Paul A. Douglas
Does Smith’s Murder Make Him a Martyr?
Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith were murdered on June 27, 1844, by an armed mob, an event that has prompted many Mormons to classify them both as martyrs.
A close analysis of the term and even a superficial examination of the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s demise suggest that he was no martyr. To be labeled a martyr one must meet specific criteria, for example, the reasons why one is put to death and the way one faces that death.
An examination of the reasons why Smith was murdered and the actions he took to avoid this fate makes it problematic to maintain that Smith was like that, “lamb led to the slaughter.”
As I discussed previously Joseph Smith was properly arrested on the charge of treason for his destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor and the calling out of the Nauvoo Legion. These were not trumped up charges as many Church members have been taught.
Prior to his arrest, he fled the jurisdiction to avoid justice, only returning after his wife informed him that many of his followers viewed him as a coward for running away and leaving them to their own devices.
When Smith, who was also Nauvoo’s mayor, realized that several former members were planning to publish an exposé of his polygamy, polyandry, sex with young girls, dishonesty and political machinations in the Expositor, he convinced the Nauvoo City Council to declare the paper a “nuisance” and order the destruction of its press and type.
Then, on June 19, Smith declared martial law and put his four-thousand-member Nauvoo Legion on alert before he and his brother Hyrum Smith left town. When Joseph and Hyrum returned, they were arrested, charged with treason and placed in a minimum-security cell at the Carthage Jail. According to History of the Church 6:605, Smith had Emma tell church leader Jonathan Dunham to tell the people to just stay home and to “let there be no groups or gathering together, unless by permission of the governor.”
However, Smith’s biographer Fawn Brodie writes that Smith “hastily scribbled an order to Dunham to bring in the Legion, break the jail, and save him at all costs. Within seconds two messengers bearing this order and the letter to Emma were off at a frantic gallop on the fifteen-mile trip to Nauvoo.” 1
While Smith, Hyram and the others were drinking wine and singing, a mob storms the jail and rushed up the stairs to the room where Joseph was being held.
Hyrum approached the door as a volley of balls came through it. One struck him on the left side of his nose, and he fell on his back on the floor supposedly uttering, “I am a dead man!”
Joseph reached round the door casing, and discharged his six-shooter into the passageway, discharging all the bullets it contained. Reportedly he shot two men, one of whom may have died from his wounds.
Realizing any further resistance was hopeless, he attempted to jump out the window when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from the mob below, and he fell outward into the hands of his murderers, exclaiming. “O Lord, my God!”
As he fell to the ground below, he was propped up and shot again and died.
How did Smith come to have a weapon in jail?
Early LDS Church leader Cyrus H. Wheelock smuggled the six-shooter to him during a visit to the Carthage Jail. As Wheelock was about to leave, he took the gun out and said, “Would any of you like to have this?”
As Taylor writes: “Brother Joseph immediately replied, ‘YES, give it to me,’ whereupon he took the pistol, and put it in his pantaloons pocket.” 2
To say that Joseph Smith was martyred rather than simply murdered is important to many Latter-day Saints. Brigham Young University professor Robert Millet explained how Mormons consider Smith’s death to be like the death of Jesus when he wrote: “The life of Joseph Smith was in some degree patterned after that of the Master, Jesus Christ. That pattern holds true even when extended to its tragic conclusion. Like his Master, Joseph Smith also shed his blood so that the final testament, the reestablishment of the new covenant, might be in full effect.” 3.
A famous LDS hymn references Smith’s death this way:
Hail to the Prophet ascended to heaven!
Traitors and tyrants now fight him in vain.
Mingling with Gods, he can plan for his brethren;
Death cannot conquer the hero again.
Praise to his memory, he died as a martyr;
Honored and blest be his ever-great name!
Long shall his blood, which was shed by assassins,
Plead unto heaven while the earth lauds his fame.
Joseph and Hyrum’s murder was a cruel, barbarous act but I do not believe it is accurate to classify Smith as a martyr.
Firstly, a martyr is one willing to die for his faith. Smith certainly did not die willingly; he engaged in a gunfight with his assailants after he had pleaded with his associates to ‘break him out’ and after he had first chosen to run away.
A true martyr would not have attempted to call on the Nauvoo Legion, nor shoot at, injure and possibly kill his attackers.
I am not suggesting that Joseph Smith or anyone else is not morally justified in defending themselves, however, Smith’s behavior can hardly be compared to Jesus who reprimanded Peter, saying “for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
Secondly, Joseph Smith did not die so much for his faith but rather to prevent a newspaper from going public with an exposé of his illegal sexual behavior and treasonous political ambitions. It was Joseph Smith’s deeds – not his Mormon beliefs that led to his murder.
Can we honestly put Joseph Smith in the same company as Saint Stephen who falsely accused, could have avoided his stoning had he just denied the Lord and whose last words were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…Lord, lay not this sin to their charge?”
Can we honesty put Joseph Smith in the same company as the Lord Jesus Christ who wouldn’t allow His disciples to fight, but rather reprimanded Peter for resisting?
He could have called down angels and destroyed His accusers. But No, he suffered, bled and died for you and for me, whose last words were, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do?”
There have been many who have died for their Christian faith since the days of Jesus and the Apostles. Sadly, there are hundreds around the world who give their lives even today as true Christian martyrs.
Father Ragheed Ganni was born in 1972 in Iraq. After studying in Rome, Father Ganni requested to be sent back to Iraq to serve his country as a Catholic priest. As a priest who spoke four languages, he worked with “Asia News” as the Pontifical Institute Foreign Missions Correspondent.
One night, after celebrating Mass where his three cousins served as deacons, as the four men left the Church. A man approached the group and told Father Ganni to shut down the Church, to which he responded, “How can I close the house of God?”
Father Ganni and his three deacons were told to convert to Islam or die. They bravely refused and were then all shot to death, their bodies being placed in a car full of explosives so if anyone attempted to remove the bodies, they would also have been destroyed.
Father Ganni was a martyr.
Born in 1943 in Italy, Annalena Tonelli was a lawyer who at age 25 moved to Africa to work with the Committee Against World Hunger, an organization she helped found.
Later she moved to Borama, where she founded a tuberculosis hospital, whose $20,000 monthly maintenance bills were funded by her friends and family back in Italy.
She brought HIV/AIDS patients to the Borama hospital because she believed they deserved to be treated like human beings and children of God. This move was not received well, and protesters routinely threw stones breaking the windows of the hospital, chanting “Death to Annalena.”
On October 5, 2003, Annalena was shot in the head and killed while working in the hospital she founded.
Annalena was a martyr.
Considering Smith’s conduct, sleeping with other men’s wives as well as a small class of ‘Mia Maids’ and then lying about it to his only legal wife and his faithful followers. Considering his ordering the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, the newspaper intent on exposing him. I think it borders on blasphemy for Smith to compare the situation he got himself into to the pure and innocent sacrifice made by the Lord Jesus Christ by allegedly saying, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter.”
Just because a person is murdered does not make them a martyr. Mormons are free to venerate, exalt and worship their religion’s founder as they need, but it is simply not correct to refer Joseph Smith’s death a martyrdom.
1 Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith (New York: Vintage, 1995), 391–392.
2 History of the Church 7:100.
3 Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith among the Prophets,” Ensign, June 1994, 22