For the next installment of our series on the Journal of Discourses, we'll be looking at the seventh discourse in the first volume. This was delivered by George A. Smith (1817-1875), who was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and later went on to serve as First Counselor in Brigham Young's First Presidency; he was also Joseph Smith's first cousin, being a son of John Smith (1781-1854), the brother of Joseph Smith Jr.'s father Joseph Smith Sr. (1771-1840). The discourse in question was delivered in the tabernacle in the Great Salt Lake Valley, Utah, on 24 July 1852. The text of the discourse as we have it was reported by George Darling Watt (1812-1881). The main themes of Elder Smith's oration that day were liberty, persecution, and the United States government.
1. After looking proudly upon the civil liberties that the Latter-day Saints enjoy in the Utah Territory (JD 1:42), Elder Smith turns to a reflection upon the 'martyrdom' of his cousins Joseph and Hyrum. He specifically says that they were "sacrified" as "martyrs, sealing their testimony" (JD 1:43). I suppose the question I have here is over the concept of martyrdom. Does a person constitute a martyr, properly speaking, if they attempt to retaliate through violent means? In the broader Christian tradition, I think to a great extent the answer is often no. Think of so many other martyrs:
- The protomartyr Stephen didn't hurl stones back into the crowd while he was being stoned to death; instead, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who were stoning him and refused to strike back.
- James the son of Zebedee, one of Christ's disciples, was executed by sword by order of Herod. Nothing in Acts suggests that James attempted to physically harm Herod or the executioner in any way.
- Peter was famously crucified in Rome. Nowhere is there an indication that he struck back at those who were crucifying him.
- Paul was beheaded in Rome - another execution by sword. Nowhere is it indicated that he fought back and attempted to do physical harm to his executioners.
- James the brother of Jesus was, according to the accounts we have, thrown from the Jerusalem temple and beaten to death with a club. He did not resist the physical violence that was being done to him.
- Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, was taken by Roman soldiers and carted off to Rome to be thrown to the lions. He did not attempt to resist, and in fact discouraged other Christians from attempting to divert him from this destiny.
- Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was burned at the stake and pierced with a spear, according to the narrative of his martyrdom. He went peacefully with his executioner and refused to deny Christ.
- Justin Martyr - along with other Christians named Chariton, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, and Liberianus - was beheaded under the Roman prefect Rusticus. Rather than resist those who were executing them, they praised God for his goodness.
- Pothinus, the bishop who served in Lugdunum prior to Irenaeus, was seized by a mob and tossed into prison, where he was horribly abused and died from his injuries; his companions - Alexander, Attalus, Espagathus, Maturus, and Sanctius - survived long enough to be ripped apart by animals in the amphitheatre. The accounts do not show any indication that they attempted to in any way injure their persecutors, despite it being a case of mob violence.
- Perpetua and Felicitas, two well-known female martyrs, also submitted to their execution without attempting to resist violently. The same is true of those who were martyred with them.
- Leonides of Alexandria was beheaded by the orders of the Egyptian prefect Lactus during the terrible persecution under Septimus Severus, just as were Perpetua and Felicitas. There is no indication that Leonides attempted to injure Lactus or anyone else in retaliation.
- Leonides' son, the famed early Alexandrian theologian Origen, was horribly tortured during the persecution under Decius. His death occurred three years later, a slow and lingering death from his wounds. Neither before nor after his torture did Origen, so far as all evidence and good sense indicates, attempt to avenge himself upon Decius or his local agents.
- It's said that, before the Armenians converted to Christianity, they kept Thomas of Marash in prison for 22 years, mutilating him annually to attempt to induce him to surrender his faith. At no time did Thomas attempt to injure his captors. While Thomas may have been a confessor rather than a martyr, he certainly captures the spirit here.
- Skipping forward to the seventeenth century, Francis Ferdinand de Capillas was decapitated in China after enduring numerous tortures, on the grounds that he was a Christian missionary and was preaching Christian teachings. During his tortures, imprisonment, and execution, Fr. Francis did not lash out. On the contrary, he bore it well and gained the admiration of even some of his guards.
- Thomas Baker, a nineteenth-century missionary to Fiji, was butchered with an axe and cannibalized, along with a number of Christian companions. According to his guide who escaped the massacre, Baker sensed that the tensions were such that if he pressed onward, he would be killed - but he accepted that fate for the sake of the gospel and did not retaliate against his murderers.
- In the 1950s, Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and three other Christian missionaries were speared to death by the Waodani ('Auca') tribe of Ecuador. They could have likely defeated the Waodani with violent defensive measures - Jim Elliot was armed with a pistol - but instead attempted to merely scare off their attackers rather than resist with lethal force.
- In January of this year, Muslim gunmen ambushed a group of Coptic Christians outside of a cathedral in Nag Hammadi, massacring them after a service there. Those Christians were murdered for being Christians and were killed too quickly to react.
- More recently this year, Muslim gunmen ambushed a Catholic church in Baghdad during an evening mass, killing over 50 Christians who did not attempt to resist violence with violence.
