Joseph Smith Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was an American religious leader and founder of Mormonism and the Latter Day Saint movement. When he was 24, Smith published the Book of Mormon. By the time of his death, 14 years later, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and founded a religion that continues to the present.
Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont. By 1817, he had moved with his family to the burned-over district of western New York; an area of intense religious revivalism during the Second Great Awakening. Smith said he experienced a series of visions, including one in 1820 during which he saw “two personages” (presumably God the Father and Jesus Christ), and another in 1823 in which an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization. In 1830, Smith published what he said was an English translation of these plates called the Book of Mormon. The same year he organized the Church of Christ, calling it a restoration of the early Christian church. Members of the church were later called “Latter Day Saints” or “Mormons“, and Smith announced a revelation in 1838 which renamed the church as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
In 1831, Smith and his followers moved west, planning to build a communalistic American Zion. They first gathered in Kirtland, Ohio and established an outpost in Independence, Missouri which was intended to be Zion’s “center place”. During the 1830s, Smith sent out missionaries, published revelations, and supervised construction of the Kirtland Temple. The collapse of the church-sponsored Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company and violent skirmishes with non-Mormon Missourians caused Smith and his followers to establish a new settlement at Nauvoo, Illinois, where he became a spiritual and political leader. In 1844, Smith and the Nauvoo city council angered non-Mormons by destroying a newspaper that had criticized Smith’s power and practice of polygamy. Smith was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, where he was killed when a mob stormed the jailhouse.
Smith published many revelations and other texts that his followers regard as scripture. His teachings discuss the nature of God, cosmology, family structures, political organization, and religious collectivism. His followers regard him as a prophet comparable to Moses and Elijah, and several religious denominations consider themselves the continuation of the church that he organized, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ.
Early years (1805–27)
Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont to Lucy Mack Smith and her husband Joseph Sr., a merchant and farmer. Modern DNA testing of Smith’s relatives suggests that his family were of Irish descent, as he carried a rare Y-DNA marker within Haplogroup R1b which is found almost entirely in people of Northwestern Irish descent.
Smith suffered a crippling bone infection when he was seven and, after receiving surgery, used crutches for three years. The family moved to the western New York village of Palmyra in 1816–17, after an ill-fated business venture and three years of crop failures, and they eventually took a mortgage on a 100-acre (40 ha) farm in the nearby town of Manchester. The region was a hotbed of religious enthusiasm during the Second Great Awakening. Between 1817 and 1825, there were several camp meetings and revivals in the Palmyra area. His parents disagreed about religion, but the family was caught up in this excitement. Smith said that he became interested in religion by age 12. As a teenager, he may have been sympathetic to Methodism. With other family members, Smith also engaged in religious folk magic, which was a relatively common practice in that time and place. Both his parents and his maternal grandfather reportedly had visions or dreams that they believed communicated messages from God. Smith said that, although he had become concerned about the welfare of his soul, he was confused by the claims of competing religious denominations.
Years later, Smith stated he had received a vision that resolved his religious confusion. He claimed that while praying in a wooded area near his home in 1820, God and Jesus Christ, in a vision, appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven and that all contemporary churches had “turned aside from the gospel.” Smith said he recounted the experience to a preacher, who dismissed the story with contempt. The event would later grow in importance to Smith’s followers, who now regard it as the first event in the gradual restoration of Christ’s church to earth. Until the 1840s, however, the experience was largely unknown, even to most Mormons. Smith may have originally understood the event simply as a personal conversion.
According to his later accounts, Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni, while praying one night in 1823. Smith said that this angel revealed the location of a buried book made of golden plates, as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of interpreters composed of two seer stones set in a frame, which had been hidden in a hill near his home. Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning, but was unsuccessful because the angel returned and prevented him. Smith reported that during the next four years, he made annual visits to the hill, but, until the fourth and final visit, each time he returned without the plates.
Meanwhile, the Smith family faced financial hardship, due in part to the death of Smith’s oldest brother Alvin, who had assumed a leadership role in the family. Family members supplemented their meager farm income by hiring out for odd jobs and working as treasure seekers, a type of magical supernaturalism common during the period. Smith was said to have an ability to locate lost items by looking into a seer stone, which he also used in treasure hunting, including several unsuccessful attempts to find buried treasure sponsored by a wealthy farmer in Chenango County, New York.In 1826, Smith was brought before a Chenango County court for “glass-looking”, or pretending to find lost treasure. The result of the proceeding remains unclear as primary sources report various conflicting outcomes.
While boarding at the Hale house in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Smith met and began courting Emma Hale. When Smith proposed marriage, Emma’s father, Isaac Hale objected, primarily because he believed Smith had no means to support Emma. Smith and Emma eloped and married on January 18, 1827, after which the couple began boarding with Smith’s parents in Manchester. Later that year, when Smith promised to abandon treasure seeking, Hale offered to let the couple live on his property in Harmony and help Smith get started in business.
Smith made his last visit to the hill on September 22, 1827, taking Emma with him. This time, he said he successfully retrieved the plates. He said the angel commanded him not to show the plates to anyone else, but to translate them and publish their translation. Smith said the translation was a religious record of indigenous Americans, and were engraved in an unknown language, called reformed Egyptian. He also told associates that he was capable of reading and translating them.
Although Smith had left his treasure hunting company, his former associates believed he had double crossed them and taken the golden plates for himself, which they believed should be joint property. After they ransacked places where they believed the plates could be hidden, Smith decided to leave Palmyra.
