Section 135

It was “a deliberate political assassination, committed or condoned by some of the leading citizens of Hancock County.”[1] That’s how law professor Dallin H. Oaks and co-author Marvin S. Hill described the murder of Joseph Smith, who was butchered with his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844. 

Apostles John Taylor and Willard Richards were voluntarily with Joseph and Hyrum in jail when he was murdered on June 27, 1844. They survived as witnesses of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, the Prophet Joseph Smith who restored it, and of his brutal martyrdom. Their witness is declared in section 135

Section 135 is a eulogy of the Prophet and an indictment of the state and nation that allowed them to be slain. As such, its tone is a rich mixture of reverence and disdain, praise and contempt. Attributed to John Taylor, who was himself shot repeatedly in the massacre, the document has an apostolic air. It declares a witness in certain terms. It announces Joseph Smith’s significance to mankind, his translation of the Book of Mormon and spreading of the gospel, his receipt of revelations, gathering of Israel, founding of Nauvoo, and, with Hyrum, the sealing of his testimony with his life. 

Though critics have knowingly manipulated the language of verse 3 to make it sound as if Latter-day Saints value Joseph Smith more than Jesus Christ, the text does not say that, nor do Latter-day Saints believe it. Rather, they praise Joseph Smith because he revealed Jesus Christ, which no one had done for more than a millennium. Section 135 testifies that Joseph and Hyrum died innocent, and that their deaths put their testaments in full force. It testifies that the Lord will avenge their deaths and that honest hearted in all nations will be touched by their testimony of Jesus Christ.  

Section 135 emphasizes the enduring significance of Joseph Smith and his testimony.  Joseph regarded himself as “obscure,” a “boy of no consequence” (Joseph Smith-History 1:23), but at age seventeen he received from an angel named Moroni the improbable news that “my name should be had for good and evil among all nations” (Joseph Smith-History 1:33). In his own lifetime his name became known for good and evil in Nauvoo, in Illinois, the United States, and now globally. However unlikely, Moroni’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Bostonian Josiah Quincy visited Joseph shortly before he went to Carthage. Quincy wrote that Joseph Smith was “born in the lowest ranks of poverty” and came of age “without book-learning and with the homeliest of all human names,” and that by the end of his shortened life he had become “a power on earth.”[2]

It is not remarkable that a flawed, teenage Joseph sought forgiveness in the woods and at his bedside, nor that he had to repent relentlessly and grow into his demanding calling, nor that he often felt frustrated at both himself and the saints, nor that his testimony deeply touched the hearts of some and antagonized others, nor that it continues to do so. The remarkable thing about Joseph Smith, as section 135 emphasizes, is what he did. Who else has brought forth the equivalent of the Book of Mormon or the Doctrine and Covenants? Who else restored the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ? “He left a fame and a name,” no matter how plain, “that cannot be slain” (D&C 135:3). In every way he gave his life for the Lord’s work. What a life! 

“Fanatics and imposters are living and dying every day,” Josiah Quincy wrote, “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.”[3] That is Joseph Smith’s significance and his appeal: he revealed the answers to the ultimate questions: Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? Is there purpose in life? What is the nature of people? Are individuals free agents or determined? What is the nature of the Savior’s atonement? Does it reach those who do not hear the gospel in mortality? And perhaps above all, what is the nature of God?  

“if I am so fortunate as to be the man to comprehend God, and explain or convey the principles to your hearts, so that the Spirit seals them upon you,” Joseph taught just a few weeks before he was murdered, “then let every man and woman henceforth sit in silence, put their hands on their mouths, and never lift their hands or voices, or say any thing against the man of God, or the servants of God again.”[4] Joseph answered the ultimate questions as a witness. He beheld angels, translated by the power of God, received visions and revelations. He knew God and Christ. He thus died as a testator—a witness. Section 135 announces that a testator had been killed, but his testimony endures forever.

Section 136

Of all the would-be successors to Joseph Smith, only Brigham Young understood what was at stake. He explained that no one could lead the Church without the keys of the holy priesthood Joseph had received from ministering angels. Joseph had conferred those keys on Brigham and eight other apostles. 

Joseph had gathered them three months before his death and said, “It may be that my enemies will kill me, and in case they should, and the keys and power which rest on me not be imparted to you, they will be lost from the earth; but if I can only succeed in placing them upon your heads, then let me fall a victim to murderous hands if God will suffer it, and I can go with all pleasure and satisfaction, knowing that my work is done, and the foundation laid on which the kingdom of God is to be reared in this dispensation of the fullness of times. Upon the shoulders of the Twelve must the responsibility of leading this church hence forth rest until you shall appoint others to succeed you. . . .  Thus can this power and these keys be perpetuated in the Earth.” 

Joseph and his brother Hyrum then confirmed the ordinations of each of the apostles who were present and Joseph gave them a final charge. “I roll the burthen and responsibility of leading this church off from my shoulders on to yours,” he declared. “Now, round up your shoulders and stand under it like men; for the Lord is going to let me rest.”[1]

As president of the twelve apostles, Brigham Young explained these principles to the Saints on August 8, 1844. Many, including Martha Tuttle Gardner, received a confirming witness from the Lord. She testified that Brigham Young “told the people that although Joseph was dead, Joseph had left behind the keys of the Kingdom and had conferred the same power & authority that he himself possessed upon the Twelve Apostles and the Church would not be left without a leader and a guide.” 

