Joseph Smith


Joseph Smith was raised in western New York by Christian parents who also believed in folk magic, a common practice of that time. Smith himself refused to join any one church, but he read the Bible regularly. His family earned their living by treasure seeking, an illegal activity condemned by the clergy, and Joseph assisted by using seer stones to find lost items and buried riches. Smith had his first vision from God in 1820, and three years later he spoke of being visited at night by the angel Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as a set of spectacles whose lenses were seer stones. Smith tried to unearth the plates on several occasions, but each time he claimed that he had been prevented from doing so by the angel. Meanwhile, he continued to practice treasure seeking, until he was tried for the crime in 1826. After his release, he met and eloped with Emma Hale. Sure that she was the key to obtaining the golden plates, he brought her with him to the hillside, where he was finally able to retrieve the treasure. He could not show them to anyone, however, but was commanded to lock them away and only reveal their translation using his seer stones.

In 1827, Smith and his wife moved to Pennsylvania, where Smith continued to translate the tablets. His in-laws disapproved, but in 1828 Martin Harris arrived to spur him on and act as his scribe. Within only a few months, however, even Harris began to doubt the existence of the plates, and he borrowed Smith’s manuscripts to take home to his family. On the way, Harris lost the writings, and Smith said that the angel had taken away the plates and his ability to translate until early the next year, when he found a new scribe in Oliver Cowdery. The two men continued to work until July 1829, when the translation was completed and the plates taken away once more. Later, Smith asked a group of eleven witnesses to testify that they had seen and felt the plates, but little evidence dictates whether they were ever truly in the presence of the objects. The translation, known as the Book of Mormon, was published in 1830, and that same year the Church of Christ was established.

Smith’s findings were not met well by the local population, and he and his followers fled toward Missouri. While on their way, they stopped in Kirtland, Ohio and converted over a hundred members of Sidney Rigdon’s Disciples of Christ congregation, more than doubling the size of their church. Rigdon was made second-in-command of the Mormon Church, and within four years of living in Kirtland, more than 1500 people had converted to the new religion. Meanwhile, Oliver Cowdery sent word to Smith that he had found the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. Smith agreed, but Rigdon did not, and for a time the church was divided between the two leaders. Mormon newcomers were attacked repeatedly, and when they finally retaliated, they were expelled from the county. Smith changed the name of his church to “Church of the Latter Day Saints” and sent an expedition, which failed miserably, to Missouri. Smith justified the defeat, claiming that the Mormons were not prepared to enter the Holy Land, and would have to wait until the church elders received another endowment of heavenly power. Meanwhile, Smith reorganized the Church’s infrastructure, creating five governing bodies of equal power and revising many of his revelations to be more widely accepted. The Saints built the Kirtland Temple, and after its completion in 1836, they participated in the endowment about which Smith had spoken. Shortly thereafter, however, the Kirtland Mormon community began to dissolve, and Smith argued with his followers over several issues, among them the practice of polygamy, which he chose to follow in private. Building the temple created sizable debt, and Smith tried and failed to establish a church bank. Hounded by debt collectors and charged with banking fraud, Smith and Rigdon fled for Missouri in 1838.

Upon their arrival in Missouri, the Mormons set out to establish the town of Far West, which would be their new holy city. The name of the church was changed once more, this time to the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” and construction of a new temple began. Many Kirtland Mormons, realizing their loss, followed Smith to Missouri, but those who did not agree with his teachings were exiled from the community. Although the Mormon leader abhorred violence, a military unit was established to keep out religious dissenters, including Oliver Cowdery’s followers, and intimidate anti-Mormon militia troops. Rigby led the offensive, threatening to murder any who dared attack the Saints, and his words produced an onslaught of speeches and articles slurring the Mormons and insisting that they not be allowed to vote in the upcoming state elections. This back-and-forth escalated into the 1838 Mormon War, during which farms and towns on both sides were pillaged and burned. The war concluded with the Haun’s Mill Massacre, when eighteen Mormon men, women, and children were killed while resisting the Missouri militia. The Saints surrendered, and Smith, along with several other leaders, was imprisoned. Meanwhile, Brigham Young took command and led the Mormons to Illinois. Many Saints now considered Smith a fallen prophet, but he insisted that God was still working through him. Those in jail tried several times to escape, and they finally succeeded in 1839 before making their way north to Illinois.

The country criticized Missouri for expelling the Mormons, and Illinois welcomed the refugees. The religion also attracted several wealthy patrons, including John C. Bennett, who arranged a charter granting the Saints’ new city virtual autonomy. Smith named the city Nauvoo, Hebrew for “to be beautiful.” Bennett was made Assistant President of the Church as well as Nauvoo’s first mayor, and Smith concentrated his full attention on a series of doctrinal revisions, including the addition of baptism for the dead in 1840. Around that same time, he also married Louisa Beaman, and during the next two years he wed as many as thirty additional women, several of whom were already wives. By this time, popular opinion had turned against the church, and when the Missouri governor was shot by a former Mormon soldier, Smith went into hiding. Both the shooter and Smith were acquitted, but the majority of Illinois residents wanted the Saints out of the state.

In December 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent territory under the protection of federal troops. When he did not receive a positive response, he announced his own third-party candidacy for the U.S. presidency, and sending out hundreds of missionaries to spread the faith. He also organized a Council of Fifty, whose first act was to elect Smith “prophet, priest, and king” of their future religious monarchy. Within only a few weeks of this decision, however, Smith and his brother were charged with treason and imprisoned in Carthage jail. During their incarceration, a group of men broke in and fired shots at the two men. Smith’s brother was killed instantly; Smith escaped, but was shot several times and died shortly after leaping from the jailhouse window.

Key events during the life of Joseph Smith:

Had his first vision from God, in which he was told that all current churches were false.
Visited by the angel Moroni, who revealed the location of a book of golden plates.
Arrested for treasure seeking in New York.
Eloped with Emma Hale.
  Unearthed the golden plates and locked them away in a chest after translating their contents.
  Moved to Pennsylvania.
Finished his translation of the golden plates.
Published the Book of Mormon.
  Organized the Church of Christ.
Began a revision of the Bible.
Completion of the Kirtland Temple.
Fled to Missouri after being charged with bank fraud.
  Mormon War.
  Arrested and imprisoned.
Escaped and fled to Illinois.
Introduced baptism for the dead into his doctrine.
Secretely took Louisa Beaman as his plural wife.
  Construction of the Nauvoo temple.
Ran for the presidency as a third-party candidate.
Arrested for treason.
  Killed while attempting to escape a group of armed men.

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
The Mormons  in  Story of the Great Republic  by  H. A. Guerber
Buchanan—The Story of the Mormons  in  This Country of Ours  by  H. E. Marshall

Short Biography
Brigham Young Leader of the Church of Latter Day Saints after the death of Smith. Led the Mormans to Utah.
Andrew Jackson Hero of the Battle of New Orleans, President of U.S., and founder of Democratic Party.