Founding a church (1827–30)
In October 1827, Joseph and Emma moved from Palmyra to Harmony (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, aided by a relatively prosperous neighbor, Martin Harris. Living near his in-laws, Smith transcribed some characters that he said were engraved on the plates, and then dictated a translation to Emma.
In February 1828, Martin Harris arrived to assist Smith by transcribing his dictation. Harris also took a sample of the characters to a few prominent scholars, including Charles Anthon. Harris said Anthon initially authenticated the characters and their translation, but then retracted his opinion after learning that Smith claimed to have received the plates from an angel. Anthon denied Harris’s account of the meeting, claiming instead that he had tried to convince Harris that he was the victim of a fraud. In any event, Harris returned to Harmony in April 1828, and continued as Smith’s scribe.
However, by June 1828, Harris began having doubts about the project, fueled in part by his wife’s skepticism. Harris convinced Smith to let him take the existing 116 pages of manuscript to Palmyra to show a few family members, including his wife. Harris lost the manuscript, of which there was no other copy. As punishment for losing the manuscript, Smith said that the angel returned and took away the plates, and revoked his ability to translate. During this period, Smith briefly attended Methodist meetings with his wife, until a cousin of hers objected to inclusion of a “practicing necromancer” on the Methodist class roll.
Smith said that the angel returned the plates to him in September 1828. In April 1829, he met Oliver Cowdery, who replaced Harris as his scribe, and resumed dictation. They worked full time on the manuscript between April and early June 1829, and then moved to Fayette, New York, where they continued to work at the home of Cowdery’s friend, Peter Whitmer. When the narrative described an institutional church and a requirement for baptism, Smith and Cowdery baptized each other. Dictation was completed about July 1, 1829.
Although Smith had previously refused to show the plates to anyone, he told Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer that they would be allowed to see them. These men, known collectively as the Three Witnesses, signed a statement stating that they had been shown the golden plates by an angel, and that the voice of God had confirmed the truth of their translation. Later, a group of Eight Witnesses — composed of male members of the Whitmer and Smith families — issued a statement that they had been shown the golden plates by Smith.According to Smith, the angel Moroni took back the plates once Smith finished using them.
The completed work, titled the Book of Mormon, was published in Palmyra on March 26, 1830, by printer E. B. Grandin. Soon after, on April 6, 1830, Smith and his followers formally organized the Church of Christ, and small branches were established in Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville, New York. The Book of Mormon brought Smith regional notoriety and opposition from those who remembered the 1826 Chenango County trial. After Cowdery baptized several new church members, the Mormons received threats of mob violence; before Smith could confirm the newly baptized members, he was arrested and brought to trial as a disorderly person. He was acquitted, but soon both he and Cowdery fled to Colesville to escape a gathering mob. In probable reference to this period of flight, Smith said that Peter, James, and John had appeared to him and had ordained him and Cowdery to a higher priesthood.
Smith’s authority was undermined when Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, and other church members also claimed to receive revelations. In response, Smith dictated a revelation which clarified his office as a prophet and an apostle, and which declared that only he held the ability to give doctrine and scripture for the entire church. Shortly after the conference, Smith dispatched Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and others on a mission to proselytize Native Americans. Cowdery was also assigned the task of locating the site of the New Jerusalem.
On their way to Missouri, Cowdery’s party passed through northeastern Ohio, where Sidney Rigdon and over a hundred followers of his variety of Campbellite Restorationism converted to Mormonism, more than doubling the size of the church. Rigdon soon visited New York and quickly became Smith’s primary assistant. With growing opposition in New York, Smith gave a revelation stating that Kirtland was the eastern boundary of the New Jerusalem, and that his followers must gather there.
Life in Ohio (1831–38)
When Smith moved to Kirtland, Ohio in January 1831, he encountered a religious culture that included enthusiastic demonstrations of spiritual gifts, including fits and trances, rolling on the ground, and speaking in tongues. Smith brought the Kirtland congregation under his own authority and tamed these outbursts. Rigdon’s followers had also been practicing a form of communalism, which Smith adopted, calling it the United Order. Smith had promised church elders that in Kirtland they would receive an endowment of heavenly power, and at the June 1831 general conference, he introduced the greater authority of a High (“Melchizedek”) Priesthood to the church hierarchy.
Converts poured into Kirtland. By the summer of 1835, there were fifteen hundred to two thousand Mormons in the vicinity, many expecting Smith to lead them shortly to the Millennial kingdom.Though his mission to the Indians had been a failure, Cowdery reported that he had found the site of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. After Smith visited in July 1831, he agreed, pronouncing the frontier hamlet of Independence the “center place” of Zion. Rigdon, however, disapproved, and for most of the 1830s the church remained divided between Ohio and Missouri.Smith continued to live in Ohio, but visited Missouri again in early 1832 to prevent a rebellion of prominent church members who believed the church in Missouri was being neglected. Smith’s trip was also hastened by a mob of Ohio residents who were incensed over the United Order and Smith’s political power; the mob beat Smith and Rigdon unconscious, tarred and feathered them, and left them for dead.
In Jackson County, existing Missouri residents resented the Mormon newcomers for both political and religious reasons. Tension increased until July 1833, when non-Mormons forcibly evicted the Mormons and destroyed their property. Smith advised them to bear the violence patiently until after they were attacked multiple times, after which they could fight back. After armed bands exchanged fire, killing one Mormon and two non-Mormons, the old settlers brutally expelled the Mormons from the county.
