Since I wrote a post on the assassinations of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27, 1844, mentioning the the Expositor newspaper as the trigger for these events, located here, several people have asked to know more about the Expositor. This post relays a bit more about this subject. Enjoy.
In Mormon-controlled Nauvoo, Illinois, in May 1844, leaders of the Reformed Mormon Church, a dissenting group opposing what they considered abuse by Joseph Smith Jr., the church sect’s founding prophet, launched a newspaper independent of the control of the Latter Day Saint church. Led by William and Wilson Law, brothers who had previously been in the leadership of the church at Nauvoo, the Expositor published only one issue. The June 7, 1844, edition sounded the alarm about what the dissenters believed were abuses of authority by Joseph Smith. It also set off a chain of events that eventually led to the deaths of Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.
The Expositor was intended from the beginning as a means of expressing dissent—perhaps the ultimate form of adherence to an ideal, for the dissenters feel it so important that they are willing to endure all forms of censure for it—and through it the publishers hoped to arouse the community against the secret practice of polygamy, raise concerns about other doctrines, and curb Joseph Smith’s theocratic control of the community.
When its only issue appeared on June 7, 1844, the Expositor excited the city’s leadership. It condemned the taking of plural wives and denounced the practice as a villainy by depicting the psychological pressure that was brought to bear on the selected women. It also deplored Joseph Smith’s attempts to gain and wield political power and called for greater separation of church and state at Nauvoo. The publishers listed a whole series of resolutions designed to bring religious, moral, and political reform to the community. Among other things, they opposed Smith’s efforts to hold himself above the law.
The Expositor not only opposed Smith’s control of Nauvoo, it held his behavior up to precisely the kind of critical examination that he had always managed to avoid within the church. And the publishers were very well informed. They addressed their fellow Mormons with authority—as men “thoroughly acquainted with [the church’s] rise, its organization and its history.” If the Mormon community of Nauvoo had serious shortcomings, as the publishers asserted, then the church membership had to question the virtues claimed for it by Joseph Smith. Rather than a bastion of virtue in a corrupt nation as Smith insisted, the Law brothers asserted that Nauvoo was a place where moral, social, and political corruption reigned.
Hence, the opposition newspaper offered a view of the community which the Mormon prophet could not tolerate. His conception of Nauvoo as a God-led, separatist theocracy was at stake. Smith had to act, and he did.
The day after the Expositor hit the street, Joseph Smith, acting as Nauvoo’s mayor, convened the city council to take official action against it. In meetings on June 8, the council declared the Expositor a nuisance that must be destroyed. Smith insisted that this dissenting newspaper was a “treasonable” threat to the city’s “chartered rights,” asserted that the dissenters wanted to incite violence against Nauvoo, and called for its destruction no less than four times during the meetings.
When a council member had the audacity not to follow his lead, Smith showed his disapproval, remarking, “that he was sorry to have one dissenting voice, in declaring the Expositor a nuisance.” He wanted total compliance with his plan for removing the threat to his control of the community, just as he wanted total compliance from his followers.
No doubt, these proceedings violated the constitutional rights of the dissenters, for there was no due process of law. The city council was not a court, nor were the accused charged with anything, notified of the proceedings against them, or allowed to defend themselves. Furthermore, there was no existing nuisance law with respect to newspapers. An ordinance to cover the action was passed after the Expositor started publishing, and it was used as a pretext to destroy the press and intimidate the publishers. Clearly, the purpose of the city council meeting was not to seek the truth, or to administer justice, but to eliminate critics and to purge from the community an influence that was heretical, because the dissenters’ reform proposals challenged the central Mormon myths of inherent innocence and leadership by revelation. Nothing else that the Mormons did revealed so convincingly to the non-Mormon community around Nauvoo the threat to democracy present in Joseph Smith’s theocratic government.
More importantly, during the proceedings all sorts of slanderous remarks were made about the publishers which were unrelated to the contents of the Expositor and unsupported by evidence. That reveals much about the Mormon mythic consciousness, for which guilt and innocence were matters of belief, not of evidence. Moreover, the entire council meeting was deeply influenced by psychological projection. Aspects of the self—and of the community approved by the conscious self—that were disturbing to the Mormon mind (multiple sexual relationships, false swearing, etc.) were attributed to the dissenters, thereby relieving the inner tensions of the accusers. When council member Orson Spencer said, “We have found these men covenant breakers with God, with their wives!! &c.,” he unconsciously put his finger on the repressed anxieties that haunted the Mormon mind.
The council meeting was, in fact, an act of scapegoating, a psychological purgation or a casting out of “iniquity” by attributing it to others. When council member Levi Richards exclaimed about the press, “Let it be thrown out of this city,” he was expressing symbolically what most really wanted, the casting out of the dissenters for whom the press had spoken.
With the city council’s approval, Joseph Smith moved very quickly against the Expositor. As mayor he ordered the city police to destroy the press, and then he acted as Lieutenant General of the Nauvoo Legion to provide military support for this act of institutionalized violence. The press was destroyed without prior notice on the evening of June 10, 1844. Afterward, the men involved returned to the prophet’s home, where, as he told them, as recorded in his journal, “I gave them a short address and told them they had done right,” and assured them “that I would never submit to have another libelous publication…established in this city.” The men cheered him and went home.