Joseph Smith: Prophet and City Leader

Museum Treasures

The sign that once labeled Joseph Smith’s office in Nauvoo’s Red Brick Store draws attention to his position as prophet, yet it hung in a place where he filled many additional roles.

The sign that once labeled Joseph Smith’s office in Nauvoo’s Red Brick Store draws attention to his position as prophet, yet it hung in a place where he filled many additional roles. Like Joseph himself, the Red Brick Store fulfilled both Church and state purposes. In Joseph’s office, he received and dictated revelations. In the store’s upper assembly room, he organized the Relief Society and introduced temple ceremonies. The assembly room also housed Nauvoo’s municipal court and provided space for the political convention that nominated Joseph Smith as a presidential candidate.1 Joseph didn’t draw a stark line between his civic and religious roles, like we might today, and his political involvement was extremely important to the Church.

In 1839, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders visited the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, because the Saints had endured so many losses in Missouri without any redress at the local or state level. President Van Buren heard Joseph’s complaints and famously responded, “Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. . . . If I take up for you, I shall lose the Vote of Missouri.”2 Recognizing that the government would not protect his people, Joseph determined to do what he could to ensure the Saints’ rights were safeguarded.3

In June 1840, Joseph Smith was considering different ways to organize a government for the Saints’ new settlement along the banks of the Mississippi River when John C. Bennett arrived. Bennett was popular with political leaders in the Illinois state capital, having been appointed quartermaster general over the state militia. He was sympathetic to the Saints’ cause and helped Joseph plan a city government with more legal protections than the Saints had enjoyed in the past.The Nauvoo Charter guaranteed the local government’s rights to pass laws, form a city militia, and issue writs of habeas corpus, meaning the right to appeal arrest or imprisonment. Bennett became a Church member and returned to Springfield to shepherd the Nauvoo Charter through the Illinois legislature. The charter gained approval in December 1840. Bennett became the city’s first elected mayor in February 1841, and Joseph Smith served on the city council and as the lieutenant general of the newly formed Nauvoo Legion.5

Joseph actively participated on the city council and introduced all 11 of the ordinances passed during the council’s first five meetings. One ordinance addressed temperance.6 Another demonstrated his commitment to religious freedom: “Be it ordained . . . That the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter Day Saints, Quakers, Episcopalians, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans, and all other Religious Sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this City.”7

Fifteen months after he was elected, John C. Bennett resigned as mayor amid personal scandal. He had used both his government and ecclesiastical positions to spread damaging rumors about Joseph Smith, plot an assassination attempt, and claim spiritual license to seduce women. After Bennett left both Nauvoo and the Church, the city council elected Joseph Smith to replace Bennett as mayor, with a vote of 18 to 1, in May 1842.8

Nauvoo enjoyed a season of peace and prosperity under Joseph’s leadership, although Joseph continued to face persecution from outside of Nauvoo. In the same month Joseph was elected mayor, an unknown shooter took aim at Missouri’s governor, Lilburn Boggs. Boggs survived the assassination attempt and blamed vengeful Mormons—namely Joseph Smith. The Nauvoo Charter that Joseph had helped design protected him from extradition through the city court’s right to issue writs of habeas corpus. Joseph went into hiding to escape bounties placed on his head by both the Illinois and Missouri governors until he finally agreed to a trial in Springfield under Illinois’s new governor. The judge acquitted Joseph in January 1843.9

A few weeks later, voters unanimously elected Joseph to another mayoral term, showing his immense popularity.10 His political goals included concentrating “all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good. . . . Tis right politically, for a man who has influence to use it. . . . From henceforth I will maintain all the influence I can get. In relation to Politics I will speak as a Man; but in relation to religion I will speak in authority.”11

Joseph used his positions of influence to improve individual lives. As mayor, he appealed a sentence that a Carthage judge had given some delinquent boys. Joseph convinced the court that instead of sending them to an unheated jail for six winter months where they might spend the idle time growing angry and prone to even more mischief, the court could turn the boys over to Nauvoo’s local government. As mayor, Joseph put the boys to work repairing roads to earn money to repay the owner whose property they had ruined. As an elderly man, one of these reformed boys testified that Joseph Smith taught him never to destroy property and to give an honest day’s work—much better lessons than he might have learned in jail.12

Under the Nauvoo Charter, the mayor was also the judge. Joseph was known for upholding the law in his public office while privately offering mercy as well. He once heard the case of a black man who had broken the law by selling liquor. The man had been trying to earn money to buy the freedom of his child living in a slave state. Joseph reportedly fined the man in order to uphold the law but the next day gave the man a horse to help purchase the child’s freedom.13

Joseph’s tenure as mayor ended in tragedy. In 1844, he and the city council passed an ordinance regarding libel.14 Based on the ordinance, Joseph approved getting rid of an inflammatory publication, the Nauvoo Expositor, calling it a public nuisance and a threat to peace. The culture and laws of the press were very different in 1844 than they are today, and Joseph and the city council believed they were within their legal rights to destroy the libelous publication. Yet this act as mayor eventually led Joseph to being incarcerated in Carthage Jail. While awaiting trial there, the Prophet and mayor was assassinated by a mob on June 27, 1844.

In the heartbreaking circumstances that followed Joseph’s death and the repeal of the Nauvoo Charter, the grieving Saints renamed their beautiful haven on the Mississippi River the “City of Joseph.”15 It was a fitting tribute to the city’s founder, champion, and revered leader.