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Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was an American religious leader and the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, the predominant branch of which is Mormonism. At age twenty-four, Smith published the Book of Mormon, and in the next fourteen years he attracted thousands of followers, established cities and temples, and created a lasting religious culture.
Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, and by 1817 had moved with his family to an area in western New York later called the burned-over district because it was repeatedly swept by religious revivals during the Second Great Awakening. The Smith family was not united in their religious views, but they believed in visions and prophecies, and participated in folk religious practices typical of the era. According to Smith, beginning in the early 1820s he had visions, in one of 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, he published what he said was an English translation of these plates as the Book of Mormon and organized the Church of Christ as a restoration of the early Christian church. Church members were later called Latter Day Saints, or Mormons.
In 1831, Smith and his followers moved west with plans to build a communalistic American Zion. They gathered in Kirtland, Ohio, and established an outpost in Independence, Missouri, intended to be Zion's "center place". During the 1830s, Smith sent out missionaries, published revelations, and supervised construction of an expensive temple. However, due to the collapse of a church-sponsored bank and violent skirmishes with angry non-Mormon Missourians, Smith's dreams of building Zion in Missouri and Ohio failed by the end of the decade. In the early 1840s, Smith established a new city called Nauvoo, Illinois, where he served as both spiritual and political leader. In 1844, Smith and the Nauvoo City Council angered non-Mormons by ordering a printing press destroyed after it was used to publish an exposé critical of Smith's power and practice of polygamy. During the ensuing turmoil, Smith was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, and killed when a mob stormed the jailhouse.
During his lifetime Smith published many revelations and other texts that are regarded as scripture by his followers. His teachings include unique views about the nature of God, cosmology, family structures, political organization, and religious collectivism. His followers regard him as a prophet of at least the stature of Moses and Elijah. Smith's legacy includes a number of religious denominations, the largest of which are the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Community of Christ.
Early years (1805–27)
Joseph Smith, Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, to Lucy Mack Smith and her husband Joseph, a merchant and farmer. After suffering a crippling bone infection when he was seven, the younger Smith hobbled around on crutches for three years. In 1816–17, after an ill-fated business venture and three years of crop failures, the Smith family moved to the western New York village of Palmyra and eventually took a mortgage on a 100-acre (40 ha) farm in nearby Manchester town.
During the Second Great Awakening, the region was a hotbed of religious enthusiasm. Between 1817 and 1825 there were several camp meetings and revivals in the Palmyra area. Although the Smith family was caught up in this excitement, they disagreed about religion. Joseph Smith became interested in religion at about the age of twelve, and he participated in church classes, read the Bible, and reportedly showed an interest in Methodism. With his family, he also took part in religious folk magic, a common practice at the time. Like many people of that era, both his parents and his maternal grandfather reportedly had visions or dreams that they believed communicated messages from God. Because of the religious divisions in his family and community, Smith was conflicted about the benefit of organized religion, saying that he had become concerned for the welfare of his soul but was confused by competing religious denominations.
Smith later recalled having a vision from God around 1820 that resolved his sense of religious confusion and personal questions. Praying in a wooded area near his home, he said he saw a vision in which God told him his sins were forgiven, and that all contemporary churches had "turned aside from the gospel." Smith said he told a preacher about the experience who he said dismissed the story with contempt; otherwise the experience was largely unknown, including to most Mormons, until the 1840s. Although Smith probably originally understood the event as a personal conversion, this "First Vision" would later grow in importance among Mormons, who see it as the founding event of Mormonism.
The Smith family supplemented its meager farm income by treasure-digging. Joseph was said to have an ability to use seer stones for locating lost items and buried treasure. To do so, Smith would put a stone in a white stovepipe hat and would then see the required information in reflections given off by the stone.
In 1823, Smith said that while praying at night for forgiveness from his sins, he was visited by an angel named Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of spectacles with lenses composed of seer stones, which had been hidden in a hill in Manchester near his home. Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning but was unsuccessful because the angel prevented him.
During the next four years, Smith made annual visits to the hill, but each time returned without the plates. Meanwhile, Smith continued traveling to western New York and Pennsylvania as a treasure seeker and a farmhand. In 1826, he was brought before a court in Chenango County, New York, for "glass-looking", or pretending to find lost treasure.
While boarding at the Hale house in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Smith met Emma Hale and began courting her. When Smith asked for Emma's hand, her father, Isaac Hale, objected because Smith was "a stranger" and had no means of supporting his daughter other than money digging. On January 18, 1827, Smith and Emma "eloped to marry" and the couple began boarding with Smith's parents in Manchester.
