The Date and Meaning of Joseph Smith's 'Last Charge' - Page 1

No record of Ebenezer Robinson reading this letter to the Pittsburgh Saints has come to light, and certainly it did not then have Apostle Hyde’s desired effect upon Ebenezer either. Notwithstanding this letter, for forty-five years, Robinson was tortured by succession issues.

Twenty years ago, D. Michael Quinn, in his seminal article, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” attached to the “Last Charge” the status of it being the “shibboleth of succession.”2 While he indicated that there were eight possible succession alternatives that Joseph Smith had proposed, he concluded that the “Last Charge,” among other points, were fundamental to the succession of the Twelve Apostles as the legitimate leaders of the Church immediately after the martyrdom. In this article he was the first modern scholar to suggest a specific date for this “last charge” as 23 March 1844. He cited minutes of Orson Hyde’s testimony to the Nauvoo High Council given two months after the Robinson letter, as his authority for this dating. In my 1981 Master’s thesis, “Joseph Smith’s Introduction of Temple Ordinances and the 1844 Mormon Succession Question” written five years later, for which he served as an advisor, I proposed the date as 26 March 1844.  Recently, with the publication of his monumental, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power, he challenged once again my date for the event. I would like to briefly respond to this, and then turn to the more important issues of the why of the “last charge,” and, lastly, to its continuing meaning (meanings of which we do not substantially differ). Why did I in my Master’s thesis, and why do I still dismiss the 23 March 1844 date?

In my thesis I did so simply on the basis of the fact that there was no Council of Fifty meeting held that day while Joseph Smith “was busy . . . securing affidavits.” I argued then that the news he received earlier in the day regarding a new threat being launched against his life is the immediate context for the “charge.” Specifically, the backdrop for it, as I explained there, was the rumor that two nonmembers of the Church gave to Joseph  Smith that Joseph H. Jackson told them that a conspiracy was being hatched by the Foster’s, the Higbee’s and the Law’s against the whole Smith family: that they would all be dead within weeks. Joseph Smith learned of this on the morning of the 23rd. He went out that morning and first went to the Foster home, and then to a non-Mormon home, the Gillman’s, to get information he wanted to expose the conspiracy. No where in Dr. Quinn’s writings does he account for this as the “councilling” Joseph Smith’s diary alludes to. Instead, he insists that it is, in fact, the “last charge” given in impromptu visits with members of the Council of Fifty.  In fact, Joseph Smith was accompanied by William Clayton and Alexander Neibaur during these visits. In my thesis, I tried not to be obnoxious: I implicitly challenged the date of the 23rd by simply presenting what I thought were the events leading to “last charge” which I offered as being given at the next regularly scheduled meeting of the Council of Fifty three days later. I considered (and still consider) this chronology a compelling challenge to the report of the Orson Hyde date. I chose to be more explicit about my challenge to the date when I discussed the Hyde testimony in a later chapter of my thesis.3 There, however, I suggested that the minutes might have been in error and that Orson Hyde was not present when the minutes were read and approved at the next meeting of the High Council. Nevertheless, it remains possible, that the date given in the minutes is the date Hyde gave to it at that time. In that case, I would be challenging the accuracy of Hyde’s memory.  He might have been in error, given the nine month period of time  between the actual meeting and the November testimony. After all, the context of the “last charge” was more important than pointing out my quibbling with Apostle Hyde, or the recorder of the minutes, let alone Dr. Quinn, who seemed in 1976 less concerned over the exact date.

