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Photography by Scot Facer Proctor. 

As we commemorate the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, may we always remember that their deaths served a purpose. This final act sealed their testimony with their own blood and showed they were willing to die rather than deny the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That same courage and conviction can be shown by all of us as we stand with the Prophet Joseph Smith and the Restoration.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Nauvoo with my family. One site that I was especially drawn to was the Joseph and Hyrum Smith Memorial directly in front of the Nauvoo temple. The statue depicts the Prophet and his brother on horseback looking over Nauvoo as they ride to Carthage jail. As we stood there, I shared the story behind the statue with my family, of how Joseph felt inspired to cross the Mississippi river and head west to establish a permanent place for the Saints, but after some of his associates accused him of cowardice, he returned to Nauvoo and rode to Carthage jail and to his death.

As we discussed this, my wife thoughtfully asked why the Prophet Joseph Smith had to die. That was a question that many of the early saints wondered and so the Lord answered it in a revelation to President Brigham Young. He explained, “Many have marveled because of his death; but it was needful that he should seal his testimony with his blood” (D&C 136:39). This same sentiment was expressed in an inspired tribute to the Prophet ascribed to John Taylor, who said “To seal the testimony of this book [Doctrine and Covenants] and the Book of Mormon, we announce the martyrdom of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and Hyrum Smith the Patriarch … The testators are now dead and their testament is in force” (D&C 135:1,5).

Sealing a Testimony in Blood

Sealing his testimony with his blood means that in his final act, the Prophet Joseph Smith was willing to die rather than deny what he knew to be true. It was his way to show not just in word but in deed what he had expressed so powerfully years earlier when he said, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JS-H 1:25). This made his death itself a final testimony that “sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3).

This concept was powerfully explained by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland who taught how the martyrdom not only sealed Joseph’s testimony but can also strengthen our own testimonies of the Restoration. He taught:

When Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum started for Carthage to face what they knew would be an imminent martyrdom, Hyrum read these words to comfort the heart of his brother:

“Thou hast been faithful; wherefore … thou shalt be made strong, even unto the sitting down in the place which I have prepared in the mansions of my Father.

“And now I, Moroni, bid farewell … until we shall meet before the judgment-seat of Christ.”

A few short verses from the 12th chapter of Ether in the Book of Mormon. Before closing the book, Hyrum turned down the corner of the page from which he had read, marking it as part of the everlasting testimony for which these two brothers were about to die. I hold in my hand that book, the very copy from which Hyrum read, the same corner of the page turned down, still visible. Later, when actually incarcerated in the jail, Joseph the Prophet turned to the guards who held him captive and bore a powerful testimony of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon. Shortly thereafter pistol and ball would take the lives of these two testators.

As one of a thousand elements of my own testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon, I submit this as yet one more evidence of its truthfulness. In this their greatest—and last—hour of need, I ask you: would these men blaspheme before God by continuing to fix their lives, their honor, and their own search for eternal salvation on a book (and by implication a church and a ministry) they had fictitiously created out of whole cloth?

Never mind that their wives are about to be widows and their children fatherless. Never mind that their little band of followers will yet be “houseless, friendless and homeless” and that their children will leave footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor. Never mind that legions will die and other legions live declaring in the four quarters of this earth that they know the Book of Mormon and the Church which espouses it to be true. Disregard all of that, and tell me whether in this hour of death these two men would enter the presence of their Eternal Judge quoting from and finding solace in a book which, if not the very word of God, would brand them as imposters and charlatans until the end of time? They would not do that! They were willing to die rather than deny the divine origin and the eternal truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign Nov. 2009).

This is how the martyrdom of Joseph Smith sealed his own testimony and how it strengthens ours. The word “martyr” means “witness,” and the martyrdom was his final witness or testimony. His testimony in blood can now “touch the hearts of honest men among all nations” (D&C 135:7) and plant the seed of their own testimonies. This is exactly how the death of Abinadi touched Alma and how the death of Stephen may have touched the Apostle Paul (Mosiah 17; Acts 7). Far from stopping this work from progressing, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith caused it to spread further. What was often the case in early Christianity, became again true in the restored church, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

Actions Speak Louder than Words

One lesson this teaches us is that testimony is expressed not just in our words, but in our actions, because actions speak louder than words. Our testimony includes not just what we say but also where we stand, for we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places … even until death” (Mosiah 18:9). Although we may not be called upon to die for our faith like Joseph Smith, we can show our willingness to die for it by living for it and sacrificing for it. This can send a similarly strong message of conviction and courage.

