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Joseph Smith, Jr.

1843 daguerreotype of Joseph Smith, Jr. taken by Lucian Foster (Library of Congress).
1843 daguerreotype of
Joseph Smith, Jr. taken by
Lucian Foster (Library of Congress).

Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 - June 27, 1844) was the charismatic founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement. Latter Day Saints revere him as a prophet and martyr. In 1844, he also ran for President of the United States on an anti-slavery platform, and was the first candidate assassinated during a U.S. Presidential campaign.

According to Latter Day Saint doctrine, when Joseph was a fourteen year old boy God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him and indicated that through him the Church of Jesus Christ would be restored to the Earth once again. Following this occurrence, Smith translated several volumes of scripture, including The Book of Mormon and The Pearl of Great Price, and dictated new revelation, known as The Doctrine and Covenants. Considered part of the early 19th century Restorationism movement, he attested that he was chosen by God to restore the Church of Christ to a world that had fallen away, resulting in the Great Apostasy.

Critics regarded him, his religion, and his politics with contempt and often violence, leading to his death at the hands of an angry mob at Carthage, Illinois, in 1844. Smith and his legacy continue to evoke strong emotion. His life and works are subject to considerable ongoing debate and research. Some Mormons regard negative criticism as verification of Smith's own prophecy, received when 17 years old, that his name and reputation would be subject to both praise and scorn among all nations, kindreds, and tongues.

1 Studies
2 References
3 Related articles
4 External links


Early life

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, the fourth child of Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths suffered considerable financial problems and moved several times in and around New England.

During the winter of 1812 - 1813, Smith's leg became seriously infected. Some doctors advised amputation, but Smith's family refused. Smith later recovered, though he used crutches for several years and was for the rest of his life bothered with a limp.

Local court records show Smith was tried on March 20, 1826; charged with, and convicted of, disorderly conduct for so-called money-digging activities: using supposedly supernatural stones to dig for treasure. Some argue associated court documents were forged or altered to cast Smith in an unfair light; others have argued that such "treasure digging" was a common form of folk magic and that Smith was not unique in its practice. Other critics argue the trial was an early example of what they consider Smith's deceptive nature and use of occult methods. Some have argued there is evidence that Smith was not present at the trial, or that the trial was conducted more than ten years after the original allegation, or that court records were added after Smith left the New York area.

Smith married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827. Some sources report the couple eloped due to the Hale family's disapproval of Smith.

The First Vision

Smith reported that he spoke with God the Father and Jesus Christ in the spring of 1820. This initial vision when Joseph was still a boy was to direct the rest of his life. Within the Latter-day Saint movement today this event is of primary importance in Church history and in the restoration of the Gospel upon the earth. See First Vision.

Visitation of the Angel Moroni

Smith claimed that three years following this first vision he was visited by an angel, Moroni, three times during the evening and night of September 21, 1823, and once more in the morning of September 22. Moroni told Smith about gold plates hidden in the ground near his home, on a hill now called Cumorah. These plates were said to contain an account of ancient inhabitants of North America and their relationship with Jesus Christ, inscribed in "Reformed Egyptian" characters.

Following this revelation, the next day, September 22, 1823, Smith reported that he went to the hill to recover the plates, but was rebuked during a fifth visitation by Moroni, who said Smith was not yet ready to receive the plates.

Smith returned to the hill at the same time, as directed by Moroni, in 1824, 1825 and 1826, and claimed Moroni returned each night counseling him. Only on September 22, 1827 was Smith allowed to take the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and a breastplate.

Smith's account of the First Vision and this encounter with Moroni is contained in the Pearl of Great Price in Joseph Smith-History, verses 1-20 and 27-54.

Translation of the Book of Mormon

Smith translated portions of the plates from December 1827 to February 1828, using Emma Smith and her brother Reuben as scribes. There are various reports as to how Smith accomplished his translations. Joseph Smith claimed that he translated the plates using divine power and the Urim and Thummim.

Martin Harris acted as scribe for Smith's translations from April to June of 1828. In early April, 1829, Smith began translating again, with Oliver Cowdery as scribe. When translation was complete, Smith claims to have returned the plates to the angel Moroni.

The scribes never physically saw the gold plates during translation. Later, 3 men, and then 8 others, were allowed to view the plates. Mary Whitmer, who boarded with Smith and his wife during the translation, claimed to have been shown the plates by divine intervention.

The Book of Mormon was first published on March 26, 1830.

Founder of a religion

According to both Cowdery and Smith, on May 15, 1829 Smith and Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood from the Biblical figure John the Baptist and then using this priesthood, they baptized each other. Peter, James and John also appeared to them between May 1829 and April 1830 and ordained them to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Without Peter, James, and John laying their hands upon the heads of Smith and Cowdery and ordaining them with the priesthood, Mormons believe the restoration of the Church would have been impossible.

On April 6, 1830, Smith and five of his associates established "The Church of Christ" under New York state laws. The Church was later officially named The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Smith and others immediately began proselytizing for new members.

At this approximate time, Smith asserts that he began recording prophecies from God. These prophecies were compiled as The Book of Commandments, later called The Doctrine and Covenants.


To avoid conflict and persecution encountered in New York and Pennsylvania, Smith and his wife, Emma, eventually removed to Kirtland, Ohio early in 1831. They lived with Isaac Morley's family while a house was built for them on the Morley farm. During this time, members of the Church gathered in Kirtland, Ohio and Jackson County, Missouri.

While in Kirtland, Church members built their first temple. According to its history, Church members experienced a number of extraordinary events attendant to the dedication of the temple including: the visitation of Jesus Christ, Moses, Elijah, Elias and numerous angels; speaking and singing in tongues, often with translations; heavenly light upon the temple; prophesying; and other spiritual experiences. Some members believed that Jesus's Millennial reign had come.

The early church grew rapidly, but there was often conflict between members of the new church and various critics and opponents. These conflicts were sometimes violent: On the evening of March 24, 1832 in Hiram, Ohio a group of men beat, and tarred and feathered Smith. They threatened Smith with castration and with death, and one of his teeth was chipped when someone attempted to force Smith to drink poison. The reasons for this attack are uncertain: Some accounts report Smith attempted to seduce a woman whose family objected to his advances and led the mob, but the accuracy of these claims has been questioned.

This mob action also led to the exposure and eventual death of Smith's adopted newborn twins. Sidney Rigdon, another church leader at the time, was attacked that night and suffered a severe concussion after being dragged on the ground. According to some accounts, Rigdon was delirious for several days, threatening Smith's life and his own wife's life.

After attending to his wounds all night and into the early morning, Smith preached a sermon the following Sunday. Some reports state that though members of the mob that attacked him were present at this sermon, Smith did not mention the attack directly.

On January 12, 1838 Smith and Rigdon left Kirtland for Clay County, Missouri, in Smith's words, "to escape mob violence, which was about to burst upon us under the color of legal process to cover the hellish designs of our enemies." Just prior to their departure, a large number of Mormons, including prominent church leaders, became disaffected in the wake of the Kirtland Safety Society debacle. Those who did not leave the church--or were not excommunicated--left Kirtland to gather with the other main body of the Church in Missouri.

Plural Marriage

Smith began practicing a form of polygyny he called plural marriage perhaps as early as 1833 [1]. This topic was and remains a controversial issue and is subject to ongoing debate and research. Plural Marriage was the source of much tension in early Mormon history, from both non-Mormons who regarded the practice as immoral, illegal and dangerous, to members of the church who felt Smith was misguided, deluded or evil for advocating such a doctrine.

Although there is some disagreement as to the precise figure, there is strong evidence that Joseph Smith was married to at least a dozen women, however some estimates say he had about 33 wives during his life.

While Smith publicly denied plural marriage throughout his life, he practiced it secretly, and introduced a small number of followers (less than 1% of Mormons from 1839 to 1844) into the practice. In the early period of the Church, followers who practiced plural marriage were often uncomfortable with it when it was first introduced to them, but believed it was commissioned by God. After the practice was publicly announced in Utah in 1852, the doctrine, if not the practice, was generally accepted in the Mormon culture. Census studies of various Utah counties show that the percentage of the community practicing plural marriage in 1880 varied from community to community: for example, only 5 percent in South Weber, but 67 percent in Orderville. Studies suggest that the majority of Utah polygamists in the 19th century only had two wives, the man often being a local church leader and the second wife typically being significantly younger.

By most accounts, Smith's wife Emma was troubled by plural marriage, and her concerns caused tension in the marriage.


