Joseph & Hyrum Smith's Martyrdom

Were Joseph and Hyrum martyred or were they just killed?

They were martyred. The 1828 Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the transitive verb "martyr" as “to put to death for adhering to what one believes to be the truth; to sacrifice one on account of his faith or profession.”[1]

Since Joseph and Hyrum were killed because of their religious beliefs and practices,[2] they are considered martyrs.

But weren’t they killed because they burned down the Nauvoo Expositor?

No. The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor[3] made the tensions between Latter-day Saints and non-Latter-day Saints worse,[4] but Joseph and Hyrum were killed for their religious beliefs and practices rather than as a punishment for destroying a printing press.[5]

Okay, but didn’t Joseph and Hyrum die in a gunfight?

Sort of. There was a fight and there were guns, but calling it a gunfight isn't quite an accurate description.[6] Between one and two hundred armed men with their faces painted black stormed Carthage Jail to kill Joseph.[7] They fired into the cell where Smith was held.[8] Smith fired back with a six-barreled pistol.[9] The mob shot and killed Hyrum,[10] then Joseph,[11] and wounded John Taylor.[12]

Doesn’t a true martyr have to willingly go to their death?

No, not historically. For example, Stephen in the Bible is often referred to as the first martyr.[13] He didn’t volunteer to die. He was stoned to death because he said he saw God and Jesus on his right hand, which was considered blasphemy.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, includes many Christian martyrs who tried to escape, fought back, and even killed those trying to kill them.[14]

Has the Church tried to control the martyrdom narrative and exclude the part about him firing a gun at the mob?

Yes and no. The Church has published many narratives describing the martyrdom of Joseph Smith,[15] and many of them have excluded the fact that he was armed[16] or have implied that he was unarmed.[17] However, many of them have also included this detail.[18]

Joseph said, and the story goes, that he was "going as a lamb to the slaughter." Is that a misrepresentation?

Not really. Joseph willingly returned to Carthage to stand trial and probably knew he would be killed,[19] even though Governor Thomas Ford pledged to protect him.[20]

Some People Say . . .

"Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith went willingly to die, like lambs to the slaughter."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Joseph and Hyrum Smith were killed because of their religious beliefs and practices.

  • Joseph and Hyrum were armed with pistols at Carthage.

  • Joseph fired into the mob after they killed Hyrum, wounding three people.

  • Religious martyrs have historically included people who have tried to flee and defend themselves.

Our Take

Joseph is often painted as this poor man who died for his beliefs. We call it "the martyrdom." But when we think of a martyr, we might imagine a pacifist who voluntarily gives their life for their beliefs.

With that in mind, it can be surprising or uncomfortable learning Joseph was armed and fought back at Carthage. Does that make him any less of a martyr? Did the Church shift the narrative so it would be more favorable toward Joseph?

Though modern usages of "martyr" can connote a range of things, historically—and in Joseph's day—martyr denotes anyone who died for their religion. Church narratives on the martyrdom approximate the way the historical record sits—some accounts describe an armed Joseph, others don't. The most detailed accounts include Joseph armed.

Debating over the semantics of "martyr" might feel weird or unnecessary, but the narrative is important to get right. One core part of this is that Joseph stuck to what he taught until he was killed, and he was killed for what he taught. Understanding the history of Joseph Smith's life and death is a useful companion to a testimony of the Restoration.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Mitch N.
    Sam Weston presented his research on this. He argues that Hyrum wasn't shot through the door, but from outside, since his death mask doesn't reveal any wood shards in his face, which would have left marks if shot at point blank range. He was in the middle of the room when shot.
  • Adam J
    Of course Joseph and Hyrum's count as martyrs. Calling the attack of four guys stuck in a jail cell with a pistol by like two hundred mobsters a gunfight is just ridiculous.
Footnotes