Smith ended the communitarian experiment and changed the name of the church to the “Church of Latter Day Saints,” before leading a small paramilitary expedition called Zion’s Camp, to aid the Missouri Mormons. As a military endeavor, the expedition was a failure; the men were outnumbered and suffered from dissension and a cholera outbreak. Nevertheless, Zion’s Camp transformed Mormon leadership, and many future church leaders came from among the participants.
After the Camp returned, Smith drew heavily from its participants to establish five governing bodies in the church, all originally of equal authority to check one another. Among these five groups was a quorum of twelve apostles. Smith gave a revelation saying that to redeem Zion, his followers would have to receive an endowment in the Kirtland Temple, and in March 1836, at the temple’s dedication, many participants in the promised endowment saw visions of angels, spoke in tongues, and prophesied.
In late 1837, a series of internal disputes led to the collapse of the Kirtland Mormon community. Smith was blamed for having promoted a church-sponsored bank that failed. He was also accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with his serving girl, Fanny Alger. Building the temple had left the church deeply in debt, and Smith was hounded by creditors. Having heard of a large sum of money supposedly hidden in Salem, Massachusetts, Smith traveled there and received a revelation that God had “much treasure in this city”. After a month, however, he returned to Kirtland empty-handed.
In January 1837, Smith and other church leaders created a joint stock company, called the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, to act as a quasi-bank; the company issued bank notes capitalized in part by real estate. Smith encouraged the Latter Day Saints to buy the notes, and he invested heavily in them himself, but the bank failed within a month. As a result, the Latter Day Saints in Kirtland suffered intense pressure from debt collectors and severe price volatility. Smith was held responsible for the failure, and there were widespread defections from the church, including many of Smith’s closest advisers. After a warrant was issued for Smith’s arrest on a charge of banking fraud, Smith and Rigdon fled Kirtland for Missouri in January 1838.
Life in Missouri (1838–39)
By 1838, Smith had abandoned plans to redeem Zion in Jackson County, and after Smith and Rigdon arrived in Missouri, the town of Far West became the new “Zion”. In Missouri, the church also took the name “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”, and construction began on a new temple. In the weeks and months after Smith and Rigdon arrived at Far West, thousands of Latter Day Saints followed them from Kirtland. Smith encouraged the settlement of land outside Caldwell County, instituting a settlement in Adam-ondi-Ahman, in Daviess County.
During this time, a church council expelled many of the oldest and most prominent leaders of the church, including John Whitmer, David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery. Smith explicitly approved of the expulsion of these men, who were known collectively as the “dissenters”.
Political and religious differences between old Missourians and newly-arriving Mormon settlers provoked tensions between the two groups, much as they had years earlier in Jackson County. By this time, Smith’s experiences with mob violence led him to believe that his faith’s survival required greater militancy against anti-Mormons. Around June 1838, recent convert Sampson Avard formed a covert organization called the Danites to intimidate Mormon dissenters and oppose anti-Mormon militia units. Though it is unclear how much Smith knew of the Danites’ activities, he clearly approved of those of which he did know. After Rigdon delivered a sermon that implied dissenters had no place in the Mormon community, the Danites forcibly expelled them from the county.
In a speech given at the town’s Fourth of July celebration, Rigdon declared that Mormons would no longer tolerate persecution by the Missourians and spoke of a “war of extermination” if Mormons were attacked. Smith implicitly endorsed this speech, and many non-Mormons understood it to be a thinly-veiled threat. They unleashed a flood of anti-Mormon rhetoric in newspapers and in stump speeches given during the 1838 election campaign.
On August 6, 1838, non-Mormons in Gallatin tried to prevent Mormons from voting, and the election-day scuffles initiated the 1838 Mormon War. Non-Mormon vigilantes raided and burned Mormon farms, while Danites and other Mormons pillaged non-Mormon towns. In the Battle of Crooked River, a group of Mormons attacked the Missouri state militia, mistakenly believing them to be anti-Mormon vigilantes. Governor Lilburn Boggs then ordered that the Mormons be “exterminated or driven from the state”. On October 30, a party of Missourians surprised and killed seventeen Mormons in the Haun’s Mill massacre.
The following day, the Latter Day Saints surrendered to 2,500 state troops and agreed to forfeit their property and leave the state. Smith was immediately brought before a military court, accused of treason, and sentenced to be executed the next morning; Alexander Doniphan, who was Smith’s former attorney and a brigadier general in the Missouri militia, refused to carry out the order. Smith was then sent to a state court for a preliminary hearing, where several of his former allies testified against him. Smith and five others, including Rigdon, were charged with “overt acts of treason”, and transferred to the jail at Liberty, Missouri, to await trial.
Smith’s months in prison with an ill and whining Rigdon strained their relationship. Meanwhile Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, rose to prominence when he organized the move of about 14,000 Mormon refugees to Illinois and eastern Iowa.
Smith bore his imprisonment stoically. Understanding that he was effectively on trial before his own people, many of whom considered him a fallen prophet, he wrote a personal defense and an apology for the activities of the Danites. “The keys of the kingdom,” he wrote, “have not been taken away from us”. Though he directed his followers to collect and publish their stories of persecution, he also urged them to moderate their antagonism toward non-Mormons. On April 6, 1839, after a grand jury hearing in Davis County, Smith and his companions escaped custody, almost certainly with the connivance of the sheriff and guards.
Life in Nauvoo, Illinois (1839–44)
Many American newspapers criticized Missouri for the Haun’s Mill massacre and the state’s expulsion of the Latter Day Saints. Illinois accepted Mormon refugees who gathered along the banks of the Mississippi River, where Smith purchased high-priced, swampy woodland in the hamlet of Commerce. Smith also attempted to portray the Latter Day Saints as an oppressed minority, and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for help in obtaining reparations. During the summer of 1839, while Latter Day Saints in Nauvoo suffered from a malaria epidemic, Smith sent Brigham Young and other apostles to missions in Europe, where they made numerous converts, many of them poor factory workers.
Smith also attracted a few wealthy and influential converts, including John C. Bennett, the Illinois quartermaster general. Bennett used his connections in the Illinois legislature to obtain an unusually liberal charter for the new city, which Smith named “Nauvoo” (Hebrew נָאווּ, meaning “to be beautiful”). The charter granted the city virtual autonomy, authorized a university, and granted Nauvoo habeas corpus power—which allowed Smith to fend off extradition to Missouri. Though Mormon authorities controlled Nauvoo’s civil government, the city promised an unusually liberal guarantee of religious freedom. The charter also authorized the Nauvoo Legion, an autonomous militia whose actions were limited only by state and federal constitutions. “Lieutenant General” Smith and “Major General” Bennett became its commanders, thereby controlling by far the largest body of armed men in Illinois. Smith made Bennett Assistant President of the church, and Bennett was elected Nauvoo’s first mayor.
In 1841, Smith began revealing the doctrine of plural marriage to a few of his closest male associates, including Bennett, who used it as an excuse to seduce numerous women wed and unwed.When embarrassing rumors of “spiritual wifery” got abroad, Smith forced Bennett’s resignation as Nauvoo mayor. In retaliation, Bennett left Smith’s following and wrote “lurid exposés of life in Nauvoo”.
The early Nauvoo years were a period of doctrinal innovation. Smith introduced baptism for the dead in 1840, and in 1841, construction began on the Nauvoo Temple as a place for recovering lost ancient knowledge. An 1841 revelation promised the restoration of the “fulness of the priesthood”; and in May 1842, Smith inaugurated a revised endowment or “first anointing”. The endowment resembled rites of freemasonry that Smith had observed two months earlier when he had been initiated “at sight” into the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. At first, the endowment was open only to men, who were initiated into a special group called the Anointed Quorum. For women, Smith introduced the Relief Society, a service club and sorority within which Smith predicted women would receive “the keys of the kingdom”. Smith also elaborated on his plan for a millennial kingdom. No longer envisioning the building of Zion in Nauvoo, Smith viewed Zion as encompassing all of North and South America, with Mormon settlements being “stakes” of Zion’s metaphorical tent. Zion also became less a refuge from an impending tribulation than a great building project. In the summer of 1842, Smith revealed a plan to establish the millennial Kingdom of God, which would eventually establish theocratic rule over the whole earth.
By mid-1842, popular opinion had turned against the Mormons. After an unknown assailant shot and wounded Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs in May 1842, anti-Mormons circulated rumors that Smith’s bodyguard, Porter Rockwell, was the shooter. Though the evidence was circumstantial, Boggs ordered Smith’s extradition. Certain he would be killed if he ever returned to Missouri, Smith went into hiding twice during the next five months, before the U.S. district attorney for Illinois argued that Smith’s extradition to Missouri would be unconstitutional. (Rockwell was later tried and acquitted.) In June 1843, enemies of Smith convinced a reluctant Illinois Governor Thomas Ford to extradite Smith to Missouri on an old charge of treason. Two law officers arrested Smith, but were intercepted by a party of Mormons before they could reach Missouri. Smith was then released on a writ of habeas corpus from the Nauvoo municipal court. While this ended the Missourians’ attempts at extradition, it caused significant political fallout in Illinois.
In December 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent territory with the right to call out federal troops in its defense. Smith then wrote to the leading presidential candidates and asked them what they would do to protect the Mormons. After receiving noncommittal or negative responses, Smith announced his own independent candidacy for President of the United States, suspended regular proselytizing, and sent out the Quorum of the Twelve and hundreds of other political missionaries. In March 1844 — following a dispute with a federal bureaucrat — Smith organized the secret Council of Fifty. Smith said the Council had authority to decide which national or state laws Mormons should obey. The Council was also to select a site for a large Mormon settlement in Texas, California, or Oregon, where Mormons could live under theocratic law beyond other governmental control.
By early 1844, a rift developed between Smith and a half dozen of his closest associates. Most notably, William Law, Smith’s trusted counselor, and Robert Foster, a general of the Nauvoo Legion, disagreed with Smith about how to manage Nauvoo’s economy. Both also said that Smith had proposed marriage to their wives. Believing the dissidents were plotting against his life, Smith excommunicated them on April 18, 1844. These dissidents formed a competing church and the following month, at Carthage, the county seat, they procured indictments against Smith for perjury and polygamy.
On June 7, the dissidents published the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, calling for reform within the church and appealing to the political views of the county’s other faiths as well as those of former Mormons. The paper decried Smith’s new “doctrines of many Gods”, alluded to Smith’s theocratic aspirations, and called for a repeal of the Nauvoo city charter. It also attacked Smith’s practice of polygamy, implying that Smith was using religion as a pretext to draw unassuming women to Nauvoo in order to seduce and marry them.
Fearing the newspaper would bring the countryside down on the Mormons, the Nauvoo city council declared the Expositor a public nuisance and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press.Smith, who feared another mob attack, supported the action, not realizing that destroying a newspaper was more likely to incite an attack than any libel.
Destruction of the newspaper provoked a strident call to arms from Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal and longtime critic of Smith. Fearing an uprising, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion on June 18 and declared martial law. Officials in Carthage responded by mobilizing their small detachment of the state militia, and Governor Thomas Ford appeared, threatening to raise a larger militia unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered themselves. Smith initially fled across the Mississippi River, but shortly returned and surrendered to Ford. On June 23, Smith and his brother Hyrum rode to Carthage to stand trial for inciting a riot. Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason.
On June 27, 1844, an armed mob with blackened faces stormed Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were being held. Hyrum, who was trying to secure the door, was killed instantly with a shot to the face. Smith fired three shots from a pepper-box pistol that his friend, Cyrus Wheelock, had lent him, wounding three men, before he sprang for the window. He was shot multiple times before falling out the window, crying, “Oh Lord my God!” He died shortly after hitting the ground, but was shot several more times before the mob dispersed. Five men were later tried for Smith’s murder, but were all acquitted. Smith was buried in Nauvoo, and is interred there at the Smith Family Cemetery.
After his death, non-Mormon newspapers were almost unanimous in portraying Smith as a religious fanatic. Conversely, within Mormonism, Smith was remembered first and foremost as a prophet, martyred to seal the testimony of his faith.
Smith attracted thousands of devoted followers before his death in 1844, and millions in the century that followed.Among Mormons, he is regarded as a prophet on par with Moses and Elijah. In a 2015 compilation of the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time, Smithsonian magazine ranked Smith first in the category of religious figures.
Mormons and non-Mormons have produced a large amount of scholarly work about Smith, and to a large extent the result has been two discordant pictures of very different people: a man of God on the one hand, and on the other, a fraud preying on the ignorance of his followers. Believers tend to focus on his achievements and religious teachings, deemphasizing his personal defects, while detractors focus on his mistakes, legal troubles, and controversial doctrines. During the first half of the 20th century, some writers suggested that Smith might have suffered from epileptic seizures or from psychological disorders such as paranoid delusions or manic-depressive illness that might explain his visions and revelations. Many modern biographers disagree with these ideas. More nuanced interpretations include viewing Smith as: a prophet who had normal human weaknesses; a “pious fraud” who believed he was called of God to preach repentance and felt justified inventing visions in order to convert people; or a gifted “mythmaker” who was the product of his Yankee environment. Biographers, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, agree that Smith was one of the most influential, charismatic, and innovative figures in American religious history.
See also: Succession crisis (Latter Day Saints) and List of sects in the Latter Day Saint movement
Smith’s death resulted in a succession crisis. Smith had proposed several ways to choose his successor, but had never clarified his preference. Smith’s brother Hyrum, had he survived, would have had the strongest claim, followed by Smith’s brother Samuel, who died mysteriously a month after his brothers. Another brother, William, was unable to attract a sufficient following. Smith’s sons Joseph III and David also had claims, but Joseph III was too young and David was yet unborn. The Council of Fifty had a theoretical claim to succession, but it was a secret organization. Some of Smith’s chosen successors, such as Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, had left the church.
The two strongest succession candidates were Brigham Young, senior member and president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and Sidney Rigdon, the senior member of the First Presidency. In a church-wide conference on August 8, most of the Latter Day Saints elected Young, who led them to the Utah Territory as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). Membership in Young’s denomination surpassed 14 million members in 2010. Smaller groups followed Sidney Rigdon and James J. Strang, who had based his claim on an allegedly forged letter of appointment. Others followed Lyman Wight and Alpheus Cutler. Many members of these smaller groups, including most of Smith’s family, eventually coalesced in 1860 under the leadership of Joseph Smith III and formed what was known for more than a century as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ), which now has about 250,000 members. As of 2013, members of the denominations originating from Smith’s teachings number approximately 16.3 million.
Family and descendants
The first of Smith’s wives, Emma Hale, gave birth to nine children during their marriage, five of whom died before the age of two. The eldest, Alvin (born in 1828), died within hours of birth, as did twins Thaddeus and Louisa (born in 1831). When the twins died, the Smiths adopted another set of twins, Julia and Joseph, whose mother had recently died in childbirth; Joseph died of measles in 1832. In 1841, Don Carlos, who had been born a year earlier, died of malaria. In 1842, Emma gave birth to a stillborn son. Joseph and Emma had four sons who lived to maturity: Joseph Smith III, Frederick Granger Williams Smith, Alexander Hale Smith, and David Hyrum Smith. Some historians have speculated—based on journal entries and family stories—that Smith may have fathered children with his plural wives. However, all DNA testing of potential Smith descendants from wives other than Emma has been negative.
Throughout her life, Emma Smith frequently denied that her husband had ever taken additional wives. Emma said that the very first time she ever became aware of a polygamy revelation being attributed to Smith by Mormons was when she read about it in Orson Pratt’s periodical The Seer in 1853. Emma campaigned publicly against polygamy, and was the main signatory of a petition in 1842, with a thousand female signatures, denying that Smith was connected with polygamy. As president of the Ladies’ Relief Society, Emma authorized publishing a certificate in the same year denouncing polygamy, and denying her husband as its creator or participant. Even on her deathbed, Emma denied Joseph’s involvement with polygamy, stating, “No such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband’s death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of … He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have”.
