Lesson 22: The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith

“Lesson 22: The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Foundations of the Restoration Teacher Manual (2015)

“Lesson 22,” Teacher Manual

Lesson 22

The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith


Dissenters within the Church and opponents outside the Church brought about the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith. Their deaths added a powerful seal to their testimonies of the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. A study of the life and martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith will help students consider the many blessings the Lord has given them through the ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith, through whom He restored His gospel in the latter days.

Background Reading

Suggestions for Teaching

Doctrine and Covenants 135:4–5; 136:36–39

Enemies sought to kill Joseph Smith

Carthage Jail

Display a picture of the Carthage Jail. Explain to the students that on June 27, 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, who was the Patriarch to the Church, were martyred in this jail in Carthage, Illinois. Joseph Smith was 38 years old at the time of his death, and Hyrum was 44.

Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 136:36–39 aloud while the class follows along. Encourage students as they read to identify how the Lord summarized the life of Joseph Smith and the work he performed. Then discuss the following question:

  • How did the Lord describe the life and work of the Prophet Joseph Smith? (Student responses could include the following truths: Joseph Smith laid the foundation for God’s work in this gospel dispensation. The Prophet Joseph Smith was innocent at the time of his death, and he had faithfully fulfilled the mission given to him by God.)

To help students understand some of the influences that brought about the death of the Prophet, tell them that the Saints lived in relative peace in the state of Illinois for about three years, but by 1842, they were again experiencing opposition. Opponents of the Church included citizens of Illinois who feared the political influence of the Saints. Others grew envious of the economic growth of Nauvoo and were critical of the power of Nauvoo’s city government and militia. Some misunderstood certain unique Mormon doctrines and practices. Dissenters within the Church and opponents outside the Church combined their efforts to fight against the Prophet and the Church.

Distribute a copy of the handout found at the end of this lesson to each student. Invite a student to read aloud the section titled “Opposition to the Prophet and the Church.”

handout, Martyrdom

Explain that according to the laws that were in effect at the time of the Prophet’s death, no law was broken when a press was destroyed. Display the following statement by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“The amendment to the United States Constitution that extended the guarantee of freedom of the press to protect against the actions of city and state governments was not adopted until 1868, and it was not enforced as a matter of federal law until 1931. … We should judge the actions of our predecessors on the basis of the laws and commandments and circumstances of their day, not ours” (“Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign, May 1996, 72).

  • Why is the last sentence in Elder Oaks’s statement important to remember as we consider the actions of early Church leaders? (You may want to point out that most of the members of the Nauvoo city council were Church members, but they were acting in their capacity as elected civil servants when they ordered the press to be destroyed. The Church as an organization did not take action against the press, but the city council took action to “abate the … nuisance” [in History of the Church, 6:432]).

Invite a student to read aloud the handout section titled “Joseph and Hyrum Are Falsely Charged.” Ask another student to read Doctrine and Covenants 135:4 aloud. Invite the class to follow along, looking for the prophecy Joseph Smith made as he traveled toward Carthage.

  • Even though every mortal is imperfect, what do you think it would take for someone to have “a conscience void of offense towards God, and towards all men”? (D&C 135:4).

Explain that as Hyrum Smith prepared to go to Carthage Jail, he read Ether 12:36–38 and then turned down the page. Invite a student to read aloud Doctrine and Covenants 135:5, which is a direct quotation of these verses from Ether, while the class follows along. Invite students to consider why this scripture passage would have been meaningful to Hyrum. You might suggest to students that they mark any words or phrases that stand out to them.

  • What specific words or phrases in these verses from the book of Ether do you think would have been meaningful to Hyrum as he faced imprisonment and possible death?

  • What do you think the following phrase means: “All men shall know that my garments are not spotted with your blood”? (Consider having students cross-reference verse 5 with Jacob 1:19 and Mosiah 2:27 to discover the meaning of this phrase. Learning to cross-reference a scripture with other scriptures that provide additional insight is an important scripture study skill.)

Ask students to consider how Joseph and Hyrum might have felt knowing they had fulfilled their callings and duties from God to the best of their abilities.

  • What can we learn from the examples of Joseph and Hyrum Smith that could help us fulfill the responsibilities we receive from God?

Doctrine and Covenants 135:1–3, 6–7

Martyrdom at Carthage Jail and tributes to Joseph Smith

Ask a student to read aloud the section heading for Doctrine and Covenants 135. (You may want to point out that the differences between this heading in the 1981 and 2013 editions of the scriptures reflect recent scholarship.) Invite several students to take turns reading aloud Doctrine and Covenants 135:1–2 and the handout section titled “Martyrdom at Carthage Jail.” Ask the class to follow along as these students read.

  • What do you think the phrase “to seal the testimony of this book and the Book of Mormon” means?

As students share their thoughts, consider writing the following definition on the board: to “seal” is to permanently establish something, such as a testimony. You might suggest that students write this definition in their scriptures next to verse 1.

