More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

I mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding William Law’s alleged shooting attempt against Joseph Smith in 1844. This same friend, who is an active member of the LDS church, sent me some further information, so I thought I would share it here.
The Stoddard tale is an interesting bit of folklore. As has been noted, there are two versions of the story: the spurious Sarah Stoddard journal and an affidavit sworn by Charles Stoddard’s granddaughter and great-grandaughter in 1949 (included in Mark L. McConkie’s compilation, Remembering Joseph). [The affidavit can be read here.]

So, the story as told in the Deseret News seems to be derived from the one from this affidavit, which was made some 30 years after the story’s origin (if my friend is correct that the story dates from after 1918).

If you subtract the gun play, Charles Stoddard’s story has certain similarities to Dennison Lott Harris’s story, which was recounted in an article called “Conspiracy of Nauvoo” that appeared in the April 1884 issue of The Contributor (the New Era of its day). The author of the piece, Horace Cummings, said that he heard Harris relate the story in 1883 and was so impressed by it that he wrote it down afterward in his journal. Later, after learning that The Contributor was offering a prize for a Christmas story, he “extended [his] journal account somewhat and wrote [the] article in competition for the prize.”

In the story, Harris and his friend, Robert Scott, attend secret meetings at William Law’s house as spies for Joseph Smith. There are three meetings. Before the third meeting, Joseph warns them not to enter into any secret oaths. Then, as the account has it, “after a pause of some moments, he added: ‘Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do, I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men; you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.'” Sure enough, at the meeting, everyone is required to swear an oath dedicating themselves to Joseph Smith’s destruction. Everyone takes the oath but the two boys. The enraged mob clamors for their blood: they must take the oath or be killed. When they refuse again, the Law brothers and Austin Cowles frog-march them down to the cellar to slit their throats. Then, at the last moment, someone in the crowd yells—”as if by Divine interposition”—to halt the proceedings. The boys are reluctantly given a reprieve. They will be allowed to leave but must never speak of what they have seen or they will be killed on sight. Joseph, meanwhile, fearing for the boys’ safety, concealed himself along the river bank with one of his bodyguards, just out of sight of Law’s men. There’s a joyful reunion and the boys relate everything they had seen and heard to the grateful Prophet. Cummings’s article closes with the declaration that it “is a true recital of events that actually transpired.” This affirmation is somewhat undercut, however, by the postscript: “That which is elevating and ennobling in its tendency is necessarily true.”

So, it’s a nice story, but even the originator seems to take it with a grain of salt.

So according to Mormon folklore, the Law-Higbee-Foster et al. conspiracy against Joseph Smith was discovered by one or more courageous youths. Contemporary records, however, tell a different story. On 24 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal the following remarks made by the Prophet:

“I have been informed by two gentleman that a conspiricy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith his family and all the Smith family & the heads of the Church. One of the gentleman will give his name to the public & the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath & make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows: (Chancy Higby Dr Foster, Mr Jackson, Wm. & Wilson Law). And the lies that Higby has hatched up as a foundation to work upon is, he says that I had mens heads Cut off in Missouri & that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill & put out of the way. I wont sware out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them. They would not scare of an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it. Their is honor among enemies. I am willing to do any thing for the good of the people. I will give the names of one of the gentleman who have divulged the plot. His name is Eaton. He will sware to it. He is a bold fellow. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive 2 weeks not over two months any how. As concerning the Character of these men I will say nothing about it now but If I hear any thing more from them on this subject I will tell what I know about them.”

Joseph’s informants were M.G. Eaton and Abiathar Williams (see Times and Seasons, 15 May 1844, 541)—not Charles Stoddard, Dennison Harris, or Robert Scott. But I suppose, if the folklore is elevating and ennobling in its tendency, then it is necessarily true 😉

So, even in the 1880s they understood that some truths are not very useful, but some untruths can be uplifting.

What I wonder is how the story came to be appropriated by the Stoddard family, when the original, which seems pretty obviously made up, doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Stoddard or his family.  But it seems fairly common for family histories to insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into important events based on proximity. In other words, the Stoddards were in Nauvoo during the time of Joseph Smith’s murder, so surely they had a part in defending the prophet.

Several years ago, I read a biography of Frederick G. Williams called After One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. It was written by a woman named Nancy Williams, who was a Williams by marriage only. She devotes an entire chapter to the Williamses’ likely involvement in the War of 1812, describing battles and ships and heroism. Only there is absolutely no evdience that anyone in the Williams family took part in that war. True, they lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which was near the Great Lakes, and William Wheeler Williams, Frederick’s father, had been involved in shipping on the lakes at one time. But there’s nothing to suggest he or anyone else in the family fought in the war, let alone served with heroic distinction. Basically, then, Mrs. Williams decided that, because he was near the action, William must have been involved. I think that’s the same thing that has happened with the Stoddard family. Maybe Charles was part of the Whistling and Whittling Brigade, or maybe he knew Joseph Smith or William Law personally Who knows?

P.S. For what it’s worth, here is an excerpt from a letter William Law wrote to Isaac Hill on 20 July 1844:

. . . My family and myself are all well, and have enjoyed good health and peace since we left Nauvoo, although the events which have transpired Since, were very shocking to my feeling/s\ yet, as they \(J&H)/ brought it upon themselves, and I used my influence to prevent any outrage Even from the Commencement of the Excitement, believing that the Civil Law had power to Expose iniquity, and punish the wicked I say Consequently, I look on Calmly, and while the wicked slay the wicked, I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of inocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken Sudden vengeance.
I am as ever—
Respectfully Yours,
Wm. Law.

(William Law letter to Isaac Hill, 20 July 1844, MS 3473, CHL)

This sounds more like the William Law known from his actual words and actions. While I find his apparent satisfaction with the “vengeance” of God to be more than a little distasteful, he isn’t the foul-mouthed drunkard of the Stoddard and Harris accounts. You would think that, after everything that happened, if William Law had really conspired to kill Joseph Smith, he would have been just a little more proud of his accomplishment. What I find revealing is that Law basically left Mormonism and the Mormons alone after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Although he had plenty of opportunities to “expose” and denounce the LDS church later, he never spoke publicly about it until some 40 years later, when he was interviewed about his involvement with the Latter-day Saint movement.  You can read what he said in “Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.” [Please note that my link is not an endorsement of Maze Ministry. I’m only linking to it because it’s the complete text.]

 

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3 Responses to More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

  1. Joel says:

    The Stoddard account of the Law assassination conspiracy was taught to me as history in a BYU religion class from Susan Easton Black. She certainly presented it as reliable fact. I now put it in the same category as the Marsh milk-strippings story, a self-serving account of questionable provenance.

    • Joel says:

      Correction, it was the Harris story (of the two boys who refused to swear a secret oath to murder the prophet) that Susan Easton Black shared, not the Stoddard account.

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