This is why I find the testimonies of John Taylor and Willard Richards so powerful. Although not called upon to do so, both of these Apostles were willing to die for Joseph Smith and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is evidenced by their being in Carthage jail voluntarily just to give support and protection to their beloved prophet.

Just hours before his death, Elder John Taylor stood at Joseph’s side and sang all seven verses of the hymn A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief. Although he did not feel like singing, he sang this hymn at Joseph’s request, to comfort him with the message the hymn contains. The hymn is about a man who keeps feeling inspired to help a stranger in need only to discover at the end that the stranger he has been helping all along is the Lord Jesus Christ. At the end of the hymn the Lord asks the man to die for him. “The flesh was weak; my blood ran chill, But my free spirit cried, ‘I will!’” (Hymn #29). Understanding that he would soon die for the Lord, these words no doubt served to strengthen Joseph Smith just before his death.

Elder Willard Richards was even more direct in expressing his willingness to die for Joseph Smith and the cause in which they were engaged. After dinner, recognizing the imminent danger and the fact that Elder Richards did not have to be there, Joseph asked him if he would go back to the cell with him. Elder Richards replied, “Brother Joseph, you did not ask me to cross the river with you –you did not ask me to come to jail with you –and do you think I will forsake you now? But I will tell you what I will do; if you are condemned to be hung for treason, I will be hung in your stead, and you shall go free.” When Joseph explained that he couldn’t do that, Elder Richards replied, “I will” –quoting the hymn that John Taylor had just sung (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p. 395).

Although their lives were spared so they could serve as witnesses of the Martyrdom, both of these brave men showed they were willing to die for the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These two Apostles bore many powerful witnesses of Joseph Smith and the Restoration throughout their lives, but perhaps their most powerful witness was expressed in their heroic actions that day to stand with the Prophet Joseph Smith as an angry mob stormed Carthage jail. Words are empty without actions and their works gave force to their words.

So it is with us. As we remember the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith, may it inspire us to show our faith by our works and to sacrifice whatever the Lord asks of us in sustaining and defending the faith. May we determine in our own hearts to live like John Taylor and Willard Richards, willing to stand with our prophets no matter what the personal risk.

Although the following words are Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s, not mine, they express perfectly how I feel:

“May I make it very clear where I stand regarding Joseph Smith, a stance taken because of the Book of Mormon. I endorse with all my heart and with the holy office I now hold, indeed with my very life itself, the declaration of John Taylor, who 150 years ago last June took four rounds, full bore, from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s enemies who had surrounded and finally stormed Carthage Jail. Brother Taylor’s life was spared and he lived to say of Joseph: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. . . . He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed . . . has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood” (D&C 135:3). Then, including the beloved Hyrum’s life as a second witness, Brother Taylor said, “The testators are now dead, and their testament is in force” (D&C 135:5; emphasis added).

I should think that four balls taken at close range from an unfriendly musket or pistol probably qualifies you to bear your testimony about an experience if you want to. I say that that day in Carthage makes John Taylor’s testimony unimpeachable. Furthermore, I am frank to say, I am offended by anyone who suggests that any hoax could withstand such events then or for these 150 years since that difficult day in Carthage.

A great many of the judgments currently being passed against Joseph Smith are being made from far more comfortable quarters than that second floor of the Carthage Jail where John Taylor tried so valiantly to defend his prophet with nothing more than a hickory walking stick. I was not there, but I would offer to be there–then or now or ever–in defense of the truth–the truth of who Joseph Smith said he was and what I know the Book of Mormon to be.” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, A Standard Unto My People, BYU Symposium August 9, 1994).

Then or now or ever. Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah, Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer!