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Joseph Smith, Jr.

Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 - June 27, 1844) was the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement. Most Latter Day Saints revere him as the translator of The Book of Mormon, a martyr, and a prophet through which God revealed the doctrines of Mormonism. In 1844 he was also the first U.S. Presidential candidate assassinated during a campaign.

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

The devout Mormon belief is that Smith was chosen by God as a "Prophet, Seer and Revelator" in the "latter days", and to restore Christ's church to a world that had fallen away in apostasy. Critics regarded him and the religion he started with contempt and often with violence. 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 prophecies that his name and reputation would be subject to both praise and scorn.

Table of contents
1 Early life
2 The First Vision
3 Translation
4 Founder of a religion
5 Ohio
6 Plural Marriage
7 Missouri
8 Nauvoo
9 King Follett Discourse
10 Smith's death in Carthage
11 After Smith's murder
12 External Links

Early life

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths suffered considerable financial problems and moved several times, due in part to climate issues that contributed to widespread crop failures in the New England and New York areas.

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 alterered to cast Smith in a 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 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 Jan 18, 1827. Some sources report the couple eloped due to the Hale family's disapproval of Smith.

The First Vision

Smith claimed that in 1820, not long after the family moved to Palmyra, New York, he was visited by God, Jesus Christ and several angels at the age of fourteen. There are a number of sometimes conflicting records depicting Smith's claims, most of which were made second hand. Smith did not record any account of such a vision until 1831 or 1832, and detailed accounts were only published about a decade later. Critics claim that the various records are inconsistent. They suggest that Smith's earliest version of his experience claim only that an angel visited him, rather than God and Jesus Christ, and that Smith changed his story over time. Apologists argue that each record was tailored to a different audience, highlighting different aspects of the vision. They also claim that in the first account, Smith clearly explains that he calls Christ an angel or a heavenly messenger.

For more details, see First Vision.

Smith claimed that after this first vision he was visited by an angel, Moroni, three times during the evening of September 22, 1823. Moroni told Smith about gold plates hidden in the ground near his home, on a hill called Cumorah. These plates were said to contain an account of ancient inhabitants of North America, enscribed in "Reformed Egyptian" characters.

The next morning, Smith said he went to the place indicated and tried to recover the plates, but was rebuked by Moroni, who said Smith was obsessed with thoughts of fortune.

Smith claimed Moroni returned on the evenings of September 22, 1824, 1825 and 1826, each night repeating his advice to Smith. Only on September 22, 1827 was Smith allowed to take the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and a breastplate.


Smith claimed to translate 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:

(''See "Translation or Divination?" in External Links for more detail.)

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 claimed to have returned the plates to Moroni.

Rumors and accounts of the gold plates, translations and associated events circulated in the area. Some considered Smith's claims genuine, while others thought he was a charlatan.

The Book of Mormon (Later subtitled Another Testament of Jesus Christ) was first published March 26, 1830.

Founder of a religion

Sometime between May, 1829 and April, 1830, Smith and Cowdery claimed that the Biblical figures Peter, James and John appeared to them and ordained them into the Melchizedek Priesthood.

On April 6 1830, Smith and five of his associates incorporated "The Church of Christ" under New York state laws. (Later officially called The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Smith and others immediately began proselytizing for new members.

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


To avoid conflict encountered in New York and Pennsylvania, Smith and his wife, Emma, eventually removed to Kirtland, Ohio early in 1831. They lived with Isacc Morley's family while a house was built for them on the Morley farm. Church members gathered in Kirtland 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 or "divine language" often with translations; heavenly light upon the temple; prophesying; and other spiritual experiences. Some members believed that the Jesus' 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.

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. This topic was--and remains--controversial 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 good evidence that Joseph Smith was married to about 33 wives during his life.

While Smith publicly decried plural marriage during his life, he practiced it secretly, and introduced a number of followers into the practice.


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. Rumors circulated that 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, at 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 govenor alive if he'd 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:)

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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 militay 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.

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 who 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 opinon that Smith, as Mayor of Nauvoo and President of the Church had too much power and had overstepped his bounds; And the belief that Smith had corrupted women by forcing or coercing them into polygamy.

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. See Plural Marriage (Mormonism))

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 distubance, and Smith called out the Nauvoo Legion, a private militia of about 5000 men, to help resore 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, according to some reports, intending to depart for the Rocky Mountains and reestablish the Church there. 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. 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 Govenor 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 state 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, but he was shot, probably as he tried to escape through a window in his second story cell.

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 only 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.

Prominent LDS writer and historian Hugh Nibley challenged many of Brodie's claims in No, Ma'am, That's Not History.

See History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

See Controversies regarding Mormonism and Book of Mormon controversies for some topics related to Joseph Smith.

External Links