During most of the 1830s, Smith lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which remained the headquarters of the church until the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society encouraged him to gather the church to the Latter Day Saint settlement in Missouri. There, tensions between church members and non-Mormons escalated into the 1838 Mormon War, leading to Smith's imprisonment and an executive order by the Missouri governor that effectively expelled Latter Day Saints from the state. After escaping from custody, Smith and his followers settled in Nauvoo, Illinois.
There he was accused of aspiring to create a theocracy and of practicing polygamy, which he publicly denied. He ran for President of the United States in 1844, and during the campaign, his part in the Nauvoo City Council's decision to suppress a newspaper that had published accusations against Smith led to his assassination by a mob of non-Mormons.
Joseph Smith's legacy includes several religious denominations with adherents numbering in the millions, denominations that share a belief in Jesus but that vary in their acceptance of each other and of traditional Christianity. Smith's followers consider him a prophet and believe that some of his revelations are sacred texts on par with the Bible.
Joseph Smith, Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont to Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, a downwardly mobile farm family. After Joseph's birth, they moved to western New York—a region of intense religious activity during the Second Great Awakening—where they continued to farm just outside the town of Palmyra. Although Smith never joined a church during his youth, he did read the Bible and was also influenced by the folk religion of that time and place.
Smith said that he had been concerned about what denomination to join and prayed in a nearby woods (now called the Sacred Grove). There he had a vision in which he saw God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ as two separate, glorious, resurrected beings of flesh and bone. They told him that no contemporary church was correct in its teachings, and that he should join none of them.
According to Smith he reported his vision to a local minister, who he said pronounced it "of the devil" because "there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and there would never be any more of them."
Smith left his family farm in October 1825 and was hired by Josiah Stowall, of nearby Chenango county, to search for a Spanish silver mine by gazing at seer stones. In March 1826, Smith was charged with being a "disorderly person and an impostor" by a court in nearby Bainbridge.
Smith also met Emma Hale during this period and married her on January 18, 1827. Emma eventually gave birth to seven children, three of whom died shortly after birth. The Smiths also adopted twins.(See Children of Joseph Smith, Jr.)
Smith and his wife moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, with the financial assistance of their neighbor Martin Harris. Initially Smith told a few family members and Joseph Knight that he had retrieved the plates written in unusual characters as well as the Urim and Thummim.. According to Richard Bushman, "From then on, Joseph's life revolved around the plates." Harris was convinced that the plates were genuine, and he began acting as Smith's scribe while Smith translated them by examining the Urim and Thummim or seer stones in the bottom of his hat.
From April 12 to June 14, 1828, Smith and Harris worked consistently on the translation. A curtain divided the two men and Smith used Urim and Thummim or seer stones as "interpreters. The result of their work was the translation of 116 pages. After relentless requests by Harris, Smith reluctantly allowed Harris to take the manuscript to Palmyra to assuage the growing skepticism of his wife Lucy. When Harris returned, long overdue, he told Smith that the manuscript had disappeared.
About the same time, Smith's wife Emma gave birth to a stillborn son. Smith, understandably distraught over losing both his child and the manuscript, then dictated to Emma his first written revelation, which rebuked him for losing the manuscript pages but assigned most of the blame to Harris. The revelation assured Smith that if he repented, God would restore the interpreters that the angel had taken away. During this period, Smith also may have briefly joined a Methodist inquirers' class in Harmony.
Lucy Mack Smith said that her son received the interpreters again on September 22, 1828, and he slowly resumed translating with Emma taking the dictation. The pace of the translation greatly increased, however, after April 7, 1829, when Oliver Cowdery arrived in Harmony. Cowdery was a school teacher whose family, like Joseph's, had engaged in treasure seeking and other magical practices, and Cowdery had taken an interest in Smith's story while in Palmyra. Smith dictated most of the Book of Mormon to Cowdery between early April and late June. In later years, both men testified that during this period they had been ordained by John the Baptist and then had baptized each other in the Susquehanna River.
In early June 1829, Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York to complete the translation, and Smith began to seek converts. As Richard Bushman has written, when people believed, "they did not just subscribe to the book; they were baptized." But as Joseph "began to seek converts the question of credibility had to be addressed again. Joseph knew his story was unbelievable. He finally had a revelation that others, known today as the Three Witnesses and the Eight Witnesses, would bear testimony to the existence of the plates—which they did on unknown dates and at unknown locations sometime in early July 1829. Finally, the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra on March 26, 1830 by printer E. B. Grandin. Martin Harris financed the publication by mortgaging his farm.
On April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith and his followers formally organized as the Church of Christ, and small branches were established in Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville, New York. There was strong opposition to the church, and in late June, Smith was again brought to court but acquitted. Perhaps it was during this period that Smith and Cowdery later said that they received a visitation from Peter, James, and John, three apostles of Jesus, who appeared to them in order to restore the Melchizedek priesthood, which they said contained the necessary authority to restore Christ's church.
In July 1831, Smith revealed that the church would establish a "City of Zion" in Native American territory near Missouri. In anticipation, Smith dispatched missionaries, led by Oliver Cowdery, to the area. On their way, they converted a group of Disciples of Christ adherents in Kirtland, Ohio led by Sidney Rigdon. To avoid growing opposition in New York, Smith moved the headquarters of the church to Kirtland.
Although in Ohio Joseph and his family had to live as guests in other people's homes, this period saw a prolific increase in Smith's revelations. Following the completion of the Book of Mormon, Smith rarely any longer used his seer stone; and later "translations" were not based on purported ancient writings. He now received supernatural direction "whether a text lay before him or not. From the early 1830s came the Book of Moses (which included a long passage about the biblical Enoch) as well as an attempt to revise the Bible. Smith also collected his earlier revelations, which believers had already begun to treat as sacred texts, and published them in 1833 as the Book of Commandments (later, the Doctrine and Covenants).
In early 1831, revelations instructed Joseph to organize a new social system, called the United Order, in preparation for the coming millennium. Members were required to "consecrate" their property to the church so that "every man may receive according as he stands in need. As Richard Bushman has written, "The experiment was a failure, and the two-year existence of the system was about average for the various communal experiments being undertaken in the period.
By 1832, the twenty-six-year-old Smith led an organization of about a thousand followers. Not only were the burdens of his office beyond his experience, some disaffected former followers accused Smith of dictatorial ambition, deceiving the credulous, and the intent to take their frontier property. On March 24, they encouraged a mob to drag Smith and Rigdon from their beds and beat them unconscious. Joseph was tarred and feathered and narrowly escaped being castrated. The attack encouraged Joseph to accelerate a trip to Missouri.
In the summer of 1831, Smith had received a revelation that the eventual Zion for Latter Day Saints would be in Independence, Missouri, at the time a ragged village of no more than twenty dwellings. During his 1832 visit, Joseph had to dampen hard feelings among his subordinates there, but he was also able to found the first Mormon newspaper, the Evening and Morning Star, at the time the westernmost newspaper in the United States.
The rough pioneers of Missouri found Joseph's prophecies about Zion threatening. They tarred and feathered two church leaders, and vigilantes destroyed Mormon homes, effectively forcing the Saints to move to Clay County. Smith tried to organize a military response from Kirtland—a revelation had told him that "the redemption of Zion must needs come by power"—but the trek of what came to be called Zion's Camp ended with nothing accomplished.
For the next several years, Smith's attention was split between Ohio and Missouri, but his family lived in Kirtland. There, under his direction, the Saints sacrificed to build a stone temple. For a few months after its completion in early 1836, this first temple was the scene of visions, angelic visitations, prophesying, speaking and singing in tongues, and other spiritual experiences. But economically the Kirtland temple was "a disaster," money that might have been used for the City of Zion was channeled into a costly building project. Both Smith and his church went deeply in debt, and Smith was "hounded by his creditors ever after.
