Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Is Joseph Smith a martyr?

      Throughout the early history of the Church, 17 Mormon printing presses were destroyed by anti-Mormon mobs, with virtually no public response. But on June 7, 1844, a group of disgruntled ex-Mormons published The Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper accusing Joseph Smith and other church leaders of blasphemy, adultery, political corruption, and other slanderous charges.

With the consent of the city council, Joseph Smith declared the newspaper a public nuisance and a threat to the city peace, and ordered it destroyed.
      The reaction was immediate. Newspapers everywhere accused Joseph Smith of tyranny and infringing on First Amendment rights. The infamous Thomas Sharp openly called for Smith's murder. Smith and several of his colleagues turned themselves in and were arrested and placed in jail in Carthage, Illinois, to await trial for treason. Governor Thomas Ford promised his protection, but Smith was not convinced. On June 27, 1844, Ford was in Nauvoo to deliver a speech to the Mormons criticizing the destruction of the press and to disarm the Nauvoo militia. That evening, a mob of about 200 burst into the jail in Carthage, meeting no resistance from the guards, and shot and killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith.
      However, before he died, Joseph Smith reached around the door and fired a six-barreled handgun into the mob. He may have killed a member of the mob in doing so.
      Because of this, some critics have argued that Joseph Smith disqualified himself as a martyr. It was a gunfight, they say, not a martyrdom. Smith went down fighting; he did not willingly lay down his life as the Savior did.
      What makes all the difference, in my mind, is that Joseph Smith was defending his friends, whose lives were also in danger. When Jesus Christ died, he made accommodations for the possibly violent defense of his disciples (Luke 22:38). Only once he could safely surrendur without endangering his friends did he restrain Peter from using the sword (Matthew 26:51-52).
      Then there's the matter of numbers. Two hundred armed men against four, using a single handgun and two canes, is not a battle. Furthermore, Joseph Smith knew he was going "like a lamb to the slaughter" when he chose to abandon his attempt to escape across the Mississippi River and turn himself in to the authorities several days earlier. His correspondence with Governor Ford reveals that he knew the danger, but he declined to use the Nauvoo Legion and risk civil war to protect his life. His attempts to defend his friends in his final moments does not change the fact that he died a martyr's death.

In summary
Argument: Joseph Smith fired a handgun into the mob that stormed Carthage Jail; therefore he was killed in a gunfight; not martyred.
Answer: Joseph Smith fought in order to defend his companions, which is honorable. The odds were two hundred to four; it would be quite an exaggeration to call it a gunfight. Joseph chose to go to Carthage in the first place knowing his life was in danger. He may be properly called a martyr.

Bushman, Richard L. 2005. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Alfred Knopf.
Roberts, B. H. 1930. History of the Church. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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