Dennison L. Harris and Robert Scott: heroic young men
The following story about Dennison Lott Harris and Robert Scott comes to us from a book by William Berrett called The Restored Church. To me, this story is miraculous for several reasons. First of all, how these boys risked their lives and yet were unharmed is amazing. This story is inspiring and not told that often. You can also read about this in an article by Jeffrey Bradshaw entitled, “Now there’s a boy I can trust: Dennison Lott Harris’ First-Person Account of the Conspiracy of Nauvoo and Events Surrounding Joseph Smith’s “Last Charge” to the Twelve Apostles”
It is a sad thing that among those who came into prominence during the Nauvoo period were some who lost their faith in the Prophet and sought his destruction. A study of the lives of those disaffected shows immorality, selfishness, or ambition as the cause for loss of the spirit.
One of the early ones to fall from his station was John C. Bennett, previously referred to for his great energy in securing the Nauvoo Charter. On the eve of his intended marriage to a young woman of Nauvoo it was learned that he had deserted a wife and children in the East. Other disclosures of immoral conduct followed and he was excommunicated in May or June of 1842. He had previously resigned from the office of Mayor. In June he left Nauvoo and set about to undermine the Prophet. He later wrote a book, The History of the Saints. It was full of misrepresentations and base charges and proved to be of little interest to thinking people.
With Bennett, a number who had been influenced by his teachings on sex, were cut off from the Church. The majority of these remained in Nauvoo. It was not until 1844 that their smoldering hatred of the Prophet was fanned into an open flame. In January of that year the Prophet addressed some newly appointed officers of the peace. In the course of his remarks he said:
“I am exposed to far greater danger from traitors among ourselves than from enemies without, although my life has been sought for many years by the civil and military authorities, priests, and people of Missouri; * * * I have had pretended friends betray me. All the enemies upon the face of the earth may roar and exert all their power to bring about my death, but they can accomplish nothing, unless some who are among us and enjoy our society, have been with us in our councils, participated in our confidence, taken us by the hand, called us brother, saluted us with a kiss—, join with our enemies, turn our virtues into faults, and by falsehood and deceit, stir up their wrath and indignation against us, and bring their united vengeance upon our heads. We have a Judas in our midst.” (Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, Volume 2, pp. 160-162).
William and Wilson Law, William Marks, Leonard Soby, Dr. Charles D. Foster, and some others took offense at the Prophet’s remarks. It soon was shown that these men were in a secret league to assassinate the Prophet and destroy the Church.
The story of the two young men, Denison L. Harris and Robert Scott, shows something of the nature of the conspiracy within the Church against the Prophet:
These two young men, then but seventeen years of age, had been invited to attend a secret meeting of the conspirators. In a spirit of comradeship they confided in each other, wondering what course to pursue. They took the matter to Denison’s father, Emer Harris, brother of Martin Harris. He advised them to lay the whole matter before Joseph Smith. The Prophet requested the two boys to attend the meeting and report to him its proceedings.
The meeting was held on the Sabbath day at the house of William Law, counselor to the Prophet. A multitude of charges were laid against Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
“It seems that the immediate cause of these wicked proceedings was the fact that Joseph Smith had recently presented the Revelation on Celestial Marriage to the High Council for their approval, and certain members were most bitterly opposed to it, and denounced Joseph as a fallen Prophet and were determined to overthrow him.” (Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, Volume 2, pp. 47-50).
The two boys were silent observers, and after the meeting was over met the Prophet secretly and reported to him. Following the Prophet’s advice they attended similar meetings the two following Sundays, and received an invitation to attend a fourth meeting. In each meeting the spirit of bitterness against the Prophet increased. Before they attended the last meeting Joseph Smith said to them:
“This will be your last meeting; this will be the last time that they will admit you into their councils! They will come to some determination. But be sure that you make no covenants, nor enter into any obligations, whatever, with them.” After a pause he added, “Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men. You will be martyrs to the cause and your crowns can be no greater. But I hardly think they will shed your blood.” (Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, Volume 2, pp. 65, 221-225).
When Denison and Robert approached the house of William Law on that Sabbath afternoon they were stopped at the door by armed guards. After a severe questioning and cross-examination they were admitted.
The house was filled with men, pouring out charges against the Prophet. Bitterness was everywhere. It was evident that a decision would be arrived at during the meeting. As the two boys took no part in the discussions, but remained by themselves, William Law and Austin Cowles spent some time explaining to them how the Prophet had fallen and why they should join in ridding the Church of him. As the meeting progressed, each member present was requested to take oath as follows:
“You solemnly swear, before God , and all the Holy Angels, and these your brethren by whom you are surrounded, that you will give your life, your liberty, your influence, your all, for the destruction of Joseph Smith and his party, so help you God.”
The person being sworn would then say “I do,” after which he signed his name in the presence of the justice of the peace. (Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, Volume 2, pp. 65, 226-227).
