June 27 is the anniversary of the day in 1844 when Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of the Latter Day Saints, was martyred. Given that I have not posted anything in this blog so far about the Latter Day Saints (Mormons), I thought this somber anniversary would be a good time to do that.
Like many Americans, I do not know very much about Mormonism. Several months ago, however, the PBS shows Frontline and American Experience did their first joint production, a four-hour history of the Mormons in America. I thought it was an absolutely excellent presentation, and I am glad to see that you can watch the show online at the PBS website: THE MORMONS, "A four-hour exploration into the richness, the complexities and the controversies of the Mormons' story as told through interviews with members of the church, leading writers and historians, and supporters and critics of the Mormon faith."
If you would like to learn more about Mormonism, I highly recommend watching this documentary!
There are also good materials about Joseph Smith available at wikipedia. There is a detailed biography, along with a separate article about Joseph Smith's death.
On June 25, 1844, Smith surrendered to the civil authorities of the state of Illinois following a riot (details here) that took place in Nauvoo, Illinois, where Smith and the Mormons had settled. The Governor of Illinois had guaranteed Smith's safety until he could be tried in court, but Smith saw things differently, saying at the time: "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I shall die innocent, and it shall yet be said of me: He was murdered in cold blood."
That is indeed what happened. Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith were both put in prison in the jail in Carthage, Illinois. A mob of approximately 200 of Smith's opponents then stormed the jail on June 27. The men were armed, and burst into the jail with their guns firing. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face and died of his wounds. Joseph Smith attempted to jump from the window but was shot in the back as he did so; he was also hit in the chest from a gun fired from outside the jail. Although eyewitness accounts differ, it appears that Smith was dead when he hit the ground.
The death of Smith was a traumatic event for the Mormon community, especially because Smith had designated his brother Hyrum as his successor. Brigham Young, who would later lead the Mormons west, wrote in his diary at the time: "The first thing which I thought of was, whether Joseph had taken the keys of the kingdom with him from the earth." (wikipedia).
You can find a good selection of Mormon books at the Sacred Texts Archive online. I was intrigued to learn that in addition to translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith had also translated the Bible! The LDS.org website has some pages which compare and contrast the Joseph Smith version with the King James version, and you can find additional links to online editions of Smith's text in this wikipedia article.
Meanwhile, here is a lithograph from 1851 showing the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27 in 1844. Notice that the members of the mob are said to have blackened their faces with gunpowder, as you can see shown here: