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Quoting Joseph Smith on “the Al-Koran or the sword”

[ by Charles Cameron — Christopher Hitchens, Muhammad, Jack Chick, and Joseph Smith ]


I get so tired of people not doing their homework, left and right.

Or perhaps that should read, Left and Right.


I don’t know quite how you’d classify Christopher Hitchens, but in a Slate article today titled Romney’s Mormon Problem: Mitt Romney and the weird and sinister beliefs of Mormonism, he asserts:

On his later forays into the chartless wilderness, there to play the role of Moses to his followers (who were permitted and even encouraged in plural marriage, so as to go forth and mass-produce little Mormons), Smith also announced that he wanted to be known as the Prophet Muhammad of North America, with the fearsome slogan: “Either al-Koran or the Sword.”

Juicy, eh?

Luckily, Hitchens has linked the phrase “Either al-Koran or the Sword” – so we can source the quote in, let’s see, Christopher Hitchens, in his book God is Not Great, as excerpted in Slate again:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-hereafter known as the Mormons-was founded by a gifted opportunist who, despite couching his text in openly plagiarized Christian terms, announced that “I shall be to this generation a new Muhammad” and adopted as his fighting slogan the words, which he thought he had learned from Islam, “Either the Al-Koran or the sword.”

Sadly, there’s no link this time, no further sourcing of the quote.


Hugh Nibley is my go-to man for Mormon scholarship (orthodox), and it doesn’t surprise me that there’s an essay of his on the web comparing Islam and Mormonism [.pdf].

Nibley accepts that “in fact, early Mormon leaders saw no reason why Mohammed should not be considered a true prophet, for there have been many prophets, great and small, in the past whose words are not in the Bible.” But that impression didn’t long survive a second observation:

[T]he striking resemblance turns almost at once into an equally striking contrast when the Moslems announce that Mohammed is the last of the prophets and that there can be no prophet after him. “When a doctrine is sealed,” writes an eminent Moslem scholar, “it is complete, and there can be no further addition. The holy Prophet Mohammed closed the long line of Apostles. … there has been and will be no prophet after Mohammed.”

Nibley’s six-page essay has no quotation in which Joseph Smith speaks of “Al-Koran or the sword”.

Neither, in fact, does Todd Harris in his 162-page 2007 BYU Master’s thesis A Comparison of Muhammad and Joseph Smith in the Prophetic Pattern [.pdf].


Jack Chick to the rescue.

As you may know, Jack Chick publishes some appallingly poorly illustrated Christian booklets that are almost as small as large postage stamps, and almost as much fun to collect.

Chick’s larger-than-usual publication The Enchanter, whose cover graces the top of this post, includes the following garishly interesting graphic:

But – poor taste in art aside – Chick is more thoroughgoing than Hitchens, and is kind enough to supply us with references for the statements he makes. In a commentary on his own pamphlet, he writes:

On October 14, 1838, Joseph Smith called himself a “second Muhammad” as he was concluding a speech in the public square at Far West, Missouri. Those words have been verified by affidavits from Thomas B. Marsh, Orson Hyde (from Joseph’s Quorum of the Twelve), George M. Hinkle, John Corrill, W.W. Phelps (a major leader in the Mormon church), Samson Avard (founder of the Danites), and Reed Peck.

To Marsh’s statement, he footnotes thus:

For the full affidavit of Thomas B. Marsh, see The Rocky Mountain Saints by T. B. H. Stenhouse (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1873), pp. 89-90.

and points out that we can read the relevant pages ourselves on Google Books.


There’s an article titled From the Archives: Joseph Smith or the Sword!? at the Juvenile Instructor blog, commenting on the Jack Chick publication, which handily quotes the various 1838 testimonies in which associates and one-time associates attest that Smith compared himself with the Prophet of Islam – that of Thomas Marsh being the only one of which actually offers us the phrase that Hitchens — remember Hitchens? – was (almost) quoting.

Marsh’s statement reads:

I have heard the prophet say that he should yet tread down his enemies, and walk over their dead bodies; that if he was not let alone he would be a second Mahomet to this generation, and that he would make it one gore of blood from the Rocky Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean; that like Mahomet, whose motto, in treating for peace, was “the Alcoran or the Sword,” so should it be eventually with us, “Joseph Smith or the Sword.”

And so — with the exceptions that the original has “Mohammed” where the Juvenile Instructor has “Mahomet” and that the original has single quotes where the Juvenile Instructor has double — Marsh’s testimony as published in Stenhouse’s book does indeed read.


So that’s the closest thing we have to a source for Joseph Smith having made the statement that Hitchens says Smith “adopted as his fighting slogan” – when even that one source has Smith uttering it with the conditional “if he was not left alone” and the future-oriented “so should it be eventually with us”…

For what it may be worth — no more and no less, and I shall not be the judge of that — the third volume of BH RobertsHistory of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints contains the following, which I take to be placed in the mouth of Smith himself, but drawn from his diaries and other contemporary papers:

Thomas B. Marsh, formerly president of the Twelve, having apostatized, repaired to Richmond and made affidavit before Henry Jacobs, justice of the peace, to all the vilest slanders, aspersions, lies and calumnies towards myself and the Church, that his wicked heart could invent. He had been lifted up in pride by his exaltation to office and the revelations of heaven concerning him, until he was ready to be overthrown by the first adverse wind that should cross his track, and now he has fallen, lied and sworn falsely, and is ready to take the lives of his best friends. Let all men take warning by him, and learn that he who exalteth himself, God will abase.