About two hundred took oath. Among them were three women heavily veiled, who testified to attempts by Joseph and Hyrum to seduce them. When all but the two boys had complied, the attention of the group was turned to them. The boys refused to take the oath and started to leave the room. One of the number stepped in their way, exclaiming:
“No, not by a d—n sight. You know all our plans and arrangements, and we don’t propose that you should leave in that style. You’ve got to take the oath or you’ll never leave here alive.”
The boys were in a dangerous position. Threatening could be heard on every hand. One voice shouted, “Dead men tell no tales.” (Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, pp. 167-176).
Violent hands were laid on them. Swords and bowie knives were drawn. One of the leading men said, “If you do not take that oath, we will cut your throats.” (Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, pp. 158-163).
Only the wisdom of the leader prevented their murder then and there. The house of William Law stood close to the street and there was danger that the disturbance would be heard by passers-by. Better to execute them in the cellar.
Accordingly, a guard with drawn swords and bowie knives was placed on either side of the boys, while two others armed with cocked muskets and bayonets at their backs, brought up the rear, as they were marched off in the direction of the cellar. William and Wilson Law, Austin Cowles, and others accompanied them to that place. Before committing the murderous deed, however, they gave the boys one last chance for their lives. One of them said, “Boys, if you will take that oath your lives will be spared; but you know too much for us to allow you to go free and, if you are determined to refuse, we will have to shed your blood.” With their death as the immediate alternative the two boys grimly refused to turn against their Prophet. Trembling and white with fear they awaited the sword. As the sword was raised by an angry participant, a sharp voice from the crowd halted it in midair.
“Hold on! Hold on there! Let’s talk this matter over before their blood is shed.” (Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, pp. 319-323).
A hurried consultation followed, during which the young men were relieved to hear a strong voice say, “The boy’s parents very likely know where they are, and if they do not return home, strong suspicion will be aroused, and they may institute a search that would be very dangerous to us.” (Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, pp. 170-176).
That counsel prevailed. The boys were threatened with death if they revealed a word of what had transpired, and sent away. A guard accompanied them for a distance to prevent some of the more bloodthirsty individuals following to kill them. The parting words of the guards were, “Boys, if you ever open your mouths concerning anything you have seen or heard in any of our meetings, we will kill you by night or by day, wherever we find you, and consider it our duty.” (Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography, pp. 158-163)
The boys continued to the river bank, where they met the Prophet, who had become anxious and had gone in search of them. Retiring to a secluded spot below the Prophet’s home they told the entire story. The bravery and loyalty of the two young men melted the Prophet to tears. For fear that harm might come to them he urged them to promise never to reveal their story for twenty years. This secrecy was faithfully kept.
The heroism of two boys saved the life of the Prophet for a time from the net closing about him. Subsequently, the conspirators were excommunicated from the Church, after which they openly allied themselves with all those forces seeking its overthrow.
On May 25, 1844, William Law, Robert D. Foster, and Joseph H. Jackson had the Prophet indicted at Carthage for adultery and perjury. The Prophet promptly appeared in court and demanded trial. His enemies, becoming frightened, were unwilling to press the charges against him, and asked for a postponement of the case. A plot to take the Prophet’s life while he was at Carthage was disclosed by two of the conspirators, Charles A. and Robert D. Foster. These men repented of their part in the proceedings and confessed to the Prophet in tears.
The apostates next purchased a printing press and prepared to publish a paper, The Nauvoo Expositor, for the avowed purpose of advocating “the unconditional repeal of the Nauvoo City Charter and to expose immoral practices in the Church.” The only number appeared June 7, 1844. It was filled with slander against Joseph Smith and the Church leaders in Nauvoo. The charter was also bitterly attacked.
The people in Nauvoo were incensed. The City Council met and declared the “Expositor” press a public nuisance. Under orders the City Marshal, John P. Green, forcibly entered the printing establishment, pied the type, and destroyed the printed papers. The conspirators, seeing what was done, set fire to their own building, and fleeing the city, circulated reports that their property had been destroyed and that their lives were in danger. The event was like a lighted match dropped in a powder house. The resulting conflagration swept the Prophet and his brother to their deaths and rocked the foundations of the Church organization.
This account is found in: William Berrett, The Restored Church, p. 228-233.
Harris Family History writes: While Dennison L. Harris was serving as bishop of the Monroe Ward in southern Utah, he met a member of the First Presidency at a Church meeting in Ephraim. There, on Sunday, 15 May 1881, thirty-seven years after the Prophet Joseph Smith had sealed his lips to protect him against mob vengeance, Dennison Harris recited this experience to President Joseph F. Smith (see Verbal Statement of Bishop Dennison L. Harris, 15 May 1881, MS 2725, Historical Department, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City; the account was later published in the Contributor, Apr. 1884, pp. 251–60). Dennison Harris’s posterity includes many notable Latter-day Saints, including Franklin S. Harris, long-time president of Brigham Young University.