Prophets and Martyrs
This is the one hundred tenth anniversary of the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. That was a true martyrdom in the strictest and rarest sense of the word, recalling in every detail, as did so many events in the modern prophet's life, the trials, sufferings, and accomplishments of the prophets of old. This resemblance is by no means accidental, though certainly it was not contrived by the prophet himself. There is a deep significance in the events that culminated in the terrible crime of June 27, 1844, in which two prophets of God sealed their testimony with their blood.
As Peter, James, and John were descending the mountain with the Lord after they had had that wonderful manifestation in which the Father had personally introduced Jesus to them as his Son, they discussed together the subject of martyrdom. Having now a new knowledge of who the Master was, the Apostles naturally asked him whether Elias had come to announce him—for according to the ancient doctrine, the Lord does not come to this earth without an Elias to precede him and prepare the way. To this, Jesus replied that Elias would indeed come, as predicted, to restore all things, that is, in the fulness of times; but aside from that, he explained, Elias had already come as his forerunner. "Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise must also the Son of man suffer of them" (Matthew 17:12). The King James Version here says "shall suffer" as if a simple future were being used; but the word is mellei with the infinitive, and mellei regularly refers to a future event that must be, that is destined and unavoidable. This is actually a more emphatic statement than that which is rendered in Mark 9:12: "The Son of man . . . must suffer many things, and be set at nought." But the strongest possible expression is that which is translated from Luke 9:22: "The Son of man must [literally, is bound to] suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain." Now we know that it was necessary for the Son of Man to be put to death to accomplish the redemption of the human race. In that, he was unique—He trod the winepress alone. But in this matter of martyrdom—necessary martyrdom—his prediction does not stop with himself, for the Lord told the Apostles that they too must suffer the same fate as he. He even said that to follow him meant to take up a cross (Luke 9:23). The order he gave to all his followers was to endure to the end, and the early Christians had absolutely no doubt as to what that meant: "To endure to the end," Tertullian explains, "meant to suffer the end, to suffer death, no less."1 The disciples of the Lord were firmly convinced of what their fate would be.
The Master having been rejected and slain, would the servants fare better? By no means: "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more shall they call them of his household?" (Matthew 10:25.) "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself. . . For whosoever will lose his life for my sake, the same shall save it" (Luke 9:23—24). This was no mere laying aside of a life of worldly desires, as the churchmen later rationalized it, but death in the literal, physical sense. "The servant is not greater than his Lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you. . . . They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. . . . These things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them" (John 15:20, 16:2, 4). "Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name's sake. . . . But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and than shall the end come" (Matthew 24:9, 13—14; italics added). When accordingly the time finally came when the doors of the synagogues were closed to the missionaries of the church and they were hated of all nations (remember how "all of Asia" turned against Paul after he had had his greatest success there), and they were in a very short time run down and exterminated—when this began to happen, Peter reminded the surprised and disheartened saints that this was exactly what had been predicted, and there was no need to lose faith because of it, though they could not expect to save their lives. "Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ's sufferings" (1 Peter 4:12). In this letter he prepares the saints for death; he reassures them that our sojourn here is but a time of fear (1:17), that all flesh is as the grass anyway (1:24), that they are but "strangers and pilgrims" on this earth (2:11), where "the end of all things is at hand" (4:7). His great comfort for them is the thought that they are going to receive "an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you" (1:4).
It would seem from these and many like passages in the Bible, that to be the recipient of a special message from heaven disqualifies one for a place in the world of men. The necessity of martyrdom was a firmly established belief in the Christian church. For centuries Christians were absolutely convinced that to be a true follower of Christ one had to be a martyr. When the church became the world church, and it became impossible to get put to death simply for being a Christian, men felt that they were being cheated of their glory which they still believed depended in a very real sense on following the Lord to death. Men made determined attempts to become martyrs at all cost, and the rationalizing of men like Chrysostom—that to fight the lusts of the flesh was just as heroic as fighting beasts in the arena—did not prove very convincing. In the endless debates between Christian and pagan sects, between Christians and Jews, and especially between the numerous sects of Christians themselves, the strongest argument that any side could bring forward to its divine standing was that it had the most martyrs. The idea that martyrdom was a necessary and indispensable part of the picture is so deeply ingrained in Christian thinking that it still persists, and people of all denominations are eager to describe as Christian martyrdom any sufferings they undergo.
But to be a martyr, it is not enough simply to be put to death. In fact, it is not even necessary to be slain to be a martyr. Most of the martyrs that Cyprian wrote about were very much alive. The word martyr simply means "witness," not dead witness. The important thing is that the martyr is a witness. Men have tried often and with great ingenuity and determination to be martyrs and have sometimes got themselves killed, but that does not make them martyrs. After the third century, the Christians were fond of comparing those who died for the faith with the pagan heroes of antiquity who gave their lives in this or that cause, and at an even earlier time, Christians cite with admiration the example of Socrates, who died for the truth. But none of these were martyrs in the strict sense of the word. In every century and every church there have been men and women who willingly died for causes. Even the Saints who died crossing the plains were not martyrs in the sense of actually being put to death as witnesses. The missionary who loses his life while chopping down a pagan idol or burning a heathen shrine is not a witness either, for one of the most striking things about those who are slain for bearing witness is that they have broken no law of God or man. "Which of you convinceth me of sin?" the Savior asked. "What evil has he done?" was Pilate's question to which there was no answer. A true martyr is put to death for his testimony and that alone. We have already discussed "A Prophet's Reward" and pointed out that prophets have been put to death not for their moral and ethical preachings, however severely they may have castigated the manners and practices of their time, but always for their insistence on bearing witness to what they have seen and heard, and for that alone.