This at least gives us a sense of the tension between the two men…

And consider this:

The disaffected and the apostate are in particular informants whose evidence has to be used with circumspection. The apostate is generally in need of self-justification. He seeks to reconstruct his own past, to excuse his former affiliations, and to blame those who were formerly his closest associates. Not uncommonly the apostate learns to rehearse an ‘atrocity story’ to explain how, by manipulation, trickery, coercion, or deceit, he was induced to join or to remain within an organization that he now forswears and condemns.

That’s from Bryan Wilson, Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, and author of The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society.


Homework, Hitchens, homework!

I shouldn’t say stuff like that – I’m sure I’ve missed a few points myself.


At least Hitchens is wittier than Limbaugh.

9 Responses to “Quoting Joseph Smith on “the Al-Koran or the sword””

  1. toto Says:

    "So that’s the closest thing we have to a source for Joseph Smith having made the
    statement that Hitchens says Smith “adopted as his fighting slogan”"

    And that’s still much better than the vast majority of hadiths, right? I mean you can’t beat a one-person isnad! 🙂

  2. david ronfeldt Says:

    excellent sleuthing, charles.  incisive too.

  3. The Weird and Sinister Beliefs of Mormonism | FAIR Blog Says:

    […] [7]: Hitchens is fond of putting words in Joseph Smith’s mouth, including the infamous “al-Koran or the sword” quote. For more on this, pursue the following link. […]

  4. Joseph Fouche Says:

    Thomas B. Marsh crossed the plains to Utah in 1857 and rejoined the LDS church. Other prominent leaders who broke with Joseph Smith during the 1838 war between the state of Missouri and the Latter-day Saints like Oliver Cowdrey, Orson Hyde, W.W. Phelps, or Martin Harris reconciled with the church both before (Hyde, Phelps) and after (Cowdrey, Harris) Smith was assassinated in 1844. Other dissenting church leaders like David Whitmer, John Whitmer, Hiram Page, or William M’Lellin stayed in Missouri and formed their own offshoot of the LDS church. 
    Statements by Marsh and others were sworn out after Smith and other church leaders were seized outside the LDS settlement of Far West, Missouri during what they thought was a parley. The commander of the Missouri militia held a court-martial which sentenced the church leaders to death. However, the subordinate milita commander ordered to shoot Smith at dawn refused to carry out the order as military tribunals of U.S. citizens violated the laws of the state of Missouri. Smith and the other leaders were handed over to civil authorities who held Smith and six other leaders in miserable conditions in the jail in Liberty, Missouri over the winter of 1838-1839. 
    Part of the abortive parley that led to Smith’s arrest led to the Saints’ firearms being confiscated by Missouri militia. As a result, during the same winter of 1838-1839, over 10,000 defenseless Latter-day Saints were driven from the state of Missouri by Missouri militia and mob violence. Most members had the bulk of their property confiscated.  Many died from exposure to the harsh winter. In the spring of 1839, Smith and his fellow prisoners escaped during a prison transfer, possibly with the connivance of their captors, and joined the rest of the Saints in refugee camps across the Mississippi River in western Illinois. Attempts to win compensation for the Saints’ lost property and other abuses from the state of Missouri and the government of the United States went nowhere (which is why more Latter-day Saints remember who Martin van Buren is than any other American demographic group). 
    But, in no time at all, it turned out that the Missouri War was only the beginning of the Latter-day Saint adventure.

  5. Grantley Says:

    Thanks for this. I often let these things just pass because they just don’t square with the whole rest of Joseph’s corpus, but it is nice to have the research presented here like this. Hitchens always seems angry about everything. That just doesn’t seem honest or healthy.

  6. Charles Cameron Says:

    Sorry it took me so long to respond. 
    You comment about the “one-person isnad” is indeed intriguing — but there are significant differences between the cases, neh?  For one thing, there’s the business of printing being available to Joseph Smith and his companions, and for another, I don’t suppose the great hadith collections include sayings attributed to enemies of the Prophet, do they?
    The Qur’anic injunctions about witnesses include:

    And take for witness two persons from among you, endued with justice, and establish the evidence (as) before Allah

    I’d be interested to know if such verses (eg 65.2) are quoted in the literature of hadith studies.

  7. James Says:

    I found a very relevant quote by Joseph Smith which I don’t think has been mentioned yet. On June 30, 1843, Joseph Smith addressed a large gathering of Latter-day Saints. He had just returned from being arrested and dragged away to Missouri for trial. He said the following:

    Our enemies have prophesied that we would establish our religion by the sword; is it true? No, but if Missouri will not stay her cruel hand in her unhallowed persecutions against us, I restrain you not any longer: I say, in the name of Jesus Christ, by the authority of the Holy Priesthood, I this day turn the key that opens the heavens to restrain you no longer from this time forth. I will lead you to battle; and if you are not afraid to die, and feel disposed to spill your blood in your own defence, you will not offend me. Be not the aggressor—bear until they strike you on the one cheek; then offer the other and they will be sure to strike that then defend yourselves, and God will bear you off, and you shall stand forth clear before His tribunal.

    This can be found in Journal of Discourses vol 2, pg 165-166
    You will note that Joseph Smith specifically refutes the notion that Mormons will establish their religion by the sword. He goes on to say that they will not shy away from protecting themselves from persecutors, but only after much patience. It is a form of protection, not conquest.

  8. Charles Cameron Says:

    Thanks, James.  

    I suspect I’ll be using that quote again fairly soon, in a post on the varieties of religious responses to violence.
  9. Jabez Hunting Says:

    One other source: John Corrill. “Corrill remembered strong talk [among the Danites].  Joseph said that “if they came on us to molest us, we would establish our religion by the sword; and that he would become to this generation a second Mahomet.”  — Rough Stone Rolling, Richard L. Bushman, pg. 352.

    This quote by Corrill’s is much closer to that of Marsh’s.   

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