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.