contended that the arguments of Catholics and Mormons for apostolic succession made their claims superior to those of any other church:145
[the] old Catholic Church is worth more than all [the other churches] — here is a princ[iple]. of logic — that men have no more sense — I will illustrate [with] an old apple tree — here jumps off a branch & says I am the true tree. & you are corrupt — if the whole tree is corrupt how can any true thing come out of it — the char[acte]r of the old ones have always been sland[ere]d. by all apos[tates] since the world began
In our time, unlike the early days of the Church, both the assertion of Mormonism’s unique authority and the very idea there is only one “true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”146 are seen as repugnant or simply irrelevant to many religious seekers. Indeed, one is [Page 48]often led to wonder whether even the Latter-day Saints themselves fully appreciate the importance of the restoration of all priesthood keys to Joseph Smith by heavenly messengers and the continuity of apostolic succession that has prevailed in the Church since that time.
The significance of Mormonism’s claims to unique authority has not been lost on some thoughtful observers from outside the Church. Perhaps the best-known example of this comes from Dr. John M. Reiner, a Catholic scholar147 who spoke with Elder Orson F. Whitney during a visit to Salt Lake City in 1898. His words echo the sentiment of Joseph Smith quoted above:148 “If we [i.e., the Catholic Church] have the apostolic succession from St. Peter, as we claim, there is no need of Joseph Smith and Mormonism; but if we have not that succession, then such a man as Joseph Smith was necessary, and Mormonism’s attitude is the only consistent one. It is either the perpetuation of the gospel from ancient times, or the restoration of the gospel in latter days.”
In a discourse given in the Salt Lake Tabernacle during his visit, Dr. Reiner elaborated more fully on his views:149
[T]o my mind, your Church and the Roman church are the only two churches in the world today that make any real claim to Christianity. …
“Have you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?” There is absolute silence, unless a voice comes from one corner of the Alps, from Rome, and says, “I have the truth,” and then it comes again from another corner of the world, in this new hemisphere — from Salt Lake City — where the head of your Church says, “We have the truth.” Or, as the venerable head of the Church said to me, “If you have any truth that I have not got, let me see it, and I will take it.” These are the two churches. …
I do trust and hope that if — IF! — you are really the true Church, then your light may shine before men, so that none of them shall be deprived of it. However, I am glad to say this: Whether you are or not, I must confess that I have traveled pretty nearly all over the world, but as a rule I never pay much attention whether a man says he is Presbyterian, or a Primitive Methodist, or a Wesleyan Methodist. It has no charm for me. But your humble missionaries buttonhole me everywhere, telling me they are the only true Church, … and I stand aghast and look. Therefore my attention is arrested, and therefore I examine. What the result will be, God only knows.
[Page 49]Admittedly, Dr. Reiner’s views on the exclusive claims of Mormonism and Catholicism to legitimate authority would be even more unusual today than they were in 1898. However, that the claim for apostolic authority in Catholicism and Mormonism retains its appeal for at least some scholars today is evidenced in the broadminded generosity of spirit and the erudite elegance of prose of the late Dr. Stephen H. Webb, a convert to Catholicism who became a serious student of Mormonism.
After receiving his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Stephen taught religion and philosophy for twenty-five years at Wabash College. Later, he devoted himself more fully to writing, while also teaching at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and serving in several prison ministries.150 The extent of his “deeply felt mission to ‘teach the beautiful truths of Mormonism’ to the wider world”151 in his later life was summarized in capsule form by an academic who was also a long-time family friend. Following Stephen’s funeral services in Indianapolis, he told me that it was striking to him that after a remarkable academic career in which Stephen wrote numerous articles and more than a dozen major volumes, each one taking up a topic that was very different from the one before (writing not only about theology but also about animals, vegetarianism, diet, politics, popular culture [including a book on the musical career of Bob Dylan], literature, and liberal advocacy152) he dedicated his last three books, published with Oxford University Press, to the subject of Mormonism.153
After the funeral, I also met Ruth Ellen Homer, LDS Indiana Area Interfaith Specialist, who related an experience she had with Stephen a few weeks prior to his passing. At my request she wrote the following summary, which I include with the permission of both Ruth Ellen and of Stephen’s wife Diane Timmerman:154
On February 18, 2016, Steve came to my home for the Living Room Dialogue [of the Center for Interfaith Cooperation in Indianapolis].155 He fit right in with the other guests, including university professors who were CIC members. In preparing for the event, I had felt prompted by the Holy Ghost to teach the need for the Restoration in a specific way. I worked on my outline and slides for days until the feeling came that everything was as the Lord wanted.
