Martyr

“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.

Comments

  1. The central question over Joseph’s martyrdom is not in that he tried to defend himself, but why he found himself in the Carthage jail in the first place. He had sown the seeds of his own destruction when he introduced polygamy and made enemies within the church and turned a small town against itself. What if he had not pursued Jane Law, wife of William Law? What if Joseph had not destroyed the printing press of the Nauvoo Expositor? There was never any peace in Zion. If Joseph had lived, the church would have continued to experience dissension within the ranks and eventually splinter off into several different movements, and end up going the way of the Campbellites, Millerites and Shakers.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    This post is only nominally about Joseph Smith. Matthew 11:15.

  3. I cannot help but think of this in terms of the disciplinary councils that are the talk of the Bloggernacle right now (whether intended in your article or not). The key is Christlike charity and focus on the individual, rather than the consequences to the larger movement. Sometimes discipline is appropriate, even if it is not strategic, because the subjects of the discipline are worthwhile and loved in God’s eyes. Would all of the September 6 have been lost if not for the discipline that took place? I believe there is evidence that they would have all been lost, but discipline brought some of them back. Even if it was a trauma for the Church, and even if it was not strategic, it was the right thing to do for those individuals.

    I don’t know, in the current cases, whether it discipline right or not (it is not my stewardship, thankfully), but I hope that the decisions made — whether to discipline or not to discipline — are made for the benefit of the individual and not for a strategic consideration. I trust that they will be.

  4. “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.”

    Love this — thanks Kevin! I certainly believe that “martyr” fits, though I usually refer to the martyrdom as an assassination these days because the former seems too saccharine for use in everyday context. But as a part of my testimony, absolutely, he was a martyr.

  5. We all know this post is just a thinly-veiled reference to the World Cup.

  6. manpace says:

    I think the decision to turn himself in was when he decided to be a martyr. Maybe in the terrible hour he didn’t meet death with equanimity; I won’t condemn anyone for that, or say that he wasn’t trying to do the right thing.

    Perhaps only one person was a truly perfect martyr.

  7. manpace says:

    “This post is only nominally about Joseph Smith. Matthew 11:15.”

    Yeah, you were so subtle. Here’s me being subtle:

  8. I feel it begs the question that Joseph would have extended the practice of polygamy on a church wide scale. I, personally, don’t see it happening. I don’t believe it was ever intended to get to the point it did. More and more people sealed to Joseph? Perhaps. More and more individual practices of polygamy? Nah.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    Syphax nails it.

  10. Wahoo Fleer says:

    Clever.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    manpace, I was going for subtlety, but the first comment sort of forced my hand.

  12. If the mob would have finished the job 12 years earlier, it seems like that would have been the least risky in achieving their ultimate ends

  13. “We all know this post is just a thinly-veiled reference to the World Cup.”

    Wait, did Brazil take a loss so Croatia could have it’s long deserved chance?

  14. “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.”
    There is an alternate reading, which is that you have thought about the possible long term effects and choose them.
    Not that I find either alternative comforting.

  15. The undercurrent here is rather disappointingly realpolitic.

    That is, you leave someone unmolested not because it’s the right thing to do, but because of some actuarial cost-benefit exercise. Yikes.

    It also introduces a “too big to expel” class of Latter-day Saint; people that have to be kept in the church despite any particular outrages, lest the church come to grief.

  16. So it’s now an outrage in Mormonism for people to petition Church leaders to ask God for guidance on a particular policy?

  17. Martin James says:

    Where is Quasimodo when you need him?

    Sanctuary! Sanctuary!

  18. Martin James says:

    It is comforting to know that the witch hunts are all done at the local level. No coordination from above, that just wouldn’t be fair.

  19. “So it’s now an outrage in Mormonism for people to petition Church leaders to ask God for guidance on a particular policy?”

    I didn’t apply my statement to any particular individual or situation, please don’t do it for me.

    Remember, we’re being subtle in this discussion.

  20. Kevin Barney says:

    manpace, yes, there is the right thing to do, but if the PTB don’t see it that way, then an appeal to realpolitick might encourage a beneficial result.

  21. I am extremely wary of any “wrong and beneficial” alternatives, whatever they may be in this particular instance.

  22. Steve Smith says:

    We can try to parse out exactly what ‘martyr’ is supposed to mean. But the fact of the matter is that Joseph Smith was indeed the victim of an unruly mob, and didn’t deserve to die, no matter his alleged crimes and bad reputation.

