167 years ago today, Joseph Smith, Jr. was gunned down at Carthage Jail. For some, today is a day to mark the anniversary of Joseph’s death with writings and ponderings on the meaning of his life and teachings. Doubtless your Facebook walls are filled with historical anecdotes, pithy quotes or iffy youtube videos. I would think that the current popularity of The Book of Mormon musical is contributing in some small measure to amplified output by members via various social networks. I’ve been giving some thought to the reaction of the Saints in Nauvoo to the death of the Prophet, as well as subsequent declarations and reactions to his death, as well as thinking about what our religion teaches us with respect to such events.
A month after Joseph’s murder, WW Phelps penned Praise to the Man, Eliza R. Snow wrote countless poems of grief and retributive justice against Illinois mobs, and each potential successor to Joseph invoked his name one way or another as a means of establishing himself as Joseph’s true successor. Soon afterwards, John Taylor wrote the tribute that became Section 135 of the D&C, and Joseph was quickly placed in the pantheon of the great people who had ever lived. From that time on, largely thanks to John Taylor and Brigham Young, Joseph Smith became the Mormon Buddha, the most essential teacher since Jesus Christ. His birthday often becomes eerily commingled with Christmas, and passing anecdotes of wrestling and preaching become the stuff of supernal cassette tapes.
What would the Prophet think of this veneration? That is the million dollar question, but the man was so complex and at times contradictory that the question becomes a mirror of our own penchants. At its core, the Mormonism he preached was free of this sort of magnification of the man, in favor of magnifying God’s work. But the same man that decried the creeds of Christiantiy and veneration of Saints of Catholicism also had his own cult of personality and built a strong network of personal loyalties and adoration. I strongly suspect what he denounced in other faiths Joseph might have gladly accepted in his own.
This post is too light — too light with our history (accounts of life post-martyrdom abound, and are highly interesting), and too light in exploring what our doctrine says (I think, for example, that trends of personal veneration continue to run strong in Mormonism, especially with respect to certain prophets — Pres. Benson and Pres. Hinckley are the most recent of these). But perhaps the anniversary of Joseph’s death is the perfect time to start thinking about what his death means to us in a cultural and historical context.
*Thanks Blair for not getting mad at me for totally ripping off one of the pictures in his post.