Martha had written reverently of witnessing the capital P Prophet Joseph Smith and she now confidently transferred that designation to “the Prophet Brigham Young.” She wrote that he “had the Nauvoo Temple finished” and endowed her with power there early in 1845. Then, under Brigham’s leadership, she and many other Saints fled Nauvoo for peace and safety somewhere in the West.[2]

President Young led them across Iowa Territory and they camped for the winter on the banks of the Missouri River. There, in a January 1847 council meeting, the Prophet Brigham Young asked the Lord to reveal “the best manner of organizing companies for emigration.” The Lord answered. “President Young commenced to give the Word and Will of God concerning the emigration of the Saints,” section 136.[3] It is concerned with three basic issues: governing authority, camp organization, and individual behavior.[4]

The key words in the early verses of Section 136 are organized and covenant. The Saints were to be organized into companies “under the direction of the Twelve Apostles” (3). “And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord” (4). Like Martha, many of them had recently made temple covenants in Nauvoo. Section 136 tells them how to consecrate their lives to Zion. It reiterates the principles of consecration that pervade so many of Joseph Smith’s revelations. The first principle is agency. Section 136 tells the Saints how to act relative to organization, preparation, property, contention, the commandments to not covet and or take the Lord’s name in vain, alcohol, fear, sorrow, and ignorance. The Lord prescribes specific behaviors for each of these. 

Another principle of consecration is stewardship. Free agents act upon stewardships, or what the Lord gives them to act upon. “Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast,” He commands in verse 27, “that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.” Section 136 gives commands that tell the saints how to act relative to stewardships that include draft animals, seeds, farming tools, widows, orphans, the families of the men who have joined the United States Army, houses, fields, and the saints who will follow in later waves of migration. He adds instructions for the use of “influence and property” (10) and even for borrowed and lost property.  

Another principle of consecration is accountability. Verse 19 declares the consequence of failing to keep one’s covenant to walk in the ordinances of the Lord: “And if any man shall seek to build himself up, and seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power, and his folly shall be made manifest,” suggesting that one’s endowment of power is dependent on keeping the covenants made in the endowment ordinance (4, 19).  

The motif of pilgrims in search of a promised land, of exodus as a sanctifying precondition to finding and becoming Zion, is common in scripture and the backbone of section 136. It casts the saints as a modern Camp of Israel (1), following the “God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob” as they are led through the wilderness by a modern Moses in search of a promised land (21-22). They are wanderers, exiles even from the United States, upon which the Lord prophesies a imminent punishment for rejecting the Saints’ testimony and killing the prophets “that were sent unto them” (34-36). In these ways Section 136 includes the Latter-day Saints with all the former faithful of past dispensations, those Section 45 describes as “pilgrims on the earth” who wandered in search of Zion and “obtained a promise that they should find it” (D&C 45:12-14).

Finally, section 136 explains Joseph Smith’s martyrdom from the Lord’s perspective. “Many have marveled because of his death,” the Lord omnisciently knows, “but it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood, that he might be honored and the wicked might be condemned” (39). From the Lord’s vantage, allowing Joseph to die as a testator was a wise move that left an enduring witness of His name even as it delivered the Saints, including Joseph, from their enemies (40). The revelation ends with a poetic covenant in verse 42, promising deliverance on the condition that the Saints choose to diligently keep commandments. 

Section 136 resulted in the best organized and executed overland emigration in American history. However, it may be more important for the way it established Brigham Young as a revelator. Saints exercised faith to see in him their capital P Prophet, and it required personal sacrifice. Section 136 confirmed the correctness of their choice. There was much outspoken criticism of Brigham before and after section 136. The saints had other options besides him.[5]

Apostle Heber Kimball noted in his journal that section 136 was the first revelation “penned since Joseph was killed. . . . The Lord has given it through the President for the good of this people as they are traveling to the west.”[6] Jedediah Grant voiced what many Saints felt. “Since the death of Joseph, [I] have believed that the keys of revelation were in the Church. When I heard that [section 136] read I felt a light and joy and satisfied that the Holy Ghost had dictated the words within.”[7]

For Saints who had covenanted to literally “walk in all the ordinances of the Lord” up and over the Rocky Mountains as outcasts, section 136 would sustain them in the heat of the day (4). Joseph was gone but the Prophet Brigham Young was just as much a Moses (D&C 28:3).

Section 135 notes

[1] Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana, 1975), 6, 214.

[2] Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past From the Leaves of Old Journals, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1883), 337. 

[3] Josiah Quincy, Figures of the Past From the Leaves of Old Journals, (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1883), 317.

[4] “History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1969, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020,

Section 136 notes

[1] Declaration of the apostles, circa September 1844 to March 1845, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[2] Testimony written by Martha Tuttle Gardner, in possession of the author.

[3] “At 4:30 PM the council adjourned. At seven, the Twelve met at Elder Benson’s. President Young continued to dictate the word and will of th Lord. Council adjourned at ten P.M., when President Young retired with Dr. Richards to the Octagon and finished writing the same.” Journal History of the Church, January 14, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[4] Richard E. Bennett, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 70.

[5] Richard E. Bennett, We’ll Find the Place: The Mormon Exodus 1846-1848 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1997), 69.

[6] Heber C. Kimball, Journal, January 19, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

[7] As quoted by Willard Richards, Journal, January 15, 1847, Church History Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.

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