On September 22, 1827, Smith made his last annual visit to the hill, taking Emma with him. This time, he said, he retrieved the plates and placed them in a locked chest. He said the angel commanded him not to show the plates to anyone else but to publish their translation, reputed to be the religious record of indigenous Americans. Joseph later told Emma's parents that his treasure-seeking days were behind him. Although Smith had left his treasure hunting company, his former associates believed he had double-crossed them by taking for himself what they considered joint property. They ransacked places where a competing treasure-seer said the plates were hidden, leading Smith to believe that he could not accomplish the translation in Palmyra.
The Book of Mormon
Book of Mormon portal
In October 1827, Smith and his pregnant wife moved from Palmyra to Harmony (now Oakland, Pennsylvania) aided by money from a comparatively prosperous neighbor Martin Harris. Living near his in-laws, Smith transcribed some of the characters (what he called "reformed Egyptian") engraved on the plates and then dictated a translation to his wife.
In February 1828, Martin Harris arrived to assist with the translation. Harris took a sample of the characters to a few prominent scholars, including Charles Anthon, who Harris said initially authenticated the characters and their translation, then recanted upon hearing that Smith had received the plates from an angel. Anthon later denied this claim but Harris returned to Harmony in April 1828 motivated to act as Smith's scribe.
Translation continued until mid-June 1828, until Harris began having doubts about the existence of the golden plates. Harris convinced Smith to let him take the existing 116 pages of manuscript to Palmyra to show a few family members. Harris then lost the manuscript–of which there was no copy–at about the same time as Smith's wife Emma gave birth to a stillborn son. Smith said that as punishment for losing the manuscript the angel took away the plates and he had lost his ability to translate until September 22, 1828, when Smith said that the plates were given back to him.
Smith did not earnestly resume the translation again until April 1829, when he met Oliver Cowdery, who replaced Harris as Smith's scribe. They worked full time on the translation 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 translation spoke of an institutional church and a requirement for baptism, Smith and Cowdery baptized each other, saying that John the Baptist had appeared and given them priesthood authority to do so. Translation was completed around July 1, 1829. Knowing that potential converts to the planned church might find Smith's story of the plates incredible, Smith asked a group of 11 witnesses, including Martin Harris and male members of the Whitmer and Smith families, to sign statements testifying that they had seen the golden plates, and in the case of the latter eight witnesses, had actually handled the plates. According to Smith, the angel Moroni took back the plates after Smith was finished using them.
The translation, known as 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. Soon thereafter 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, but also strong opposition by those who remembered Smith's money-digging and his 1826 trial near Colesville. After Cowdery baptized several new members (including Emma Smith), the Mormons began receiving threats of mob violence. Before Smith could confirm the new members, he was arrested and brought to trial as a disorderly person. Though Smith was acquitted, he and Cowdery had to flee Colesville to escape a gathering mob. Probably referring to this period of flight, Smith told years later of hearing the voices of Peter, James, and John who he said ordained Smith and Cowdery to a higher priesthood.
When Oliver Cowdery and other church members attempted to exercise independent authority–as when Hiram Page used a seer stone to locate the American New Jerusalem prophesied by the Book of Mormon–Smith responded by establishing himself as the sole prophet. In 1833 Smith dispatched Cowdery to lead a mission to Missouri to find the true location of the New Jerusalem and to proselytize the Native Americans. Smith also dictated a lost "Book of Enoch", telling how the biblical Enoch had established a city of Zion of such civic goodness that God had taken it to heaven.
On their way to Missouri, Cowdery's party passed through the Kirtland, Ohio, area and converted Sidney Rigdon and over a hundred members of his Disciples of Christ congregation, more than doubling the size of the church. Rigdon visited New York and quickly became second in command of the church, to the discomfort of Smith's earlier followers. In the face of acute and growing opposition in New York, Smith announced that Kirtland was the "eastern boundary" of the New Jerusalem, and that the Saints must gather there.
Life in Ohio (1831–38)
After moving to Kirtland, Ohio, in January 1831, Smith mitigated the new converts' exuberant exhibition of spiritual gifts, bringing the Ohio congregation within his own religious authority. Prior to conversion, the congregation had been practicing a form of Christian communalism, and Smith adopted a communal system within his own church, calling it the United Order of Enoch. At Rigdon's suggestion, Smith promised the church's elders that in Kirtland they would receive an endowment of heavenly power, and in the church's June 1831 general conference, he introduced the greater authority of a High ("Melchizedek") Priesthood to the church hierarchy.
