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Was Joseph Smith a Martyr?

by W. John Walsh

Joseph Smith was NOT a martyr, not by any stretch of the imagination. He died in a gun battle fighting desperately trying to save his life. The dictionary defines a martyr as "A person who VOLUNTARILY SUFFERS DEATH as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion." (Webster, Tenth ed.) He was a man ruthlessly murdered who died in a blazing gun battle trying desperately to save his life. Real martyrs like the ancient Christians went willingly to death.

If you reexamine your dictionary, you will find that you skipped over parts of the definition of martyr and definitions of related words. Webster's also states that to martyr is "to put to death for adhering to a belief, faith, or profession." (Webster, Tenth ed.)

In addition, Random House Webster's College dictionary (1991) states that a martyr is:

1. a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce his or her religion.; 2. A person who is put to death or suffers on behalf of a cause.; 3. A person who undergoes severe or constant suffering.

There is no doubt that Joseph Smith was finally murdered, after suffering severe and constant afflictions, because he would not renounce his religious beliefs or prophetic claims. (See The Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith) Therefore, there can be no doubt that he was a martyr.

Elder B.H. Roberts made these comments about this event:

"It was self-surrender that Joseph Smith made to certain death. He was clean escaped out of the hands of his enemies. He had crossed the Mississippi from Nauvoo and was surrounded by trusted men who were aiding his departure for the west. One more day would have seen him at the head of a small company of men in the wilderness of Iowa en route for the Rocky Mountains. Then came the pleading of some mistaken and some false friends that he submit to the demands of Governor Ford and trust to his promises of protection, and not play the part of the false shepherd who leaves the flock when attacked by wolves. This was more than Joseph's spirit could endure, and hence he recrossed the river, against his better judgment, and with absolute conviction that he would be killed, went to Carthage and among a host of publicly and repeatedly avowed enemies, pledged to encompass his death, surrendered to the requirements of the officers of the law. At Nauvoo, eighteen miles away, he had left a body of between three and four thousand men, the best body of militia in the state of Illinois, with arms and other equipments for war. And yet the Smith brothers voluntarily placed themselves in the hands of the officers. No self-surrender, with every means for successful resistance, could have been more complete; and in fulfillment of the requirements of the governor, the Brothers Smith went to Carthage unarmed. The matter of their having one six-barrelled and one single-barrelled pistol with them when assailed was because friends on parting from them left these fire arms with them as stated in a former chapter, under circumstances alike honorable and justifiable. These arms offered but a meager defense against the overwhelming odds of the assailants; nor did the Prophet use the pistol left with him until he had seen his brother shot to death from his side--not until he had looked into the dead face of that brother, calm but bullet-torn, did the war spirit native to his race--his revolutionary ancestry--rise within him and impel him to the conflict at the door where muskets were belching fire and death, where he stood for one splendid moment as some avenging spirit returning the fire of the mob. Much less or far more than mortal man must he have been not to have done what he did. And what he did in that supreme moment of trial and death, does not depreciate him in the esteem of Christian men, nor make him less a martyr to the mission given him of God. President McKinley's and Roosevelt's United States secretary of state, John Hay, was right when he said Joseph Smith put up a "handsome fight" in the prison; but it in no way detracts from the solemn fact of his martyrdom, and emphasizes the glory of his manhood." (Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol.2, Ch.59, p.316 - p.317)

You seem to imply that there is something wrong or immoral about defending either yourself or others from unlawful attacks. When the mob of 150-200 persons attacked the room in which he and his associates were staying, Joseph managed to fire just three shots at the mob before he was killed. The entire event only lasted a few minutes. You describe the encounter as a "blazing gun battle." One man, armed only with a small revolver and defending himself against 200 armed foes, does not describe a "blazing gun battle." It describes a slaughter.

Also, you seem to believe that the early Christians martyrs all died willingly without any resistance. Somehow I suspect that they did not step willingly into the mouths of lions. When they were alone with the lions in the arena, I imagine that they tried to run, hide, or even fight back. Their resistence did not disqualify them from being martyrs. Furthermore, your question reminded me of an episode in the life of Paul the Apostle. When Paul faced a similar mob who had decided "it is not fit that he should live." (Acts 22:22), he used his Roman citizenship for protection instead of meekly submitting to scourging and death (Acts 22:25). Are you claiming that the Apostle Paul was not a true Christian martyr?

(See Response to Criticism home page; Accusatory Questions home page)

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