The Missouri period was marked by mob violence and legal difficulties for Smith and his followers. Many of the old settlers saw the Mormon settlers as a religious and political threat, especially because Mormons were anti-slavery, unlike most Missourians at the time, and because Mormons tended to vote in blocs. In addition, Mormons purchased vast amounts of land, in which to establish settlements. Some Mormons felt they had been promised control of the area by divine power, and this view only fueled the growing tension.

Soon the old Missourians and new settlers were engaged in numerous skirmishes, culminating in the Battle of Crooked River .

This battle led to exaggerated and false reports of a Mormon insurrection. Due to these reports, Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued the infamous "Extermination Order," which stated, in part, "The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State."

During this period, an attempt was made on the life of Lilburn Boggs. The popular press--and popular rumor--was quick to blame Smith's friend and sometime bodyguard Porter Rockwell. Rockwell denied it, stating that he would not have left the governor alive if he had indeed tried to kill him.

In 1976 Missouri Governor Christopher S. Bond formally apologized for the treatment of Mormons in Missouri and officially rescinded the "Extermination Order". The full text of the order is available at this external link:[2]

Soon after this "Extermination Order" was issued, a hastily-organized militia attacked several Mormon settlements. In Far West , Smith and several other prominent Church leaders were later taken into custody on charges of treason. Although they were civilians, the militia leader threatened to try Smith and others in a military tribunal and have them immediately executed. Were it not for the actions of General Alexander Doniphan of the militia, the murderous plans of General [name] would have likely been carried out. Instead Smith and three of his associates spent several months in Liberty Jail awaiting trial that never came. With no legal grounds for trying the captives, their captors eventually allowed them to escape. They fled to join the other members of the church in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi River. By the spring of 1839, most members of the church had either been forced from, or had departed Missouri into Illinois.


After leaving Missouri in 1839, Smith and his followers made headquarters in a town called Commerce, Illinois, which they soon renamed Nauvoo. The church grew further as faithful Mormons built up the city. But again, tensions arose, both within the church and between the church and some of its neighbors.

The Mormons were successful in draining the swampy land making it suitable for the construction of homes and small businesses. Just as the city of Nauvoo continued to grow with the influx of persecuted Mormons from other others so too the political power of this growing city came to be felt by the surrounding citizens.

On November 5, 1843, Smith was reportedly violently ill, vomiting so strongly he dislocated his jaw. Some accounts state Smith accused his wife Emma of poisoning him due to her opposition to plural marriage. [3] This charge was not reported, however, until years later, during a period of tension between Mormons who had relocated to Utah, and those who had stayed in the midwest.

King Follett Discourse

Two months before his death, Smith delivered a discourse on the nature of God to a church conference at the funeral service of Elder King Follett. This address is considered by some Mormons one of the most important lectures on the nature of God given by Smith. See King Follett Discourse.

Smith's death in Carthage

Eventually, several of Smith's disaffected associates—some of whom claimed that Smith had tried to seduce their wives in the name of plural marriage—joined together to publish a newspaper called the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first and only issue was published June 7, 1844.

The bulk of the issue was devoted to criticism of Joseph Smith. The article stated three main points: The opinion that Smith had once been a true prophet, but had fallen by advocating polygamy, Exaltation, and other controversial doctrines; the opinion that Smith, as both Mayor of Nauvoo and President of the Church had too much power; and the belief that Smith had corrupted women by forcing or coercing them into plural marriage.

Smith was indeed privately advocating, practicing and inducting others into the practice of Plural Marriage, although he and other church leaders publicly denied that Plural Marriage was an official church doctrine and that such rumors were false.

The Nauvoo City Council passed an ordinance declaring the press a nuisance designed to promote violence against Smith and the Latter-day Saints. They reached this decision after some discussion, including citation of William Blackstone's legal canon that included a libellous press as a nuisance. Under the council's new ordinance, Smith, as Mayor of Nauvoo and in conjunction with the city council, ordered the city marshall to destroy the paper and the press on June 10, 1844.

The destruction of printing press caused considerable disturbance, and Smith called out the Nauvoo Legion, a private militia of about 5000 men, to help restore order. Smith declared martial law on June 18.

The unrest continued, however, and Smith was charged with inciting a riot by ordering the Nauvoo Expositor destroyed. Smith fled Nauvoo into Iowa. However, he returned at the request of Mormons who feared that a militia gathering outside the city would make good on its threats to attack the city if Smith was not delivered into its custody.

