American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church

By Alex Beam

Reviewed by Eric Johnson 

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Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam’s new book may be very helpful to many readers who may not know very much about Mormonism, let alone the facts surrounding the death of Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith at the hands of an angry mob at the Carthage Jail in 1844.

American Crucifixion–the title obviously refers to Smith’s death, with a figurative reference to the manner of how Christ died–is written in an easy-to-read style that should be understood by any reader, even those who may not be familiar with the history of early Mormonsim. Beam shares some background information to Smith in chapter 2 (“King Joseph”), perhaps enough to give enough of a basic understanding about the controversy of the LDS Church founder. The main focus of the book is covering the final few years of Smith’s life in Illinois before he was killed at the young age of 38.

The best thing about the book is that it is written by someone with no dogs in the fight, as Beam doesn’t come across as either Mormon or, as some Latter-day Saints put it, “anti-Mormon.” He lays out the information, matter-of-factly, without trying to provide excuses or making it appear that he delights in the death of the Mormon prophet. Although I am not an expert on Joseph Smith, I have read other books that have fully covered Smith’s life, and from what I can tell, Beam is accurate in his assessment. This doesn’t stop one critic on amazon.com writing, “But if you are LDS and you are looking for something that is faith promoting i recommend to find another book.” Could this be the best compliment an objective writer of history could ever desire?

As an example of his straightforward writing, Beam writes:

Perhaps Mormons were supposed to shun alcohol, as prescribed by the revelation known as the Word of Wisdom, but Joseph didn’t. When he heard that some of the “brethren” had been drinking whiskey, “I investigated the case,” he reported. “Satisfied that no evil had been done,” Joseph “gave them a couple of dollars with dirrections to replenish the bottle to stimulate them in the fatigues of their sleepless journey.” A very jolly prophet, to be sure. (6)

As far as the translation of the Book of Mormon, Beam shows that he understands the situation and the lack of support that anyone (besides Smith) really saw the gold plates in a literal fashion with their own eyes. He writes:

Although Harris and Cowdery would swear to be original “witnesses” of the Book of Mormon, they claimed to have been shown the gold plates in an angelic vision, not by Joseph. (18. For more on this issue, see here.)

As far as Smith’s polygamous ways are concerned, Beam spends an entire chapter investigating this issue since it played such an important role in Smith’s assassination. Referring to the “mansion girls” who lived in the Smith home, he writes,

The teenage women–Sarah and Maria Lawrence, Emily and Eliza Partridge, and Lucy Walker–proved to be a temptation too great for Joseph to resist. Having covertly introduced his revelation on polygamous marraige in 1843, he ended up marrying them all, and the ensuing opera bouffe opening and closing of bedroom doors tormented his long-suffering wife Emma. (49)

Using details that were fully disclosed in Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, the author explains:

Emma hated polygamy all her life, even though there were moemnts when she reconciled herself to the new theology. For instance, in a gesture that must have tried her soul, she allowed Joseph to marry two pairs of young sisters who lived in the mansion with the Smiths: Emily and Eliza Partridge, and Sarah and Maria Lawrence. Joseph thanked Emma profusely, never informing her that he had in fact married the Partridge sisters two month beforehand, or that he already had sixteen other wives. (88)

As expected in a book focusing on Smith’s death, Beam focuses much attention on the events leading up to the murder. When the only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor was published by those who once aligned with Smith’s teaching, all hell broke loose.

Here the dissidents were calling out Joseph’s startling new theology unveiled in the King Follett sermon, his contention that God was once a man who lived on earth, and advanced spiritually under the tutelage of a preceding god. This was indeed blasphemy against the established Chrisitian church, but could a prophet guided by heavenly revelation blaspheme his own theology? Joseph had already rewritten both the Old and New Testaments and created holy rituals, all of them inspired by his direct communications with God. (116)

On page 156, Beam refers to the famous line that he would be going to his death as “a lamb going to the slaughter.” About this, the author explains,

Some of the more dramatic, or quotable, episodes of Joseph’s marytrdom may have been interpolated into the official church history. In 1844, Isaac Scott wrote to his in-laws in Massachusetts: “You will likely hear a great deal about Joseph’s innocence, such as ‘I go as a lamb to the slaughter’. . . All these statements, I believe, are false and got up for the purpose of reconciling the minds of the Church. I believe they had not the least idea that they were going to be murdered.” (156)

Beam spills a lot of ink describing the main player in the event, Ill. Gov. Thomas Ford, who is  described as having

the short man’s inferiority complex. He stood only five feet, five inches tall, making him the butt of the unflattering Mormon rhyme: “Governor Ford he was so small / He had no room for a Soul at all.” (In a dream, Brigham Young once saw “Tom Ford about 2 1/2 feet high.”) Worse yet, he spoke in a squeaky voice, and his sharp nose canted slightly to one side. (137)

The events of the killing are right in line with the historical teachings and will not be disputed by scholars. For me, the highlight of the book was the description in chapter 12 (“Trial by Jury”) of the trial of Smith’s killers and how they were able to be exonerated. There were details included there that I had never read before.

The book is in need of further editing, as there were some sentences that had awkward construction. There were also several cases of wrong words that were used (i.e. “In his dairy” instead of “In his diary” on page 97 and “trail” instead of “trial” on page 217). Hopefully a second editon will correct these easy-to-miss mistakes.

American Crucifixion is meant to be viewed as a popular book for laypeople, so most of the specific points  are not attributed. (There are 276 endnotes in the 300+ pages, which equals less than one note per page.) For those of us who like to see source material for quotes and unique pieces of information, this is frustrating, as there were some things he included that I (as a reader) would have liked his soure(s). The book cannot be considered to be a scholarly work; for that, there are other resources that can be found, including Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. At the same time, I think it is clear that while the author thinks Smith was wrongfully killed, he doesn’t buy into the idea that Smith is a genuine martyr. (For more on this topic, see here.)

Overall, I recommend this resource. for those who are interested in this topic.

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