Mormonism and Freemasonry/Joseph Smith's involvement

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Joseph Smith's involvement in Freemasonry

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Question: Were Joseph Smith's final words, "O Lord, my God!" a cry for help or mercy from Freemasons in the mob at the Carthage jail?

Joseph Smith's final words were "O Lord, my God!"

According to the accounts of both John Taylor and Willard Richards—the two eyewitnesses who survived the mob's attack on Carthage jail—Joseph Smith's final words were "O Lord, my God!"

The account in the official History of the Church records:

Joseph, seeing there was no safety in the room, and no doubt thinking that it would save the lives of his brethren in the room if he could get out, turned calmly from the door, dropped his pistol on the floor and sprang into the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. "O Lord, my God!"[1]

John Taylor reported:

Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls. (D&C 135:1)

Willard Richards' testimony was that

two balls pierced [Joseph] from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward, exclaiming, "Oh Lord, my God!" As his feet went out of the window my head went in, the balls whistling all around. He fell on his left side a dead man.[2]

Those who knew Joseph Smith believed that this was an attempt to save his life and the life of his friends by calling out to Freemasons in the mob

Those who knew Joseph Smith believed that his use of the phrase "O Lord, my God!" was an attempt to save his life and the life of his friends by calling out to Freemasons in the mob. (Joseph and the other Mormons in the jail were Masons, Joseph himself having been initiated on 15 March 1842.)

Among the brotherhood of Freemasons, there is the Grand Hailing Sign of Distress: "Oh Lord, my God, is there no help for the widow's son?" According to Masonic code, any Mason who hears another Mason utter the Grand Hailing Sign must come to his aid.

Most adult men in Hancock County, Illinois, were Masons, and there were Masons in the mob that attacked the jail. If Joseph was attempting to give the Grand Hailing Sign, they would have been obligated to stop their attack and defend Joseph, Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards.[3]

John Taylor, a Master Mason himself, wrote:

...[T]hese two innocent men [Joseph and Hyrum] were confined in jail for a supposed crime, deprived of any weapons to defend themselves: had the pledged faith of the State of Illinois, by Gov. Ford, for their protection, and were then shot to death, while, with uplifted hands they gave such signs of distress as would have commanded the interposition and benevolence of Savages or Pagans. They were both Masons in good standing. Ye brethren of "the mystic tie" [Masonry] what think ye! Where is our good Master Joseph and Hyrum? Is there a pagan, heathen, or savage nation on the globe that would not be moved on this great occasion, as the trees of the forest are moved by a mighty wind? Joseph's last exclamation was "O Lord my God!"

If one of these murderers, their abettors or accessories before or after the fact, are suffered to cumber the earth, without being dealt with according to law, what is life worth, and what is the benefit of laws? and more than all, what is the use of institutions which savages would honor, where civilized beings murder without cause or provocation?[4]

According to Heber C. Kimball:

Masons, it is said, were even among the mob that murdered Joseph and Hyrum in Carthage jail. Joseph, leaping the fatal window, gave the Masonic signal of distress. The answer was the roar of his murderers' muskets.[5]

Zina D. H. Young wrote in 1878:

I am the daughter of a Master Mason [Heber C. Kimball]! I am the widow of a Master Mason [Joseph Smith] who, when leaping from the window of Carthage jail pierced with bullets, made the Masonic sign of distress; but...those signs were not heeded.[6]

From the above it appears the last words of Joseph Smith were believed by at least some people who knew him to be the Masonic cry of distress.

Improvement Era, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered"

Charles W. Penrose,  Improvement Era, (September 1912)
Question 17: Was Joseph Smith, Jr., a Mason?
Answer: Joseph Smith the Prophet was a Mason. [7]

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Reed C. Durham letter issued after his 1974 talk “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son?”

Reed C. Durham wrote and circulated this letter after an address given at a Mormon History Association meeting on 20 April 1974.

To Whom It May Concern:

On Saturday, April 20, 1974, at the Mormon History Association Annual Meeting at Nauvoo, Illinois, I delivered the Presidential Address entitled, “Is There No Help for the Widow’s Son?” At that time I was gravely concerned that the presentation of my findings and conclusions, as a result of long months of research, would not be properly interpreted; and that regardless of what I attempted to say, misunderstandings would occur. My concerns were justified. I have been informed of instances where even my own colleagues in the Mormon History Association, and also some close friends within the Church misinterpreted what I said, and more important to me, in some cases even questioned my faith in Joseph Smith and the Church.

Of course, I assume the full responsibility for creating those questions, concerns, and misunderstandings. It was because I was not skillful enough, erudite enough, nor perhaps prayerful enough to make my personal position and feelings clearly known.

Therefore, regardless of what I said, or what interpretations were placed upon what I said, let it be known at this time, that:

1. I know that Joseph Smith was/is indeed a true prophet of God – the one called under direction of Jesus Christ to usher in this dispensation of the fullness of times.
2. I know further that Temple Work, with all its ramifications including Eternal Marriage and the Endowment ceremony is divinely inspired.
3. Because of the personal witness I have received by the Spirit (which has been complemented and supported by continual study and experience), the prime criterion or standard of judgment I am committed to employ as an explanation of any aspect of the Church – either of Joseph Smith and/or the Temple ceremonies – is that of divine revelation.

Had I delivered my address in Nauvoo, making sure that my knowledge and conviction of the above three statements was clearly reflected in the subject matter of my address, I am confident that fewer misunderstandings would have been occasioned; and my address would have more clearly approximated my honest feelings. I am deeply sorry that such was not the case.


Reed C. Durham, Jr.


  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:618. Volume 6 link
  2. History of the Church, 6:618. Volume 6 link
  3. Masons in antebellum America took the Grand Hailing Sign very seriously. Many accounts exist of it being used during the Civil War. See Michael A. Halleran, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Freemasonry in the American Civil War (University Alabama Press, 2010).
  4. "The Murder," Times and Seasons 5 (15 July 1844), 585. off-site GospeLink (requires subscrip.) Taylor's original italics have been removed, and italics added for emphasis. The article itself is unsigned, but John Taylor was the editor of the Times and Seasons and would have either written it or approved its publication.
  5. Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball: The Father and Founder of the British Mission (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 26. It should be noted that while Heber C. Kimball personally knew Joseph Smith, he was not an eyewitness to the events at Carthage.
  6. Andrew Jenson, Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 4 vols., (Salt Lake City, A. Jenson History Co., 1901; reprinted Salt Lake City, Utah : Greg Kofford Books, 2003), 1:698. Zina's statement about "leaping the window" matches very closely with what her father, Heber C. Kimball, said about the incident.
  7. Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).