This explains a peculiar circumstance of the restoration of the gospel both in the Lord's day and in our own dispensation: namely, the fact that the Church was set up in the most unfavorable, nay bitterly hostile, environment imaginable. From the appalling accounts of Josephus alone we see what a dangerous, bloody, riotous, restless, treacherous, fanatical land Palestine was at the time of Christ—the last place in the world to seek security for a new religious movement. And from numerous letters, journals, newspapers, and travelers' accounts, it is even easier to see what a dangerous, bloody, riotous, and restless land was the frontier in which the Lord called Joseph Smith to do his work. "Thirty-nine times he was arrested," wrote John Henry Evans; "six months he spent in filthy Missouri jails; on several occasions he was mobbed, and once he was tarred and feathered and left for dead; three times he and his people were driven from their homes and from the state in which they lived; and in the end he was murdered while awaiting trial on a false charge."2 Why were the prophets, ancient and modern, called to work in such hopelessly hostile environments as frontier America and frontier Palestine? Because only in those two lands could a prophet ask, what evil have I done? what law have I broken? with the perfect assurance of being clear of all offense to God and man.
When the Jews accused Jesus of treason and sedition, they labored mightily to make their case stick with the Romans, for it was only under Roman law that Jesus could be judged guilty of those crimes—under Jewish law there was no such crime. To come forward as a prophet or even as the Messiah was no crime; to proclaim the kingdom of God and even to be chosen king by the people was accepted procedure in Israel; if any of those crimes could have been charged against Jesus, then the Maccabees would have been the worst of offenders.3 But under Roman or Greek or Persian law the Lord could have been charged with lèse-majesté and treason. It might be argued convincingly that Joseph Smith could have set up the Church in any country of the civilized world with only a fraction of the danger and persecution experienced in this land of the free. But to be free of any offense against the law is more important than to be free from persecution. Neither the ancient nor the modern saints were immune to attacks of the devil, but both had the satisfaction of knowing that under the free institutions of their forefathers, their testimony could never be a crime. The fault was all with their accusers.
"Partakers of Christ's sufferings . . ." (1 Peter 4:13.) The Lord told his Apostles that they would suffer death even as he. In their case, too, we find the usual cast of characters: the pathological mobs, the timid and dishonest government officials, the mob-inciting clergy, the corrupt and partial judges, the false witnesses, the wild gossip and planted rumors, the mass hysteria, the traitors within the church. Whatever the method of execution, the same individuals and interest groups are responsible, animated by the same motives. Consider for a moment the remarkable degree to which the Prophet's martyrdom resembled theirs.
He had had the vision of the Father and the Son, and from that day to the end he knew that as long as he persisted in the course of action to which he was called, every effort would be made to destroy him. He did not seek martyrdom any more than the ancient prophets did. The Lord advised his disciples to flee from place to place to carry on their work; but one way out they could not and did not take, and that was to save their lives by denying their testimony. Joseph Smith never deviated from his course, not for a moment. In the last week of his life, he prophesied his own death and along with that uttered a number of most remarkable prophecies on the future of his people and his persecutors. The immediate charge on which he was held was the same brought against Jesus: treason and inciting to riot—both decided on in secret meetings of the higher-ups.4 Politically, Governor Ford's position and powers corresponded exactly to those of Pilate, and the man's character and behavior were precisely the same. He recognized that Smith had broken no law, that the charge of treason was preposterous. He tried desperately to wash his hands of the whole business and in the end skipped out, deliberately turning the Prophet over to the ministrations of the mob, for a large, bloodthirsty, and fanatical mob made up the unfailing background to both these terrible dramas. Joseph Smith was paraded before the mobmilitia to be greeted with savage taunts and demonstrations which no one, including the vacillating and conniving governor, doubted presaged violent and deadly business. The corrupt Sanhedrin was not wanting, with all its legal hypocrisy and flimflam, the Prophet's chief judge being the leader of the very company of Carthage Grays most openly and loudly sworn to have the blood of Joseph Smith. At the heart of all the disturbance was a nucleus of conspirators, ambitious and jealous men whose machinations were urged and hastened on by the bitterest men of all—those men who had followed and betrayed the Prophet.
Since he was a child of fourteen, Joseph Smith had to deal with desperate and determined men. They never let him alone. To go through one week of what he had to go through almost every week of his adult and adolescent life would drive the average man out of his mind. The charges and the threats never ceased; whether it was shots from ambush or pompous blasts from the editors of the great metropolitan papers, the Prophet was given no rest. No charge against him was too vile to be believed; no one asked for proof. God-fearing men felt it a public duty to call for Smith's extermination from the pulpit and the press; gangs of seasoned killers and professional thugs lived for the day when they could get Joe Smith. He had no private life, this kind, cheerful, home-loving man, whose name was made a synonym for baseness and depravity. And again and again he asks: What have I done? What man convinceth me of sin?
