A Baptist View of the Martyrdom of Joseph Smith



Joseph Smith, under fire from both within the building and without it, falls from the window of Carthage Jail on 27 June 1844. The men on the ground will prop him up against a well and complete their mission.


Fifteen years ago, just before the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Salt Lake City (with the avowed intention of bringing Christianity to pagan Utah), I reviewed the materials that they had produced for training their delegates on how to confront the Mormon menace in its home lair. My essay was rather lengthy, appearing in the late FARMS Review under the title of “‘Shall They Not Both Fall into the Ditch?’ What Certain Baptists Think They Know about the Restored Gospel.”


Here’s a passage from it (complete with footnotes), in honor of today’s anniversary of the assassination of the first prophet of this modern dispensation:


In the view of Rev. Wright, who is an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, not even the murder of Joseph Smith was undeserved. He goes further, in this regard, than did the experts at the SBC’s Denominational Summit on Mormonism, which was held in North Carolina on the one hundred and fifty-third anniversary of the Prophet’s death. “Smith was killed while escaping jail,” they said, untruthfully.240 Responding to some remarks made by President Gordon B. Hinckley, Pastor Wright notes that

the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum on June 27, 1844, didn’t occur until after Joseph had fired upon the so-called “mob” with a pistol that had been secreted to him while in jail and had killed one man and injured several others.241

“Rage and persecution” may have followed the Mormons to Illinois, but the Saints of that day brought most of it upon themselves!242

Rev. Wright is wrong about Hyrum’s death, which occurred immediately prior to Joseph’s drawing the pistol.243  But he is almost certainly correct in his claim that Joseph’s firing of the pistol took place while Joseph was still alive. His description of the events at Carthage represents an important and novel historical reconstruction, and it is vital that we understand it with precision. Apparently, Rev. Wright feels that Joseph Smith was obliged—though he was unjustly imprisoned and had not yet been tried, let alone convicted of anything, much less convicted of a capital offenseto allow “the so-called ‘mob’” to butcher not only himself and his brother Hyrum but his two friends, Willard Richards and John Taylor, whose only crime was that they had come to visit the prisoners. (John Taylor was, in fact, severely wounded by “the so-called ‘mob.’”)

Rev. Wright’s revised version of the events in Carthage seems to run along the following lines: The wily criminal lunatic Joseph Smith, who had remained quiet throughout his captivity, deliberately chose the very time when the peace-loving Carthage Greys—fully armed and with traditional blackened faces—were innocently gathered about the jail for their annual June 27th Militia Picnic. Frolicking with their weapons and calling out the death threats that customarily accompanied that grand holiday in frontier Illinois—it was a simpler time, and June 27th had not yet been commercialized—the proto-Gandhian Greys had merely been playing the venerable party game known among these gentle rustics as “Eat Hot Lead, Mormon Scum!” Then, wholly without provocation, Joseph Smith opened fire on the revelers, using the “pepperbox” pistol that Cyrus Wheelock had smuggled into his cell. Naïve historians, both Latter-day Saints and others, have always assumed that Joseph’s action had something to do with the fact that his brother Hyrum had just been shot to death. (Presumably, Hyrum was killed by a stray bullet from a local hunter, or perhaps from an evil Mormon assassin.) Rev. Wright, however, cannot be taken in by such sophistries. When Joseph continued to shoot at them as they mounted the jail’s interior staircase bearing a peace offering of cookies and punch, they had no choice. They killed him and his (already dead) brother in self-defense. It is true that they also shot John Taylor at least four times. But then, he had been very naughty to them with his cane, and needed to be taught a lesson.


240. King, “Mormon Summit Preps for ’98 SBC.”

241. Unfortunately, it is not likely that Joseph Smith really managed to kill one of his murderers. B. H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 7:103, indicates that John Taylor had heard of two deaths; see also Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 390—91. But see also Brodie, No Man Knows My History; 393; Dallin H. Oaks and Marvin S. Hill, Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1975), 217—20; Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1977), 415—16. I put the question to several leading academic experts on the history of the church, and the unanimous answer was that there is simply no evidence and no credible contemporary claim that Joseph Smith killed anybody. Justice, alas, was not done that day at Carthage.

242. Wright, “The Mormons’ Trail of Hope,” 7. Did Jesus deserve crucifixion? Did the early Christians deserve martyrdom? According to the New Testament, it was Peter who began the violence that led to the death of the Redeemer and continued in the persecution of the ancient church. See Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:50; John 18:10.

243. According to eyewitnesses Willard Richards and John Taylor. See History of the Church, 6:619—20; 7:102.



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  • manaen

    So, did you suppose truth will affect them at this late date?

    • DanielPeterson

      Alas, no. Not really. Although I did hear reports — I can’t confirm them; they may simply have been faith-promoting LDS rumors — that one and perhaps two of the SBC delegates converted to Mormonism as a result of their visit to Salt Lake, and that several of the delegates were unhappy with their leaders for painting so negative a view of the Mormons, a view that their visit convinced them was false.

      • RaymondSwenson

        Just in view of the large number of delegates involved and the normal rate of conversion of SBC to LDS, and the 15 years since 1998, I would expect that several of those people had joined their many brothers and sisters in switching over to the Mormons. I remember Leonard Arrington writing about how his wife had first learned about the Church through anti-Mormon literature, became curious, and contacted the missionaries.

        I wonder if the SBC has considered this phenomenon, and the extent to which some of their propaganda backfires. Specifically, the effect of it on people who are fair minded and charitable can lead them to ask real Mormons about what they believe. On the other hand, it reinforces people who like to be uncharitable toward others, what strikes me as an anti-Christian ethic of judgmentalism.

        When I was in law school, I served once a week as a guide on Temple Square, and once had a small group who described themselves as Baptists who laughed and mocked as I narrated the murals of the life of Christ, which culminated in the crucifixion and resurrection. Their point was that they thought we were not real Christians. The depiction of the Savior’s atonement for mankind did not seem to provoke any kind of contemplation, just mocking.

        • Jason Covell

          I, too, gained my first information about the Church from anti-Mormon literature. While I know it doesn’t work out well for everyone, I found it was a pretty effective inoculation against most of the usual garbage than can derail new (or even lifetime) members.

  • dangerdad

    Epic post!

  • RaymondSwenson

    Back in 1998 the Baptists estimated that about 40,000 Southern Baptists a year were joining the LDS Church. Given the Southern Baptist share of Christians in the US and the total number of conversions to the LDS per year, that sounds reasonable. It is interesting that for the last five years, the net SBC membership has dropped about 50,000 per year. That is like 50 to 100 congregations, and 50 to 100 or more pastoral positions, lost. They have responded with brochures and lesson plans to warn people about Mormons and their beliefs, which are distributed to local congregations. Of course, these days the largest element of defection is young adults who drop out of active involvement and become “None of the above” people who are called “Nones”, most of whom believe in God but don’t feel the need to attend church.

  • Darren

    This post gave me a good healthy laugh. :)

    I enjoyed it very much.

  • hthalljr

    My search for “Dennis A. Wright” led first to the associate dean of religious education at Brigham Young University! Fortunately, I found a photo for both doctors Wright: watch out for the Doppelgänger with the black hair!

    Methinks the wrong Dr. Wright is miffed that he was born too late to join the picnic!

  • Ben Tanner