  23. Wasn’t Sonia Johnson a ‘martyr’? How did that turn out?

    Regardless of the disciplinary outcome, I don’t think there’ll be any negative long-term consequences to the church.

  24. “Regardless of the disciplinary outcome, I don’t think there’ll be any negative long-term consequences to the church.”

    I think it was Nibley who first observed that losing their insider status diminished the stature of church critics.

    One time an anti-LDS friend warmly recommended JD’s podcasts for learning more about how the LDS church really operates, with the comforting inducement that he is an “active member”.

  25. Last Lemming says:

    Somehow, I doubt that if Joseph Smith had been able to summon a sympathetic national press to witness his martyrdom and the events leading up to it, that we would be viewing it 170 years later in quite the same light that this post does. And speaking of the press, access thereto would have done Joseph no good in the aftermath of his martyrdom, what with his being dead and unable to offer any spin. So there are some other subtleties to think through as well.

  26. Ron Madson says:

    So today begins a new era of increasing subtlety and satire. Internet Poe’s law may soon be illustrated in full glory in that those that can not read the times or see the future probably also lack the gift to discern subtlety or satire.

  27. “So it’s now an outrage in Mormonism for people to petition Church leaders to ask God for guidance on a particular policy?”

    That’s not what’s happening with OW, if you’re paying attention. That may not change your thinking, and it shouldn’t change your sorrow. But it’s not an accurate assessment.

  28. I think what we really need is another debate on whether OW is a protest, a humble petition, or an insurrection against the church. The Bloggernacle hasn’t had enough of those.

  29. When Kate Kelly appeared to “double down” on OW’s objectives after April’s GC and the Church’s none-too-subtle nudges to cease and desist, my thought was that either 1) she was incredibly oblivious to the abundant evidence that if there’s one thing the Church will crack down on dissenters for, it’s publicly defying Salt Lake, or 2) she was intentionally setting herself up to be martyred in just this manner. Since she doesn’t strike me as oblivious, I leaned towards #2. And here we are.

    I get why the Bloggernacle is in an uproar, I really do. I think Church discipline is not in the best interests of anyone for a multitude of principled reasons, to mention realpolitik. But I can’t quite bring myself to be outraged for the simple reason that I think that this possibility has always been a calculated outcome for her. It has to have been. And (to me at least) daring the Church to publicly give her that martyrdom gives more evidence to the charge which so many of her critics have leveled at her: that her objective is to embarrass the Church into changing its doctrine. There are many, perhaps, who have no problem with that. But any approach to dissent which publicly embarrasses the Church has no chance of effecting meaningful change and is, quite frankly, stupid. She needed a insurgency campaign which requires patience and willingness to absorb losses, but which can wear down the other side over time. She never had a chance once she decided to challenge the Church in a head-on battle.

    If we’re going to use Brother Joseph as the veiled reference to all this, he had the Expositor’s press destroyed. Do I understand why he took that approach? Sure, absolutely. But it was still stupid in view of the likely outcomes.

    As to John Dehlin…as someone who once had incredible admiration for what he was doing and the kinds of conversations he was fostering, I don’t see any martyrdom. To me it’s been clear for some time that the only reason for his continued membership is to maintain legitimacy, which is much easier as a current member than as a former one. What’s happening isn’t martyrdom, but a formality.

  30. Wow, Roman. You have a straight line of insight right into the very heart and brain of John Dehlin. I’m so impressed. Can you tell us your secret for achieving such a feat?

  31. In one sense, I’ve got no problem with Kelly and Dehlin being asked to leave. At some point every group has to define what it’s going to be okay with and what it won’t. The Church has been fairly clear where that line is and, to my mind, Kelly and Dehlin crossed it a long way back. But my initial reaction to their possible expulsion was something along the lines of the OP: this makes them infamous and therefore far more dangerous. I would have been happy to just let them fade out without drawing attention to them. Now you’ve got a rallying point for the disaffected.

  32. Last Lemming says:

    I would have been happy to just let them fade out without drawing attention to them.

    That might have worked with Dehlin, but not with Kelly, whose trajectory is much more sharply upward. My guess is that they are tacking Dehlin (and Waterman) on to the Kelly action so they can absorb all of the bad publicity at once.

