In 1838, Thomas B. Marsh, a onetime senior apostle who became a bitter apostate of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, swore out an affidavit claiming to have heard the Prophet Joseph Smith say that “he would yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; and if he was not let alone, he would be a second Mohammed to this generation, and that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky mountains to the Atlantic ocean; that like Mohammed, whose motto in treating for peace was, ‘the Alcoran or the Sword.’ So should it be eventually with us, ‘Joseph Smith or the Sword’” (see “History of the Church” 3:167).
Critics often use this alleged statement (and its misrepresentation of Muhammad) to malign Joseph’s character, to portray the man who was the first president of what is now the LDS Church as an unprincipled would-be tyrant.
But is it authentic?
Maybe. The so-called “1838 Mormon War” was on. Many LDS Church leaders were falling away, including the Book of Mormon witnesses Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer and apostles such as Marsh and Orson Hyde. The Hawn’s Mill Massacre, which left 17 members of the church dead, occurred on Oct. 30. Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith, along with others, would be condemned to death on Nov. 1, and then, when Alexander Doniphan refused to obey that order, they were cast into Liberty Jail, where they remained from Dec. 1 until April 6, 1839. Meanwhile, led by Brigham Young, Latter-day Saints fled the state through winter snows, seeking asylum in Illinois.
It’s conceivable that, under such stress, hoping to intimidate Missouri’s anti-Mormons and to persuade them to leave the Saints alone, Joseph Smith might have engaged in exaggerated rhetoric.
It’s much more likely, though, that the statement is false, wholly or in part. Arnold Green and Lawrence Goldrup remarked in 1971 that “this threat was quite probably a mere fabrication by the disgruntled Marsh” (see their “‘Joseph Smith, an American Muhammad?’ An Essay on the Perils of Historical Analogy,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 6/1, Page 47.) “Orson Hyde,” they observe, “who seconded Marsh's allegations in 1838, had a change of heart the following year and confessed that unspecified portions of the affidavit had been invented by Marsh.”
Joseph Smith’s own journal reports of the period that “some excitement was raised in the adjoining Counties against us, in consequence of the (sudden) departure of the apostates from this Church, into that vicinity reporting false stories, and statements, but when (the Missourians) come to hear the other side of the question their feeling(s) were all allayed upon that subject” (“The Papers of Joseph Smith,” Vol. 2:255-256, edited by Dean C. Jessee).
“I became jealous of the Prophet,” Marsh himself remarked around the time of his 1857 Utah rebaptism (a rebaptism that’s difficult to explain if he really considered Joseph Smith a bloodthirsty aspiring dictator), “and then I saw double, and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil. I felt angry and wrathful; and the Spirit of the Lord being gone, as the Scriptures say, I was blinded, and I thought I saw a beam in brother Joseph's eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam; but I thought I saw a beam in his, and I wanted to get it out; and, as brother Heber says, I got mad, and I wanted everybody else to be mad” (see “Journal of Discourses,” Vol. 5:207).
The fact is that Joseph Smith didn’t actually behave in the belligerent manner suggested by this dubious “quotation.” The Mormons couldn’t have conquered Missouri, let alone everything from the Atlantic to the Rockies, and Joseph never showed any inclination to try it. After all, he sued for peace in Missouri (and, as a consequence, was arrested and nearly executed). And during the last month of his life, even after his arrest and imprisonment at Carthage Jail — where he was, in fact, murdered by government militia — he ordered the Nauvoo Legion to stand down (see "Church History In The Fulness Of Times," Chapter 22).
Joseph probably made a comment about Muhammad in Missouri that Marsh misheard, misunderstood or (consciously or not) angrily distorted. David Grua provides seeming corroboration for some such statement in his 2007 essay “Joseph Smith or the Sword!?” published on juvenileinstructor.org.
However, we don’t know whether that seeming corroboration represents genuinely independent testimony. And the precise wording of Joseph’s alleged statement is crucial — but we cannot know it. A secondhand allegation by a hostile witness is an awfully slender thread upon which to base a serious accusation against Joseph Smith and his character.
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.