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This question is offered as a counterpoint to:

How do non-LDS Christians respond to the LDS argument that Joseph Smith died as a Martyr for God, just like the Apostles?

In particular, an argument from Sean McDowell focuses on the character and motives of Joseph Smith, to suggest that no comparison is warranted.

How do Latter-day Saints respond to these claims?

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A Martyr for the testimony of Jesus

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider Joseph Smith a Christian martyr.

John Taylor, who was present when Joseph Smith was assassinated, wrote of him:

In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants...gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood (see Doctrine & Covenants 135:3)

Latter-day Saints generally acknowledge strong correlation between the martyrdoms of the early apostles and the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, especially in that in both cases, we are speaking of people who died not in support of the bold claims made by someone else, but for their own testimony of their own personal experience with the resurrected Christ.

This is not to say the circumstances were identical. Even among the first century Christian martyrs circumstances were not identical (compare, for example, the death of James the son of Zebedee with that of James the son of Joseph).

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Assassination of body & character

Some, while acknowledging that the assassination of Joseph Smith was an illegal act of mob violence, nevertheless do not want to associate him with Christian martyrs of the past. 

Much of this derives from attacks on Joseph Smith’s character, as plainly demonstrated in the parallel post. Strictly speaking, these arguments commit an ad hominem fallacy. It is an emotional appeal, not a logical argument. We'll see below that people can do bad things and still give their lives for a cause they sincerely believe in.

However, since specific examples were raised (3 of which have exercised great hold upon the imaginations of many), I'll address the 4 principal contentions raised in the parallel posts:

  • Joseph Smith was an imperfect human being
  • Money
  • Sex
  • Power

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Joseph Smith was an imperfect human being

Yes, he was. Of what import is this statement? 

Can only perfect individuals be martyrs? Is God so feeble as to only be able to accomplish His work through perfect tools? (No on both counts)

One can readily imagine an Israelite saying Moses could not be a prophet because he killed a man (under circumstances that are often debated).

There are 4 men, named as apostles in the New Testament, for whom we have first century attestation of their death as martyrs (others probably died as martyrs, but we lack early sources for this history):

  • James the son of Zebedee (Acts 12:1-2)
  • James the son of Joseph (Josephus, Antiquities 20.9.1)
  • Peter (1 Clement 5)
  • Paul (1 Clement 5)

At least 3 of the 4 spent time in prison. One asked for fire to be called down on the Samaritans, one disbelieved his own brother's role during His earthly ministry, one denied His Master 3 times even after being forewarned, and one was an active, prominent persecutor of Christians and was what we would today call an accessory to the murder of Stephen. They had flaws. 

And yet they were beneficiaries of the potent gift of repentance; they were powerful ministers of truth, exemplary disciples of Christ, and valiant tools in the hands of God. Falling short of perfection clearly does not disqualify one from service in the kingdom of God.

But Joseph Smith’s critics point to egregious flaws. Let's consider the merits of these claims.

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Money

Joseph Smith spent most of his life living just above a subsistence level; if he was doing it for money, it wasn't paying off too well. 

He built a great city in Kirtland, and was forced by mobs to walk away, he built multiple communities in Missouri and was forced by mobs to walk away again. His pleas for government redress of these wrongs against his people went all the way to the President of the United States but were not heeded (see here). Living true to his faith cost Joseph Smith far more in worldly goods than he gained during a handful of comparatively peaceful years in Nauvoo (which would later be abandoned because of mobs as well). The deplorable conditions he endured while imprisoned in Liberty Jail, for example, are described here.

The Kirtland Safety Society (the financial institution Joseph Smith founded to try to address the lack of financial liquidity in a frontier community) does not demonstrate that he was avaricious, it demonstrates that he, like most frontier bankers, was unable to run a financial institution during the panic of 1837. 

What the critics almost never mention is that when the Kirtland Safety Society failed, Joseph Smith lost more money than any other investor (save one) (see here). He put his own resources on the line to try to make it work, and he personally endured the effects of the failed entrepreneurial venture (see here). 

Suggesting that God cannot work through a person who suffered an entrepreneurial failure would be as arbitrary as it is dubious (BTW, even most successful entrepreneurs had projects that failed).

We believe in a God who allows people to innovate and use their agency, even if it means sometimes people try bad ideas (Aaron anyone?) or trust the wrong people (e.g. Warren Parrish, who embezzled the institution's funds--see link above).

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Sex

It is well-known that Joseph Smith practiced polygamy, in accordance with (what Latter-day Saints consider) direction from God.

The scriptural doctrine relevant to polygamy is found in Jacob 2:27-30.

What is less well-known is the extent to which Joseph Smith detested polygamy. This essay provides much of the historical background.

The polyandry comments in the parallel post would have to get at least 3 out of 4 Pinocchios. It conflates "marriage" and "sealing", and rather deceptively brushes over the rather crucial detail: there is no evidence that Joseph Smith ever had sexual relations with a woman who was married to another man

The exhaustive review of the historical evidence, written by Brian Hales, is available here. It is a scholarly tome that critics would prefer did not exist. 

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Power

Joseph Smith did hold great local influence. He had little chance of winning an election on a national scale, but that didn't stop him from running. His reasons for running for President of the United States included his opposition to slavery and the astonishing absence of support the US government provided when the church was persecuted, suffering robbery, rape, and murder at the hands of mobs repeatedly. 

That power was not his motivation (nor were money or sex) is clearly evident in his decision to die rather than employ the Nauvoo Legion (the local militia) in battle to protect himself (Note that the militia was founded in response to the mobs, not the other way around). 

Let's consider the 3 options and the contradictions produced by 2 of them.

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Option 1 - Joseph Smith didn't really believe in God.

In this case, going to his death meant no more money, sex, or power, with no hope of eternal reward either. It meant giving up the things he cared about and getting nothing in return. He would have employed the thousands of soldiers faithful to him in his defense.

A power hungry, selfish tyrant sacrificing himself to prevent violence against his people...not a chance.

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Option 2 - Joseph Smith really believed in God, but turned to heresy because he was motivated by worldly gain.

In this case, going to his death meant no more money, sex, or power, with the expectation of eternal damnation to come as well. It meant giving up the things he truly cared about in exchange for hellfire. He would have employed the thousands of soldiers faithful to him in his defense. 

Option 2 would be even more irrational than option 1.

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Option 3 - Joseph Smith believed in God and was motivated by something other than worldly gain (Devotion to God? Love of his fellow man?) 

In this case - and only in this case - does his decision to leave the protection of the Nauvoo Legion and walk into the hands of enemies who wanted to kill him make any sense at all.

He sacrificed his own life because he believed God was leading him, that if God was calling him home he was ready to go, and that engaging in siege warfare with the Governor of Illinois would only result in the deaths of many innocent people. 

That Joseph Smith knew what would happen to him if he surrendered is poignantly spelled out in his own writings (e.g. Doctrine & Covenants 122:6)

These are not the actions of a megalomaniac obsessed with money, sex, and power. These are the actions of a martyr whose beliefs are sincere. 


Disclaimer - these comments are the product of my own study and do not represent official statements of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  

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