In May of 1844, just 45 days before Joseph Smith would be murdered in Carthage Jail, two imposing visitors arrived in Nauvoo just before midnight. They were Josiah Quincy and Charles Francis Adams from Massachusetts, both American bluebloods, born of powerful families. Adams was the grandson of John Adams and son of former president John Quincy Adams who would one day become a member of Congress and then American ambassador to England. Quincy’s father had been the mayor of Boston and the president of Harvard, and he too would become the mayor of Boston.
According to Spencer McBride’s new book Joseph Smith for President, these two had set out on a grand tour of the western United States, and on May 13th had boarded the steamboat Amaranth to travel north on the Mississippi River. They had no intent to stop in Nauvoo, but a fellow passenger, Dr. William Goforth, persuaded them that “much was good and interesting about this strange people” and, according to Quincy, “urged us to see for ourselves the result of the singular political system which had been fastened upon Christianity, and to make the acquaintance of his friend General Smith, the religious and civil autocrat of the community.”
Their steamer stopped at the Nauvoo landing, they unloaded their luggage in the dark and waited for morning to see “the promised land of the Mormons.” They awoke “in the gray light of morning, to find the rains descending in torrents and the roads knee-deep in mud.” Joseph Smith sent a carriage for them, and thus began a memorable and historic encounter, made so in part because nearly 40 years later, Quincy would write up the details of this meeting and his impressions of the prophet based on his extensive journal, and it would be published in a New York literary magazine. Then for years, Quincy’s words would be published and recounted by Latter-day Saints in large part because, despite himself, Quincy was impressed by Joseph Smith as “as an extraordinary man”, while utterly dismissing his religious claims.
Josiah Quincy described the prophet in an oft repeated quote: “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.”
In part, he was responding to the disdain the press heaped upon Joseph, but he wrote, “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, imposter, charlatan, he may have been; but these hard names furnish no solution to the problem he presents to us. Fanatics and imposters 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.”
Certainly, when the carriage containing Quincy and Adams arrived at Joseph Smith’s place, and they got their first look at the prophet, it was a meeting of two vastly different cultures and you can hear it in Quincy’s descriptions and bewilderment, because he finds himself pulled in different directions. In his writing, he mixes compliments and even some awe about Joseph with a fair number of sneers. He cannot help himself.
Coming from the clean and elegant rooms of the East, all through his western tour, Quincy is assaulted in some ways by the dirt of the frontier. He has not been accustomed to the roll-up-your-sleeves work of daily labor. He, who has been remarkably educated is about to meet a man adored by thousands, who has been largely unschooled. As a Unitarian, Quincy would naturally assume that anyone who claimed to be a prophet was a fake, self-asserter, and he would decry the idea of revelation as opening the door to vast corrosion of society.
You can hear this in his description of arriving at Joseph’s home, which he calls the “tavern” because Joseph and Emma had to rent many rooms. He described “the group of rough-looking Mormons who awaited our descent at the door of the tavern…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 washtub, and a beard of some three days’ growth.”
As they were introduced to the prophet, he said, “God bless you, to begin with!…raising his hands in the air and letting them descend upon the shoulders of Mr. Adams.” Then Joseph invited them into his home, as Quincy noticed, “A fine-looking man is what the passer-by would instinctively have murmured upon meeting the 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.”
Unimpressed with Joseph’s linen jacket, Quincy was still impressed with the prophet’s “kingly faculty which directs, as by intrinsic right, the feeble or confused souls who are looking for guidance.”
The inn was crowded and finding a vacant room proved futile, so they ended up in a room where Joseph had to pull up the sheets over a slumbering guest while they talked. Joseph began talking about the history of the Latter-day Saints and their brutal treatment in Missouri. Quincy said that Joseph “spoke with bitterness of outrages to which they had been subjected in Missouri” and Adams recorded in his journal that the Mormons’ expulsion from the state “is one of the most disgraceful chapters in the dark history of slavery in the United States, and shows that the spirit of intolerance, religious and political, can find a shelter even in the fairest professions of liberty.”
They were interrupted by a call for breakfast where “a substantial meal was served in a long, back kitchen” with thirty others “being in their shirt-sleeves, as if they had just come from work.” Joseph took this opportunity to slip away and change and shave.
Then, its former occupant gone, they reconvened in their upstairs room, as Joseph’s brother Hyrum, and several other church leaders joined where the topic turned to religion. Quincy said, “These men constituted a sort of silent chorus during the expositions of their chief,” while fixing “a searching, yet furtive gaze upon Mr. Adams and myself, as if eager to discover how we were impressed by what we heard.”
Joseph showed them the Egyptian mummies and curiosities that his mother had and said, “This is my mother, gentlemen. The curiosities we shall see belong to her. They were purchased with her own money, at a cost of six thousand dollars;” and then, with deep feeling, were added the words, “And that woman was turned out upon the prairie in the dead of night by a mob.”
When the party emerged, the clouds had parted and Joseph invited his guests into a carriage to see the city and ascend the hill to the temple building site. Adams and Quincy were impressed by what they saw. “We drove to that beautiful eminence, bounded on three sides by the Mississippi, which was covered by the holy city of Nauvoo. The curve in the river enclosed a position lovely enough to furnish a site for the Utopian communities of Plato or Sir Thomas More; and here was an orderly city, magnificently laid out, and teeming with activity and enterprise. And all the diligent workers, who had reared these handsome stores and comfortable dwellings, bowed in subjection to the man whose unexampled absurdities we had listed that morning.”
Obviously, Quincy may have been impressed with Joseph, but not so with the things he said about religion. He noted the respect and love that nearly all of the city’s residents had as they passed and said, “If the blasphemous assumptions of Smith seemed like the ravings of a lunatic, he had at least brought them to a market where all people were as mad as he.”
Quincy said of the temple, “The Mormon [Nauvoo] Temple was not fully completed. It was a wonderful structure, altogether indescribable by me. Being, presumably, like something Smith had seen in a vision, it certainly cannot be compared to any ecclesiastical building which may be discerned by the natural eyesight. It was built of limestone, and was partially supported by huge monolithic pillars.” Since he knew little about what a temple meant, nor saw the temple anywhere near completion, he concluded, “The city of Nauvoo, with its wide streets sloping gracefully to the farms enclosed on the prairie, seemed to be a better temple to Him.”
After lunch, Joseph preached spontaneously from the lawn in front of his home, quickly attracting a crowd of 100. Quincy thought the sermon “rambling and disconnected” but was delivered with the fluency and fervor of a camp-meeting orator.” When the prophet asserted that baptism for sins is essential for salvation, a Methodist minister, according to Quincy said, “Stop! What do you say to the case of the penitent thief? Prophet. What do you mean by that?
“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.”
Joseph responded, “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.”
Later in the afternoon, Quincy said, “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 more 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 who would need my assistance to answer you.’”
Before he left Nauvoo, Quincy took some letters addressed to Joseph from a public wastepaper can. Reading one of them, Quincy said, “shows what pathetic sincerity the divine commission of Smith was accepted by a class of men which would seem to be intellectually superior to so miserable a delusion.” Despite all he had said earlier about the Mormons, being a strange people, the writer of the letter struck him as “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.”
He also found a letter from a Chicago attorney who was both a personal friend and a legal advisor of the prophet warning Joseph that there were plots against him.
“‘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.’”
Quincy said, “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.”
Joseph was a candidate for president of the United States when Quincy met him. He concluded, “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 today, and the end is not yet.”