After the dedication of the Kirtland temple, Smith's life "descended into a tangle of intrigue and conflict. Following his death in 1844, both friend and foe agreed that sometime during this period Joseph privately married Fanny Alger, a serving girl in the Smith household, as a plural wife, a relationship that Oliver Cowdery referred to in 1838 as a "dirty, nasty, filthy affair.
After the Saints were driven from Jackson County, Missouri, Joseph was "stunned for months, scarcely knowing what to do. In August 1836, he received a revelation that there was "much treasure" in Salem, Massachusetts. Hoping he might find it with his seer stone, he and his closest associates left the financially troubled Kirtland community for the East. By September they were back in Kirtland; they returned with no treasure.
A more common expedient for raising money on the frontier was wildcat banking. Smith did not have enough capital to obtain a state charter, but he printed notes anyway and circulated them in January 1837. The Kirtland Safety Society failed within a month. The notes had Smith's signature on them, and he was personally blamed for the fiasco. The onset of a nationwide panic in 1837 also encouraged creditors to pursue their debtors vigorously. Many Latter Day Saints, including prominent leaders who had invested in the banking scheme, became disaffected and either left the church or were excommunicated. There were even a couple of unseemly rows in the temple, including one occasion on which guns and knives were drawn. When a leading apostle, David Patten, raised insulting questions, Joseph slapped him in the face and kicked him into the yard. After a warrant was issued for Smith's arrest on the charge of bank fraud, Smith and Rigdon fled Kirtland for Missouri on the night of January 12, 1838.
After being forced from Clay County, the Missouri Saints had established themselves slightly north and east in Caldwell and Daviess Counties. Mormons from New York, Ohio, and Canada streamed to this frontier territory, and Joseph encouraged the pioneers "with a revelation promising to 'make solitary places to bud and to blossom, and to bring forth in abundance.' Smith even called the new settlement around Far West, the "church in Zion, "implying that Far West was to take the place of Independence.
Once the dissidents had been driven out, Smith warned the Missourians that the Saints would not "be mobbed anymore without taking vengeance." As Fawn Brodie has written, "From the bottom of his heart Joseph hated violence, but his people were demanding something more than meekness and compromise. Furthermore, as Mormons increased in Daviess County, non-Mormons "watched local government fall into the hands of people they saw as deluded fanatics. On election day, August 6, 1838, a Missouri rabble-rouser incited a riot in which the Danites gave as good (or better) than they got.
Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs declared that the Mormons be "exterminated or driven from the state", an executive order for which there was no formal apology until 1976. Far West was shortly surrounded by 2,500 militiamen. Joseph, whose earlier "angry rhetoric [had] stirred the blood of more militant men," surrendered to the Missourians on November 1, 1838; and he and four associates were taken prisoner. Latter Day Saint property was confiscated and the Saints driven from Missouri by the spring of 1839.
For a few hours Joseph and his comrades were in real danger of being killed out of hand by the Missourians. Eventually the Mormon leaders were charged with "overt acts of treason" by a circuit court meeting in Richmond, where the majority of state witnesses were or had been Mormons. Chief among them was the former leader of the Danites, Sampson Avard, who whitewashed himself and heaped blame on Rigdon and Smith.
Once the Latter Day Saints no longer posed a political threat, Missouri leaders realized that Mormon behavior could hardly be classified as "treason" whereas, as Fawn Brodie has written, the governor's "exterminating order stank to heaven. On the way to trial, the sheriff and guards agreed to get drunk on whiskey purchased by Joseph's brother Hyrum and looked the other way while their prisoners escaped.
Late in 1839 Smith went to Washington to seek redress from the federal government for the Saints' losses in Missouri. He met briefly with President Martin Van Buren, but neither man seems to have thought much of the other, and the trip produced no reparations. Whatever sympathy Van Buren or Congress might have had for Mormon victims was canceled out by the importance of Missouri in the upcoming presidential election. Nevertheless, Joseph shrewdly made Missouri a "byword for oppression" and "saw to it that the sufferings of his people received national publicity.