After Smith’s death, Emma Smith quickly became alienated from Brigham Young and the church leadership. Young, whom Emma feared and despised, was suspicious of her desire to preserve the family’s assets from inclusion with those of the church, and thought she would be even more troublesome because she openly opposed plural marriage. When most Latter Day Saints moved west, she stayed in Nauvoo, married a non-Mormon, Major Lewis C. Bidamon, and withdrew from religion until 1860, when she affiliated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, first headed by her son, Joseph Smith III. Emma never denied Smith’s prophetic gift or repudiated her belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
See also: Joseph Smith Translation of The Bible
According to the American historian and Mormonism expert Richard Bushman, the “signal feature” of Smith’s life was “his sense of being guided by revelation”. Instead of presenting ideas with logical arguments, Smith dictated authoritative revelations and let people decide whether to believe. Smith’s teachings came primarily through his claimed revelations, which read like scripture: oracular and open to interpretation. Smith and his followers viewed his claimed revelations as being above teachings or opinions, and it has been argued that Smith’s actions seemed to indicate that he believed in his revelations as much as his most loyal followers.
Smith claimed that his first recorded revelation was a rebuke from God for having let Martin Harris lose 116 pages of Book of Mormon manuscript, chastising him for “fearing man more than God”. The revelation was reportedly given in the voice of God rather than as a declaration mediated through Smith; and subsequent revelations assumed a similar authoritative style, often opening with words such as “Hearken O ye people which profess my name, saith the Lord your God.”
Book of Mormon
Main article: Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon has been called the longest and most complex of Smith’s revelations. It is organized as a compilation of smaller books, each named after its main named narrator or a prominent leader. It tells the story of the rise and fall of a religious civilization beginning about 600 BC and ending in 421 AD. The story begins with a family that leaves Jerusalem, just before the Babylonian captivity. They eventually construct a ship and sail to a “promised land” in the Western Hemisphere. There, they are divided into two factions: Nephites and Lamanites. The Nephites become a righteous people who build a temple and live the law of Moses, though their prophets teach a Christian gospel. The book explains itself to be largely the work of Mormon, a Nephite prophet and military figure. The book closes when Mormon’s son, Moroni, finishes engraving and buries the records written on the golden plates.
Christian themes permeate the work; for instance, Nephite prophets in the Book of Mormon teach of Christ’s coming, and talk of the star that will appear at his birth. After the crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem, Jesus appears in the Americas, repeats the Sermon on the Mount, blesses children, and appoints twelve disciples. The book ends with Moroni’s exhortation to “come unto Christ”.
Early Mormons understood the Book of Mormon to be a religious history of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Smith’s followers view it as a companion to the Bible and an additional witness of Christ, akin to a large apocryphal work.Modern historian Fawn Brodie has called the Book of Mormon a response to pressing cultural and environmental issues of Smith’s times, saying that Smith composed the Book of Mormon drawing from scraps of information available to him. Dan Vogel, another historian, says that the work is autobiographical in nature.
Smith never said how he produced the Book of Mormon, saying only that he translated by the power of God and implying that he had transcribed the words. The Book of Mormon itself states only that its text will “come forth by the gift and power of God unto the interpretation thereof”. As such, considerable disagreement about the actual method used exists. For at least some of the earliest dictation, Smith is said to have used the “Urim and Thummim”, a pair of seer stones he said were buried with the plates. Later, however, he is said to have used a chocolate-colored stone he had found in 1822 that he had used previously for treasure hunting. Joseph Knight said that Smith saw the words of the translation while he gazed at the stone or stones in the bottom of his hat, excluding all light, a process similar to divining the location of treasure. Sometimes, Smith concealed the process by raising a curtain or dictating from another room, while at other times he dictated in full view of witnesses while the plates lay covered on the table. After completing the translation, Smith gave the brown stone to Cowdery, but continued to receive revelations using another stone until about 1833 when he said he no longer needed it.
Although the Book of Mormon drew many converts to the church, Fawn Brodie argued that the “book lives today because of the prophet, not he because of the book.” Smith had assumed a role as prophet, seer, and apostle of Jesus Christ, and by early 1831, he was introducing himself as “Joseph the Prophet”. The language of authority in Smith’s revelations was appealing to converts, and the revelations were given with the confidence of an Old Testament prophet.
Moses and Abraham
Main articles: Book of Abraham and Book of Moses
Smith said that in June 1830, he received a “revelation of Moses” in which Moses saw “the world and the ends thereof” and asked God questions about the purpose of creation and man’s relationship to God. This revelation initiated a revision of the Bible on which Smith worked sporadically until 1833 and which remained unpublished at his death. Smith said that the Bible had been corrupted through the ages, and that his revision worked to restore the original intent; it added long passages rewritten “according to his inspiration”. While many changes involved straightening out seeming contradictions or making small clarifications, other changes added large “lost” portions to the text. For instance, Smith’s revision nearly tripled the length of the first five chapters of Genesis in what would become the Book of Moses.
The Book of Moses begins with Moses’ asking God about the purpose of creation. Moses is told in this account that God made the earth and heavens to bring humans to eternal life. The book also provides an enlarged account of the Genesis creation narrative and expands the story of Enoch, the ancestor of Noah. In the narrative, Enoch speaks with God, receives a prophetic calling, and eventually builds a city of Zion so righteous that it was taken to heaven. The book also elaborates and expands upon foreshadowing the coming of Christ, in effect Christianizing the Old Testament.
