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In Christian apologetics, a common argument for the reliability of the eyewitness accounts of the apostles is the fact that they were willing to withstand persecution and even martyrdom for what they believed to be true. However, Latter-day Saints use the very same argument to back up the authenticity of Joseph Smith's testimony, who, according to them, sealed his testimony with his own blood as a martyr, just like the 1st century apostles (e.g. see here and here).

How do non-LDS Christians respond to the Joseph Smith's martyrdom argument?


A counterpoint question can be found at How do Latter-day Saints respond to the non-LDS argument that Joseph Smith's death was not comparable to the martyrdom of the ancient apostles?

More examples of non-Christian religious martyrs can be found in this answer.

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    Why does something like this need a response? People die, some people die violently. Their death, and the method of their death, is on no planet significant evidence that they are a prophet.
    – TKoL
    Aug 3 at 9:28
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    Fair enough. One more interesting bit about his "martyrdom" is that he had a gun with him, and he shot and killed people in the mob that were attacking him. I think that's an interesting thing that sets this death apart from other Martyrs. I don't think Jesus or the Apostles stabbed or killed any of their attackers.
    – TKoL
    Aug 3 at 10:55
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    Sorry, I might have said something incorrect there: I don't believe there's conclusive evidence he killed anybody in the mob, but there seems to be universal agreement that he did shoot people.
    – TKoL
    Aug 3 at 11:02
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    @TKoL Jesus told his disciples to get swords (Luke 22:36, "He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one""), and Peter lopped an ear off of an attacker. Aug 3 at 22:44
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    @TKoL Sure, but why did Jesus say to arm themselves with swords? Because they look nice? Aug 4 at 19:44
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Christian Apologist Sean McDowell has published an article on his website where he analyzes and raises some objections to Joseph Smith's martyrdom. Below a few quotes from the article:

WAS JOSEPH SMITH A MARTYR?

SeanMcDowell.org

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?

[...]

Even though the case for Smith being a martyr has been seriously compromised, outsiders at the Carthage jail unjustly attacked him and he did die as the founding prophet of the LDS faith. While he did attack and reportedly kill some men, he was also acting in self-defense. Should his example not provide evidence for the sincerity of his claims regarding the founding of the Mormon Church just as the deaths of the apostles provide evidence for the sincerity of their claims to have seen the risen Jesus?

[...]

The Apostles vs. Joseph Smith

Probing into the lives and motivations of the apostles shows a significant difference between them and Joseph Smith. When initially choosing to follow Jesus, the apostles believed they were going to reign in power with him in Israel, which is why James and John made their requests to Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). They believed Jesus would be a military and political ruler like David, and they would share in his reign. Yet their hopes were dashed at his arrest and crucifixion (Luke 24:21). They went back to their lives as before, hoping the real messiah would eventually come. Even though Jesus had predicted it, they had no expectation of his resurrection. Reports of the empty tomb and risen Jesus were not enough—they needed an actual appearance of Jesus to be persuaded it was true (cf. John 20:24-29). By following the resurrected Jesus, the apostles willingly embraced a religion that would involve sacrifice, service, humility, and likely death. They did it not for personal gain, but because they had seen the risen Jesus and feared disobeying God more than the wrath of men (Acts 5:27-32).

In contrast to the apostles, serious questions can be raised against the motivation of Joseph Smith. He was clearly enamored with power, sex, and money. As for power, Smith built a militia of 5,000 men (which was more than half the size of the US Army). He was also a politician, campaigning for the presidency until the time of his death. As for sex, Smith had at least 33 wives, including four sister-pairs (Huntington, Patridge, Johnson, Lawrence), eleven polyandrous unions with women already married, one mother-daughter pair (Sessions), and some girls as young as fourteen.[7] As for money, Smith claimed to have received a prophecy to start a bank in Kirtland, Ohio. He was the personal cashier for the bank. Even though he promised his followers it would succeed, it eventually failed and some members of the church lost everything they had.

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.

[...]

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  • I find this an interesting read. I believe a martyr means someone who has been killed for his or her Christian beliefs or more broadly one who suffers death in defense of any cause (for example: a man dies a martyr to his political principles or to the cause of liberty) It doesn't say anything about their wealth, just beliefs. Here is John Foxe's, Fox's Book of Martyrs, Or A History of the Lives, Sufferings, and Triumphant Deaths of the Primitive Protestant Martyrs with more martyr examples beyond apostles
    – depperm
    Aug 5 at 10:26
  • "In contrast to the apostles, Smith had much to personally gain by propagating his church." - does that say anything about his death?
    – kutschkem
    Aug 5 at 10:53
  • @kutschkem - Sean McDowell is basically presenting an objection to the abductive argument for Joseph Smith's sincerity in his religious beliefs. In Apologetics, the whole point of bringing up someone's religious martyrdom is to make the hypothesis "they truly believed what they preached" more probable, based on the common sense idea that most people would not be willing to endure persecution and death for something they know to be a lie. However, this abductive argument loses strength when there is evidence of potential dishonesty, as presumably would be the case of Joseph Smith. Aug 5 at 11:20
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    @HoldToTheRod - sure, although I think a separate question should be asked for that. Aug 10 at 6:03
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    @SpiritRealmInvestigator agree, a counterpoint here wouldn't be a fair use of your question. I've asked this question and offered this response Aug 11 at 1:26
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Here are several thoughts that may occur to a non-LDS Christian when they encounter this argument.