In a bold stroke, Joseph sent off the Twelve Apostles to Great Britain to serve as missionaries for the new faith. All left families in desperate circumstances struggling to establish themselves in Iowa or Illinois. While Joseph had been imprisoned, Brigham Young had with indefatigable skill brought the believers out of Missouri, and the Saints "had obeyed him implicitly. But with Young and the others in Europe, Smith recovered his earlier prestige and authority. Meanwhile, the missionaries found many willing converts in Great Britain, often factory workers, poor even by the standards of American saints. These first trickled, then flooded, into Nauvoo raising Joseph's spirits.
In February 1841, Nauvoo received a charter from the state of Illinois that granted the Latter Day Saints a considerable degree of autonomy. Smith threw himself enthusiastically into the work of building a new city. The charter authorized independent municipal courts, the establishment of a university, and the creation of a militia unit known as the "Nauvoo Legion." Joseph dreamed of industrial projects and even received a revelation commanding the building of a hotel, "that strangers may come from afar to lodge therein.
While burdened with the temporal business of creating a city, Joseph also elaborated on the cosmology of the new religion. According to Richard Bushman, Smith now moved from "a traditional Christian belief in God as pure spirit to a belief in His corporeality. Smith saw that the joining of spirit and body that God provided to his children as the way to attaining a fullness of joy. In other words, Joseph declared that God had a body.
Instead of affirming that there was an eternal God who had created matter, Smith taught that matter was eternal and that it was God who had developed through time and space. God only assembled the earth from preexisting materials and then had drawn on "a cohort of spirits from the pool of eternal intelligences to place upon it. Another striking doctrine that Joseph developed after 1840 was baptism for the dead," an attempt to join "the generation of humanity from start to finish" by bringing "saving ordinances to the millions who had died without their benefits. During the same period, Joseph published the Book of Abraham, Smith's "translation" of what later turned out to be an ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead that he had purchased from a traveling exhibitor in 1835. The Book of Abraham, canonized by the LDS Church after Smith's death, also emphasized the plurality of gods, pre-mortal existence, and the concept that the earth had been organized out of preexisting matter.
These doctrinal expansions culminated in a renewed effort to build another temple. Joseph chose a site on a bluff in Nauvoo where he blessed the cornerstones in a public ceremony on April 6, 1841. In Kirtland, Joseph had instituted rituals of washing and anointing, but in Nauvoo "the ceremonies were further elaborated to include baptism for the dead, endowments, and priesthood marriages. As Bushman has written, Smith had "a green thumb for growing ideas from tiny seeds," and "portions of the temple ritual resembled Masonic rites that Joseph had observed when a Nauvoo lodge was organized in March 1842 and that he may have heard about from Hyrum, a Mason from New York days.
Of all Joseph's innovations during the years immediately preceding his death, Richard Bushman has called his practice of plural marriage "the most disturbing. In April 1841, Smith secretly wed Louisa Beaman as a plural wife, and during the next two and a half years, he may have married about thirty additional women, ten of them already married to other men. About a third of Smith's plural wives were teenagers, including two fourteen-year-old girls. Joseph was "a charismatic, handsome man," and in Remini's words, he "seemed cheerful and gracious" to all. Because many husbands and fathers knew about these plural marriages, Smith must have convinced them that "they and their families would benefit spiritually from a close tie to the Prophet. Smith told one prospective wife that her submission would insure the eternal salvation of her father's household. Furthermore, once sealed for eternity by priesthood authority, Joseph revealed that such couples would continue to procreate in the next life, becoming "enlarged" and, in effect, gods.
As Bushman has written, Joseph surely "must have realized that plural marriage would inflict terrible damage, that he ran the risk of wrecking his marriage and alienating his followers." And for those in the larger world, plural marriage "would confirm all their worst fears" about Mormonism. "Sexual excess was considered that all too common fruit of pretended revelation.