  33. Jay, I qualified that as my opinion. And Dehlin has provided ample evidence of his “very heart and brain” over the years to bolster that opinion — though some of us have gotten whiplash from his many course changes. I doubt there’s a dissenting voice out there who has done more to put his “very heart and brain” out in public for the last decade, but I believe delving deeper into that is a distraction from the conversation at hand. I only note that my view is one that has been voiced by plenty of others when discussions of Dehlin and the Mormon Stories project have come up on the ‘Naccle.

  34. Martin James says:

    Roman,

    Based on the OW 6 discussions. The whole point is to show that the church is an abusive patriarchy, not change it. The meaningful change they want is not in the leadership of the church its in the young women of the church.

  35. Martin James says:

    “She never had a chance once she decided to challenge the Church in a head-on battle.”

    So how many people view the church more favorably than before she came on the scene?

    Really, how many for each camp? The numbers are probably small, but I don’t know anyone coming to church now that wasn’t before based on the church “winning”.

  36. Martin James,

    I know very little about the 6 discussions, I’ve only heard of them since the disciplinary action came to light. If they are as you describe, it strengthens my view that she was virtually inviting a response from the Church. Honestly, how could the Church *not* respond to something like that? Again, that’s not a winning approach. And I’m defining winning not as favorable/unfavorable views of the Church, but OW achieving it’s stated aims. I worry that the backlash from this means female ordination is further away than when OW started.

  37. Paige O'Rhythm says:

    I love the use of the Obi Wan quote. What made you think of that? So true.

  38. Mark B. says:

    I think we should add “Don’t feed the martyr complex” to the usual “Don’t feed the trolls” warning.

  39. Martin James says:

    Roman,

    Here is a sample from a discussion. The formatting didn’t come through but the “look and feel” was almost identical to LDS publications.

    DISCUSSION ONE INTRO ACTIVITY: PATRIARCHY BINGO
    This BINGO ice breaker activity will help identify some symptoms of growing up in a patriarchal culture. Cut the squares and arrange
    them as you like, so that each player’s board in in a unique formation. Fill in the Free Square with something from your own life.
    The leaders you grew up
    learning about, singing
    about and honoring
    were men
    Your dad presided over
    your mom
    In Primary most of the
    lessons and songs were
    about men
    More money and time was
    spent on boys in your ward
    than girls (Boy Scouts, Young
    Men’s activities)
    There was more concentration
    put on controlling girl’s dress
    standards than boy’s
    Fatherhood was
    de-emphasized at church
    You were taught that men
    and boys are naturally less
    spiritual, less nurturing, and
    more selfish
    Women, even girls as
    young as 8 years old, were
    pedestaled as creators of life
    The men who said that
    stay-at-home mother is the
    most important thing a
    person can do in life
    worked outside the home
    You were taught that your
    primary goal in life was
    temple marriage, while boys
    were taught to also prepare
    for a career
    You heard jokes about how
    incompetent and incapable
    dads are
    Men taught you how to be
    a woman
    FREE
    SQUARE
    _________
    _________
    You were taught that young
    women must help control
    male thoughts by removing
    temptations through modesty
    Your brothers were able to
    perform ordinances when
    they turned 12, leaving
    you out
    If you looked for spiritual
    guidance, it was usually
    from a man
    Every Sunday you looked up
    to see a stand dominated by
    male leaders with very few
    females present, if any
    When you received
    scriptural posters, cartoons,
    or figurines the character
    was usually a man
    Your dad picked who prayed
    and if he wasn’t there your
    younger brother would
    Your brothers were
    encouraged to go to college
    for an education and you
    were encouraged to go
    “just in case”
    The leaders whose names you
    memorized and whose words
    you read were men
    Most scripture stories were
    about men and their spiritual
    journeys. Most stories about
    women were about marriage
    or their ability to conceive.
    The majority of talk about
    parenting, homemaking and
    nurturing children revolved
    around motherhood
    Even if your mom had input,
    you knew that the final say
    on any major decision was
    your dad’s
    While you cherished your
    relationship with both your
    earthly mother and father
    equally, you were taught only
    to communicate with your
    Heavenly Father for guidance
    GROUP DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
    1. What are your thoughts and feelings after playing this game? What symptoms stood out most to you?
    2. Has the male-exclusive priesthood policy of the Church affected your life directly? Would anyone like to
    share they wrote on the Free Square?

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