This is an extremely partial list, not even capturing a barest fraction of the known Christian martyrs throughout the ages. These seem to me to be the exempla of true Christian martyrdom - one which is both for the sake of the gospel (rather than something else) and involves accepting suffering without violent retaliation. In my opinion, this would exclude some martyrs claimed by some traditions, such as St. Ludmila of Bohemia, who was purportedly strangled because of her influence over her grandson ('Good King Wenceslaus') rather than because of her confession of Christian faith. And in my opinion, it seems as though it must also exclude Joseph Smith, who - when assaulted by a mob in prison while awaiting trial for treason - shot and injured at least three of his assailants. (It's also open to question, I think, whether Joseph Smith was killed for his faith or rather for distinct actions, whether political or personal.) Now, don't misunderstand me. I don't personally think that Joseph Smith acted immorally in defending himself in that way, nor that it shows that the martyrs listed above were more faithful, or anything like that. I don't at all blame Joseph Smith for dying in that way. I simply have reservations over whether he should be counted as a martyr for it. Perhaps, perhaps not. I can certainly see why Latter-day Saints would especially want to count him as a martyr. After all, he was maliciously and unfairly killed as a result of mob violence. And that must not be minimized. I just have reservations about putting his death in the same category as that of Stephen.
2. After mentioning that, Elder Smith goes on to deliver a very powerful protest against the persecution that the Latter-day Saints have been facing up until this point:
The history of our persecutions is unparalleled in the history of past ages. To be sure, persecutions have existed in countries where religion was established by law, and where any other religion than the one established, was decreed by law to be heretical, and its votaries doomed to persecution and the flames. But in the countries where we suffered our persecution, there is a good government; there are good institutions that are calculated to protect every person in the enjoyment of every right that is dear to man. The persecutions we have suffered were in violation of every good institution, of every wholesome law, of every institution and constitution which exist in the countries where they have been inflicted. And what is more singular, out of the hundreds of murders which have been committed upon men, women, and children, in the most barbarous, ruthless, and reckless manner - not one murderer has ever been brought to justice; not a single man who has shed the blood of a Latter-day Saint has ever been punished or brought to justice; but they are permitted to run at large, in the face and eyes of every officer of government, who are directly concerned to preserve the laws, and see them faithfully executed. The history of no country on earth affords a parallel to this; it cannot be found; that is, such a wholesale murder, robbery, house burning, butchering of men, women, and children, and, finally, the wholesale banishment of tens of thousands of souls from their homes and country; this has actually been effected in violation of the laws and regulations of the country where it occurred, and not one person has ever been punished for these crimes. I challenge the world to produce the record upon the face of the earth, that shows, in all these murders, cold-blooded butcheries, house burnings, and wholesale robberies, that a single person suffered the just penalty of the law; that a solitary criminal was punished; that any of the unprincipled savages who were guilty of these high-handed depredations, were ever brought to justice. (JD 1:43)
George Smith appears to have three major points here. First of all, the persecution of the Latter-day Saints was extremely horrible in both cruelty and extent. Second, unlike other similar persecutions of other groups, this one happened in countries with a strong dedication to religious freedom. And third, despite the massive incongruity between the law of the land and the events that transpired, there were no penalties to those who brutalized the early Latter-day Saints. Now, I don't know enough about the history to know the stated motives of those who did persecute the early Latter-day Saints as a group, nor do I know that George Smith isn't exaggerating here when he says that none of them were punished. All I can say is that I believe this to be one of the deepest and darkest blots on American history.
3. After further similar laments, George Smith turns to a further castigation of the United States government. He points out that after the Latter-day Saints settled on their land in the Utah Valley and its environs, that land was transferred by treaty from Mexico to the United States. Thus, from that point on, the Utah Territory was an American territory. George Smith notes that it is quite customary for the United States federal government to give certain sorts of assistance to the governments of all such American territories. And yet, he insists, the United States government has refused to do any of this with them, showing - Smith believed - a particular prejudice against the Latter-day Saints as a people (JD 1:44). He follows his incisive questions up with the observation:
I will say, with all reverence to the constituted authority that exists in the General Government, that I do believe that the same spirit of tradition, and the same spirit of persecution, that have ever followed the people of God, have more or less influence with them; and that if we would actually go to work, and alter our name, we might possibly be treated as other men. Be this as it may, I feel, while I stand upon the face of the earth, determined to defend my right, and the rights of my friends and brethren. I know that there is no "Mormonism" known in the constitution of the U.S., but all men are there considered equal, and free to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences, and enjoy equal rights and privileges. (JD 1:45)
I understand the meaning of this to be that, if the Latter-day Saints were to assimilate, they could probably avoid persecution that way; however, it is a right protected under the United States Constitution that persons must be treated equally and must be free to practice their religion without the sort of infringement that had been previously inflicted upon the Latter-day Saints - and thus Elder Smith protests, since the Latter-day Saints are not being treated equally as was their right under the constitution.
4. After an anecdote about even the persecutors of the Latter-day Saints turning to them for help in times of need - showing an awareness that the Saints were virtuous people - George Smith concludes with a paragraph that needs no comment from me but seems especially apt to remember in our day and age:
I have but a few more remarks to make, which will be directed to the twenty-four young men, and the braves and warriors of these mountains. Young men, braves and warriors, who sit before me this day, let me admonish you, never to let the hand of tyranny or oppression rise in these mountains, but stand unflinchingly true by the Constitution of the United States, which our fathers sealed with their blood; never suffer its provisions to be infringed upon; and if any man, or any set of men form themselves into a mob in these mountains, to violate that sacred document, by taking away the civil or religious rights of any man, if he should be one of the most inferior beings that exist upon the face of the earth, be sure you crush it, or spend the last drop of blood in your veins with the words of - Truth and Liberty, Liberty and Truth, forever! (JD 1:45)