This week’s Sunday School lesson is about the murder of Joseph Smith and his brother, Hyrum. The only scriptural text is Doctrine and Covenants Section 135, which I think has been much more important in the cultural and institutional development of Mormonism than your average, run-of-the-mill section.
This section was written (probably by John Taylor) as a kind of eulogy for Joseph and Hyrum shortly after their June 27, 1844, murders in the Carthage jail. The statement first appears in the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, published shortly after the murders, and was presumably inserted in that volume by its editor, Taylor. That it was composed for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants is evident from the first sentence of the text:
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.
The “this book” clause would have made little sense if this text had been written for some other purpose.
This makes Section 135’s status as scripture very strange. The text does not present itself as revelation, after all. Instead, in terms of genre, it seems to be a blend of journalistic death narrative and eulogy. The text provides a few details of Joseph and Hyrum’s murders, as well as idealized recollections of their lives. It does not contain claims to speak with doctrinal authority.
Nor was the text immediately canonized upon publication. When the 1844 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published, according to Woodford’s dissertation on the development of the book, “no action was taken in conference to accept the new edition as scripture” (1974: 56 — this point also applies to sections 103, 105, 112, 119, 124, 127, and 128). So, while the section was part of the Doctrine and Covenants starting in 1844, it was evidently not canonized per se until some years later.
I think it makes most sense to read this as a very moving personal tribute, rather than as a doctrinal statement. After all, as far as doctrinal content goes, this section provides relatively little, and of arguably dubious quality, too. Probably the most frequently used part of this section in Mormon life is the first sentence of verse 3:
Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.
Is this really true, though? The section credits Joseph Smith with the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, missionary work, gathering the Saints, and building Nauvoo. A contemporary Mormon might want to add priesthood restoration and the temple ordinances to the list, but evidently Taylor saw these as second-tier moments in Smith’s career.
I agree that Joseph Smith did a lot. Other people, such as Brigham Young or Wilford Woodruff, have done more missionary work, gathered more Saints, and built larger and longer lasting LDS cities. But none of these contemporary Mormon leaders have produced texts or restored ordinances with anything like the lasting influence of Smith’s life work.
Still, Taylor’s assertion — wonderful though it is as a tribute to a fallen friend — nonetheless seems a bit too sweeping to me. Let’s just think about one other person here: Paul. It seems to be the case that Paul was a key person in accomplishing the spread of Christianity beyond Palestine, the opening of Christian worship and membership to non-Jews, and the systematization of Christian belief and doctrine. The fruits of Paul’s religious efforts arguably include most contemporary Christian believers. Paul’s writings have also been hugely influential among Christians of all sorts, Mormons most certainly included. Indeed, Paul’s letters are regularly used as points of reflection in Joseph Smith’s religious writings, canonized and otherwise.
I’m not claiming that Paul has certainly done more for the salvation of humanity than Joseph Smith, but rather that it’s at least plausible that he has. In fact, I think there’s rather a long list of people who have plausibly done more. Smith himself might well have emphasized one possible candidate who plays a major role in his religious worldview: Adam, of gardens, falling, and letting humanity exist fame.
The section closes, after its deeply felt and impressive personal tributes, with a ringing statement of the religious significance of Joseph and Hyrum’s deaths (various attacks on Illinois and the USA are suppressed in this quotation, to focus attention on what Taylor saw as the probable positive effects of the murders):
…their innocent blood… is a broad seal affixed to “Mormonism” that cannot be rejected by any court on earth, and their innocent blood… is a witness to the truth of the everlasting gospel that all the world cannot impeach; and their innocent blood… is an ambassador for the religion of Jesus Christ, that will touch the hearts of honest men among all nations; and their innocent blood, with the innocent blood of all the martyrs under the altar that John saw, will cry unto the Lord of Hosts till he avenges that blood on the earth.
By the same token, I guess, Gandhi’s innocent blood is a broad seal affixed to Hinduism; Socrates’s innocent blood is a witness to the truth of the world of forms; William Tyndale’s innocent blood is an ambassador for Lutheranism or heresy or something; and Martin Luther King’s innocent blood will cry for justice for the poor until the Lord overturns their oppression? By which, of course, I mean that the fact of martyrdom seems historically to be rather dubious evidence for the truth value of a person’s beliefs. (Although the last bit about Martin Luther King is something that I personally do find probable.)
We don’t practice Mormonism because Joseph Smith died, do we? The case seems to me to be quite the opposite: Joseph Smith’s death matters to us because we practice Mormonism. If Joseph had died of a heart attack or a riding accident, it seems to me that Mormon faith would have much the same appeal (or lack thereof) to most contemporary people as it does given Smith’s martyrdom.
It all puts us in an odd spot. Given the fact of Joseph and Hyrum’s martyrdom, it would seem churlish and disloyal of us not to celebrate and commemorate them. Yet in the end, I doubt that their martyrdoms are qualitatively different, in character or effect, from any other deaths in the service of the truth. Perhaps we should consider broadening our martyrdom horizons a little bit? Let’s not forget the courage and sacrifice of the Smith brothers; but might it not possibly deepen our appreciation of those sacrifices to celebrate them in parallel with some of the many others of their kind?