Joseph Smith Died as a Lamb to the Slaughter

MYTH : Joseph Smith died as a "lamb led to the slaughter."


The notion that Joseph Smith willingly sacrificed his life at Carthage has been accepted Mormon tradition since the time of Smith’s death, exemplified perfectly by the recently popular song about the prophet, “Lamb to the Slaughter.”[1]

Smith allegedly referred to himself in this manner, and when he surrendered himself to Governor Ford, was quoted as saying, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter; but I am calm as a summer’s morning; I have a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men. I SHALL DIE INNOCENT, AND IT SHALL YET BE SAID OF ME – HE WAS MURDERED IN COLD BLOOD” (Doctrine & Covenants 135:4)

However, that tradition may not tell the whole story. After the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor, a fiery article was published in the Warsaw Signal urging men to take up arms against the Mormons.[2] Nauvoo Mormons feared reprisals from the non-Mormons in the surrounding areas so Smith declared martial law on June 18, 1844. Fearing the Mormon Legion, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford mobilized the state militia.[3]

In an attempt to prevent civil war, the governor promised Smith that he would provide protection if Smith would stand trial at Carthage for the destruction of the newspaper. Smith ordered the Legion to disarm but fled to Iowa, across the Mississippi. Emma warned Joseph that Nauvoo residents believed he had left due to cowardice and were afraid of possible mob reprisals. Smith returned to Illinois on June 23, 1844 where he surrendered and was taken to Carthage jail.[4]

On June 27, just four days later, a mob of men with blackened faces stormed the jail where Joseph was held along with his brother Hyrum Smith, John Taylor and Willard Richards. However, the Smith brothers were not defenseless: both brothers were armed with pistols that had been smuggled in by friends the previous day. Hyrum was shot in the face by the attacking mob and killed immediately, preventing him from using his weapon. But, according to John Taylor, Joseph Smith pulled his six-shooter from his pocket "and snapped the pistol six successive times; only three of the barrels, however, were discharged. I afterwards understood that two or three were wounded by these discharges, two of whom, I am informed, died." [5] defines the phrase “lamb to the slaughter” as meaning that someone does something “without knowing that something bad is going to happen and therefore act calmly and without fighting against the situation.” This definition is consistent with the phrase as used in Jeremiah 11:19: “But I was like a lamb or an ox that is brought to the slaughter; and I knew not that they had devised devices against me…

However, this definition is not consistent with the phrase’s use in Acts 8:32 (Quoting Isaiah 53:7), “…He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth.” LDS doctrine teaches us that Jesus Christ willingly went to his death to atone for the sins of the world. He knew He would die but did not fight against it or open his mouth in protest.

One who knowingly chooses to sacrifice, suffer and/or die in order to advance a cause or principle is known as a martyr.[6]

In light of the definition, it would appear that Smith, believing he would die, went as a martyr to Carthage Jail, not as a lamb to the slaughter. However, the myth that Joseph Smith died as a lamb to the slaughter, meaning that he died without a fight is clearly not true. Although he willingly turned himself in, he died fighting, killing two of his attackers.

[1] Joseph: A Nashville Tribute to the Prophet. Jason Deere
[2] Warsaw Signal, Thomas C. Sharp. June 14, 1844.
[3] Ostling, Richard and Joan. “Mormon America: The Power and the Promise” HarperOne, 1999. p.16
[4] Bushman, Richard Lyman. “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Knopf, New York 2005, p.546
[5] John Taylor, The Documentary History of the Church, Volume 7, 1850, pp. 102-103
[6] Encarta Online Dictionary: Martyr

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