Today, however, Dr. Quinn gives three reasons for believing that the charge was given on 23 March 1844 rather than on the date I propose, 26 March 1844. First, because Orson Hyde said so. Second, because of the Joseph Smith diary entry’s vague reference to “councilling” on that date.  Last, because of a talk by Heber C. Kimball given nine years later allegedly on the anniversary of the “charge.” The last reason I found least compelling because of the ambiguous references to the “charge” which Dr. Quinn himself acknowledges.4 His second reason for accepting the 23 March dating, that is, because the diary of Joseph Smith contains a vague reference to “councilling,” is also unpersuasive because of reasons mentioned above as well as for the fact that Willard Richards, who wrote the diary entry for Joseph, did not accompany Joseph Smith at all during the “councilling” held that day, nor was he a recipient of this “councilling.” Instead, apostle Richards was busy with his visit at the temple, his passing out of notices at various places in Nauvoo, and, finally, his putting in currant bushes and plants in his garden.5 Likewise, Wilford Woodruff, “spent the day drawing 100 rails from Mr Middletons to the Lot I bought of Hiram Kimball.”6 Orson Hyde’s testimony that Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff were comfortably seated with dozens of other men in a three hour meeting held in the Red Brick Store does not coincide with what these men were doing on 23 March 1844 when they spent the day working in their gardens and elsewhere on a rare good weather Saturday. Lastly, the reason I dismiss Dr. Quinn’s first assertion, that is, that he accepts apostle Hyde’s date simply because apostle Hyde gave it, is because I believe apostle Hyde’s memory does not match the more compelling contemporaneous records identifying the date of the first Council of Fifty meeting following the alleged threat on Joseph’s life as the 26 March 1844 meeting was (even though minutes themselves of this meeting lack explicit reference to the “charge”). Neither Dr. Quinn nor I doubt that such a meeting was held. Both of us have identified over 100 sources referring to this event. Only three of the accounts specify that the Council of Fifty was the setting for the “charge,” but all agree it was on a solemn occasion, when it appears that chores and personal business could not possibly have intervened. William LawMoreover, it is ironic, that Dr. Quinn can, in another place state that he had such grave misgivings about anything that Hyde might have recalled at a later time, and yet in this case seem to take this nine-month recollection at face value regarding the reported date, 23 March 1844.7 But what of the more important immediate reasons for why the “last charge,” that in late March 1844, as is consistently mentioned in the documents, Joseph Smith had forebodings of imminent death. Quinn nowhere treats the threats that had come to Joseph Smith on 23 March 1844.

On that day, in the midst of a period of intense activity establishing the “Kingdom of God,” or what would soon be known to its members as the “Council of Fifty,” Joseph Smith was informed by two nonmembers of the Church, Dr. Abiathar Williams and Marenus G. Eaton, that “Wm. Law, Wilson Law, R. D. Foster, Chauncey L. Higbee, and Joseph H. Jackson had held a caucus, designing to destroy all the Smith family in a few weeks.”8 Eaton, who was either a member or about to become a member of the Council of Fifty, told Joseph that he talked with Foster, Jackson, and Higbee only a few days before and found them greatly agitated over the “spiritual wife system.” He had heard Jackson say that “the Laws were ready to enter into a secret conspiracy, tooth and nails.” Foster, however, was the most infuriated.  Foster asked Eaton if he would like it if a man came to his home, who, in his absence, preached “spiritual wifeism,” seduced his wife, and put such fear in her that he found when he came home and questioned her that she would not reveal the other man's immoral advances until after putting her at gunpoint? Foster told Eaton that he had been “thus abused” by no less than Joseph Smith himself.9

After Joseph was told of Foster's insinuation, he spent the day obtaining counter statements. Joseph went with Alexander Neibaur, his German teacher, and William Clayton to see Foster's wife, who was visiting at a Mr. Gilman's home. Mrs. Gilman, a nonmember of the Church, was present during the entire interview while

Prest. J[oseph Smith]. asked sister Foster if she ever in her life knew him guilty of an immoral or indecent act. She answered no He then explained his reasons for asking and then asked if ever he had used any indecent or insulting language to her, she answered, never. He further asked if he ever preached any thing like the spiritual wife doctrine to her only what he had preached in public. She said no! He asked her if he ever proposed to have illicit intercourse with her and especially when he took dinner during the Doctors absence. She said no.10

Joseph now had the testimony he needed and could also show he obtained it without applying pressure.  The Prophet believed Eaton's report of William Law's involvement in the conspiracy. The Prophet had not spoken with Law since January, when he informed William that he had been dropped from the Anointed Quorum (the name of the group of men and women on whom Joseph has bestowed the temple ordinances in advance of the completion of the Nauvoo temple). So instead of talking with him directly, Joseph sent Hyrum to visit William to sue for peace. But Law was obstinate and demanded “an investigation before the Conference . . . [where he] promised [he] would bring their abominations to light.”11

Consequently, Joseph decided to go public regarding the conspiracy. The next day, 24 March 1844, before a Sunday gathering of the Saints, he said, “I have been informed by two gentlemen that a conspiracy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking [my] life.”12 Boldly in the face of the reported threats, Joseph then challenged them: “I wont swear out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them . . . [even though] Jackson said [that] a Smith should not be alive [in] 2 weeks [or at least] not over two months any how.”13 Then he concluded this, his first public discourse since organizing the “Kingdom of God,” by saying, “I am as the voice of one Crying in the wilderness