In 1835, Smith encouraged some Latter Day Saints in Kirtland to purchase rolls of ancient Egyptian papyri from a traveling exhibitor. Over the next several years, Smith worked to produce what he reported was a translation of one of these rolls, which was published in 1842 as the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham speaks of the founding of the Abrahamic nation, astronomy, cosmology, lineage and priesthood, and gives another account of the creation story. The papyri from which Smith dictated the Book of Abraham were thought to have been lost in the Great Chicago Fire. However, several fragments were rediscovered in the 1960s, were translated by Egyptologists, and were determined to be part of the Book of the Dead with no connection to Abraham. The LDS Church has proposed that Smith might have been inspired by the papyri rather than have been translating them literally, but prominent Egyptologists note that Smith copied characters from the scrolls and was specific about their meaning.
See also: Doctrine and Covenants
[The Holy Spirit] may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass.
According to Parley P. Pratt, Smith dictated revelations orally, and they were recorded by a scribe without revisions or corrections. Revelations were immediately copied, and then circulated among church members. Smith’s revelations often came in response to specific questions. He described the revelatory process as having “pure Intelligence” flowing into him. Smith, however, never viewed the wording to be infallible. The revelations were not God’s words verbatim, but “couched in language suitable to Joseph’s time”. In 1833, Smith edited and expanded many of the previous revelations, publishing them as the Book of Commandments, which later became part of the Doctrine and Covenants.
Smith gave varying types of revelations. Some were temporal, while others were spiritual or doctrinal. Some were received for a specific individual, while others were directed at the whole church. An 1831 revelation called “The Law” contained: directions for missionary work; rules for organizing society in Zion; a reiteration of the Ten Commandments; an injunction to “administer to the poor and needy”; and an outline for the law of consecration. An 1832 revelation called “The Vision” added to the fundamentals of sin and atonement, and introduced doctrines of life after salvation, exaltation, and a heaven with degrees of glory. Another 1832 revelation “on Priesthood” was the first to explain priesthood doctrine. Three months later, Smith gave a lengthy revelation called the “Olive Leaf” containing themes of cosmology and eschatology, and discussing subjects such as light, truth, intelligence, and sanctification; a related revelation given in 1833 put Christ at the center of salvation.
Also in 1833, at a time of temperance agitation, Smith delivered a revelation called the “Word of Wisdom,” which counseled a diet of wholesome herbs, fruits, grains, a sparing use of meat. It also recommended that Latter Day Saints avoid “strong” alcoholic drinks, tobacco, and “hot drinks” (later interpreted to mean tea and coffee). The Word of Wisdom was not originally framed as a commandment, but a recommendation. As such, Smith and other Latter Day Saints did not strictly follow this counsel, though it later became a requirement in the LDS Church. In 1835, Smith gave the “great revelation” that organized the priesthood into quorums and councils, and functioned as a complex blueprint for church structure. Smith’s last revelation, on the “New and Everlasting Covenant”, was recorded in 1843, and dealt with the theology of family, the doctrine of sealing, and plural marriage.
Before 1832, most of Smith’s revelations dealt with establishing the church, gathering his followers, and building the City of Zion. Later revelations dealt primarily with the priesthood, endowment, and exaltation. The pace of formal revelations slowed during the autumn of 1833, and again after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple. Smith moved away from formal written revelations spoken in God’s voice, and instead taught more in sermons, conversations, and letters. For instance, the doctrines of baptism for the dead and the nature of God were introduced in sermons, and one of Smith’s most famed statements about there being “no such thing as immaterial matter” was recorded from a casual conversation with a Methodist preacher.
Views and teachings
Main article: Teachings of Joseph Smith
Cosmology and theology
See also: Mormon cosmology and Godhead (Latter Day Saints)
Smith taught that all existence was material, including a world of “spirit matter” so fine that it was invisible to all but the purest mortal eyes. Matter, in Smith’s view, could neither be created nor destroyed; the creation involved only the reorganization of existing matter. Like matter, Smith saw “intelligence” as co-eternal with God, and taught that human spirits had been drawn from a pre-existent pool of eternal intelligences. Nevertheless, spirits could not experience a “fullness of joy” unless joined with corporeal bodies, according to Smith. The work and glory of God, then, was to create worlds across the cosmos where inferior intelligences could be embodied.
Though Smith initially viewed God the Father as a spirit, he eventually began teaching that God was an advanced and glorified man, embodied within time and space. By the end of his life, Smith was teaching that both God the Father and Jesus were distinct beings with physical bodies, but the Holy Spirit was a “personage of Spirit”. Through the gradual acquisition of knowledge, according to Smith, those who received exaltation could eventually become like God. These teachings implied a vast hierarchy of gods, with God himself having a father. In Smith’s cosmology, those who became gods would reign, unified in purpose and will, leading spirits of lesser capacity to share immortality and eternal life.
In Smith’s view, the opportunity to achieve exaltation extended to all humanity; those who died with no opportunity to accept saving ordinances could achieve exaltation by accepting them in the afterlife through ordinances performed on their behalf. Smith said that children who died in their innocence would be guaranteed to rise at the resurrection and receive exaltation. Apart from those who committed the eternal sin, Smith taught that even the wicked and disbelieving would achieve a degree of glory in the afterlife.
See also: Priesthood (Latter Day Saints), Freemasonry and the Latter Day Saint movement, and Endowment (Latter Day Saints)
Smith’s teachings were rooted in dispensational restorationism. He taught that the Church of Christ restored through him was a latter-day restoration of the early Christian faith, which had been lost in the Great Apostasy. At first, Smith’s church had little sense of hierarchy; his religious authority was derived from visions and revelations. Though Smith did not claim exclusive prophethood, an early revelation designated him as the only prophet allowed to issue commandments “as Moses”. This religious authority encompassed economic and political as well as spiritual matters. For instance, in the early 1830s, he temporarily instituted a form of religious communism, called the United Order, that required Latter Day Saints to give all their property to the church, which was divided among the faithful. He also envisioned that the theocratic institutions he established would have a role in the worldwide political organization of the Millennium.
