By Sharon Lindbloom
In June 1844 Joseph Smith, the founder and first Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was shot dead by a mob of vigilantes. He was incarcerated in Carthage Jail at the time, awaiting action on a charge of treason sworn against him.1 This is what happened:
Carthage, June 27th, 1844. A shower of musket balls were thrown up the stair way against the door of the prison in the second story, followed by many rapid footsteps. While Generals Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Mr. Taylor, and myself,…closed the door of our room against the entry at the head of the stairs, and placed ourselves against it, there being no lock on the door and no ketch [sic] that was useable…. A ball was sent through the door which hit Hyrum on the side of his nose… Joseph looked towards him, and responded “O dear! Brother Hyrum!” and opening the door two or three inches with his left hand, discharged one barrel of a six shooter (pistol) at random in the entry… Joseph continued snapping his revolver, round the casing of the door into the space as before, three barrels of which missed fire, while Mr. Taylor with a walking stick stood by his side and knocked down the bayonets and muskets, which were constantly discharging through the door way,… When the revolver failed, we had no more fire arms, and expecting an immediate rush of the mob, and the door way full of muskets… Joseph attempted as the last resort, to leap the…window,…when two balls pierced him from the door, and one entered his right breast from without, and he fell outward exclaiming, “O Lord my God!”2
When the attack was over Mr. Taylor lay wounded, but Joseph and Hyrum were dead. To members of the LDS Church, the Smith brothers had become martyrs “to the truth.”3
Christians have been reluctant to assign the title of “martyr” to Joseph Smith. This fact annoys many Latter-day Saints. Some Mormons believe Christians have redefined the word “martyr” specifically to exclude Joseph Smith.4 With that in mind, Mormons have recommended the following definitions:
1. a person who chooses to suffer or die rather than give up his faith or his principles 5
2. one who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles 6
3. someone who dies defending his or her faith 7
4. any person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause 8
Some Mormons seem to think the only reason Christians resist granting Joseph Smith the honor of being designated a martyr is because he shot–and perhaps killed–several of his attackers before being killed himself.9 Critics of Mormonism argue that Smith’s behavior demonstrates he did not actually choose to die.10 This is a valid point; however, the issue is much more complex.
One significant consideration is the model of martyrdom. Christianity has a long history of martyrs for the true faith. When we hear someone referred to as a martyr, our understanding of the term is centered in our history and tradition. Consider these examples:
Stephen was the first Christian martyr. His story is found within the pages of Scripture.11 Stephen went about preaching the Gospel of Christ, debating those who were in opposition to the Christian message. He was brought before the Council where he was asked if the charges against him were true. Stephen launched into a sermon wherein he recounted the history of Israel and concluded with an accusation against the unbelieving Jews: that they themselves were betrayers and murders of the “Just One,” Jesus Christ. The Jews mercilessly pummeled Stephen with stones; yet, his last words before succumbing to death were, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.”
Later, James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred. Early Christian Church historian Eusebius reports that James was respected and trusted because of his spotless reputation. Therefore, Jewish scribes and Pharisees stood James on the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem and instructed him to inform all the people that Jesus was not the Christ. But James said in a loud voice, “Why do you ask me about the Son of Man? He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and He will come on the clouds of heaven.” At his testimony many believed Jesus was the Messiah, so the scribes and Pharisees threw James off the temple and began to stone him. James, still alive, prayed, “I implore you, O Lord, God and Father, forgive them: they do not know what they are doing.” A laundryman picked up a club and killed James with a strike to his head.12
In the early fourth century, under the reign of Emperor Diocletian, a Christian man (just one of many) was martyred in Asia Minor. Christian historian Eusebius wrote: “[A] certain man was brought into a public place and ordered to sacrifice [to idols]. When he refused, he was hoisted up naked and lashed with whips until he should give in. Since even this failed to bend him, they mixed salt with vinegar and poured it over the lacerations of his body where the bones were already protruding. When he scorned these agonies too, a lit brazier was applied, and the rest of his body was roasted by the fire as if meat for eating–not all at once, lest he find too quick a release, but little by little. Still he clung immovably to his purpose and expired triumphantly in the middle of his tortures.”13
Christian martyrdom is still happening. As reported by the Barnabus Fund: “Christians are fleeing for their lives in northern Burkina Faso after twin attacks by several dozen armed Islamist extremists on 9 and 10 June  left 29 people dead. Nineteen people were murdered in Arbinda district, Soum province on Sunday 9 June and a further ten slaughtered in nearby Namentenga province the next day. ‘There is no Christian anymore in this town [Arbinda],’ said a local Christian to Barnabas Fund, for the entire population of Christians had fled. ‘It’s proven that they were looking for Christians. Families who hide Christians are killed.’”14
This is the continuing history of our Christian martyrs. As evidenced by the previous examples, one distinguishing theme in their deaths is their passivity in the face of attack and torture. The death of Joseph Smith does not fit this model. The attack that was perpetrated against him was indeed a “dastardly, outrageous murder.”15 Smith did no wrong in defending himself–it was an entirely natural and human response. Yet his actions set him apart from a historical understanding of Christian martyrdom.
Mormons seem to understand this as well. The Carthage Jail incident is generally related by Latter-day Saints with Smith cast as an innocent and helpless man ruthlessly murdered by persecutors of the LDS faith; the significant fact that Smith fought back is rarely mentioned. In fact, the narrative of Smith’s death usually notes that he went “as a lamb to the slaughter.”16 According to scriptural accounts, Smith said these words as he headed toward Carthage.17 This same phrase is found in Isaiah 53:7 of the Bible. Here God prophetically reveals elements of the trial and sacrificial death of our Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus was led as a lamb to the slaughter; He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world; the Lamb that was slain.18 It is troubling for Christians to see these Messianic words applied to another.
Some might argue that nothing is meant by “lamb to the slaughter” in relation to Smith other than the fact that the final outcome–his death–was inevitable.19 Yet the retelling of the “martyrdom” by Mormons is replete with similar Messianic undertones as these few examples demonstrate:
“Like the mission of the Savior, ‘a lamb slain before the foundation of the world,’ Joseph was truly foreordained to his great mission.”20
“The Savior has said: ‘I lay down my life for the sheep. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself….’ Joseph Smith did not want to die….but though he hoped and prayed that the cup would pass, he knew it was inevitable.”21
“If you can imagine to yourselves how the apostles and saints felt when the Savior was crucified you can give something of a guess how the Saints felt here when they heard that their prophet and patriarch were both dead and murdered, too, by a lawless mob. Never has there been such a horrible crime committed since the day Christ was crucified.”22
“His appearance and demeanor conveyed plainly to my mind that he realized he was going as a lamb to the slaughter. I should judge his feelings to be similar to that of the Savior when he uttered those memorable words: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent to thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”23
“As suggested earlier, 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 in order that the final testament, the reestablishment of the new covenant, might be in full effect (see Heb. 9:16).”24
To draw these sorts of parallels between the sacred death of the Savior and that of any human being is disturbing and highly offensive to Christians. Our reaction against the repeated claim that Smith went “as a lamb to the slaughter” must be understood within this context.
Another concern in proclaiming Smith a martyr has to do with the reason he was murdered. Although Mormons assert Smith was killed because of his faith, there is no historical evidence for this. Historians Hallwas and Launius provide ample documentation to show that “the Mormon conflict [in the Nauvoo period] was not a matter of religious persecution. Non-Mormons did not much care for the oddities of Mormon belief–and some reacted with emotions ranging from curiosity to horror–but they did not try to suppress faith in the Book of Mormon or the prophet’s revelations, or prevent the Saints from worshiping as they pleased.” Instead, records verify that Smith was in trouble with those outside his church due to social, economic, and political concerns.25
Therefore, based on the reason he died, Smith is excluded from the first three definitions of “martyr” noted above:
1. a person who chooses to suffer or die rather than give up his faith or his principles
2. one who chooses to suffer death rather than renounce religious principles
3. someone who dies defending his or her faith
Let’s now discuss definition 4: any person who is put to death or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause. Applying this meaning, a short list of martyrs might look like this:
- Mary Elizabeth Jenkins Surratt. Hanged 7 July 1865 for her role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Martyr for the Confederate cause.
- John D. Lee. Executed by firing squad 23 March 1877 for leading the massacre of 120 emigrants passing through southern Utah. Martyr for the principle of obedience to ecclesiastical leaders.