The church grew as new converts poured into Kirtland. By the summer of 1835, there were fifteen hundred to two thousand Mormons in the vicinity of Kirtland, many expecting Smith to lead them shortly to the Millennial kingdom. Though Oliver Cowdery's mission to the Indians was a failure (halted by a Federal agent to the Indian tribes), he sent word he had found the site for the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. After he visited there in July 1831, Smith agreed and pronounced the county's rugged outpost Independence to be the "center place" of Zion. Rigdon, however, disapproved of the location, and for most of the 1830s, the church was divided between Ohio and Missouri. Smith continued to live in Ohio but visited Missouri again in early 1832 in order to prevent a rebellion of prominent Saints, including Cowdery, who believed Zion was being neglected. Smith's trip was hastened by a mob of residents led by former Saints 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, older Missouri residents resented the Mormon newcomers for various political and religious reasons. Mob attacks began in July 1833, but Smith advised the Mormons to patiently bear them until a fourth attack, after which they were permitted to fight back. Nevertheless, once they began to defend themselves, the Mormons were brutally expelled from the county. In response to an 1834 revelation Smith led a small paramilitary expedition, later called Zion's Camp, to aid the Missouri Mormons. The expedition was a disaster; the men were outnumbered and suffered from a cholera outbreak and dissension, so Smith disbanded the expedition. Smith gave a revelation saying that to redeem Zion, the saints must receive an endowment in the Kirtland Temple then under construction.
Zion's Camp failed to improve the situation in Jackson County, and was viewed as a failure, but it also led to a transformation in Mormon leadership and culture, and many future church leaders would come from the group. Just before Zion's Camp left Kirtland, Smith disbanded the United Order and changed the name of the church to "Church of Latter Day Saints". After the Camp returned, Smith drew heavily from its participants to establish five governing bodies in the church, all of equal authority to check one another. The Saints built the Kirtland Temple at great cost, and at the temple's dedication in March 1836, they participated in the prophesied endowment, a scene of visions, angelic visitations, prophesying, speaking and singing in tongues, and other spiritual experiences. The period from 1834–1837 was one of relative peace for Joseph Smith.
After the dedication of the Kirtland temple in late 1837, "Smith's life descended into a tangle of intrigue and conflict," and a series of internal disputes led to the collapse of the Kirtland Mormon community. Smith was accused of false steps in promoting a church-sponsored bank and of having a relationship with his serving girl, Fanny Alger. Building the temple left the church deeply in debt, and Smith was hounded by creditors. After Smith heard about treasure supposedly hidden in Salem, Massachusetts, he traveled there and received a revelation that God had "much treasure in this city". After a month, he returned empty-handed. Smith and other church leaders then set up a joint stock company to act as a quasi-bank, establishing the Kirtland Safety Society in January 1837, which issued bank notes capitalized in part by real estate. Smith invested heavily in the notes and encouraged the Saints to buy them as a religious duty. The bank failed within a month. As a result, the Kirtland Saints 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 on the night of January 12, 1838.
Life in Missouri (1838–39)
After leaving Jackson County, the Saints in Missouri established the town of Far West. Smith's plans to redeem Zion in Jackson County had lapsed by 1838, and after Smith and Rigdon arrived in Missouri, Far West became the new Mormon "Zion". In Missouri, the church also received a new name: the "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints", and construction began on a new temple. Soon after Smith and Rigdon arrived at Far West, hundreds of disaffected Saints who had remained in Kirtland followed them to Missouri. Smith encouraged the settlement of land outside Caldwell County, instituting a stake in Adam-ondi-Ahman. Also 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.
Though Smith hated violence, his experiences 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. Sidney Rigdon was working to restore the United Order, but lawsuits by Oliver Cowdery and other dissenters threatened that plan. After Rigdon issued a thinly veiled threat in a sermon, the Danites expelled the dissenters from the county. While it is unclear how much Smith knew of the Danites, he at least partially approved of their activities. In a keynote speech at the town's Fourth of July celebration, Rigdon issued threats against non-Mormon aggressors, promising a "war of extermination" against mobs, should Mormons be attacked. After Rigdon's oration, Smith allowed the speech to be published as a pamphlet. Rigdon's July 4 oration produced a flood of anti-Mormon rhetoric in Missouri newspapers and stump speeches during the political campaign leading up to the 1838 Missouri elections.