Illinois Governor Ford proposed a trial in Carthage, the county seat, and guaranteed Smith's safety. Smith agreed and stayed in the Carthage Jail, under the promised protection of the Governor. Ford agreed to stay in Carthage, but left not long after Smith went to stay at the jail. Smith was not a prisoner of the Carthage jail per se, but a guest under protection of the Governor at the jail.

Before a trial could be held, a mob of about 200 armed men (some painted as indians) stormed Carthage Jail. Some in the mob were militia members appointed by Governor Ford and local authorities to protect Smith.

Smith attempted to defend himself and his associates with a small pistol that some reports state was brought into the jail. However, after trying to defend themselves from the mob, Hyrum Smith, Joseph's brother was shot multiple times and killed. Smith also was shot several times as he attempted to escape the mob by jumping from the second story window of the jail.

Some accounts report that before or as Smith fell from the window, Smith called "Oh Lord, my God!" or some similar phrase [4], which some have noted is similar to "Oh, Lord, My God, is there no help for the widow's son?", the traditional Freemasonic call for assistance. Smith was a Freemason, but the nature of his reported last words is generally considered conjecture.

There are varying accounts of what happened next. Some claim Smith was dead when he landed after his fall; other accounts suggest Smith was alive when mob members propped his body against a nearby well and shot him several more times before they fled. Another account claims one man tried to decapitate Smith and died in the act.

Smith's brother Hyrum was also killed in the attack. Two of Smith's associates, John Taylor and Dr. Willard Richards, were also present. Taylor was seriously wounded in the attack, but aided by Richards who was not wounded.

After Smith's murder

After Smith's murder several people claimed leadership of the church. These included Sidney Rigdon, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles under the direction of Brigham Young, James Strang, and later in the 1860s, Smith's young son, Joseph Smith III. Most regarded Young as the most legitimate successor.

About two years after Smith's death in Carthage, Illinois, mob violence continued to grow and threaten the Mormon establishment at Nauvoo. Brigham Young led many Mormons out of the United States and into Utah, which was then Mexican Territory.

This new settlement was named the "State of Deseret." This was an area in the Rocky Mountains separated from other settlements where Mormons flourished, largely away from persecution and conflict. (See Utah War.) As of 2003 the church claims over 11 million adherents and has achieved world-wide significance.

Smith's first wife Emma remained in Missouri and persuaded Smith's mother Lucy to stay with her, although Hyrum Smith's wife and other wives of Joseph went westward. Emma disagreed with Young on ownership of Church properties, and decided to stay behind as she said she had been through enough relocations and desired to stay with the body of her husband.

Although it is believed that Emma was instrumental in forming the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (now Community of Christ), there is little evidence that she was directly involved in various proposals made to her son, Joseph Smith III to re-organize a church in the 1860s. Smith III turned down the opportunity for nearly twenty years before agreeing to lead the RLDS Church. There is little or no evidence that Emma was ever re-baptized or joined herself with the organization, although she did play the organ for them from time to time. She was invited on many occasions to join Church members in the Utah territories, but always declined.


In 1945 Fawn M. Brodie's controversial biography of Smith, No Man Knows My History was published, making many claims contrary to official LDS statements about Smith's life and works. The biography has been criticised as speculative and biased, but remains notable, especially in its attempt to document Smith's plural marriages.

Prominent LDS writer and historian Hugh Nibley challenged many of Brodie's claims in No, Ma'am, That's Not History. republished in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.


  • Fawn M. Brodie; No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith; Vintage; ISBN 0679730540 (1945; Paperback, 2nd edition, 1995)
  • Hugh Nibley; see No, Ma'am, That's Not History, reprinted in Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young; Deseret Books; ISBN 0875795161 (Hardcover, 1991) only available at
  • Richard Lyman Bushman; Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism; University of Illinois Press; ISBN 0252060121 (1984; Paperback, 1988)
  • Todd Compton; In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith; Signature Books; ISBN 156085085X (Hardcover, 1997)
  • Larry E. Dahl and Donald Q. Cannon, editors; Encyclopedia of Joseph Smith's Teachings; Deseret Books; ISBN 1570086729 (Hardcover, 2000)

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Joseph Smith, Jr.

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45