This past week in Sunday School there was a discussion of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom and Doctrine and Covenants 135. My Sunday School teacher, whom I love and believe to have been sincerely sharing her thoughts on the martyrdom, went a little crazy. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but the line “Joseph Smith died for us” was uttered.
Now, I understand that different people get their testimony of the Gospel from different sources and in different ways. I myself have always been a Book of Mormon first guy; it’s how I got my testimony and it is how I maintain it. My testimony of Joseph Smith comes from his translation work on the Book of Mormon, not so much his other stuff (which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate it, don’t worship using it, or disbelieve it, just that my testimony came from the Book of Mormon and that it where it mostly resides). I don’t feel that my testimony is superior to anyone’s and I’m happy to have people get to the Gospel from all angles. So please read what follows as an inquiry, not a rant.
I don’t get our need for martyrs in the Catholic/Orthodox-saint sense. I admit that Christ’s blood needed to be shed in order for the Atonement to take place, but aside from that I don’t see the appeal. The message of Abraham and Isaac is, very explicitly, that God doesn’t require our blood. I doubt that the early Christians would have had that different an experience if Peter and James had died natural deaths. The Church would not be any less true for me (I think) if Joseph had lived until he was eighty. While it is nice to assume that Joseph’s death was all part of God’s plan, set up from the beginning, what do we lose if we see it as another 119 pages lost, evidence of Satan’s short-sighted plans rather than God’s need for spilt blood.
I tend to think that when John Taylor wrote that Joseph had “sealed his mission and his works with his own blood,” he didn’t view it as a necessary thing. It is a statement that Joseph was faithful to the end; that’s all. I’m no historian; was the immediate period prior to his incarceration the only time Joseph feared for his own life and spoke portentiously about it? Couldn’t a lamb going to the slaughter refer to another stint in a fetid prison, instead of a foretold death?
In any case, since we know that Joseph wasn’t particularly inclined to face the justice of Carthage and that his decision to go was some mixture of love of his people and a desire to save face, I wonder at my Sunday School teachers conviction. That Joseph reluctantly crossed back over the river to submit to arrest does not indicate to me a great desire to shed his own blood for the cause (nor, I suppose, does the fact that he shot back at his attackers while in Carthage Jail). I had a mission companion once who had a goal of getting arrested by Russian police for teaching the Gospel. It happened while he was my companion. Goal achieved, but he had to behave rather obnoxiously to do it (ignoring mission guidelines, I might add). There may be salvific power in suffering, but I’m skeptical it comes to those who seek it out.
The Catholics and Orthodox celebrate their saints for their stalwart devotion to God in the face of torture. The deaths of the saints are gruesome and often miraculous. I was recently reminded of the martyrdom of St. Christina, who was drowned and ripped apart. Those who venerate saints take God’s choice to put her back together again as a sign of divine love, but reviving someone just so that they can undergo another tortuous death doesn’t strike me as love. However, we are also frequently assured that saints felt no pain, so what do I know?
If we accept that Joseph Smith did more save Christ only for the salvation of men, then it seems to me that we need to be realistic regarding his death. I don’t know the value of seeing it as foreordained but I think that if we take Joseph and Jesus as exemplars then we should respect their real attitudes as they approached death. Christ asked that the cup be taken from him. Joseph made plans to flee to Iowa. Christ cried from the cross, “My God, My God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” Joseph looked at his friends and said, “If my life is of no value to my friends it is of none to myself.” There is despair and fear in these words and moments. We should respect that, rather than glossing it over.
So, if I am wrong to object to direct comparisons between Joseph and Jesus, it isn’t because I don’t value what they have done. It’s to some degree because I find Christ incomparable. But, more than that, it is because I worry that we can, in becoming overly fascinated with the interesting deaths of our loyal dead, we may seek out troubles and flaws that God wouldn’t want to see in us. We are, after all, often as short-sighted as the Devil.