1 - The fact that someone dies for their beliefs does not make those beliefs true. That the Apostles died for their faith does not prove Christianity to be true, but it does suggestion a question, "Why did these 1st century Jews give their lives for a dead Messiah who never sought to overthrow Rome?" If we consider the following historical realities, it's not hard to see that the martyrdom of the apostles at least should cause us to pause and wonder at this massive paradigm shift. And the resurrection is a powerful argument for that paradigm shift.

a) Jesus had already died - many Jewish Messianic movements in the first century simply evaporated when the supposed Messiah died - why were these Christians persisting even to the point of dying for their belief in a resurrected Messiah if their Messiah was dead?

b) 1st century Jews believed in a Messiah who would overthrow Rome and establish the Messianic Kingdom. Jesus did not set up any form of earthly Kingdom. Moreover, Jesus died a shameful death on the cross. In addition, the Jews did not believe in a resurrection before the end of the age. For numerous devout Jews to give up their lives believing in a Messiah who suffered a shameful death, rose from the grave before the end of the age, and set up a spiritual rather than physical Kingdom, there must have been a powerful event that caused such a paradigm shift.

In contrast to the Apostles, it's not as difficult to understand what Joseph Smith might have died for - he had built a small earthly kingdom where he married many women and wielded significant political influence. There is not the same kind of massive counter-intuitive paradigm shift and so the argument from Smith's death to his witness is simply not parallel to the argument from the Apostles' martyrdom to the resurrection.

2 - Joseph Smith did not teach the same Gospel as Jesus and the Apostles, or the historic Church, so it is not possible that his death functioned the same way as that of a martyr who was faithful to the teachings of Christ.

3 - It is questionable whether Joseph Smith died as an innocent martyr or because he was oppressing others. Even if we take the version of events listed in the link you provided - Chapter 46: The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood, paragraph 530 - we can see that the Mormon version of the story goes to great lengths to make Smith sound innocent (see bold text) when they clearly know the circumstances make him appear guilty. It is easy to see how Smith might have been abusing his power to silence his critics, who were upset about his promotion of polygamy and his use of power, among other things. As 1 Peter 4 notes, if Smith suffered because he himself was misusing power or a wrongdoer in some other way, then his death does not qualify as martyrdom.

On June 10, 1844, Joseph Smith, who was the mayor of Nauvoo, and the Nauvoo city council ordered the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor and the press on which it was printed. The Nauvoo Expositor was an anti-Mormon newspaper that slandered the Prophet and other Saints and called for the repeal of the Nauvoo Charter. City officials feared that this publication would lead to mob action. As a result of the action by the mayor and city council, Illinois authorities brought an unfounded charge of riot against the Prophet, his brother Hyrum, and other Nauvoo city officials. The governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, ordered the men to stand trial in Carthage, Illinois, the county seat, and promised them protection. Joseph knew that if he went to Carthage, his life would be in great danger from the mobs who were threatening him. Chapter 46: The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood, paragraph 530

1 Peter 4:12-16 (NIV)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

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  • Re #1, numerous Jews died supporting men who claimed to be the Messiah. Re #2, this argument appears to presuppose the answer it seeks to demonstrate. If we're trying to evaluate the credibility of Joseph Smith, we can't deduce that by assuming his teachings were false. #3 the Nauvoo City Council's concerns of mob action were legitimate - the church had been expelled from Missouri under similar circumstances 6 years earlier. After the Missouri press turned extremely harsh on the church, the governor issued an order to drive the Mormons from the state and exterminate them if necessary. Aug 10 at 5:11
  • One of the details that so clearly sets the apostles apart from other Jewish martyrs is that they were dying for their testimony of something they had personally witnessed. I suggest this is much more significant than the amount of time that had elapsed since Jesus' crucifixion. The comparison often drawn then, is that unlike many martyrs who die for belief in another--whether based on something recent or long past--both the apostles and Joseph Smith were willing to die for a testimony of their own experience with the resurrected Christ. Aug 10 at 5:28

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