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"Beloved, thou doest faithfully whatsoever thou doest to the brethren, and to strangers; Which have borne witness of thy charity before the church: whom if thou bring forward on their journey after a godly sort, thou shalt do well."

3 John 1:5-6

Josiah Quincy III and Joseph Smith


Josiah Quincy III was a U.S. Congressman, Mayor of Boston and was a Harvard University President. On May 14, 1844, he traveled to Nauvoo to see the city and meet with Joseph Smith. The following are his impressions of both the city and the prophet which he wrote in his book, "Figures of the Past". His narrative includes a protestant minister arguing with Joseph, and his conversations with Joseph about theology, politics and slavery.


It is by no means improbable that some future textbook, for the use of generations yet unborn, will contain a question something like this: What historical American of the nineteenth century has exerted the most powerful influence upon the destinies of his countrymen? And it is by no means impossible that the answer to that interrogatory may be thus written: Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. And the reply, absurd as it doubtless seems to most men now living, may be an obvious common-place to their descendants.

Josiah Quincy III History deals in surprises and paradoxes quite as startling as this. The man who established a religion in this age of free debate, who was and is today accepted by hundreds of thousands as a direct emissary from the Most High—such a rare human being is not to be disposed of by pelting his memory with unsavory epithets. Fanatic, impostor, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us. Fanatics and impostors are living and dying every day, and their memory is buried with them; but the wonderful influence which this founder of a religion exerted and still exerts throws him into relief before us, not as a rogue to be criminated, but as a phenomenon to be explained. The most vital questions Americans are asking each other today have to do with this man and what he has left us. A generation other than mine must deal with these questions. Burning questions they are, which must give a prominent place in the history of the country to that sturdy self-asserter whom I visited at Nauvoo.

Joseph Smith, claiming to be an inspired teacher, faced adversity such as few men have been called to meet, enjoyed a brief season of prosperity such as few men have ever attained, and finally, forty-three days after I saw him, went cheerfully to a martyr's death. When he surrendered his person to Governor Ford, in order to prevent the shedding of blood, the Prophet had a presentiment of what was before him. "I am going like a lamb to the slaughter," he is reported to have aid; "but I am as calm as a summer's morning. I have a conscience void of offense, and shall die innocent." I have no theory to advance respecting this extraordinary man. I shall simply give the facts of my intercourse with him. At some future time they may be found to have some bearing upon the theories of others who are more competent to make them. Ten closely written pages of my journal describe my impressions of Nauvoo, and of its Prophet, mayor, general and judge.

Pre-eminent among the stragglers by the door stood a man of commanding appearance, clad in the costume of a journeyman carpenter when about his work. He was a hearty, athletic fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out upon his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead. He wore striped pantaloons, a linen jacket which had not lately seen the wash tub, and a beard of some three days' growth. This was the founder of the religion which had been preached in every quarter of the earth.

A fine looking man is what the passerby would instinctively have murmured upon meeting this remarkable individual who had fashioned the mould which was to shape the feelings of so many thousands of his fellow-mortals. But Smith was more than this, and one could not resist the impression that capacity and resource were natural to his stalwart person. I have already mentioned the resemblance he bore to Elisha R. Potter, of Rhode Island, whom I met in Washington in 1826. The likeness was not such as would be recognized in a picture, but rather one that would be felt in a grave emergency. Of all men that I have met, these two seemed best endowed with that kingly faculty which directs as by intrinsic right, the feeble or confused souls who are looking for guidance. This it is just to say with emphasis; for the reader will find so much that is puerile and even shocking in my report of the Prophet's conversation that he might never suspect the impression of rugged power that was given by the man�.

"General Smith," said Dr. Goforth, when we had adjourned to the green in front of the tavern, "I think Mr. Quincy would like to hear you preach."

"Then I shall be happy to do so," was the obliging reply; and mounting the broad step which led from the house, the Prophet promptly addressed a sermon to the little group about him. Our numbers were constantly increased from the passers in the street, and a most attentive audience of more than a hundred persons soon hung upon every word of the speaker. The text was Mark 16:15, and the comments, though rambling and disconnected, were delivered with the fluency and fervor of a camp-meeting orator.

