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Alex Beam's 'American Crucifixion' takes on early Mormon history

LiteratureMormonismHomicide

It didn't last long, but for a short time in the 1840s the Mississippi River town of Nauvoo was the largest city in Illinois. While most municipalities thrived on trade, Nauvoo's propelling force was something much less tangible: faith. And that would also be the city's downfall.

Before the fledgling Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — the Mormons — made Salt Lake City the center of their earthly existence, they had settled in Nauvoo, following their founding prophet Joseph Smith. The charismatic sect leader had a remarkable knack for capturing the imagination of those who would believe but also of enraging those who saw him not as a Christian prophet but as a heretic, a seducer of women and other men's wives — a con man. And that brought a steady rain of violence to both Smith and his flock.

It's a brutal yet absorbing slice of history that Alex Beam captures well in his new book, "American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church." While Beam wraps in some essential early church history, this is at heart a journalistic account of a murder that tells us as much about religious intolerance and the low flash point of mob violence as it does about Mormonism.

There are few "good guys" in Beam's book, and his portrayal of Smith is less than charitable. From the outside, it's hard not to see warts where the faithful saw — and see — a much different man. Smith claimed that an angel named Moroni directed him to unearth golden tablets, which Smith then wrapped in cloth and stared at while channeling God's revelation of the Book of Mormon.

Smith's religious claims drew deep skepticism. Regardless, he drew enough followers to become a potent political force wherever they settled. The church began near Palmyra, N.Y., then moved to Kirtland, Ohio, then to Missouri, where its anti-slavery beliefs made Smith and his followers unwelcome. In 1839, after arrests and violent skirmishes culminating in the massacre of 17 Mormons, Smith bought 20,700 acres of malarial swampland on either side of the Mississippi River and founded Nauvoo in a horseshoe bend on the Illinois side.

The city, like the church, grew at a remarkable pace, reaching more than 10,000 residents by 1844, bigger, in some accountings, than Chicago (then in its own growth spurt) and resented by earlier settlers who viewed the Mormons as kooks. Then whispers began circulating about secret marriages with multiple wives, and the tinder began drying.

When Smith's followers destroyed the printing press of a critical newspaper opened by some Mormon rivals, the match was lighted. Beam details the legal fights — both within the church and with outsiders — that ultimately led to the murder of Smith and his brother, Hyrum, by a mob as they and two other churchmen were jailed in nearby Carthage, Ill.

In a sense, Smith's murder was the rebirth of the church. Within weeks Brigham Young was elected to lead the flock and, after more violent attacks from outsiders, he moved the church and its followers from Nauvoo — Smith's Zion — to the Great Salt Lake Valley, a place far beyond the reach of the U. S. government in what was then Mexican territory inhabited by Native Americans.

Before the Mormons moved on, there was a pretense in Illinois at seeking justice. Several men who led the mob that night were put on trial, but it was not the kind of accusation that was likely to go far. A jury of the killers' peers found nothing wrong with the storming of the jail, the fusillade of bullets that dropped Smith from his second-floor window perch, and the final volley on the ground that shredded the body of the religious leader.

As defense attorney Calvin Warren told the jury: "If these men are guilty, then are every man, woman, and child in the country guilty. The same evidence … could have been given against hundreds of others. It was public opinion that the Smiths ought to be killed, and public opinion made the laws."

As for Nauvoo, it's now a slow-paced river town of 1,100 people. One can only imagine, looking at Salt Lake City, what each might have been today were it not for that long-ago spasm of religious intolerance and old-fashioned American mob violence.

Martelle, a Times editorial writer, is the author of "The Admiral and the Ambassador: One Man's Obsessive Search for the Body of John Paul Jones."


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

Alex Beam
PublicAffairs: 352 pp., $26.99


Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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