As part of a discussion here at Mormon Coffee about Joseph Smith’s alleged “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter” comment, one of our Mormon commenters wrote,
“Joseph Smith never claimed that his blood would atone for sins, and neither have his followers,… Joseph never claimed to be giving his life and blood in a propitiatory way as Christ; rather, he used the scripture to explain that he intended to face his likely and unlawful death in the same innocent, calm terms that Jesus did.” (6/26/10)
“Again, you’re trying to claim that Joseph’s death should be understood as inherently significant (like Christ’s). This is not, and never has been, a Mormon position. In Mormonism, Joseph Smith is Martyr, not Messiah.” (6/27/10)
If the author of these statements meant to address the sole idea of propitiation or atonement for sin, I have no basis for disagreement. Mormons do not believe Joseph’s shed blood atoned for their sins. However, if the claim is understood in a broader sense, I respectfully disagree. There is no doubt whatsoever that Mormons, individual and corporate, understand Joseph Smith’s death as “inherently significant (like Christ’s).”
Consider the following statement that appeared in the official LDS Ensign magazine in 1994:
“As suggested earlier, the life of Joseph Smith was in some degree patterned after that of his Master, Jesus Christ. That pattern holds true even when extended to its tragic conclusion. Like his Master, Joseph Smith also shed his blood in order that the final testament, the reestablishment of the new covenant, might be in full effect (see Heb. 9:16).” (Robert L. Millet, “Joseph Smith among the Prophets,” Ensign, June 1994, 19)
This article states that Joseph Smith provided for the new covenant to be “in full effect” by the shedding of his blood. To support this claim Dr. Millet referenced Hebrews 9:16 which says, “For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator” (KJV).
Dr. Millet’s article went on to include a quote wherein Joseph Smith, just before his death, reportedly said,
“I have to seal my testimony to this generation with my blood. I have to do it, for this work will never progress until I am gone, for the testimony is of no force until the testator is dead.”
Joseph Smith claimed his death was necessary in order to make his testimony valid.
Consider this BYU-Idaho Devotional from 2005:
“Jesus was a lamb without spot or blemish. He was the sinless Son of God. And he chose to die at the hands of evil men so that salvation could come to all who believe and obey.
“…Joseph submitted to death at the hands of evil men so that salvation could come to all who believe and obey.” (Jack H. Goasling, “Joseph Smith’s Christlike Attributes,” June 28, 2005)
Mr. Goasling, of the First Quorum of the Seventy, said that Joseph Smith, like Jesus, died so that salvation could come.
Consider the Weber Stake Ward Teachers’ Lesson from June 1922:
“Christ sealed his testimony with his blood on Calvary. Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood at Carthage, Ill. Who shall doubt the divine mission of these Saviours of mankind?”
This lesson taught that Joseph’s death had great significance “(like Christ’s).”
Consider this newspaper report from 1988:
“The Old Carthage Jail, where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844, holds the same significance to his…followers as Calvary holds for Christians all over the world. That’s the comparison made by Ted Cannon, director of the Mormon Visitor Centers at Carthage and Nauvoo.” (Journal Star, Peoria, IL, Sunday, June 26, 1988, D3)
Mormon Ted Cannon suggested an understanding among Mormons that Calvary and Carthage have at least equal significance.
Consider these words from an LDS hymn:
“The Saints, the Saints, his only pride! For them he lived, for them he died…
“Unchanged in death with a Saviors love, he pleads their cause in the courts above…
“He died, he died, for those he loved. He reigns, he reigns in the realms above…” (The Seer, Joseph, The Seer, Hymns, 1975, #296)
This hymn claims that Joseph died for his followers and now intercedes for them before the judgment seat of God.
Finally, consider the writings of Rodney Turner, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Scripture (BYU):
“Jesus Christ and Joseph the Prophet came to bring life, light, and salvation to mankind. In doing so, they sealed their testimonies with their life’s blood. Both died because of who they were and what they proclaimed. For had they not lived the lives they lived and borne the witnesses they bore, they would not have died as they did. So Jesus died on the hill of Calvary; Joseph in the shadows of Carthage. Each triumphed in his own way.” (Rodney Turner, Jesus and Joseph: Parallel Lives, 169)
These statements all demonstrate that many Mormons do understand an “inherent significance (like Christ’s)” in Joseph Smith’s death. While they don’t believe Joseph died for their sins, his death was nevertheless necessary and efficacious for them in securing the full effect of the new covenant, the validity of Joseph’s testimony, and the coming of salvation.