Violence erupted on August 6, 1838, in Daviess County, where Mormon influence was increasing because of their new settlement of Adam-ondi-Ahman, when non-Mormons in Gallatin tried to prevent Mormons from voting. Although there were no immediate deaths, the election-day scuffles initiated the 1838 Mormon War, which quickly escalated as non-Mormon vigilantes raided and burned Mormon farms. Meanwhile, under Smith's general oversight and command, the Danites and other Mormon forces pillaged non-Mormon towns. During this time, Smith and other Mormon leaders helped inflame Mormon sentiment with militant rhetoric including a promise to "establish our religion with the sword" if molested. His rhetoric perhaps produced greater militancy among Mormons than he had intended. When Mormons attacked the Missouri state militia at the Battle of Crooked River in an attempt to rescue some captured Mormons, Governor Boggs ordered that the Mormons be "exterminated or driven from the state". Before word of this order got out, non-Mormon vigilantes surprised and killed about 18 Mormons in the Haun's Mill massacre, effectively ending the war.
On November 1, 1838, the Saints surrendered to 2,500 state troops, and agreed to forfeit their property and leave the state. Smith was immediately court-martialed for treason, and nearly executed, but militiaman Alexander Doniphan, who was also the Saints' attorney, probably saved Smith's life, arguing that Smith was a civilian. Smith was then sent to a state court for a preliminary hearing, where several of his former allies, including Danite commander Sampson Avard, 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 Rigdon strained their relationship, and Brigham Young rose in prominence as Smith's defender. Under Young's leadership, about 14,000 Saints made their way to Illinois and searched for land to purchase. Smith bade his time writing contemplative statements directed mainly to Mormons. He did not deny responsibility for the Danites, but he said he had been ignorant of Avard's extreme militancy. Many Saints now considered Smith a fallen prophet, but he assured them he still had the heavenly keys. He directed the Saints to collect and publish all their stories of persecution, and to moderate their antagonism to non-Mormons. On April 6, 1839, after a grand jury hearing in Davis County, Smith and his companions escaped custody, perhaps with the guards' assistance, while they were being escorted to Boone County.
Life in Nauvoo, Illinois (1839–44)
Newspapers throughout the country criticized Missouri for expelling the Mormons, and Illinois accepted the refugees who gathered along the banks of the Mississippi. Smith purchased high-priced swampy woodland in the hamlet of Commerce and urged his followers to move there. Promoting the image of the Saints as an oppressed minority, he unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for help in obtaining reparations. In the summer of 1839 the Saints suffered from a terrible plague of malaria and the next two summers were even worse. Also that summer, Smith sent Brigham Young and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve to missions in Europe where they found willing converts, many of them poor factory workers.
The religion also attracted a few wealthy and influential converts, including John C. Bennett, M.D., 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 ??????, meaning "to be beautiful"). The charter granted the city virtual autonomy, authorized a university, and granted Nauvoo habeas corpus power–which saved Smith's life by allowing him to fend off extradition to Missouri Though Mormon general 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 with actions 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, who was often a poor judge of character, 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 began using it as a license for free love. When embarrassing rumors of "spiritual wifery" got abroad, Smith forced Bennett's resignation as Nauvoo mayor. In retaliation, Bennett 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 into the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. At first the endowment was open only to men, who once initiated became part of 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 Saints. In particular, Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal, criticized the Saints' political and military aspirations. After an unknown assailant shot at Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs on May 6, 1842, anti-Mormons in Illinois reported rumors that Smith had predicted Boggs's death. Circumstantial evidence suggested that the shooter was Smith's bodyguard, Porter Rockwell, who was later tried and acquitted. Nevertheless Boggs ordered Smith's extradition, and Smith went into hiding, believing that if he went to Missouri he would be murdered. Smith ultimately avoided extradition when a US district attorney for Illinois passed along his opinion that the extradition was unconstitutional. Another extradition attempt was made in June 1843, when Illinois Governor Thomas Ford reluctantly agreed to turn Smith over to Missouri on the old charge of treason. Two Missourian officers arrested Smith, but failed to bring him to Missouri when Smith was released on a writ of habeas corpus. While this ended the Missourians' attempts at extradition, it caused significant political fallout in Illinois.
In December 1843, under the authority of the Anointed Quorum, 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 third-party candidacy for President of the United States, suspending regular proselytizing and sending 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 with 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. In effect, the Council was a shadow world government, a first step toward creating a global "theodemocracy". One of the Council's first acts was to elect Smith as "prophet, priest and king" of the millennial monarchy.
