American Crucifixion, by Alex Beam

Americans pride themselves on living in a nation founded on the principles of religious freedom—a country in which competing denominations live or die on the basis of the persuasiveness of their message, unmolested by external prejudice. Religious intolerance, in many Americans’ view, is something only people in other nations experience.

The story of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon Church, challenges this narrative. The Mormons’ Illinois neighbors responded to the religion promulgated by Smith—with its ancient golden plates that produced new scripture, the modern appearance of angels who bestowed ecclesial authority, and the introduction of a polygamous practice that boldly assaulted Victorian domestic attitudes—not by allowing the religion to die of natural causes in the marketplace of ideas, but by violently lynching its founder. How could the land of religious freedom witness the killing of someone who was simply promulgating religious beliefs, even if they were odious?

Alex Beam, a veteran journalist with the Boston Globe, tells this important story in American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church. The book covers the religious and cultural context of Joseph Smith’s city on a hill, Nauvoo, founded on the western edge of Illinois in the 1840s. Beam’s account of Smith’s theological teachings and sexual exploits both spice up the narrative and establish the context of the events that led to Smith’s death. Non-Mormon residents of Hancock County were worried that Smith might ascend to political power, disseminate his heretical beliefs further, and steal vulnerable women, and they reacted firmly and zealously to what they perceived as the growing Mormon threat. Smith’s decision to destroy a press that his opponents were using to expose his actions gave them the grounds for eradicating him once and for all. Once he was jailed in the county seat of Carthage, a mob stormed the building and killed the prophet, then retreated to prepare for a Mormon retaliatory strike that never came.