Was Joseph Smith a Martyr?

In contrast to the apostles, serious questions can be raised against the motivation of Joseph Smith.

These factors do not necessarily prove Smith was lying, but they raise serious questions about his motivation, character, and the claim he was a martyr. The apostles willingly embraced sacrifice and suffering because they were convinced Jesus had risen from the grave. There is no evidence whatsoever they embraced the faith for material gain. As the first chapters of Acts demonstrate, it cost them considerably to follow Christ. In contrast to the apostles, Smith had much to personally gain by propagating his church.

 

In my recent book The Fate of the Apostles, I make the historical case that the apostles were all willing to suffer and die for their belief that they had seen the risen Jesus. This does not prove the truth of their claims, but that they were sincere. But what about Joseph Smith? Didn’t he die as a martyr for his faith? Does that mean he was equally sincere, and hence Mormonism may be true as well?

The Story of Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) is the founder of Mormonism. At the age of fourteen, he claimed to have seen a vision[1] of God the Father and Jesus who told him not to follow any of the sects of his day but that God would restore the true church through him. He was later directed by the angel Moroni to discover some gold plates, which contained the spiritual history of the Nephites and Lamanites, including a visit by Jesus to the Americas. He claimed to have received revelation from God for the translation of theBook of Mormon, a scripture that is claimed to complete the message of the Bible.

Joseph Smith, the Martyr

In 1839, Smith and his followers moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. Under his leadership, the city of Nauvoo prospered. Five years after moving to Nauvoo, some disaffected Mormons publicly criticized Smith in the Nauvoo Expositor for his unprophetlike behavior. Smith ordered the city marshal to destroy the press, but one of the men responsible for the press filed a complaint. Smith was eventually charged with treason by the state of Illinois and he and his brother Hyrum turned themselves in on June 25. They were placed in a low-security prison in the Carthage Jail, about twenty-two miles outside Nauvoo, along with their companions Willard Richards and John Taylor. Both Joseph and Hyrum possessed smuggled pistols. On June 27, 1844 a group of armed men with painted faces stormed the Carthage Jail, and in a short gun battle, Joseph and Hyrum ended up dead.[2]

Many Mormons have since heralded Joseph Smith as a martyr. Doctrine & Covenants 135:4 says,

When Joseph went to Carthage to deliver himself up to the pretended requirements of the law, two or three days previous to his assassination, he said, “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 towards God, and towards all men. I SHALL DIE INNOCENT, AND IT SHALL YET BE SAID OF ME—HE WAS MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD.”

According to Brigham Young,

He [Joseph Smith] holds the keys of that kingdom for the last dispensation—the keys to rule in the spirit-world; and he rules there triumphantly, for he gained full power and a glorious victory over the power of Satan while he was yet in the flesh, and was a martyr to his religion and to the name of Christ, which gives him a most perfect victory in the spirit-world.[3]

There is no question Smith was morally justified in defending himself. The important question is whether or not Smith qualifies as a martyr who can be compared to the apostles, or Jesus (as Mormons claim). Two important points stand out when analyzing his fate.

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