By the spring of 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. The dissidents formed a competing church and the following month, at Carthage, the county seat, they procured grand jury indictments against Smith for polygamy and other crimes.
On June 7, 1844, the dissidents published the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, calling for reform within the church. The paper decried polygamy and Smith's new "doctrines of many Gods", and it alluded to Smith's kingship and theocratic aspirations, promising to present evidence of its allegations in succeeding issues. Fearing the newspaper might 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. In the words of historian Richard Bushman, Smith "failed to see that suppression of the paper was far more likely to arouse a mob than the libels. It was a fatal mistake."
Destruction of the newspaper provoked a strident call to arms by Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal. Fearing an uprising, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion on June 18 and declared martial law. Carthage responded by mobilizing its small detachment of the state militia, and Illinois 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 were taken to Carthage to stand trial for inciting a riot. Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason against Illinois.
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 a pepper-box pistol, then 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. Smith was buried in Nauvoo. Five men were later tried for his murder, but all were acquitted.
According to 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 or not to believe. Smith's teachings came primarily through his revelations, which read like scripture: oracular and open to interpretation. Even Smith's followers disagree about the implications of his teachings. Smith and his followers viewed his revelations as being above teachings or opinions, and Smith's actions seemed to indicate that he believed in his revelations as much as his most loyal followers.
Smith's 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 given in the voice of God, and Smith, as a speaker, was absent from the revelation. Subsequent revelations would take on a similar authoritative style; a typical revelation might begin with words like "Hearken O ye people which profess my name, saith the Lord your God."
Book of Mormon
The Book of Mormon has been called the longest and most complex of Smith's revelations. The Book of Mormon 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 around 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, and whose son, Moroni, buries the records written on golden plates.
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 an extension of the Bible and an additional witness of Christ—somewhat like a large apocryphal work—while some academics have called it a response to pressing cultural and environmental issues of Joseph's times, or sometimes autobiographical. Critics hypothesize that Smith drew from scraps of information available to him, calling the work fiction. Christian themes permeate the work; for instance, Nephite prophets 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"
Smith never said how he translated the golden plates, implying only that he transcribed the words. For at least some of the earliest translation, 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 used the single chocolate-colored stone he had found in 1822 and used 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.
The Book of Mormon drew many converts to the church, but as Fawn Brodie noted, "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
In June 1830 Smith 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 believed that the Bible had been corrupted through the ages, and he worked to restore the original intent. Smith's revision 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 nearly tripled the length of the first five chapters of Genesis in writing what would become the Book of Moses.
The Book of Moses begins with the "cosmic inquiry" of Moses, who learns 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, saying he spoke with God, received a prophetic calling, and eventually built a city of Zion so righteous that it was taken to heaven. The book also elaborates and expands upon foreshadowing and "types" of Christ, in effect Christianizing the Old Testament.
In 1835 Smith encouraged some of the Kirtland Saints to purchase rolls of ancient Egyptian papyri from a traveling exhibitor. Over the next several years Smith worked off and on as events allowed, producing a translation of one of these rolls, which he published in 1842 as the Book of Abraham. The Book of Abraham told of the founding of the Abrahamic nation, spoke of astronomy, cosmology, lineage and priesthood, and gave another account of the creation story.
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. "It may give you sudden strokes of ideas", he said "so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass." 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. Notable revelations include an 1831 revelation called "The Law" containing 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, introduced doctrines of life after salvation, the theme of 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, and a related revelation given in 1833 put Christ at the center of salvation. Another 1833 revelation called the "Word of Wisdom", was framed not as a commandment, but a recommendation. Coming at a time of temperance agitation, it counseled a diet of wholesome herbs, fruits, grains, a sparing use of meat, and recommended that Saints avoid "strong" alcoholic drinks, tobacco, and "hot drinks" (later interpreted to mean tea and coffee). Smith and other 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 served 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 the saints, and building the City of Zion, while later revelations dealt with the priesthood, endowment, and exaltation. The revelations slowed in Kirtland during the autumn of 1833, and again after the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, as Smith relied more heavily on his own teachings. Smith moved away from written revelations opening with "verily thus saith the Lord" and 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.
Distinctive views and teachings
Cosmology and theology
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, "intelligence" was co-eternal with God, and human spirits had been drawn from a pre-existent pool of eternal intelligences. Nevertheless, spirits were incapable of experiencing a "fullness of joy" unless joined with corporeal bodies. The work and glory of God 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. 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, those who received exaltation could eventually become like God. The ability of humans to progress to godhood implied a vast hierarchy of gods, with God himself having a father. Those who became gods would reign, unified in purpose and will, leading inferior intelligences to share immortality and eternal life.