By the mid-1830s, Smith began teaching a hierarchy of three priesthoods—the Melchizedek, the Aaronic, and the Patriarchal.Each priesthood was a continuation of biblical priesthoods through patrilineal succession or ordination by biblical figures appearing in visions. Upon introducing the Melchizedek or “High” Priesthood in 1831, Smith taught that its recipients would be “endowed with power from on high”, thus fulfilling a need for a greater holiness and an authority commensurate with the New Testament apostles. This doctrine of endowment evolved through the 1830s, until in 1842, the Nauvoo endowment included an elaborate ceremony containing elements similar to Freemasonry and the Jewish tradition of Kabbalah. The endowment was extended to women in 1843, though Smith never clarified whether women could be ordained to priesthood offices.
Smith taught that the High Priesthood’s endowment of heavenly power included the sealing powers of Elijah, allowing High Priests to effect binding consequences in the afterlife. For example, this power would enable proxy baptisms for the dead and priesthood marriages that would be effective into the afterlife. Elijah’s sealing powers also enabled the second anointing, or “fulness [sic] of the priesthood”, which, according to Smith, sealed married couples to their exaltation.
Theology of family
During the early 1840s, Smith unfolded a theology of family relations called the “New and Everlasting Covenant” that superseded all earthly bonds. He taught that outside the Covenant, marriages were simply matters of contract, and that in the afterlife individuals married outside the Covenant or not married would be limited in their progression. To fully enter the Covenant, a man and woman must participate in a “first anointing”, a “sealing” ceremony, and a “second anointing” (also called “sealing by the Holy Spirit of Promise”). When fully sealed into the Covenant, Smith said that no sin nor blasphemy (other than the eternal sin) could keep them from their exaltation in the afterlife. According to Smith, only one person on earth at a time—in this case, Smith—could possess this power of sealing.
Smith taught that the highest level of exaltation could be achieved through “plural marriage” (polygamy), which was the ultimate manifestation of this New and Everlasting Covenant. Plural marriage, according to Smith, allowed an individual to transcend the angelic state and become a god, accelerating the expansion of one’s heavenly kingdom.
See also: Origin of Latter Day Saint polygamy and Mormonism and polygamy
By some accounts, Smith had been teaching a polygamy doctrine as early as 1831, and there is unconfirmed evidence that Smith was a polygamist by 1835. Although the church had publicly repudiated polygamy, in 1837 there was a rift between Smith and Oliver Cowdery over the issue. Cowdery suspected Smith had engaged in a relationship with his serving girl, Fanny Alger. Smith never denied a relationship, but insisted it was not adulterous, presumably because he had taken Alger as a plural wife.
In April 1841, Smith wed Louisa Beaman. During the next two-and-a-half years he married or was sealed to about 30 additional women, ten of whom were already married to other men. Some of these polyandrous marriages were done with the consent of the first husbands, and some plural marriages may have been considered “eternity-only” sealings (meaning that the marriage would not take effect until after death). Ten of Smith’s plural wives were between the ages of fourteen and twenty; others were over fifty. The practice of polygamy was kept secret from both non-Mormons and most members of the church during Smith’s lifetime.
Polygamy caused a breach between Smith and his first wife, Emma. Although Emma knew of some of her husband’s marriages, she almost certainly did not know the extent of his polygamous activities. In 1843, Emma temporarily accepted Smith’s marriage to four women boarded in the Smith household, but soon regretted her decision and demanded the other wives leave. In July 1843, Smith dictated a revelation directing Emma to accept plural marriage, but the two were not reconciled until September 1843, after Emma began participating in temple ceremonies.
While campaigning for President of the United States in 1844, Smith had opportunity to take political positions on issues of the day. Smith considered the U.S. Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, to be inspired by God and “the [Latter Day] Saints’ best and perhaps only defense.”. He believed a strong central government was crucial to the nation’s well-being and thought democracy better than tyranny—although he also taught that a theocratic monarchy was the ideal form of government. In foreign affairs, Smith was an expansionist, though he viewed “expansionism as brotherhood”.
Smith favored a strong central bank and high tariffs to protect American business and agriculture. He disfavored imprisonment of convicts except for murder, preferring efforts to reform criminals through labor; he also opposed courts-martial for military deserters. He supported capital punishment but opposed hanging, preferring execution by firing squad or beheading.
On the issue of slavery, Smith took different positions. Initially he opposed it, but during the mid-1830s when the Mormons were settling in Missouri (a slave state), Smith cautiously justified slavery in an anti-abolitionist essay. Then in the early 1840s, after Mormons had been expelled from Missouri, he once again opposed slavery. During his presidential campaign of 1844, he proposed ending slavery by 1850 and compensating slaveholders for their loss. Smith said that blacks were not inherently inferior to whites, and he welcomed slaves into the church. However, he opposed baptizing them without permission of their masters, and he opposed interracial marriage.
Smith declared that he would be one of the instruments in fulfilling Nebuchadnezzar’s statue vision in the Book of Daniel: that secular government would be destroyed without “sword or gun”, and would be replaced with a “theodemocratic” Kingdom of God. Smith taught that this kingdom would be governed by theocratic principles, but that it would also be multidenominational and democratic, so long as the people chose wisely.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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