Steve listened intently as I explained why Mormons believe the Restoration was necessary: the apostles and apostolic keys had been lost in antiquity and were needed in the latter-day church. Ecumenical councils had assembled to[Page 50]
consider weighty theological questions, but apostles were not present to declare doctrine. There were no apostles at Nicaea.
Having built the foundation, I next showed a painting of Peter, James, and John ordaining Joseph Smith as the first apostle in modern times and conferring the apostolic keys upon him. Oliver Cowdery would be ordained next as the second modern apostle.
Then I summarized in the words given to me by the Spirit the week before: “This remarkable occasion is sacred to the Latter-day Saints. We believe the keys of the kingdom given to Peter were literally restored by Peter.”
During this discussion Steve had grown increasingly animated. Now, in a climactic moment, he declared firmly, “Peter held the keys of the kingdom.”
My friend Steve had once again voiced a beautiful truth of the gospel. As he left that evening, he turned to me and said, “That was a good presentation.”156
Earlier Stephen had written:157
What set [Joseph Smith] apart … from the many mystics and prophets throughout history who have recorded their auditory and visual experiences of God was his sensitivity to the fragility of religious authority and his recognition that [Page 51]the traditions of the Church needed to be re-established on the grounds of a renewal of the prophetic tradition. In other words, he instinctively understood that religion without authority is merely passing fad or speculative fantasy. …
Joseph reinvented the theological wheel of apostolic succession (the idea that the leadership of the church should be in the hands of men who are spiritual heirs of the original ministry of the twelve apostles) and the Petrine Primacy (the idea that Jesus singled out Simon Peter to hold the first place of honor and authority among the apostles). That should not cast him in a negative light to Roman Catholics. Indeed, it should affirm Catholics in their understanding of religious authority.
The testimony of Dennison Lott Harris not only underscores the importance of the circumstances that brought the keys held by Peter back to the earth again, but also the events of 26 March 1844 that assured that the authority and power of those same keys would continue in the leading quorums of the Church after the death of Joseph Smith.
Though at first, after the martyrdom, Brigham Young had sorrowfully wondered whether Joseph Smith had taken the keys of the kingdom with him at his death, he was soon fired through with a burst of inspiration that told him all was well: “Bringing my hand down on my knee, I said the keys of the kingdom are right here with the Church.”158 All those keys of the priesthood,159 including the “last” and “most sacred” key of the sealing power that was specifically conferred on Brigham Young,160 have continued with the First Presidency and the Twelve to the present day. Andrew Ehat summarizes the enduring legacy of 26 March 1844:161
John Taylor[, the successor to Brigham Young as President of the Church,] received an admonition from the Lord for the Church to “Fear me and observe my laws and I will reveal unto you, from time to time, through the channels that I have appointed, everything that shall be necessary for the future development and perfection of my Church, for the adjustment and rolling forth of my kingdom, and for the building up and the establishment of my Zion.”162 … The channels had been appointed. The process of succession was set. The flow of revelation has continued. … This is the continuing influence of Joseph Smith’s “Last Charge.”
“Never, ever again,” Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Twelve has declared, “do we have to question, ‘Where are the keys[Page 52]?’”163
Dennison Lott Harris received his temple blessings in early February 1846. Brigham Young had closed the temple two days earlier, fearing that any further delay in leaving Nauvoo would increase the risk of violence from the enemies of the Church. However, after seeing a crowd of Saints that had gathered anxiously at the entrance to the temple, President Young relented and a huge swell of ordinances were performed over the next two days.164 Five hundred twelve people were given their endowments on February 6165 and, on the next and last day in which temple ordinances were administered in Nauvoo, over six hundred received them.166 Poignantly, Dennison was endowed not only on that final day, but also as part of the ninth and last company that completed the ordinance, sometime after midnight, in the wee hours of 8 February.167 Although we will never know the full story of what happened, it is not inconceivable that a day or two prior to the exodus from Nauvoo, Brigham remembered his promise to the Prophet to make sure that Dennison received his endowment in the Nauvoo Temple — as administered under the direction of the Quorum of the Twelve, Joseph Smith’s authorized successors.
