Question: Does Joseph Smith qualify as a "martyr"?

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Question: Does Joseph Smith qualify as a "martyr"?

An examination of the historical records shows that Joseph was well aware of his fate and faced it head-on as a willing martyr

An examination of the historical records shows that Joseph was well aware of his fate and faced it head-on as a willing martyr. His death marked a fulfillment of his own prophetic words that appeared as his last narrative in the History of the Church on Saturday June 22, 1844. He said:

I told Stephen Markham that if I and Hyrum were ever taken again we should be massacred, or I was not a prophet of God.[1]:6:546

What is a martyr?

Webster's Dictionary provides the following definitions of the word "martyr":

  1. a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion
  2. a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle

Based upon this definition, we examine whether or not Joseph Smith qualifies as a "martyr."

Did Joseph voluntarily suffer death?

Joseph was a willing and innocent sacrifice on behalf of his people. He anticipated his death. Wilford Woodruff recorded Joseph's words in 1843 relative to his sacrifice:

I understand my mishion [sic] & business. God Almighty is my shield.... I shall not be sacrafised [sic] untill [sic] my time comes. Then I shall be offered freely.[2]

Similarly in his speech to the Nauvoo Legion on June 18, 1844:

I do not regard my own life. I am ready to be offered a sacrifice for this people; for what can our enemies do? Only kill the body, and their power is then at an end. Stand firm, my friends; never flinch. Do not seek to save your lives, for he that is afraid to die for the truth, will lose eternal life.... God has tried you. You are a good people; therefore I love you with all my heart. Greater love hath no man than that he should lay down his life for his friends. You have stood by me in the hour of trouble, and I am willing to sacrifice my life for your preservation.[1]:500[3]

Hyrum and Helen Andrus describe Joseph's willingness and those who pleaded with him to not surrender:

As Joseph contemplated the scene, he could picture in his mind the militia overrunning Nauvoo and committing the same autracites as were acted upon the Saints in Missouri. Thus on Monday the 24th of June, Joseph expressed his resolution as "hundreds gathered before the Mansion House early in the morning. In their midst, with head erect, towering above the rest, the Prophet stood gazing alternately on the devoted city and its much loved citizens. He listened to the entreaties of the throng not to give himself up or he would be murdered. A few brave-hearted men proposed to escort him to the West. Others, up north would have him go, while a fearless tar (sailor) proffered him a safe passage on a steamboat to whither he would go. A smile of approbation lit up the Seer's countenance. His lovely boys, hanging on to his skirts, urged on the suite and cried, "Father, O Father don't go to Carthage. They will kill you." Not least impressive were the pleadings of his mother: "My son, my son, can you leave me without promising to return? Some forty times before have I seen you from me dragged, but never before without saying you would return; what say you now, my son?" He stood erect, like a beacon among roaring breakers, his gigantic mind grasping still higher. The fire flashed in his eye. With hand uplifted on high, he spoke, "My friends, nay, dearer still, my brethren, I love you. I love the city of Nauvoo too well to save my life at your expense. If I go not to them, they will come and act out the horrid Missouri scenes in Nauvoo. I may prevent it. I fear not death. My work is well nigh done. Keep the faith and I will die for Nauvoo."[4]

A guard from Carthage warned Joseph in Nauvoo before he left:

"If you go there they will kill you." "I know it, but I am going. I am going to give myself for the people, to save them" Joseph said.[5]

Joseph told the company who were with him:

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!" [1]:6:555

On June 24, after Joseph's last visit with his family before going to Carthage, William Clayton writes:

He appeared to feel solemn & though[t]ful, and from expressions made to several individuals, he expects nothing but to be massacred. This he expressed before he returned from over the river but their appearing no alternative but he must either give himself up or the City be massacred by a lawless mob under the sanction of the Governor.[6]

In Joseph Smith's letter to Emma written from the Carthage Jail, on the final day of his life, he wrote:

"Dear Emma, I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified, and have done the best that could be done. Give my love to the children and all my friends."[1]:6:605

Was Joseph willing to die for his faith?

Joseph was, and always had been, willing to die for his faith, his God, and his people. Danel Bachman, illustrating this willingness, cited an 1838 incident when Joseph and Hyrum were in the hands of their enemies and were sentenced to be executed. Did he resist? No! Joseph, speaking of his feelings at the time said:

As far as I was concerned, I felt perfectly calm, and resigned to the will of my heavenly Father.... And notwithstanding that every avenue of escape seemed to be entirely closed, and death stared me in the face, and that my destruction was determined upon, as far as man was concerned; yet, from my first entrance into the camp, I felt an assurance, that I with my brethren and our families should be delivered. Yes, that still small voice, which has so often whispered consolation to my soul, in the depth of sorrow and distress, bade me be of good cheer, and promised deliverance.

Hyrum said of the event:

I thank God that I felt a determination to die, rather than deny the things which my eyes had seen, which my hands had handled, and which I had borne testimony to, wherever my lot had been cast; and I can assure my beloved brethren that I was enabled to bear as strong a testimony, when nothing but death presented itself, as ever I did in my life. My confidence in God was likewise unshaken."[7]

Joseph's history, words, and actions go contrary to many of his critics' picture of cowardliness. Joseph was well aware that the anti-Mormon sentiment was to "exterminate, utterly exterminate the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders, the authors of [their] troubles."[1]:5:456

See also Brian Hales' discussion: William and Jane Law and the Prophet
William Law was Joseph's counselor, but eventually broke with the Prophet and helped publish the Nauvoo Expositor. (Link)
Plural Marriage and the Martyrdom
Did Joseph Smith Intend to Abandon Plural Marriage?
William Marks related that Joseph’s conversation denouncing plural marriage occurred “three weeks before his death” or around June 6. Perhaps Joseph had such a change of heart during the first week of June, but this seems unlikely and other parts of Marks’ recollection are implausible. (Link)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957).
  2. Wilford Woodruff, Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 9 vols., ed., Scott G. Kenny (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1985), 2:217. ISBN 0941214133.
  3. Danel Bachman, “Joseph Smith: A True Martyr,” 328-329, from a speech given at the Joseph Smith Symposium, 22 February 1992, in Susan Easton Black & Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds., Joseph Smith: The Prophet (BYU Religious Studies Center 1993), 315-32.
  4. Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, They Knew the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1974), 183.
  5. Bachman, "Joseph Smith, a True Martyr," 330.
  6. Bachman, "Joseph Smith, a True Martyr," 328.
  7. Bachman, "Joseph Smith, a True Martyr," 324-325.