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42 Questions


Question 42
(Updated 9 Nov 2008)

Critic's Question:

"Time and again we are told that Joseph "sealed his testimony with his blood," went " like a lamb to the slaughter," and "died a martyr's death."  Yet the specifics of the dastardly murder of Joseph as related in the Documented [sic] History of the Church 6:xli, 618, 620; 7:102) clearly reveal that he died in a blazing gunfight--John Wayne style--and he is reported to have killed a couple of the Mobocrats in the fracas.  Lambs do not fight to the death with six-shooters.  How can the LDS Church insist that Joseph was a martyr, knowing that Joseph fought for his life, when the universally accepted definition of a martyr is one who dies willingly and without resistance?"

Response: John A. Tvedtnes and Malin Jacobs

The term “martyr” is Greek in origin and means “witness.”  The Encyclopedia Britannica states:

The original meaning of the Greek word martyr was "witness"; in this sense it is often    used in the New Testament.1

The first paragraph of the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for martyr says essentially the same thing, but provides more detrail:

The Greek word martus signifies a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation.  It is in this sense that the term first appears in Christian literature; the Apostles were "witnesses" of all that they had observed in the public life of Christ, as well as of all they had learned from His teaching, "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and even to the uttermost part of the earth" (Acts 1:8). St. Peter, in his address to the Apostles and disciples relative to the election of a successor to Judas, employs the term with this meaning:  "Wherefore, of these men who have accompanied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day he was taken up from us, one of these must be made witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1:22).  In his first public discourse the chief of the Apostles speaks of himself and his companions as "witnesses" who saw the risen Christ and subsequently, after the miraculous escape of the Apostles from prison, when brought a second time before the tribunal, Peter again alludes to the twelve as witnesses to Christ, as the Prince and Saviour of Israel, Who rose from the dead; and added that in giving their public testimony to the facts, of which they were certain, they must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29 sqq.).  In his First Epistle St. Peter also refers to himself as a "witness of the sufferings of Christ" (1   Peter 5:1).2

Both these sources go on to say that for Christians martyr quickly took on the additional meaning of one who was willing to die rather than recant his faith.  But "willing to die" does not mean "goes looking for death" or "will not resist being killed."  "Willing to die rather than recant" means that for the true Christian, recanting his faith is not an option.  There is no requirement that to be a martyr one must suffer death without resisting, though one who does is certainly a martyr.  One who dies rather than renounce his religion is a martyr whether or not he fights for his life.

One does not have to die to be a witness, but the strongest witness is one who dies for his testimony, which is what Joseph Smith did.  When one considers that the mob of about 200 were armed with rifles and that Joseph and his companions had but two pistols (one a six-shooter and the other a single shot), the term “blazing gunfight” in the question is a gross exaggeration, used to belittle Joseph Smith's martyrdom.

When the mob began bursting through the door, Hyrum cocked the single-shot pistol but fell dead before he could pull the trigger.  At this, Joseph fired down the stairway with the six-shooter, but three of the shots misfired.3  We do not know if any of his three shots wounded or killed anyone.  There are no contemporary reports of members of the mob being killed.  The story that Joseph is reported to have killed a couple of the Mobocrats in the fracas seems to have been recently invented by critics of the LDS Church, none of whom has yet presented evidence for the assertion.   One mob member was later treated for a wound, but he could have been shot by one of his fellows.  Mobocrats at the bottom of the stairs were shooting up the stairway into the door outside of which other members of the mob were trying to enter the room.

Joseph dropped the revolver and ran to the window to distract the mob.  The tactic worked. He was shot and fell outside, whereupon the mobbers abandoned the stairway to go outside the building.4  The only two reported deaths were Joseph and Hyrum Smith.  John Taylor was severely wounded while Willard Richards remained unharmed.

Joseph Smith certainly died as a martyr, and the so-called "blazing gunfight" was clearly one-sided.


1. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1968 ed., v. 14, p. 984.

2. The Catholic Encyclopedia may be found online at with the entry for martyr appearing at

3. B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century I, Vol. II, pp. 284-5 (Provo, Utah, Brigham Young University Press, 1965).

4. Ibid., p. 286.