My appreciation to Russ and Jeanelle Adamak, William G. Cowley, Don Bradley, Andrew F. Ehat, Ronald K. Esplin, Alonzo Gaskill, Matthew J. Grow, Brian C. and Laura H. Hales, Richard N. Holzapfel, Ruth Ellen Homer, Ben McGuire, Stephen H. Smoot, Mark L. Staker, Keith Thompson, and Stephen Whitlock for their valuable suggestions and feedback. Allen Wyatt, Tanya Spackman, and Tim Guymon were expert in their assistance with reviews and production. My thanks also to Jay Burrup for his assistance in seeking relevant manuscripts in the Church History Library, and to Diane Timmerman for her permission to share the experience of her husband, Stephen H. Webb. Special thanks to my wife, Kathleen M. Bradshaw, for her insightful suggestions.[Page 53]
Appendix 3: William Law’s 1844 Trajectory of Apostasy
Richard L. Bushman provides the following summary of the life of William Law from 1839 to the spring of 1844:170
William Law gained Joseph’s confidence after he came to Nauvoo in 1839. An immigrant from Northern Ireland who had converted to Mormonism in Canada, Law was one of the few Saints to arrive with capital. … When Hyrum [moved] into his father’s position as patriarch [(see D&C 124:91-92) and was elevated to the position of “associate president” in the First Presidency (see D&C 124:94-95)], Law was made Joseph’s counselor. … Law was one of nine trusted men given the endowment in May 1842, and he and his wife, Jane, were members of the Anointed Quorum that met regularly in prayer meetings in the fall of 1843. Law’s disaffection began when Hyrum showed him the plural marriage revelation. Law had disputed John Bennett’s charges of Nauvoo polygamy and temporarily allied with Hyrum and William Marks to deny the existence of the practice. After Hyrum accepted the revelation, he tried to persuade Law.
The efforts of Hyrum and Joseph Smith to persuade William must have had some effect. Lyndon W. Cook observes: “Notwithstanding his public statements opposing plural marriage and his shock upon learning that the secret priesthood order was sanctioned by revelation, William Law’s own diary for this period indicates that he later seriously entertained thoughts of entering into the practice.”171 However, by at least January 1844, the tide had turned and the intensity of Law’s opposition to plural marriage and his antagonism to Joseph Smith increased in the next few months until it reached a fever pitch.
Andrew F. Ehat summarizes the sequence of events in the last half of 1843 as follows:172
According to two separate sources, the beginning of the significant rupture [between the Prophet and William Law] began when Joseph Smith told William Law that he and Jane could not be sealed.173 Joseph apparently told Law this during or shortly after … 26 May 1843. … Apparently Joseph never told William (and certainly not Jane) why God “forbid” him to administer these blessings to the couple. Perhaps Joseph originally did not seal the couple because he was testing them on plural marriage — a test Law ultimately failed. [Page 66]However after Law was excommunicated in April 1844, Joseph explained that he refused to seal the couple because God revealed to him that “Law was adulterous.” Although left without explanation, William … and Jane (beginning in October 1843) attended all the meetings of the Quorum until William made his final decision on plural marriage.
