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What the Saints saw and felt when the Prophet Joseph died

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Joseph Smith left the Mansion House in Nauvoo at 6:30 on the morning of June 24, 1844. A large number of his friends accompanied him. When Joseph rode the back roads to Carthage, Illinois, and ultimately to his death, he knew it. But did the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

The Prophet had been promised that “thy days are known, and thy years shall not be numbered less” (see Doctrine and Covenants 122:9).

“I know what I say,” he told his people, as recorded in "Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith." “I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend? I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely.”

But, the Prophet?

Had he not escaped his enemies time after time? As Brigham Young put it: “Joseph our Prophet was hunted and driven, arrested and persecuted ... to my certain knowledge he was defendant in forty-six lawsuits ... (he) was never proved guilty of one violation of the laws of his country. They accused him of treason, because he would not fellowship their wickedness” (see Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 466).

The Saints did not know, they did not foresee, and they were not prepared. Yet many experienced intimations of the Spirit, premonitions of their own.

F.D. Richards, in her “Reminiscences,” wrote: “I remember perfectly well his appearance when he delivered his last sermon before going to Carthage. He seemed impressed with the conviction that he was to meet his death, and seemed at first to shrink from going, but in this meeting he told the people that he was innocent of any charge that could be brought against him; and if he must go he would go like a man, and if he should die he would die like a man” (see "Personal Glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith," by Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, p. 167).

Sarah Elizabeth Holmes had lost her mother and her baby sister to mob violence, and the Prophet urged her father to let her come and live with his family. Her earliest recollections began in his home, according to "Personal Glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith." She wrote: “I always remembered the morning and evening prayers when the Prophet was home. Nor did I forget my last goodbye when he gave himself up and went to Carthage Jail. He took me in his arms and said, 'God bless you, my little Sarah. You shall live to testify to my name in Zion.' "

Washington B. Rogers remembered, as recorded in "Personal Glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith,": “Did I know the Prophet? Well, I should think I did. I was one of his hired men for several years, you know, and that simply means that I was a member of his family. What sort of a man was he? He was the biggest-hearted, bravest, most whole-souled man I ever knew. If ever I loved a man, it was Joseph Smith.

“Joseph had a farm out on the road between Nauvoo and Carthage. ... I well remember the day when they took him to Carthage Jail … recognizing old Joe Duncan (on) one of his famous horses, we hiked across the fields and sat on the rail fence. He rode over to the fence and got off his horse.

“'Gentlemen,' he said, ‘this is my farm and these are my boys. They like me, and I like them.’ Then he shook hands with us and bade us goodbye.”

Mrs. Earl, in speaking to a reporter in Logan, Utah, years after the event, remembered: “I returned home in time to witness and participate in that fateful, sorrowful parting scene when Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor and Willard Richards were taken on that last fatal journey. ... In common with the other Saints present, I shook hands with the Prophet in bidding him a last farewell. The sorrowful memory of that scene has never left me. Tears rained from the eyes of strong men, and all seemed to realize that it was a last parting” (see "Personal Glimpses of the Prophet Joseph Smith" p. 148).

Mary Ellen Kimball, in “The Juvenile Instructor” of Aug. 15, 1892, vividly described her feelings at the prospect of the Prophet’s death: “Some few remarks passed … but one sentence I well remember. After bidding goodbye, Joseph said to Brother Rosecrans, ‘If I never see you again, or if I never come back, remember that I love you.’ This went through me like electricity. I went in the house and threw myself on the bed and wept like a whipped child.”

As the powers of evil strengthened and began to exult in their anticipated victory, the very air seemed charged with a negative and fearsome energy.

“There was an unmistakable something, a portentous significancy in the firmament,” Orson Hyde said. “O, the repulsive chill! The melancholy vibrations of the very air, as the prince of darkness receded in hopeful triumph from the scene of slaughter!” (see "Joseph Smith Photobiography," by Susan Evans McCloud, p. 142).

“I knelt down and tried to pray for the Prophet,” Bathsheba Smith recorded. “But I was struck speechless, and knew not the cause till morning” (see "Joseph Smith Photobiography," p. 142).

Mary Alice Cannon Lambert, in the Young Woman’s Journal, shared in vivid language her feelings of nearly 60 years before: “I well remember the night of the Prophet’s death. The spirit of unrest was upon all, man and animal, in the city of Nauvoo. My father was on guard. No one in the house had slept, the dogs were noisy, and even the chickens were awake.

“About 3 o’clock the news of the martyrdom was brought to us, and we realized what had kept us awake. And oh, the mourning in the land! The grief felt was beyond expression — men, women and children, we were all stunned by the blow” (see "They Knew the Prophet: Personal Accounts from over 100 People who Knew Joseph Smith," by Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, p. 168).

The heartbroken sorrow of the Saints was just beginning. But the future which Joseph Smith had predicted for the faithful followers of the gospel of Jesus Christ — that they would become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains — this sure prophecy, often expressed, shone dimly but unfailingly on the horizon, behind the massed darkness of the seemingly endless clouds.

At Joseph’s last journey to preach to the Saints in Ramus, Illinois, outside Nauvoo, he visited with his friend and bodyguard, Benjamin F. Johnson, in his home. The Prophet expressed his great weariness and his longing for rest from the tribulations and persecutions of his life.

Brother Johnson recorded the scene, and it is shared in "They Knew the Prophet”: “His words … like an arrow pierced my hopes that he would long remain with us. I said, as with a heart full of tears, ‘Oh! Joseph, what could we, as a people, do without you — and what would become of the great latter-day work if you should leave us?’

“He was touched by my emotions, and in reply he said, 'Benjamin, I would not be far away from you, and if on the other side of the veil I would still be working with you, and with a power greatly increased to roll on this kingdom.’

“These words, these thoughts gradually gained the empire in my heart, and I began to realize that in his martyrdom there was a great and eternal purpose in the heavens.”

Susan Evans McCloud is a freelance writer; a student of LDS and Utah history, Scottish history and literature; and the mother of a son who plays the bagpipes and a daughter studying Gaelic in Glasgow, Scotland.