The discourse was interrupted several times by the Methodist minister before referred to, who thought it incumbent upon him to question the soundness of certain theological positions maintained by the speaker. One specimen of the sparring which ensued I though worth setting down. The Prophet is asserting that baptism for the remission of sins is essential for salvation.

Minister: Stop! What do you say to the case of the penitent thief?

Prophet: What do you mean by that?

Minister: You know our Savior said to the thief, "This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise," which shows he could not have been baptized before his admission.

Prophet: How do you know he wasn't baptized before he became a thief?

At this retort the sort of laugh that is provoked by an unexpected hit ran through the audience; but this demonstration of sympathy was rebuked by a severe look from Smith, who went on to say: But that is not the true answer. In the original Greek, as this gentleman [turning to me] will inform you, the word that has been translated paradise means simply a place of departed spirits. To that place the penitent thief was conveyed, and there, doubtless, he received the baptism necessary for his admission to the heavenly kingdom.

The other objections of his antagonist were parried with a similar adroitness, and in about fifteen minutes the Prophet concluded a sermon which it was evident that his disciples had heard with the heartiest satisfaction....

In the afternoon we drove to visit the farms upon the prairie which this enterprising people had enclosed and were cultivating with every appearance of success. On returning we stopped in a beautiful grove where there were seats and a platform for speaking. "When the weather permits," said Smith, "we hold our services in this place; but shall cease to do so when the temple is finished."

"I suppose none but Mormon preachers are allowed in Nauvoo," said the Methodist minister, who had accompanied our expedition.

"On the contrary, replied the Prophet, "I shall be very happy to have you address my people next Sunday, and I will insure you a most attentive congregation."

"What! do you mean that I may say anything I please, and that you will make no reply?"

"You may certainly say anything you please; but I must reserve the right of adding a word or two, if I judge best. I promise to speak of you in the most respectful manner."

As we rode back, there was much dispute between the minister and Smith. "Come," said the latter, suddenly slapping his antagonist on the knee, to emphasize the production of a triumphant text, "if you can't argue better than that, you shall say all you want to say to my people, and I will promise to hold my tongue, for there's not a Mormon among them that will need my assistance to answer you."

Some back thrust was evidently required to pay for this; and the minister, soon after, having occasion to allude to some erroneous doctrine which I forgot, suddenly exclaimed, "Why, I told my congregation the other Sunday that they might as well believe Joe Smith as such theology as that."

"Did you say Joe Smith in a sermon?" inquired the person to whom the title had been applied.

"Of course I did. Why not?"

The Prophet's reply was given with a quiet superiority that was overwhelming: "Considering only the day and the place, it would have been more respectful to have said Lieutenant General Joseph Smith."

Clearly the worthy minister was no match for the head of the Mormon Church.

I have quoted enough [from letters of converts] to show what really good material Smith managed to draw into his net. Were such fish to be caught with Spaulding's tedious romance and a puerile fable of undecipherable gold plates and gigantic spectacles? Not these cheap and wretched properties, but some mastering force of the man who handled them, inspired the devoted missionaries who worked such wonders. The remaining letters [picked up from Joseph's waste basket by Quincy] both written a year previous to my visit, came from a certain Chicago attorney, who seems to have been the personal friend as well as the legal adviser of the Prophet. With the legal advice come warnings of plots which enemies are preparing, and of the probability that a seizure of his person by secret ambush is contemplated. "They hate you"; writes this friendly lawyer, "because they have done evil unto you.... My advice to you is, not to sleep in your own house, but to have some place to sleep strongly guarded by your own friends, so that you can resist any sudden attempt that might be made to kidnap you in the night. When the Missourians come on this side and burn houses, depend upon it they will not hesitate to make the attempt to carry you away by force. Let me again caution you to be every moment upon your guard."

