Title: Witness to the Martyrdom: John Taylor’s Personal Account of the Last Days of the Prophet Joseph Smith
Author: John Taylor
Publisher: Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, Utah
Publication date: 2017
Number of pages: 164
Reviewed by Dale E. Luffman for the Association for Mormon Letters
Having read widely in the history of Latter-day Saints in the era of Joseph Smith, Jr., I expectantly awaited the opportunity to review Witness to the Martyrdom: John Taylor’s Personal Account of the Last Days of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Not having read the first edition of this volume I had anticipated encountering an informative, critical historical volume. I did not encounter such a volume. What I did encounter was actually described in the title; I encountered a personal account. As I began to read the volume I was drawn into an apologetic account with language informed by that of an insider, who wrote of distinguished insiders [Saints] contrasting them, including himself, with outsiders [gentiles, apostates, bigots, political fanatics, black legs, etc.] throughout the text.
In the two prefaces the reader is informed regarding Taylor’s account. As an “eyewitness account” the intent of the volume was to provide readers with “a deeper understanding of the depth of, the meaning of, and the effects of” [p.ix] the assassinations of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. The preservation of the witness by John Taylor appears to be the overriding impetus to the volume’s publication.
The editor’s introduction attempts to provide a hermeneutical lens through which the reader is invited to observe and understand the account as well as some of the events leading up to the publication itself. The account, the reader is informed, “has been correlated with the version in the History and discrepancies resolved by relying on that version”[p. 16], suggesting once again that the objective of the text appears to be more of a faith promoting narrative rather than an objective history.
Written “principally from memory”[p. 21], Witness to the Martyrdom first of all walks the reader through various episodes that form a prelude to the assassinations themselves. In many respects this portion of Taylor’s account provides a basis for the unfolding drama of the assassination, and the events which follow. The initial portion of the narrative reflects on the setting in which the assassinations occur. This is informed by considering various aspects of the setting enumerated in succeeding chapters describing expressed grievances, the Nauvoo Expositor [the apostate, “libelous, false, and infamous” circular that it was], the governor’s mishandling of the situation, the actions of the Nauvoo City Council, Joseph’s initial escape to Iowa, and the prophet’s imprisonment for treason. All these chapters, comprising the first half of the volume, inform the reader of not only the innocence of the victims [especially Joseph and Hyrum!], but at the same time the vile and despicable nature of those who were seen as being in opposition to the church and God’s prophet.
With chapter eight the plot thickens. Taylor reports Joseph’s interview with the governor [a remarkable report given a twelve year interval between the event and the recording of Taylor’s account] with significant interpretation on the part of Taylor. A unique, and rather peculiar chapter, follows, entitled “A Poor Wayfaring Man,” a title taken from a song known to those incarcerated. The account informs the reader that on the night prior to the assassinations, the brethren – – Joseph Smith, Jr., Hyrum Smith, Willard Richards, and John Taylor – – sent out for some wine – – not a current practice among the brethren! They did so because their “spirits were generally dull and heavy, and it was sent for to revive us” [p. 84]. All drank the wine; they even shared some of the wine with the prison guards.
The centerpiece of this account is found in chapter ten, titled “The Deadly Deed.” Over six pages of a detailed narrative of the assassination of Hyrum and Joseph Smith are given as a firsthand, eyewitness account by John Taylor. This personal recollection and report is perhaps the most important section of the entire volume, attested to by one present at, and a participant in, the event. It is this chapter that is the heart of the book, and of significance to the faithful and historians alike.
What follows in the narrative account is Taylor’s demonization of the coroner and of Governor Ford who is made complicit to the assassinations according to Taylor’s telling. The volume concludes with a chapter on the homecoming, and the report of what Taylor considered “the miracle.” His watch had been struck with a ball, perhaps sparing his life. Comments on Taylor’s notes and an epilogue conclude the volume.
For the faithful the volume provides, in the words of the editor, Mark H. Taylor, “a deeper understanding of the depth of, the meaning of, and the effects of the sacrifice that Joseph and Hyrum Smith ultimately made in bringing forth the restoration of the gospel in the latter days” [p. ix]. For others it will be perceived as an apologetic narrative, curiously informing the faith journey of a people. Disturbing to some, this reviewer included, is the ascribing of the title of martyr to the brothers who are assassinated. The term martyr has reference to one who witnesses to beliefs by dying to them, in the Christian sense, in the imitation of Christ. A martyr witnesses to beliefs by dying for them. Hyrum and Joseph are incarcerated on charges of treason, and on account the flagrant destruction of a printing press, the Nauvoo Expositor. To claim their deaths to be representative of a martyr’s witness is perhaps a stretch.
With its intended audience being the faithful LDS community, Witness to the Martyrdom will no doubt contribute to the testimony of the great latter-day Restoration tradition, and to a confession of their faith that Joseph, along with his brother Hyrum, sealed their testimony in their blood as a witnesses to the work. It is with the faithful that the book will find a home. It is important to remember, however, that this work is a faith promoting narrative, and not an objective history.