- Joachim von Ribbentrop, Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, and Alfred Jodl. Hanged 16 October 1946 for Nazi war crimes. Martyrs for the cause of the Third Reich.
- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Electrocuted 19 June 1953 for espionage. Martyrs for the cause of Communism.
- Lee Harvey Oswald. Assassinated on 24 November 1963 while awaiting trial for killing U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Martyr on behalf of his support for the Soviet Union.
- Thomas Green. Sentenced 25 August 2001 to a 5-year prison sentence for child rape and polygamy. Martyr for the principle of plural marriage.
- Saddam Hussein. Killed 30 December 30, 2006. Martyr for his political beliefs.
- Joseph Smith. Killed 27 June 1844 while awaiting trial for treason. Martyr for the principle of social autonomy.
Although the circumstances of Joseph Smith’s death place him on this list, there is no honor in being there. This definition of “martyr” embraced by Mormons makes it possible to include Joseph Smith, but it is so broad that it strips the word of any notion of integrity.
We Christians hold our martyrs in high esteem. We are awed by their faith in God. We hope that, if we should ever be called upon to stand firm for the truth or die, we would receive the grace to courageously join their ranks. We have not invented an exclusive definition of the word “martyr” in order to keep Joseph Smith out of the circle. Rather, we define martyrdom in light of God’s redemptive history and the Christian Church’s tradition. In so doing, the testimonies of the saints through the last 2,000 years are guarded, and we pay loving tribute to those who have given their lives as true witnesses of Jesus Christ.
Read the inspiring story of Anna Bowden (1852-1873), missionary to India and hero of the Christian faith — A Victorian Lady
- John E. Hallwas and Roger D. Launius, Cultures in Conflict, A Documentary History of the Mormon War in Illinois, p. 178
- Willard Richards, Two Minutes in Jail, Times and Seasons, 5:598-599
- Ezra Taft Benson, The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 104 (GospeLink 2001)
- Lance Starr, Was Joseph Smith a Martyr or a Murderer?, p. 3 (www.fairlds.org)
- Starr, p. 1, quoting Webster’s New World Dictionary
- ibid., quoting Dictionary.com
- ibid., p. 3
- Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate, Jr., Joseph Smith: The Prophet, The Man, pp. 322-323 (GospeLink 2001)
- See History of the Church, 6:617-618; 7:102-103; Comprehensive History of the Church, 2:285 fn
- Webster’s New World dictionary defines “choose” as: 1. to pick out by preference from what is available; take as a choice, select… 2. to decide or prefer; think proper
- Acts 6:8-7:60
- Eusebius, The Church History, Paul L. Maier, editor and translator, pp. 81-83
- ibid., p. 293
- The Barnabus Fund, Prayer Focus Update, July 2019
- Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, October 1922 (GospeLink 2001)
- One account even goes so far as to say the prisoners were “deprived of any weapons to defend themselves,…” (History of the Church, 7:188). For examples of “lamb to the slaughter” see: Comprehensive History of The Church, 2:250; George A. Smith, Conference Report, April 1904; Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, April 1921; Thomas S. Monson, Conference Report, October 1967; Encyclopedia of Mormonism, p. 861; etc.
- Doctrine and Covenants 135:4. Recognized by some Mormons as a prophecy (see Comprehensive History of the Church 2:248-249); Cultures in Conflict, p. 259, includes a Mormon testimony that the “lamb to the slaughter” quote was fictitious, invented by LDS Church leaders after Smith’s death.
- Isaiah 53:7; John 1:29; Revelation 5:6, 7:4
- Starr, p. 2
- Ezra Taft Benson, God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, p. 29 (GospeLink 2001); see Revelation 13:8
- Spencer W. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 180 (GospeLink 2001); see John 10:15, Matthew 26:39
- Sally Randall, 1 July 1844, quoted in Women’s Voices: An Untold History of the Latter-day Saints, 1830-1900, p. 146 (GospeLink 2001)
- Thomas Cottam, Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Juvenile Instructor, p. 65 (GospeLink 2001); see Matthew 23:37
- Robert L. Millet, Joseph Smith Among the Prophets, Ensign, June 1994, p. 22
- Hallwas and Launius, p. 4