The man to whom this letter was addressed had long been familiar with perils. For fourteen years he was surrounded by vindictive enemies, who lost no opportunity to harass him. He was in danger even when we saw him at the summit of his prosperity, and he was soon to seal his testimony—or, if you will, to expiate his imposture—by death at the hands of dastardly assassins. If these letters go little way toward interpreting the man, they suggest that any hasty interpretation of him is inadequate...

I asked him to test his [prophetic] powers by naming the successful candidate in the approaching presidential election. "Well, I will prophesy that John Tyler will not be the next President, for some things are possible and some things are probable; but Tyler's election is neither the one nor the other."

We then went on to talk of politics. Smith recognized the curse and iniquity of slavery, though he opposed the methods of the Abolitionists. His plan was for the nation to pay for the slaves from the sale of the public lands. "Congress," he said, "should be compelled to take this course, by petitions from all parts of the country; but the petitioners must disclaim all alliance with those who would disturb the rights of property recognized by the constitution and foment insurrection." It may be worth while to remark that Smith's plan was publicly advocated eleven years later, by one who has mixed so much practical shrewdness with his lofty philosophy. In 1855, when men's minds had been moved to their depths on the question of slavery, Mr. Ralph Waldo Emerson declared that it should be met in accordance "with the interest of the South and with the settled conscience of the North. It is not really a great task, a great fight for this country to accomplish, to buy that property of the planter, as the British nation bought the West Indian slaves." He further says that the "United States will be brought to give every inch of their public lands for a purpose like this."

We who can look back upon the terrible cost of the fratricidal war which put an end to slavery, now say that such a solution of the difficulty would have been worthy a Christian statesman. But if the retired scholar was in advance of his time when he advocated this disposition of the public property in 1855, what shall I say of the political and religious leader who had committed himself, in print, as well as in conversation, to the same course in 1844? If the atmosphere of men's opinions was stirred by such a proposition when war-clouds were discernible in the sky, was it not a statesmanlike word eleven years earlier, when the heavens looked tranquil and beneficent?

General Smith proceeded to unfold still further his views upon politics. He denounced the Missouri Compromise as an unjustifiable concession for the benefit of slavery. It was Henry Clay's bid for the presidency. Dr. Goforth might have spared himself the trouble of coming to Nauvoo to electioneer for a duellist who would fire at John Randolph, but was not brave enough to protect the Saints in their rights as American citizens. Clay had told his people to go to the wilds of Oregon and set up a government of their own. Oh, yes, the Saints might go into the wilderness and obtain justice of the Indians, which imbecile, time-serving politicians would not give them in a land of freedom and equality. The Prophet then talked of the details of government. He thought that the number of members admitted to the lower house of the National Legislature should be reduced. A crowd only darkened counsel and impeded business. A member to every half million of population would be ample. The powers of the President should be increased. He should have authority to put down rebellion in a state, without waiting for the request of any governor; for it might happen that the governor himself would be the leader of the rebels. It is needless to remark how later events showed the executive weakness that Smith pointed out,— weakness which cost thousands of valuable lives and millions of treasure; but the man mingled Utopian fallacies with his shrewd suggestions. He talked as from a strong mind utterly unenlightened by the teachings of history. Finally, he told us what he would do, were he President of the United States, and went on to mention that he might one day so hold the balance between parties as to render his election to that office by no means unlikely.

Who can wonder that the chair of the National Executive had its place among the visions of this self-reliant man? He had already traversed the roughest part of the way to that coveted position. Born in the lowest ranks of poverty, without book-learning and with the homeliest of all human names, he had made himself at the age of thirty-nine a power upon earth. Of the multitudinous family of Smith, from Adam down (Adam of the "Wealth of Nations," I mean), none had so won human hearts and shaped human lives as this Joseph. His influence, whether for good or for evil, is potent to-day, and the end is not yet.

I have endeavored to give the details of my visit to the Mormon Prophet with absolute accuracy. If the reader does not know just what to make of Joseph Smith, I cannot help him out of the difficulty. I myself stand helpless before the puzzle.



Josiah Quincy, "Figures of the Past", 1883
George Q. Cannon, "Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet"