Relief Society Lesson #46 The Martyrdom: The Prophet Seals His Testimony With His Blood

by guest lesson writer Aimee

In thinking about the death of Joseph Smith, the lesson seems to be trying to make three main points:

1) The circumstances surrounding Joseph Smith and the position of the saints in Nauvoo had come to a head and Joseph had a keen awareness of his mortality and the end of his earthly ministry  in the months leading up to his murder.
2) Joseph prepared for his own death by making a point of passing on important revelations as well as essential priesthood keys and powers he held to his appointed leaders, should they need to proceed without him.
3) The tradition of the church has been to understand the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum in classic martyrological terms, thus adding a Mormon dimension to the notion of “sealing one’s testimony with one’s blood.”

The lesson seems to leave room for questions about God’s hand in Joseph’s death, what doctrines and essential Mormon keys Joseph was emphasizing at the end of his life and how we think about the manner of Joseph’s death in relation to his earthly mission.

God Protected Joseph Smith Until His Earthly Mission Was Complete

The martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum has been a compelling and galvanizing moment in the history of the church almost before it even took place.  For years before his actual murder, Joseph and his closest associates were justified in fearing for their lives at the hand of any angry mob or an outraged individual.  This necessary paranoia allowed the saints and Joseph himself to think of their mission in the terms of religious martyrdom even before the actual murders took place.  Having been chased from one state to another by fearful and angry citizens most of his adult life, Joseph’s sense that his death would be a violent one is as commonsensical as it is prophetic.

These quotations from the lesson manual do a good job of illustrating how Joseph was keenly considering his dangerous position in relation to the hostile environment he was inhabiting (both from within and without the church):
In June 1844, the Prophet said: “I do not regard my own life. I am ready to be offered a sacrifice for this people; for what can our enemies do? Only kill the body, and their power is then at an end. Stand firm, my friends; never flinch. Do not seek to save your lives, for he that is afraid to die for the truth, will lose eternal life. Hold out to the end, and we shall be resurrected and become like Gods, and reign in celestial kingdoms, principalities, and eternal dominions.”7
Early on June 27, 1844, in Carthage Jail, Joseph Smith wrote in a hasty letter to Emma Smith: “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done. Give my love to the children and all my friends … ; and as for treason, I know that I have not committed any, and they cannot prove one appearance of anything of the kind, so you need not have any fears that any harm can happen to us on that score. May God bless you all. Amen.”8
It’s worth noting that the letter Joseph wrote to Emma on June 27th, the morning of his martyrdom, was not the last letter he wrote.  That afternoon he wrote another letter to a lawyer that he hoped would be a part of his defense team.  This seems to suggest that even though Joseph felt the danger of his position and the potential imminence of his death, he was not, as we often imagine, simply listening to hymns or writing what he thought were his final words in preparation for a death he had long foreseen.

The lesson manual suggests (as does Joseph himself) that God had a hand in preserving him “until his earthly mission was complete.”

Q. How do people feel about this concept?

Q. What are we to make of the many possible directions Joseph had foreseen his own life going (i.e. there were many times Joseph felt his death was imminent before June 1844.  Also D&C 130 when Joseph receives the revelation that “if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man.”)?

Q.  Why in trying to understand and write our own religious history do we fall back on fatalistic terminology to explain why things happen?  This seems especially counterintuitive in Mormon theological thinking when you consider the emphasis we place on free intelligences and individual agency.

Q.  How does this kind of thinking influence the way we narrate out own lives?
Before his death, Joseph Smith conferred upon the Twelve Apostles every priesthood key and power that the Lord had sealed upon him.

The last six months of Joseph Smith’s life were an especially intense whirl of activity.  In addition to being nominated for President of the United States, he was overseeing two major construction projects (the Temple and the Nauvoo house), organizing new quorums, dealing with increasing hostility from anti-Mormons surrounding Nauvoo, attending to his pregnant wife Emma, preaching sermons, dealing with legal matters, and receiving an influx of new immigrant converts on a weekly basis, to name a few.  In the midst of all this activity, Joseph was also the recipient of profound revelations that were at the heart of his final sermons and are at the core of some of Mormonism’s most thrilling and heterodox beliefs.

Joseph preached the King Follett Sermon in April 1844, the source of the cherished Mormon belief that the “God that sits enthroned is a man like one of yourselves.”  This doctrine of the human history of God, the belief that humans are “gods in embryo,” that the intelligence of all human beings is “eternal” and cannot be created, was a radical break from traditional Christianity and a serious source of schism among the already disaffected of the Mormon community. Yet it is the source of Latter-day Saint understanding of the nature of God and the potential of our own divine destiny.

Q. Why do you think this revelation came near the end of Joseph’s life? Can you imagine the Church without it?

At the same time the Prophet Joseph was taking pains to assure his people, particularly members of the Quorum of the Twelve, that the keys of the Kingdom of God were permanently on the earth.  The following quotes from the manual do a good job of illustrating how Joseph took pains to impart the keys and understanding he had been given to the twelve apostles so they could carry on the work:

Wilford Woodruff said about Joseph Smith’s meeting with the Apostles in March 1844: “I remember the last speech that [Joseph Smith] ever gave us before his death. … He stood upon his feet some three hours. The room was filled as with consuming fire, his face was as clear as amber, and he was clothed upon by the power of God. He laid before us our duty. He laid before us the fullness of this great work of God; and in his remarks to us he said: ‘I have had sealed upon my head every key, every power, every principle of life and salvation that God has ever given to any man who ever lived upon the face of the earth. And these principles and this Priesthood and power belong to this great and last dispensation which the God of Heaven has set His hand to establish in the earth. Now,’ said he, addressing the Twelve, ‘I have sealed upon your heads every key, every power, and every principle which the Lord has sealed upon my head.’

Brigham Young, the second President of the Church, taught: “Joseph conferred upon our heads all the keys and powers belonging to the Apostleship which he himself held before he was taken away, and no man or set of men can get between Joseph and the Twelve in this world or in the world to come. How often has Joseph said to the Twelve, ‘I have laid the foundation and you must build thereon, for upon your shoulders the kingdom rests.’ ”

Q.  Why do you think the apostles felt it was important to testify of these experiences?

Joseph seemed to understand that in order for the church to go forward, he had to ensure that the keys and principles and powers and priesthood were understood on their own terms.  At the end of his life, Joseph seemed to grasp that for a religious movement to survive its charismatic leader, it was essential to make sure that the keys and powers and message were clear and that his apostles had the knowledge and confidence to use them and move the work forward.

The Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum lived great and died great for their testimonies of the gospel.

As recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 135:1–6, John Taylor, while serving as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, wrote: “To seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch. They were shot in Carthage jail, on the 27th of June, 1844, about five o’clock p.m., by an armed mob—painted black—of from 150 to 200 persons. Hyrum was shot first and fell calmly, exclaiming: I am a dead man! Joseph leaped from the window, and was shot dead in the attempt, exclaiming: O Lord my God! They were both shot after they were dead, in a brutal manner, and both received four balls.”

Q.  What influence do you think the manner of Joseph and Hyrum’s death has had on the church?

Joseph Smith fulfilled his earthly mission and sealed his testimony with his blood.

George Albert Smith, the eighth President of the Church, declared: “Joseph Smith performed his mission; and when the time came that he was face to face with death, he said, ‘I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but I am calm as a summer morning. I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. If they take my life, I shall die an innocent man, and my blood shall cry from the ground for vengeance, and it shall yet be said of me, “He was murdered in cold blood.” ‘ [See D&C 135:4.] He was not afraid to stand before the pleasing bar of our Father in heaven and answer for the deeds done in the body. He was not afraid to meet the charge that had been made against him, that he was deceiving the people and dealing unjustly with them. He was not afraid of the result of his life’s mission, and of the final triumph of the work which he knew was of divine origin, and for which he gave his life.”19
Q.  Why is the notion of “sealing one’s testimony with one’s blood” so powerful?

Q.  Would a long hard life fighting for the rights of the saints to worship freely be as powerful in our religious teachings as this tragic violent death?

Q.  How does having a martyr galvanize a religious movement?
The extraordinary circumstances of the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith have profoundly impacted our narrative of sacred history.  It is my prayer that by thoughtfully studying our own religious history and theology, we may do justice to the memory of the real Joseph Smith and the teachings that were meant to bring us closer to our Heavenly Parents.


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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17 Responses

  1. Kelly Ann says:

    Aimee, thank you for all the wonderful questions and a thoughtful lesson. It makes me think about a lot.

  2. Becky says:

    Thank you for these extra thoughts. I’ve struggled a bit in preparing for this lesson (as evidenced by the fact that it’s Saturday evening and I’m still not prepared!) and I’m grateful for the added brain power!

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Aimee, you did a great job of finding great discussion questions in a lesson that had me more than a little stumped! I’m particularly interested in hearing answers to the fatalistic terminology question. It doesn’t seem to jive with our ideas about free agency.

  4. Becky says:

    Have you looked at lesson 37? Do you have any insights? It is good to hear another viewpoint.

  5. Becky says:

    Sorry I meant lesson 47. I could use another insight on how to teach this one. Tjanks.

  6. Jeralyn Favero says:

    I love the incite you give. I need all the help I can get. Thanks

  7. Aimee, Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    Unfortunately, there are several things in the lesson that should give us pause. The big one is the idea that JS went like a lamb to the slaughter. He may have said that when he turned himself in, but while in the jail he was given a pistol by Cyrus H Wheelock. JS used the pistol and wounded three of the men in the mob. It is my understanding that these wounds were used as part of the evidence placing the men at the jail that day, and helped get them convicted of murder. The men fled before they were imprisoned.

    I think the historical details ask us to think a bit differently about JS. Its not so much that he was a passive martyr going knowingly to his death, he also resisted, and went out fighting. He was both lamb and lion and other things as well.

  8. Will you be able to post Lesson #47 soon?
    Thank you!

  9. EmilyCC says:

    Hi Jimmilynn, it’s in the works now. Sorry for the delay!

  10. Kelly Ann says:

    Douglass, Thanks for your comment. Joseph Smith really is a complicated person. I think he was rightfully imprisoned and he was both lamb and lion as well. Some days I think he was killed so he wouldn’t do any more damage to the church but that is an incredibly dangerous thought. I really don’t like to think that he had a gun but know that he did. I wish we would talk about these elements more.

  11. Aimee says:

    Thanks so much for your comments, Doug. One of the points I should have made more explicit is that Joseph lived a risky life which in many ways makes the manner of his death unsurprising (this wasn’t the first or even second time he almost died at the hands of an angry mob, after all). I am unfamiliar with the story of the gun (though it seems plausible to me) and was trying to make a similar point by inserting the detail of Joseph’s final (and rather mundane) letter being written to a lawer. Such a detail would seem to suggest that Joseph was still trying to fight the powers that bound him because he still saw a way out. For years, decades even, Joseph had been predicting a violent demise (and with good reason, considering how many people were often after him), but many historical facts should lead us to wonder if he expressed the sense of inevitability and divine design leading up to his *actual* death to the degree that has often been assigned to him after the fact.

    One of the other points I was trying to make is to question how much involvement God has in these matters at all. The JS Manual wants to emphasize that Joseph’s death was by some sort of divinely appointed design in order to make a purely martyristic argument. On the other hand, a person disenchanted with JS often makes the same argument in order to say that God cut him down before he could do any more damage to the church in light of polygamy, his political campaign, etc. I am personally inclined to leave God out of it all together as it is more than obvious to me that Joseph’s own actions inflamed a community that was already brimming with fear and hatred of him and his people. That is more than enough explanation for me for WHY Joseph Smith was killed. I should have done a better job of incorporating more of the immediate historical facts surrounding the situation to make that point on its own but I really appreciate that it’s been brought up here so that others can give it some good thought.

  12. “The JS Manual wants to emphasize that Joseph’s death was by some sort of divinely appointed design in order to make a purely martyristic argument. ”

    For sure this is the case. But I find the historical revisionism really disturbing, primarily for what happened when the lesson was presented in my EQ. At several times the brother presenting the lesson became very emotional and tearfully bore his testimony of JS and of how he went like a Lamb and what an amazing example of a christlike person Joseph was, etc. It was an extremely uncomfortable lesson for me because I saw how this brother’s testimony was based on a fictional Joseph Smith. So what happens if this brother is ever exposed to a historically more complete view of Joseph? Will his testimony be shaken? Will he lose his faith? Will he become spiritually more mature and realize that Joseph was not a saint or a very good exemplar of the teachings embodied in the person of Christ? I don’t know the answer of course, but it was 30 minutes of extreme spiritual and cognitive dissonance for me. and I agree that we should leave God very much out of it. Or include God in a narrative where God finds a way to work with and a through a person with huge faults, and flaws, who was inconsistent, and often times an example of what not to do. I think its far more edifying to create a narrative in which God continues to be invested in and to work with us in the presence of our flaws, and our rebelliousness, and our inability to understand or act upon his will, and our fighting and our ideology. I think that is a more profound message. and its a message that forces us to keep trying and to stay engaged, etc.

    Of course the past two years of lesson make clear that the institutional church is deeply invested in a narrowly constructed and strictly heroic narrative regarding Joseph, historical details? Bah, who needs ’em!

  13. Aimee says:

    Doug, I agree with you 100%!!

    The manual makes teaching a historically honest lesson nearly impossible because it is more interested in presenting a particular set of stories meant to evoke specific feelings in the class than in letting people be truly edified by working out the complexity of these historical dramas for themselves. That’s been the problem in all of these manuals on the prophets–they are so heavy handed in trying to evoke/force particular feelings that they end up supressing the context, complexity and dynamism of the prophet they are teaching about. Unless you have exposure to resources outside of the church manuals, your understanding of all these men and events would be two-dimensional and saccharine at best. Basically, I “hear, hear” all you’ve said! Thanks for bringing your thoughts to bear in this discussion.

  14. Thomas says:

    Doug, Amiee,
    I appreciate your comments however I whole heartedly disagree on several levels. 1st how can we possibly leave God out of it. How can we leave God out of anything? Yes we have our agency but God also has a plan. “The purposes of God shall go forth boldly nobly, and independant…” This means regardless of what we do his purpose will be accomplished. We can choose to help or not but either way it will get done. So Yes we must include God in this conversation. Did Joseph know the exact day, and means of his death? Did God bring about their deaths, of coarse not. However God can see the end from the beginning and can guide us in the right path, so long as we are listening. Joseph did know the time was at hand. He was told that he would live long enough to complete his work. He then was told to speed up the process of relaying the keys. Once he had his work completed he knew that his time was short.
    2nd I do have a good knoweledge of the historical accounts and those accounts only increase my testimony of the power of Joseph Smith the prophet. Was he flawed? YES, however it’s easy for us to sit in our airconditioned/heated homes and communicate VIA internet to point out these shortcomings. Hindsight is always 20/20. We really can’t point our finger at any of the mistakes he made until we are in his shoes at a prophet holding the responsibilty for hundreds of saints. Josephs perspective was far different than your or mine. His perspective was eternal, while ours occationally sees glimpses of that relm.
    3rd the churches portrayal of Joseph is definately designed to evoke certain emotions, like faith and charity… These are parables. Christ taught about gardening however there was so much more to be taken from that. The church is preparing lessons for our brothers and sisters of all different testimonies and backgrounds. Therefore the lessons can’t be as direct and specific. In fact I’m glad they aren’t it gives me the opportunity to continue to learn and grow as I contemplate the lessons and study each week it allows me to rely on Heavenly Father and the Spirit to guide my learning.
    I appreciate the comments and the questions, I just wanted to add my voice to the conversation and talk about the Joseph Smith I love and know.

  15. Thomas, thanks for the comment. Maybe there was some ambiguity in what I wrote. Your response to the idea that we should leave God out of it was very broad. I, and I think Aimee as well, was referring to the narrow context of specific events. In other words I don’t think its helpful to create a narrative of a strict divine teleology around the events near the end of Joseph’s life. The agreed upon historical information suggests something less direct and more human was going on. So the idea is not to abandon God or push him aside in the broad way you described, rather, I was suggesting that ascribing such specific motives to divinity around such specific events, seems to run counter to our understanding of said events.

    Second, I was in no way doing any finger pointing. Either my post was poorly written or you were reading something that was not there. Its not about judging JS, or hindsight. What’s at issue is the tension between the complexity of a historical Joseph Smith and the sanitized, always heroic, Joseph Smith that the manual presents. You seem to suggest that history must be muted to protect different groups within the church. I can in no way agree with such thinking. If we value truth then we should speak, and write, and discuss what we know in ways that are both spiritually and intellectually honest.

    You write “I do have a good knoweledge of the historical accounts and those accounts only increase my testimony of the power of Joseph Smith the prophet. ”

    I think Aimee and I were both expressing similar ideas.

  16. Lily says:

    Thanks Aimee, this website has helped me tremendously with my lessons. As far as the latest post, I would like to just comment that I sometimes feel like we idolize Joseph Smith. I do know he was a true prophet, which I believe we all do, but he was just as human as the rest of us. I don’t see a need to hide his faults or try to turn him into a Saint, which I have heard plenty of people doing. He was a great prophet, but he was only an instrument in God’s hands. I don’t want to add fuel to the fire, just stating my point of view.

  17. eljay says:

    I have read the comments with interest. I think that perhaps we need to focus on the purpose of this course of study. Is it to study the gospel teachings of Joseph Smith, or to examine him as a person? Both? I disagree that the lesson manual somehow whitewashes the realities of a complex and non-perfect prophet. I just don’t think that examining the faults of a prophet are the focus of the manual. The Church has published an unprecedented amount of information, in some detail and with great availability and frankness during the past several years. NO prophet was perfect. NO prophet is perfect today. Do we study their faults? Is there a purpose to studying and focusing on the faults of another person? I think that the purpose of these lessons is to learn from the good that the prophets did, what their strengths were, the doctrine that they taught, and the good examples that they gave us.

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