Ask students to silently read Doctrine and Covenants 135:3, 6–7, looking for some of the truths we learn from this announcement of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

  • What truths did you learn from this announcement of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith? (Students may identify many truths, including the following: Joseph Smith has done more for the salvation of people in this world than any other man except Jesus Christ. The Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants were brought forth for the salvation of the world.)

  • In what specific ways do you think your life would be different without the ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith?

Ask a student to read aloud the statement from Elder Dallin H. Oaks found in the handout section titled “Tributes to the Prophet Joseph Smith.”

  • Why is it important to realize that close associates of Joseph Smith considered him to be a prophet and an “honorable, virtuous man”?

Conclude by asking students if any of them would like to share their testimony of Joseph Smith. Encourage students to look for opportunities in the next few days to share with others their testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and his role in restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Student Readings

The Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith

Foundations of the Restoration—Lesson 22

Opposition to the Prophet and the Church

By June 1844, animosity against the Church had greatly intensified. Some citizens in Illinois were discussing driving the Saints from the state, while others were plotting to kill the Prophet. Some of those who were conspiring against the Prophet and the Church were former members of the Church who had apostatized. On June 7, 1844, William Law, who had served as Second Counselor in the First Presidency, and other apostates printed the first issue of a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. In an attempt to inflame the public against the Prophet and the Church, these men used this newspaper to slander Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. Joseph Smith, acting as the mayor of Nauvoo, and the majority of the Nauvoo city council recognized that the inflammatory newspaper would lead to mob violence against the city. They declared the newspaper a public nuisance and ordered that the Nauvoo Expositor press be destroyed.

Joseph and Hyrum Are Falsely Charged

“As a result of the [destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor] by the mayor and city council, Illinois authorities brought an unfounded charge of riot against the Prophet, his brother Hyrum, and other Nauvoo city officials. The governor of Illinois, Thomas Ford, ordered the men to stand trial in Carthage, Illinois, the county seat, and promised them protection. Joseph knew that if he went to Carthage, his life would be in great danger from the mobs who were threatening him.

“Believing that the mobs wanted only them, Joseph and Hyrum decided to leave for the West to preserve their lives. On June 23, they crossed the Mississippi River, but later that day, brethren from Nauvoo found the Prophet and told him that troops would invade the city if he did not surrender to the authorities in Carthage. This the Prophet agreed to do, hoping to appease both government officials and the mobs. On June 24, Joseph and Hyrum Smith bade farewell to their families and rode with other Nauvoo city officials toward Carthage, voluntarily surrendering themselves to county officials in Carthage the next day. After the brothers had been released on bail for the initial charge, they were falsely charged with treason against the state of Illinois, arrested, and imprisoned in Carthage Jail to await a hearing. Elders John Taylor and Willard Richards, the only members of the Twelve who were not then serving missions, voluntarily joined them” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 529–30).

Martyrdom at Carthage Jail

During the day on June 27, 1844, a visitor had given Joseph a revolver. As the mob tried to enter the room where the Prophet and the other men were held, Hyrum was shot to death, acting in defense of everyone in the room. Joseph sprang to the door and reached around the doorframe to shoot the pistol into the hall. Only three of the six chambers fired, wounding several members of the mob. The mob then forced their guns through the half-closed door, and John Taylor tried to beat the barrels of their guns back with a walking stick.

As the conflict at the doorway increased, John Taylor tried to escape the room through a window. As he attempted to leap out of the window, he was shot in the thigh from the doorway and was also shot by someone outside. He fell to the floor, and while attempting to get under the bed next to the window, he was severely wounded by three more shots. Meanwhile, as guns came through the doorway, Willard Richards began striking them with a cane.

Joseph Smith then decided to try to escape through the same window. As Willard Richards continued to deflect the mob at the door, the Prophet leaped to the open window. As he did so, he was struck by bullets from both inside and outside the jail. He fell out of the window, exclaiming, “O Lord, my God!” and landed on the ground below. The members of the mob who were inside the jail rushed outside to assure themselves that Joseph was dead. Although there were no members of the Church on their way to Carthage, someone yelled, “The Mormons are coming!” and the entire mob fled.

Tributes to the Prophet Joseph Smith

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said:

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“Men who knew Joseph best and stood closest to him in Church leadership loved and sustained him as a prophet. His brother Hyrum chose to die at his side. John Taylor, also with him when he was murdered, said: ‘I testify before God, angels, and men, that he was a good, honorable, virtuous man … —that his private and public character was unimpeachable—and that he lived and died as a man of God’ (The Gospel Kingdom [1987], 355; see also D&C 135:3). Brigham Young declared: ‘I do not think that a man lives on the earth that knew [Joseph Smith] any better than I did; and I am bold to say that, Jesus Christ excepted, no better man ever lived or does live upon this earth’ [Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 459]” (“Joseph, the Man and the Prophet,” Ensign, May 1996, 73).