One-Minute Answers by Stephen R. Gibson

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Was Joseph Smith Really a Martyr?

Question: How can Latter-day Saints believe Joseph Smith died as a martyr? All he really did is lose a gun fight at Carthage Jail and killed two men before he died. 

Anti-Mormons continue to put unorthodox spins on words such as "Christian," "trinity," and now "martyr." Webster's New World Dictionary defines "martyr" as a person who chooses to suffer or die rather than give up his faith or his principles, or a person tortured or killed because of his beliefs. There is nothing in this definition to prohibit a martyr from defending himself.

Joseph Smith certainly fits this definition of a martyr. To say differently is to either invent a new definition or to be ignorant of the facts regarding the last few days of the prophet's life.

On June 23, 1844, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were on the Iowa side of the river on their way to the Great Basin. Orrin P. Rockwell and Reynolds Cahoon carried a message from Emma requesting that Joseph return to Nauvoo (History of the Church, Vol.6, p.549). Joseph Smith replied to their requests with, "If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself' (p.549).

Before returning to Nauvoo later that sarne evening, he made a statement that he would repeat several times in the next few days. He declared that if he and Hyrum returned "we shall be butchered" (p. 550). Yet regardless of his foreknowledge of his pending death, that afternoon he, Hyrum and others started back. While some of the party were in a hurry to return to Nauvoo, Joseph said, "It is of no use to hurry, for we are going back to be slaughtered" p.551). Obviously the prophet knew the fate that was awaiting him, yet he chose to "he killed because of his beliefs" rather than to escape death, which he could have easily done.

The next morning a reported 200 people were at Joseph's home in Nauvoo, wanting to see the prophet one more time and to give him their support before he left for Carthage. His mother is reported to have asked him to promise her that he would return, as he had promised during other times of trial. There was no such assurance from the prophet on this occasion.

On the way to Carthage later in the day, the party stopped at the farm of Albert G. Fellow, four miles west of Carthage, where Joseph Smith uttered these fateful words:

I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am calm as a summer's morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. If they take my life I shall die an innocent man, and my blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance, and it shall be said of me 'He was murdered in cold blood!' (p.555).
June 27th found the prophet, his brother Hyrum, John Taylor, and Willard Richards in jail without the protection Governor Ford had promised. At a little after 5 p.m., a mob stormed up the stairs, forced the cell door open and began firing into the room as others fired in the window. Mter Hyrum fell a "dead man" and as John Taylor was hit several times with flying bullets, Joseph Smith discharged his six shooter into the stairway. His bullets struck three men. Here the historical account is cloudy; some accounts say two men later died, but this conclusion is not certain.

We do know that Joseph Smith and his elder brother Hyrum were killed and John Taylor was seriously wounded, having been shot four times. Willard Richards, eyewitness to the event, remained unharmed. He told of the dreadful incident.

If a martyr is a person who chooses to suffer or die rather than give up his faith or his principles, Joseph Smith fits this definition as well as any other person who has ever been slain.

He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people, and like most of the Lord's anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood-and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated (p.630).