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Joseph Smith’s Brutal Test of Faith

BYU Professor Susan Easton Black told a BYU-Hawaii devotional on November 21st how the horrendous events surrounding Saturday night, March 24, 1832, in Hiram, Ohio, turned into the Prophet Joseph Smith’s first brutal test of faith.

Black, currently a Church curriculum writer who has authored approximately 100 books, explained the period of Church history in Hiram “were glorious times.” For example, she said, the Prophet received the revelation that would eventually become Section 76. “But there were also a downside.”

After Joseph Smith and his family moved in 1831 to the Johnson farm in Hiram, he inadvertently incurred the ill will of Simonds Rider, the wealthiest man in the area when he called him to serve a mission that a 17-year-old boy had turned down.

“He couldn’t imagine this was all the Lord had in store for him,” Black said, adding that Ryder asked the Prophet to write down his mission assignment. Partially because President Smith misspelled Ryder’s name, he refused to serve. Later, in a local newspaper, Ryder challenged the Prophet to a debate on the “falseness of the Book of Mormon and Mormonism in general.” Smith wrote back, suggesting he challenge Rigdon, a former Campbellite preacher like Ryder. Exchanges between Ryder and Rigdon went back and forth in the newspaper for the next several months, often filled with Ryder’s slander.

Professor Black, who in 2000 was the first woman to earn the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Award at BYU, said that by March 1832 Ryder was so upset he decided “the only way to get rid of Mormonism was to kill Joseph Smith; but how?”

The opportunity came a few days later when a doctor quarantined the Johnson farm because Joseph and Emma’s adopted 11-month old twins had measles. Rider organized a mob of about 60 men from the surrounding communities. They met March 24,1832, about midnight at a nearby brickyard, disguised themselves, darkened their faces, and rode to the Johnson farm. Emma Smith, who was awake with one of the sick children, heard scratches on the window. Within moments, 12 men burst into their bedroom. She screamed, “murder,” which awakened the Prophet.

As if giving an eye-witness account, Professor Black related how the mobbers grabbed Joseph on the bed, one pulling out a patch of his hair; another grabbed his left leg, but in turn got kicked out of the room. The remaining 11 carried the Prophet outside where one man choked him unconscious. The other mobbers stopped him, she continued, because they didn’t plan to strangle him.

The mob carried Joseph a little ways off, where he also noticed Sidney Rigdon, who had sustained a head wound. They stripped Smith, except for a shirt collar, and put him on a rail. A Dr. Dennison, who had attended Joseph’s birth years earlier in Vermont and since moved west, planned to castrate the Prophet. “His hand began to shake, and he dropped the knife.” Next, the doctor brought out a bottle of nitric acid. “As he attempted to shove the vial of acid into Joseph’s mouth, he pushed so hard that it actually chipped out one of Joseph’s front teeth,” Black said, noting that until he got his tooth fixed in 1843, the Prophet spoke “almost…with a whistle.”

Black said the next round of torture called for tar — “pine tar…almost like a rubber cement”— which people at that time used to caulk the cracks of log cabins, “not tar like you see on a highway.” Tarring had been a legal punishment in England, starting in the 12th century, and was brought to America by the Pilgrims. “It was never legal in the United States, but was always a form of death,” she said, explaining heated tar was put into the mouth and nostrils to smother the person.

While he was being tarred, another mobber severely scratched the Prophet. He was also feathered, “which was to show that you mocked the man and what he stands for.”

“As Joseph is just about to lose consciousness, he hears the words, ‘the Mormons are coming.’ The mobbers, know surely that Joseph is going to die, hurried back to the brickyard,” Black said.

As he regained consciousness, Black said the Prophet removed the tar from his mouth, and passed out again. Later, he crawled toward the Johnson farmhouse. When he recognized Emma on the front porch and asked her to bring a blanket, she fainted. The men on the farm spent the night trying to get the tar off Joseph and Sydney Rigdon.

Black pointed out that the next morning, Sunday, even though the Prophet was scarified and defaced, Joseph noted in his journal, “I preach to the congregation as usual.” After services, she continued, they went down to the river, broke the ice, and the Prophet baptized three new members.

On Monday Joseph Smith visited Rigdon; and on Wednesday, one of the twins died from complications caused by the exposure that evening — “definitely a martyr of the brutality that occurred that evening,” Black said.

“I love this great prophet. I know that he was a great prophet of God,” she said. “Truly he was brave in the service, and he would not lose his integrity.”

“The crown of brutality that was forged in Hiram, Ohio, would not truly be his until June 27, 1844, [but] this is his beginning of physical brutality.”