This painting is Benjamin West’s Death on the Pale Horse, depicting the horrors of Revelation 6:2-8, particularly the last verse, which reads: “And I looked, and beheld a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over a fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:8).
On 15 June 1844–twelve days before his death–Joseph Smith spent a few minutes in the afternoon examining this paining, which was on display in the reading room of his store (JS, Journal, June 15, 1844). It could be said that there are few who have seen this painting who could relate to it better than Joseph Smith at this point in his life. He had continually lived in turbulence, having stated in 1842 that “the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life…. Deep water is what I am wont to swim in. It all has become a second nature to me” (D&C 127:2), but it had become particularly dark and malicious during the last year.
President Brigham Young once commented: “He passed a short life of sorrow and trouble, surrounded by enemies who sought day and night to destroy him. If a thousand hounds were on this Temple Block, let loose on one rabbit, it would not be a bad illustration of the situation at times of the Prophet Joseph. He was hunted unremittingly” (JD 10:316). Indeed, from the start Joseph said: “It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period in my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy” (JSH 1:20). Early on, when he had the gold plates, he summarized the sever attempts on him to get the plates as that “the most strenuous exertions were used to get them from me. Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and sever than before” (JSH 1:60).
Even after the plates had been returned to Moroni, persecution continued. While in Kirtland, for example, on Saturday, March 24, 1832, he was dragged from his home in the middle of the night by a mob. He was strangled until he blacked out, stripped of his clothing, beaten, and the mob attempted to poison him with nitric acid (the attempt of which broke both the vial, burning his face and chipped his teeth). They then tarred and feathered him. A man even fell on him and scratched him like a cat. The attempt on him left him marred—the chipped tooth and a permanent bald spot from the acid lasted his whole life. (see Richard L. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling [New York, Vintage Books, 2007] 178-179).
Why did the community do this? Well, in this particular situation one reason was given by Simon Ryder—an apostate from the early Church: “some who had been the dupes of this deception, determined not to let it pass with impunity” and went through with the event “to get rid of them” (quoted in Hayden, History of the Disciples, 221). Fear of fanaticism combined with bitter apostates led to the intense persecution there. From these experiences, Joseph once observed: “From apostates the faithful have received the severest persecutions” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith , p. 321).
On a deeper level, however, the core issue seems to be summarized by another statement from Joseph: “When I do the best I can—when I am accomplishing the greatest good, then the most evils and wicked surmisings are got up against me…. If a man stands and opposes the world of sin, he may expect to have all wicked and corrupt spirits arrayed against him” (ibid, 372).
Many times throughout his life, Joseph had hinted to him or hinted to others that his life would end violently. Brigham Young once stated that “he had prophesied that he would not live to forty years of age” but that the saints “cherished hopes that that would be a false prophesy, and we should keep him forever with us; we through our faith would outreach it, but we were mistaken” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 349). Since he came to Commerce to build it into the city known as Nauvoo at age 33, he knew he didn’t have long to work, and built the city as a deliberate last testament.
Knowing that Joseph Smith built Nauvoo as a final testament and building up for the Church, it becomes valuable to look at what exactly he focused and worked on during those last few years in Nauvoo.
The story of Nauvoo is summarized in this poem:
Driven from the Promised Land
By angry mob and cruel hand,
The saints of God to Commerce came
And built a town of potent fame.
Swampy was that river place
And ague showed its horrid face.
But healed by priesthood power great,
They onward pressed and city made.
Converts new came, lauding God
As gospel fame was spread abroad
To nations far and nations near
By elders called and sent by seer.
Crowning their new city’s top
A house of God was to be wrought.
A temple white—O wondrous sight—
Where God could give His people light.
Though its glory shone around
Not all was right within the town:
Apostates, evil men conspired
And wrote calumny grave and dire.
Soon destroyed was their dark press
Protecting saints from future mess.
Too late to stop his own defame,
Their prophet by a mob was slain.
Driven from the beauteous land
By cruel mob and bloody hand,
The Saints went on to mountains west
And there they found extended rest.
Now saints are found the world around
And near and far the gospel sounds,
But we today remember still
Old Nauvoo, City beautiful.
B.H. Roberts once wrote: “The prophet lived his life in crescendo. From small beginnings, it rose in breadth and power as he neared the close” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 356, footnote). Before his death he had focused on preparing the Saints for the time he would leave them to rest for a season—instructing them and summarizing his life’s teachings, building the temple, creating a record of their history, and ingraining his role as a prophet of God in their minds. Beyond this, what legacy did he leave behind? “In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fullness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought fort the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain” (D&C 135:3). Perhaps, more than anything, he left behind a people who were raised up to follow the Lord through his teachings, who serve in temples for the living and the dead, and who continue to follow prophets to this today, building strong Christians and families in the process.
For all of this, but more importantly, the witness of the Spirit of the Lord, I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. There are things that I worry about in his life—things I do not yet understand—and I know he was but an imperfect human being, but I still know he was called of God to set in motion His great work in this day and age. “He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3).
Now, one final note: Here is a video about an interesting dream he had not long before his death: