The Restoration of Christ's Church

Hey guys — on June 27, 1844, a mob burst into Carthage Jail and murdered Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Latter-day Saints consider Joseph Smith to be a martyr for the faith. However, some people feel that he doesn’t qualify for that title. I’m not a big fan of haggling over definitions, but I keep seeing this topic pop up, so let’s just talk about it.

Alright, can Joseph Smith rightly be called a martyr? The answer to that question largely depends on what your definition of a martyr is. The Cambridge Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, Britannica Dictionary, and all define martyr in essentially the same terms: “a person who suffers very much or is killed because of their religious or political beliefs, and is often admired because of it.”

These definitions cast a rather wide net: A martyr’s suffering doesn’t have to just be for religious reasons, and their suffering doesn’t even have to result in death. So I think Joseph very easily fits within this range of meaning and can thus very comfortably be termed a martyr. As far as I’m concerned, that wraps up this question. 

Some people, though, appeal to a more narrow definition of the term, martyr. For example, and Merriam-Webster give both a rather broad definition, similar to those we just looked at, in addition to a much more selective definition.’s narrow definition calls a martyr “a person who willingly suffers death rather than renounce their religion.” Some antagonists take this definition and then assert that Joseph cannot be termed a martyr because (1.) he did not die for his faith or religious beliefs. And 2: he did not die willingly.

Let’s go through these claims. Some people believe Joseph was killed not because of his religion but for his role in the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. The reality is that Joseph wasn’t killed for just one reason. It wasn’t this or that — it was this and that. His antagonists had woven together a rich tapestry of grievances, and religious disagreement was absolutely a part of that tapestry.

After the killings, Governor Thomas Ford attributed the violence to religious intolerance (specifically regarding polygamy and some other controversial teachings) in addition to the political threat of Latter-day Saint bloc voting, Nauvoo’s military power, and a perceived abuse of legal power. Before the killings, both the Nauvoo Expositor and the Warsaw Signal denounced (among other things) specific controversial Latter-day Saint teachings.

One contemporary report of the murders tells us that after Joseph was shot and fell out of the window, William Voras turned him over, struck him, and said, “You are the damned old Chieftain, we have him after a long time. Now go and see your spiritual wives in hell.” Joseph was certainly killed, in part, because of his religious claims & convictions, which throughout his life, he witnessed of and refused to renounce. So this idea that religion had nothing to do with it just doesn’t do it for me. Joseph was the Latter-day Saint prophet. Of course, religion was part of the equation. 

Point number 2: Did Joseph die willingly? Some critics say no because when attacked, Joseph defended himself (and his friends) with a contraband pepperbox six-shot pistol. I would argue, however, that you can resist being killed and still be willing to die for your convictions. In other words, being willing to die does not mean you have to go quietly into that good night. This is evidenced, for example, by “[John] Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, [which] includes many Christian martyrs who tried to escape, fought back, and even killed those trying to kill them.” 

Likewise, Joseph did not go quietly, but he knew that if he turned himself in and went to Carthage, there was a very good chance he would be killed. He said as much in a letter to the governor just days before his murder. And yet, on June 24th, 1844, he willingly and voluntarily turned himself in any way. William Clayton’s journal entry for that day reports that Joseph “appeared to feel solemn & though[t]ful and from expressions made to several individuals, he expects nothing but to be massacred.” We’ve got a fistful of other statements to the same effect, which you can pause and read. 

The mob that killed Joseph actually rushed Carthage Jail more than once. Around midnight on the beginning of June 27th, Joseph, Hyrum, and their visitors in the jail braced the door as they heard the mob advance up the stairs. Dan Jones, who was there, reported that the prophet called out, “Come on, ye assassins, we are ready for you and would as willingly die now as at daylight.” The mob retreated, but they’d be back later that day to finish the job.

If you just don’t think Joseph fits the definition of a martyr, that’s fine. That said, I get the feeling that some people are hesitant to call Joseph a martyr simply because they don’t like him or don’t agree with his teachings and don’t want to sound like they support or admire him. I get that perspective. But if the only people we allow into the martyrdom category are those we like and agree with, I think we’re doing something wrong. And I think the Collins Dictionary definition includes an important detail that addresses this issue: “A martyr is someone who is killed or made to suffer greatly because of their religious or political beliefs and is admired and respected by people who share those beliefs.” By this definition, you can think someone is kookoo for cocoa puffs but still recognize them as a martyr for their people. I’m just putting that on the table. You can totally disagree with Joseph Smith and still consider him a martyr for Latter-day Saints. I think Joseph can very appropriately be termed a Latter-day Saint martyr. I have no problem with it. But as always, you can come to your own conclusions on this.

On a related note, if you want to dive into some juicy rumors that Joseph killed some of his attackers during his final moments in Carthage, go watch this episode, and have a great day. 


Learning More:

— “Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s Martyrdom,” Q&A via Mormonr: 

— List of primary sources regarding the martyrdom via 

— “Untouchable: Joseph Smith’s Use of the Law as Catalyst for Assassination,” by Alex D. Smith in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Vol. 112, No. 1 (Spring 2019), pp. 8-42: 

— “Physical Evidence at Carthage Jail and What It Reveals about the Assassination of Joseph and Hyrum Smith,” by Joseph L. Lyon & David W. Lyon (BYU Studies): 

— “Joseph Smith, a True Martyr,” by Daniel Bachman: 

— “Question: Is the definition of a Christian martyr always understood only as one who does not fight back?” via FAIR: 

— “Was Joseph Smith a Martyr or a Murderer?” by Lance Starr (FAIR): 

— Suggested reading:

— “Rough Stone Rolling,” by Richard Bushman

— “Carthage Conspiracy,” by Oaks & Marvin

— “Joseph: Exploring the Life and Ministry of the Prophet,” by Black & Skinner

— “Know Brother Joseph,” edited by Smith, Godfrey, & Grow


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