The Date and Meaning of Joseph Smith's 'Last Charge'

Brigham YoungFollowing the 27 June 1844 martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and, his brother, the Patriarch Hyrum Smith, the question, “Who should assume leadership of the fourteen year-oldSidney Rigdon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” was on every Mormon’s mind. Those living at church headquarters located on the banks of the Mississippi river in Nauvoo, Illinois, no sooner buried their prophet than they had to make the difficult decision of who they would choose to follow of several who would claim prophetic continuity. In the immediate period, this quandary in succession quickly reduced itself to the choice between two people. At first, several potential successors were proposed.

But by the time the majority of the Twelve Apostles and other missionaries who were in the East returned early in the following August, the choice of leaders came down to Sidney Rigdon and Brigham Young. Sidney’s long-standing position in the First Presidency, the only undisputedly universal governing quorum of the Church, made his choice as successor appealing to some.  However, the overwhelming majority of the membership of the Church in Nauvoo, chose in solemn assembly on 8 August 1844 to follow the leadership of the Twelve Apostles, with Brigham Young, president of the Quorum, as leader. While during the ensuing month, the Quorum of the Twelve moved swiftly to attend to important Church-wide business, Sidney Rigdon, bitterly disappointed with his rejection, gathered a small party of dissidents to rally behind his plea for leadership of the Church. One month to the day after his rejection, Sidney Rigdon was excommunicated because he sought to nullify the authority of the Quorum of the Twelve by, among other things, performing sacred temple ordinances which he had not himself received. Undaunted by this setback, Sidney moved back to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he had taken residency the very day of the martyrdom just two months before. From there he would launch a short-lived counter-movement to the Apostles.

Eleven days later, after Sidney’s excommunication, apostle Orson Hyde, while traveling by steam boat down the Mississippi River, met a budding Rigdonite, Ebenezer Robinson. While conversing, Apostle Hyde learned that Elder Robinson was going to Pittsburgh. Its hard to imagine that he could not guess Robinson's leanings towards Sidney's cause, yet, apostle Hyde composed a letter which he wanted Ebenezer to read to the Saints who soon would be directly facing Sidney and his claims. In this letter Elder Hyde sought to concisely summarize how the Twelve Apostles claimed their commission to lead the Church as it came to them from Joseph Smith in a important event shortly before the martyrdom. He also tried to succinctly state their view of the deficiency of Sidney's position. What was the undergirding event that established the authority of the Twelve?

One of the chief mainsprings of their authority was a “charge” Joseph Smith gave them before his death. When and where did Joseph Smith give this charge? To whom did he give it? Most importantly, why did he give it and what has it come to mean? The beginning of the answers to these questions are suggested by Apostle Hyde’s letter:

Steam Boat North Bend,

Sept. 19th 1844.

Bro. E. Robinson, . . . [sic].

You probably may have received something by way of counsel from Nauvoo

from Brother Young, if so, I trust you will regard it as coming from “the proper

source.” We have had a charge given us by our prophet, and that charge we intend

to honor and magnify. It was given in March last. He said: “let no man take your

crown, and though you should have to walk right into death, fear not, neither be

dismayed.” “You have to die but once.” “To us were committed the Keys of the

Kingdom, and every gift, key and power, that Joseph ever had,” confirmed upon our

heads by an anointing, which Bro. Rigdon never did receive. . . . [sic]

We know the charge which the prophet gave us, and the responsibility which

the Spirit of the living God laid on us through him, and we know that Elder Rigdon

does not know what it was. We have counted the cost of the stand we have taken, and

have firmly and unitedly, with prayer and with fasting—with signs and with tokens,

with garments and with girdle, decreed in the name of Jesus Christ, that we will

honor our calling, and faithfully carry out the measures of the prophet so far as we

have power, relying on the arm of God for strength in every time of need. . . . [sic]

I know that the curse of God will fall upon every one that tries to give us

trouble or to weaken our hands in the work in which we are engaged, for this promise

we have obtained from the Lord in solemn convocation. . . . [sic]

I want you to read this letter to the Saints in Pittsburg, not to the world.

My kind love to all the Saints, to yourself and family.

Yours truly, O. Hyde1