He had done nothing. The rabid Peter Cartwright, while hailing the murder of the Prophet with glee, gives everything away when he says, "An outraged and deeply-injured people took the law into their own hands, and killed him." 5 How, "deeply-injured"? In as bitter an anti-Mormon book as was ever published, Reed Peck is quoted as saying that the Mormons were driven out of Missouri "for causes too numerous to mention, though nothing of a criminal nature could be justly urged."6 In a work of equal bitterness, one N. C. Lewis, while admitting that he could detect nothing wrong in Smith's behavior, was sure that he was nonetheless "an impostor, hypocrite and liar."7 One is reminded of Dickens' statement: "What the Mormons do seems to be excellent; what they say is mostly nonsense." But if speaking nonsense were a capital offense, who would be left alive? The most quoted single commentator on Smith's early life Pomeroy Tucker straining every effort to pin some crime on his subject, must admit in the case of the only crime of which he can report, that it rests on hearsay of certain suspicions—forty years after, "though it is but common fairness to accompany this fact [the "fact" being the suspicion] . . . that it is not within remembrance of the writer . . . if the popular inferences in this matter were ever sustained by judicial investigation."8 One cannot help recalling the famous passage in Tacitus (Annals XV, 44), where he tells us that though there was no evidence that the Christians ever set fire to Rome, still they deserved to be punished for it in view of their general reputation and the utter depravity of their religion—an exitiabilis superstitio.
There is another side to this. Did Joseph Smith want fame, money, success, power? His biographers from the beginning to the present day make greed and ambition his ruling passions. Take a couple of examples. Here is one from the American Whig Review for June 1851. It tells us of Joseph Smith that "great powers of reasoning were his natural gift and . . . a deep vein of humor that ran through all he said and did," he had "a retentive memory; a correct knowledge of human nature, . . . a Herculean frame and a commanding appearance." Along with these formidable qualifications, we are told, "he was one of the most avaricious of men. . . . He had ambition that knew no scruple, and licentiousness that scorned all bounds."9 And here is another, from T. W. T. Taylder in 1857: "In person Joseph Smith was a man of commanding appearance, tall and well-proportioned. . . . The skill with which he carried out his imposture and eluded detection from the masses—his eloquence, rude but powerful—his letters, clever and sarcastic—the manifold character and boldness that scorned all bounds of his designs—his courage in enterprise—his perseverance despite great obstacles—his conception and partial execution of the temple of Nauvoo—these and other things mark him as a man of more than ordinary calibre." But, says our informant, "that he was a religious enthusiast we cannot grant. . . . One principle . . . actuated him through life, and that was—selfishness." 10 This is a strange state of things! A man of phenomenal ability for getting what he wants, combined with boundless personal ambition, who somehow never places his ability at the service of his ambition! Here was a national figure of first importance, a man who received more publicity in the press at home and abroad than any other American of his day or, through the years, of any day. Everywhere important people accord grudging admiration to his talents or express pious regret that such genius could not have been expended in a better cause. Did this man need to risk his life every day and in the end go to certain death at the hands of the floating riffraff and professional desperadoes of the frontier? The public would not only have forgiven his past but praised and rewarded him the more for relieving it of the awful responsibility of having to answer to a prophet of God. Wealth, fame, and security could have been his at any time in the East, and he knew it.
Just so, Paul was recognized by Jews and Gentiles alike as a man of supreme ability. What a career he could have made for himself in the world! The Jews wanted to make Jesus their king and could have done so quite legally. Yet Jesus was accused of being an unscrupulous opportunist and a subversive. The world accuses the prophets of being career men and opportunists, and explains their death as a slip-up, as something going wrong with their plans; and all the time the prophets know, from the moment of their calling, what their end must be if they continue true and faithful. There is nothing accidental just as there is nothing devised in a martyr's end. He assumes the obligation to be a witness, knowing full well what that dangerous duty entails. The Prophet who was put to death 110 years ago was a true martyr and a true prophet in the strictest and holiest sense of the word.
1. Tertullian, Scorpiace 10, in PL 2:167.
2. John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith: An American Prophet (New York: Macmillan, 1936), 12.
3. The case is discussed by Robert Eisler, Iesous Basileus ou Basileusas (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1930), 2:530—51.
4. Brigham H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1950), 6:605—7.
5. Peter Cartwright, Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, the Backwoods Preacher (New York: Carlton & Porter, 1857), 346.
6. L. B. Cake, Peepstone Joe and the Peck Manuscript (New York: L.B. Cake, 1899), 82.
7. John C. Bennett, History of the Saints: An Exposé (Boston: Leland & Whiting, 1842), 83.
8. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism (New York: Appleton, 1867), 15.
9. T. W. P. Taylder, "The American Mahomet," American Whig Review (June 1851), 556.
10. Taylder, The Mormon's Own Book (London: Partridge, 1857), liliii.