Although Emma believed in Joseph's prophetic calling, she was displeased with Joseph's multiple marriages, especially since five of the women lived in the Smith household when he married them. Emma may have temporarily approved of Joseph's marriage to two sisters, Eliza and Emily Partridge, but even they were an "awkward selection" because Joseph had already married the sisters two months previous, and he had to go through another ceremony for Emma's benefit. Nevertheless, "from that hour," Emily later wrote, "Emma was our bitter enemy," and they had to leave the household. According to Joseph's scribe, William Clayton, Joseph's brother Hyrum encouraged him to write down his revelation on plural marriage to present to Emma, and Joseph did so. When Hyrum presented Emma with the revelation, she abused him. Clayton reported that when Joseph reproved Emma for demanding from one plural wife a watch Joseph had given her, Joseph "had to use harsh measures to put a stop to [Emma's] abuse.
Throughout her life and on her deathbed, Emma Smith repeatedly denied that her husband had ever taken additional wives. Even when her sons Joseph III and Alexander presented her with specific written questions about polygamy, she continued to deny that their father had been a polygamist.
After deserting a wife and three children and arriving in Nauvoo in 1841, Bennett had been baptized into the new religion. Emma never trusted him, but Joseph welcomed his assistance in acquiring the Nauvoo city charter. Soon Bennett became the first mayor of Nauvoo, “assistant president,” and Major General of the Nauvoo Legion. The latter Bennett threatened to use in challenging Missouri for restitution of the Saints’ lost property, suggesting to skittish gentiles that Mormons intended to use force of arms to accomplish their objectives. Unfortunately for Smith, Bennett also had an eye for women and made use of Joseph’s new revelation to seduce the unwary, telling them that illicit sex was acceptable among the Saints so long as it was kept secret. And Bennett ignored even perfunctory wedding ceremonies.
Smith was incensed at Bennett’s activities and forced Bennett’s resignation as Nauvoo mayor. In retaliation, Bennett remained in the area and wrote “lurid exposés of life in Nauvoo” that were first published in various newspapers and, later that year, compiled into a book. Even contemporaries could hardly escape the conclusion that Bennett was, as Fawn Brodie has called him, “a base and ignoble opportunist.” But the Ostlings note that “there was just enough of a kernel of truth to arouse internal suspicion and whip up anti-Mormon sentiment elsewhere.” Non-Mormons looked with increasing uneasiness not only at reports of Mormon “free wifery” but at the comparative success of Nauvoo, the competent drilling of the Nauvoo Legion, and the growing political clout of the Saints.
Furthermore, on May 6, 1842, an unknown assailant shot former governor of Missouri Lilburn Boggs three times in the head. Bennett named a rough Mormon loyalist, Porter Rockwell, as the gunman. Mormons considered Boggs’ assassination as the fulfillment of prophecy, and the Nauvoo Wasp indiscreetly gloated that the person who “did the noble deed remains to be found out." Boggs refused to die, however, and when he recovered, he pressed Illinois governor Thomas Carlin to extradite Smith to Missouri. Joseph once again went into hiding for some months until the U. S. Circuit Court in Springfield finally ruled that the extradition order was unconstitutional.
In March 1844, Smith organized a secret Council of Fifty, a policy-making body based on what Smith called "Theodemocracy and which was in effect a shadow government. One of the Council's first acts was to ordain Joseph as King of the Kingdom of God. And, as if they had just organized an independent state, Smith and the Council sent ambassadors to England, France, Russia, and the Republic of Texas. In April, Smith predicted "the entire overthrow of this nation in a few years.
Joseph declared the Expositor a "nuisance." On June 10, the Nauvoo city council passed an ordinance about libels; and Joseph, as mayor, ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper. Press, type, and newspapers were dragged into the street and burned. Smith argued that destroying the paper would lessen the possibility of anti-Mormon settlers attacking Nauvoo; but as Richard Bushman has written, he "failed to see that suppression of the paper was far more likely to arouse a mob than the libels. It was a fatal mistake.
Nauvoo Mormons feared reprisals from the non-Mormons, and non-Mormons were were apprehensive about the Nauvoo Legion, especially after Smith, fearing for his life, declared martial law on June 18. Illinois Governor Thomas Ford, desperately trying to prevent civil war, then mobilized the state militia. The governor promised Smith that he would provide protection if Smith would stand trial at Carthage for the destruction of the newspaper. Smith ordered the Legion to disarm but then fled across the Mississippi to Iowa. Emma warned Joseph that Nauvoo residents believed he had left due to cowardice and that they feared reprisals from local mobs. Smith returned to Illinois on June 23, gave himself up, and was taken to Carthage to stand trial.
