In 1844, an Illinois-based paper known as the Warsaw Signal published a resolution which read, in part, “we hold ourselves at all times in readiness to co-operate with our fellow-citizens in this state, Missouri and Iowa, to exterminate, utterly exterminate the wicked and abominable Mormon leaders, the authors of our troubles.”

Only weeks later, a mob, covered in black face, charged into Carthage Jail and killed Joseph Smith — prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and his brother Hyrum Smith.

Joseph Smith intended to lead the Saints west to protect his followers from additional violent persecution after he had written several state governors requesting asylum, to no avail. 

Latter-day Saints were in Illinois because they had already faced violence like the Haun’s Mill massacre and were concerned about their safety due to the governor of Missouri issuing an executive order previously that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies” and “driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.”

All this despite the fact that the Constitution rightly guarantees an individual’s right to freely believe and exercise their religion. 

Joseph Smith himself was a staunch advocate for this right. He said, “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or any other denomination. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul. Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees.”

On the anniversary of Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, there’s a time to reflect on why religious freedom rights are critical in preventing violence — and how we can protect them.

Perspective: Joseph Smith was on the frontier of the fight for religious freedom

Joseph Smith’s death nearly 180 years ago may sound outlandishly strange to modern readers — an anachronism of history. But in 2023, there continue to be religious martyrs — people killed for their religious beliefs by individuals, by mobs and by state-sanctioned violence. 

Katrina Lantos Swett, former chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, said in an interview with the Deseret News that people of faith, particularly minority faith communities, are experiencing persecution in a way that’s more intense than it’s been in a long time. 

Ahmadi Muslims, to illustrate, are a group of Muslims who believe they needed a modern prophet to restore Islam to its “pure and true origins.” According to some mainstream Muslims, the Ahmadi are considered a break-off group. 

In January 2023, nine Ahmadi Muslims were gathered to pray at a mosque in the West African nation of Burkina Faso. As Swett recounted, “What was particularly chilling about this terrible event was that these nine men were taken and lined up outside the mosque. And the first one was told: either you renounce your faith or we’re going to kill you.”

All were killed. Not a single one renounced his faith.

The Ahmadi face violence in other countries as well. In March 2023 in Bangladesh, their homes and places of worship were set ablaze by groups of protesters. And these are just the instances we know about. 

Thinking of communal violence in our modern age might be shocking, but it’s a painful, ongoing reality for many people of faith throughout the world. 

“There’s been a ratcheting up of attacks on Christian churches, communities, businesses,” Lantos Swett said, referencing a report from the International Society for Civil Liberties and Rule of Law tracking the killing of Christians which said just over 5,000 Christians were killed last year. 

Deborah Samuel Yakubu was a 25-year-old student at Shehu Shagari College of Education, a school in Nigeria. In a WhatsApp group, Yakubu shared a message about Jesus while her classmates were speaking about Islam. In May 2022, a group of men stoned and burned her to death. Two men were arrested for her death, according to Open Doors U.K.

Protesters have called for their release. 

But this isn’t just a problem in far-off nations. People in the U.S. have occasionally faced violence in the 21st century as well. In the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, a man shot and killed 11 Jewish people and injured seven more during their Sabbath service. Leading up to the shooting, he expressed strong antisemitic sentiment online. On June 16, he was convicted on federal hate crime charges

“So we are in a very grave moment,” Swett said. “... More religion-based hate crimes are committed against Jewish Americans or Jewish institutions than any other group in the United States.” In 2022, the Anti-Defamation League tracked an escalation of antisemitic incidents in the U.S. to 3,697. 

Such an inexcusable threat and reality of violence against religious people places them in more than just physical danger — it corrodes the mental and emotional safety citizens deserve in their own countries. This ultimately represents a corrosion of what should be an unalienable right for everyone — the right to believe freely and exercise their beliefs freely.

The gospel of reconciliation

In some of the above instances of violence against religious people, there’s been another common component — a mob. 

Some members of the mob who killed Joseph Smith were taken to trial and never convicted. Many members of the mob were believed to come from Warsaw — the town with a newspaper and political movement squarely pinned against Latter-day Saints for a couple of years before the martyrdom actually occurred. 

It was a mob that likewise formed to kill the Nigerian woman Yakubu. Communal violence, communal acceptance of violence and communal apathy toward violence are all scary realities with the potential to spiral out of control in ways that seriously hamper people’s rights. 

Violence, though it may be the most significant tool of a mob, isn’t the only one — destruction of property, severe reputational damage, stigma, libel, discrimination and other evils can result from a swarming mob intent on hurting someone. 

If a person cannot express sincerely held religious beliefs without facing significant retribution from a mob or mobs, that person isn’t free to live according to the dictates of their own conscience. 

One reason it’s important to highlight these realities is that many Americans today dismiss talk of religious freedom as a trivial concern of a bygone era. But for people of faith, unpopular religious beliefs increasingly face public hostility. 

This is reflected in an increase in vandalism on places of worship. On July 25, 2022, a fire broke out in the Orem Utah Temple, which the police determined was a case of arson. Latter-day Saint chapels in Perry, St. George, Hurricane, Sandy and Orem have been vandalized in the last year or so. This public hostility and contempt threatening people of faith is a barrier to public safety and pluralism. 

Clearly, domestically and internationally, there is a need for the continued defense of religious freedom. Contemplating the violence Joseph Smith, the early Latter-day Saints, Ahmadi Muslims, Jewish people and so many other religious groups face today reminds us to work for others to live their conscience. 

Like Smith said, “I do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men nor dictate forms for public or private devotion. The civil magistrate should restrain crime but never control conscience, should punish guilt but never suppress the freedom of the soul.”