In Law’s journal entry for 1 January 1844, he acknowledges the “goodness of God,” without which he would have been “lost, overwhelmed, swallowed down in the vortex of iniquity,” through hearkening to the “teachings of man” — “a recollection that paralizes [sic] the nerves, chills the currents of the heart, and drives the brain almost to madness.” William expresses his gratitude that God’s “spirit prevailed … before the fearful step was taken”174 — words that Cook takes as a sure reference “to the fact that William Law seriously considered entering plural marriage at Nauvoo.”175 The last part of his entry that day provides further evidence that this subject was on his mind: “The evening of this day I have spent at my brother Wilson Law’s, a small party of friends were assembled there, and after partaking of an excellent supper we conversed upon various subjects, amongst the rest the Doctrine (so called) of plurality and Community of wives; they were strongly disapprobated, refreshment we returned home.”176
Subsequent journal entries for early January document Law’s increasing turmoil in the face of events that brought him into repeated conflict with the Prophet. On 2 January, he said that he had “learned from remarks made by J. Smith before the city council and police” that he was being “narrowly watched” and that “should any misconceive [his] motives [his] life would be jeopardized.”177 He went with Hyrum Smith to see the Prophet, who called for a Nauvoo City Council meeting to be held the next day to investigate the matter. On 3 January, Law records the supportive words he received from Joseph and Hyrum Smith during the meeting, but his journal entries over the next few days detailing additional investigations evidence a continuing deterioration of his relationship with the Prophet. The effect of all this was to produce “an indignation in his heart, that [he] could not control.”178 Then, on 8 January, he learned from Joseph Smith that he had been dropped from the First Presidency.179 Law admits exchanging “unpleasant words” with the Prophet and confided in his journal as follows: “I feel relieved from a most embarrassing situation I cannot fellowship the abominations which I verily know are practiced by this man, consequently I am glad to be free from him, and so vile an association.”180
[Page 67]On 13 January William recorded his last journal entry for the next two-and-a-half months:181
Several days have elapsed without any important move that I know of; what my feelings have been I cannot relate, various and painful at times almost beyond endurance; a thousand recollections burst upon my burning brain, the past, the present, and the future, disappointed hopes, injured feelings, where they should have been held sacred; the holy religion of Jesus Christ perverted to meet the base designs of corrupt men, these things are as poison’d arrows in my bleeding heart — yet Heaven is my hope, and Christ is my friend —
It was during the interim of silence in Law’s journal entries that the secret meetings that Dennison Lott Harris and Robert Scott attended seem most likely to have occurred (although successive Sundays beginning 21 April provide a second possibility). Despite evidence from two affadavits made in late March182 that Law was involved in a conspiracy that Joseph Jackson claimed was aimed at ridding Nauvoo of every member of the Smith family within “two weeks,”183 Law feigned innocence and unjust injury when he resumed his journal writing on 29 March. On that date, he angrily asserted that Joseph Smith “has employed every vile and corrupt man and woman in the city over whom he has any power to circulate evil reports as false as the author of lies, about me and my wife, but he has failed to accomplish his object, for our names yet stand fair and untarnished in the estimation of the virtuous and the good.”184
Law’s lack of candor in his 29 March journal regarding his participation in efforts to destroy the Prophet parallels his failure to include in his April and May journal entries anything about his prominent role in his efforts to renew public opposition to Joseph Smith during these months. Although Law organized and led a new church as president in opposition to Joseph Smith, with meetings each Sabbath beginning 21 April, he does not disclose this fact in his journal until 1 June.185 Rather, his journal entries for this period continued to make himself out as a victim rather than as an active opposer of the Prophet.
Throughout the early spring, Joseph Smith made attempts through intermediaries to reclaim William Law. “William was contacted by Hyrum Smith in March 1844 and by Almon W. Babbitt in April 1844 regarding a reconciliation.”186 Sadly, attempts at reconciliation failed, and William Law was excommunicated on 18 April 1844, along with his brother Wilson.187
[Page 68]In his careful study of the question of what finally brought Law’s rage against Joseph Smith to the boiling point,188 Andrew Ehat observes that William Law had agonized over issues relating to Joseph Smith and his teachings since at least the summer of 1843, but that it was not until March or April 1844 that the rupture became violent. He concludes that the definitive moment for William was when he became convinced that, in the words of Law himself, Joseph Smith “had lately endeavored to seduce [his] wife, and had found her a virtuous woman.”189 Although this journal entry was made on 13 May — incidentally, the same day he also recorded that Sidney Rigdon visited on behalf of Joseph Smith to make another attempt at reconciliation — the event that formed the basis for Law’s story must have occurred prior to 17 April because John Scott testified that Law had told him a similar story on that date.190 Providing an earlier hint that could be taken as referring to Joseph Smith’s attempts to refute the falsehoods in such a story, on 29 March William had referred to the Prophet as having circulated lies “about me and my wife.”191 Extensive discussions about the accusations and conflicting accounts of what may have transpired between Joseph Smith and William Law have appeared elsewhere.192
It seems likely that this same story would have been the basis for an statement that Jane Law was supposed to have made at one of the meetings of the conspirators that Harris attended. The Cummings account of those meetings states that some women were brought in to make statements, “closely veiled to prevent being recognized, and required to take [an] oath. … One of the women, whom the boys suspected as being William Law’s wife, was crying, and seemed to dislike taking the oath, but did so as one who feared that the greatest bodily injury would surely follow a refusal.”193 Ehat mentions the possibility that Law’s newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, might have eventually planned to include an affadavit from Jane Law, since the first issue promised additional affidavits in the second issue.
On 1 June, William Law recorded in his journal: “Since our Conference April 21st we have held public meetings every Sabbath day; our enemies rage, and publish slander about us, but we cease not to vindicate the cause of truth, and oppose crime. To this end we have purchased a printing press and intend issuing in a few days a paper to be entitled the Nauvoo Expositor.”194 All the events summarized above, including the eventual destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor by the city council, culminated in the assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on 27 June 1844. Brian Hales writes: “Few researchers doubt that William [Page 69]Law bore the greatest responsibility for initiating the events that eventually resulted in the death of Joseph Smith.”195
Regarding William Law’s reliability as a reporter of events in Nauvoo, Gordon Madsen has provided an illustrative example. He has demonstrated conclusively that damaging, accusatory statements in one of William Law’s retrospective interviews about Joseph Smith regarding the estate of the Lawrence sisters are completely without foundation.196 Madsen concludes his study with the following assessment: “In comparing the documentary record with the Law interview, made forty-three years after the facts to a writer who was energetically pursuing an anti-Mormon agenda, Mark Twain’s statement seems applicable: ‘When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not. But as I grew older, it got so that I only remembered the latter.’”197
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Besides the explicit requirement of confidentiality, Andrew F. Ehat and Ronald K. Esplin (A. F. Ehat, Date and Meaning; R. K. Esplin, Joseph Smith’s Mission) document several earlier occasions where Joseph Smith indicated his feelings that his work was complete and that his life could be taken at any time. In light of these previous incidents, the witnesses to the events of 26 March 1844 may not have felt the urgency of the Prophet’s forebodings. For example, Elder Wilford Woodruff later said of Joseph Smith’s remarks that day: “The language was plain enough, but we did not understand it any more than the disciples of Jesus when he told them he was going away, and that if he went not the Comforter would note come [John 16:7]” (W. Woodruff, 12 December 1869, p. 164. See also W. Woodruff, 16 September 1877, pp. 226-227).
• The Key Word: Ahman Christ
• The Constitution: Ye are my Constitution, and I am your God; Ye are my spokesmen, therefore, from henceforth keep all my commandments
• The Penalty: Rather than disclosing the proceedings of the Council, you would rather have your life taken.
• Instructions on the background, history, purpose, and objectives of the Kingdom of God administered by the Standing Chairman or one he designates. On 26 March 1844, he administered the Charge.
In light of the fact that Joseph Smith was facing such rumors of his life being taken, he was primed to turn over the reins to others and “rest.” …
During the “Charge” aspect of initiation of a new member, a history of the Council is given. Thus, [it is plausible, though speculative, that] the “Last Charge” was a special case of a charge given to [those] who were admitted on 26 March 1844, and also applied to both the Council of Fifty in general and the members of the Twelve Apostles in particular. Joseph’s comment, like what he made to Lucius N. Scovil [see L. N. Scovil, Higher Ordinances] … that [Joseph Smith] planned to roll the burden on to the shoulders of the Twelve — works just the same for what he said to Dennison before the 26 March 1844 Council of Fifty meeting began.
He has kindled a fire. — We will fan the flame.
He has kindled up the dawn of a day of glory. — We will bring it to its meridian [i.e., noonday] splendor.
He was a “little one,” and became a thousand. We are a small one, and will become a strong nation [see Isaiah 60:22].
In short, he has quarried the stone from the mountain; we will cause it to become a great mountain and fill the whole earth [see Daniel 2:34-35].
While the testator lived, the testament was not of full power [see Hebrews 9:16-17]; all that was done was preparatory. The chaos of materials prepared by him must now be placed in order in the building [see Ephesians 2:21]. The laws revealed by him must now me administered in all their strictness and beauty. The measures commenced by him must now be carried into successful operation.