“If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”
(Obi-Wan to Darth Vader in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)
If there is anything critics of the Church hate, it’s that it is common in Mormon tradition to refer to Joseph Smith as a martyr. The word “martyr” derives from Greek, and its most basic meaning is “witness.” (When you see a y being used as a vowel in an English word, it’s a good bet that that word comes from Greek, and that the y is a representation of the Greek letter upsilon.) According to Webster’s, a martyr is one who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce his religion; one who sacrifices his life or something of great value for the sake of principle. To martyr (as a verb) is to put to death for adhering to a belief, faith or profession.
The counterargument, that Joseph was not a martyr, usually focuses on the adverb “willingly,” since Joseph tried vigorously to defend himself. You can always tell when that counterargument is going to be proffered when a person describes what happened that day at the Carthage Jail as a “gun battle,” evoking an image of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Yes, Joseph had a pepperbox and discharged it blindly through the crack in the bedroom door, apprently wounding three men (three of the six chambers misfired). But calling this a gunfight is ridiculous. A balky pepperbox up against 200 military issue muskets is not a gunfight, it’s a massacre. And Joseph was not only trying to protect himself in that room, but he was trying to protect others, as the mob first killed Hyrum and almost succeeded in killing John Taylor.
People can nitpick about the willingness component of this. For me, the fact that he had made an escape over the river, but then came back knowing full well the fate that awaited him, satisfies that requirement. One did not have to be a Prophet with a capital P to know they were going to their death in Carthage. If you don’t think he died as a martyr, fine. I think the word fits, and I accept the Phelps line “he died as a martyr.” But whenever this argument comes up, I can’t help but think that if the mob didn’t want Joseph to be considered a martyr, I don’t know, maybe they shouldn’t have murdered him in cold blood! But the mob wasn’t thinking that far ahead; there was no strategic thought about their actions at all. Joseph was a boil on their neck, and they were going to lance it, and remove the immediate problem. No one thought about the ramifications of their actions for the future.
On The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Amy like to play a game called Counter-Factuals. You change one fact about the known world and speculate how that would change history. So, query: what if the mob had never killed Joseph Smith; what if he had lived to old age? I think one can make the case that the mob helped to secure Joseph’s place as a Prophet. He died and cemented in the people’s memory the young, handsome, vigorous leader who would become a permanent fixture in their affections. Tens of thousands of people go on pilgrimages to visit the site of his death every year. But what if the mob had thought better of their plan and had let him live? The collective memory of Joseph might have turned out different, and perhaps not in a good way. He was mired in the extensive practice of polygamy, which was known of and practiced by a small inner circle of leaders; in life, how would he have negotiated extending that practice to the thousands of ordinary Mormons in Nauvoo? I wonder how things might have been different had he lived into old age. It might not all have been pretty.
If you’re going to martyr someone, you might want to take a step back and stop to think about the possible long term effects of what you’re doing. You might want to think about your actions strategically instead of merely as a knee jerk reaction to present exigencies. What effects will your actions have over the long haul? Will you inadvertently be creating a rallying point, a full well of sympathy, a willingness in others to overlook problems they may have seen clearly without such a martyrdom? If the long-term effects of your actions end up being deleterious to your position and interests, you will have no one but yourself to blame for creating such a martyr in the first place.