Charges were brought against five accused leaders of the mob that had killed Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and they stood trial in May 1845. The defense argued that no individuals could be held responsible because the assassins were carrying out the will of the people. The jury, which included no Mormons, acquitted the defendants.
Emma Smith quickly became alienated from the church, largely over property matters; it was difficult to disentangle Joseph's personal property from that of the church. Her strong opposition to plural marriage "made her doubly troublesome. When the Saints moved west, she stayed in Nauvoo, married a non-Mormon, and withdrew from religion until 1860, when her son, Joseph Smith III, stepped forward to lead what became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (today, the Community of Christ). Emma never denied Joseph's prophetic gift or belief in the Book of Mormon.
After Joseph Smith's death, schisms threatened to rend the church. Several men claimed Joseph's mantle. The Prophet had not explicitly chosen a successor, although there is evidence that he had blessed his son Joseph III with the understanding that he would eventually succeed him. But the boy was only eleven when his father was murdered. William Clayton, one of Joseph's confidants and secretaries, declared that Joseph had recently said that if he and Hyrum were removed, a younger brother, Samuel H. Smith should be his successor. Samuel died a month later. Another brother, William Smith, made a bid to become leader but, as Richard Bushman has said, "his unstable character kept him from being a serious contender.
A fairly recent convert, James J. Strang, produced a counterfeit letter from Joseph commissioning him to lead the church. Although Strang's previous relationship with Smith and the Saints had been minimal, he was able to produce revelations with a seerstone and discovered another set of supernatural writings, the Voree Plates. Strang attracted two thousand followers, including William Smith, Martin Harris, and John C. Bennett; but Strang was assassinated in 1856 after he began to practice polygamy.
As the surviving member of the First Presidency, Sidney Rigdon had a strong claim to leadership. Although his relationship with the Prophet had been uneven since 1839, on hearing of his assassination, Rigdon rushed from Pittsburgh to Nauvoo. At an August 8 meeting of the Nauvoo congregation, Rigdon claimed he had had a vision in which the Lord had made him "Guardian" for the martyred prophet. At the same meeting Brigham Young proposed that the Quorum of the Twelve, of which he was the senior member, should lead the church. The experienced Young was easily sustained as the new First Presidency. Later a legend grew that when Young rose to speak, members of the audience were struck by the similarity between his voice and mannerisms and those of the late prophet.
Young, who lacked the charisma of Smith, was an even greater motivator of men. As Arrington and Bitton have written, he had "a compulsion to organize and do. In the next eighteen months, the Nauvoo Mormons accomplished as much work on the temple as had occurred in the previous three years under Joseph. But by that time, persecution of the Saints resumed in earnest. The state legislature revoked the Nauvoo city charter, and there were barn-burning and crop-burning attacks on outlying settlements. It was clear that Saints would have to leave Illinois. By the fall of 1846, the Nauvoo was a virtual ghost town.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, adherents of the denominations originating from Joseph Smith's teachings numbered perhaps as many as thirteen or fourteen million. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest with a self-reported membership of over thirteen million. The second largest is the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS), with about 250,000 members. Other groups which follow Smith's teachings have memberships numbering from dozens to tens of thousands.
| Leaders of the Church of Christ, later called |
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
|Founding president||Leader Claiming Succession|
Position in the Church of Christ
Title & Latter Day Saint denominations
|Joseph Smith, Jr.|
was President of the Quorum of the Twelve
President of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
|Joseph Smith III|
was Direct Descendant of Joseph Smith, Jr.
President of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints later called the Community of Christ
was an Elder with a Letter of appointment
President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite)
was senior surviving member of the First Presidency
Guardian of the Church of Christ later called the Church of Jesus Christ of the Children of Zion or Rigdonites