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 vicariously in the afterlife through ordinances such as baptism for the dead. Children who died in their innocence were 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.
Religious authority and ritual
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, Smith's religious authority being 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, requiring Saints to consecrate all their property to the church. He also envisioned that theocratic institutions he established would have a role in the world-wide political organization of the Millennium.
By the mid-1830s, Smith began teaching a hierarchy of three priesthoods (Melchizedek, Aaronic, and Patriarchal), each of them 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 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 Mormons outside the Covenant 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", or 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 exaltation could be achieved through "plural marriage" (polygamy), which was the ultimate manifestation of this New and Everlasting Covenant. Plural marriage allowed an individual to transcend the angelic state and become a god, accelerating the expansion of one's heavenly kingdom.
Smith had by some accounts been teaching a polygamy doctrine as early as 1831, and there is 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 that 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, and during the next two-and-a-half years he may have married or been sealed to 30 additional women, ten of them already married to other men, though this was generally done with the knowledge and consent of their husbands.Ten of Smith's wives were under the age of twenty, while others were widows over fifty. The practice of plural marriage was kept secret.
Polygamy (or plural marriage) 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 she soon regretted her decision and demanded that the other wives leave. In July, Smith dictated a revelation pressuring Emma to accept plural marriage, but the two were not reconciled until September, after Emma began participating in temple ordinances and received an "endowment".
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 United States Constitution, and especially the Bill of Rights, to be inspired by God and "the Saints' best and perhaps only defense". He believed a strong central government was crucial to the nation's well-being but 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 in order to "spill the criminal's blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God".
Despite having published a pro-slavery essay in 1836, Smith later strongly opposed slavery. During his presidential campaign, he proposed abolishing slavery by 1850 and compensating slaveholders through sale of public lands. Smith did not believe blacks to be genetically inferior to whites; he welcomed both freemen and slaves into the church. But he opposed baptizing slaves without permission of their masters, and he opposed miscegenation.
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 multidenominational and democratic so long as the people chose wisely.
Ethics and behavior
A succinct statement of ethics by Smith is found in his 13th Article of Faith:
We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.
Smith said his ethical rule was, "When the Lord commands, do it"; meaning that revelation from God supersedes all else, including earthly law.
He also taught:
that which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill—at another time he said thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the elders of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right...even things which may be considered abominable to all those who do not understand the order of heaven.
Beginning in the mid-1830s and into the 1840s, as the Mormon people became involved in conflicts with the Missouri and Illinois state governments, Smith taught that "Congress has no power to make a law that would abridge the rights of my religion," and that they were not under the obligation to follow laws they deemed as being contrary to their "religious privilege". Smith may have thus felt justified in promoting polygamy despite its violation of some traditional ethical standards.
Smith attracted thousands of devoted followers before his death in 1844 and millions within a century. Among Mormons, he is regarded as a prophet on par with Moses and Elijah.
Mormons and Ex-Mormons have produced a large amount of scholarly work about Smith. Interpretations range from viewing Smith as a prophet who restored the true faith, to a "pious fraud" who believed he was called of God to preach repentance, and felt justified inventing visions in order to convert people, to a gifted "mythmaker" who was the product of his Yankee environment. Mormon and non-Mormon biographers agree that Smith was one of the most influential, charismatic, and innovative figures in American religious history.
Smith's teachings and practices aroused considerable antagonism, with newspapers as early as 1829 dismissing him as a fraud (a view still held by many evangelical Christians). He was twice imprisoned for alleged treason, the second time falling victim to an angry mob that stormed the jail. After his death at age thirty eight, the Saints believed he had died as a martyr to seal the testimony of his faith. Smith himself made no claims to perfection, comparing himself to a "rough stone" that lacked polish.
Memorials to Smith include the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City, Utah, the Joseph Smith Building on the campus of Brigham Young University, and a granite obelisk marking his birth place.
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 Joseph'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 ordained successors, such as Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer, had left the church.
The two strongest succession candidates were Brigham Young, senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and Sidney Rigdon, the senior member of the First Presidency. In a conference on August 8, most of the Saints elected Young, who led them to the Utah Territory as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose membership surpassed 14 million members in 2010. Smaller groups followed Sidney Rigdon and James J. Strang, who had based his claim on a forged letter of appointment. Other Saints 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 2011, adherents of the denominations originating from Joseph Smith's teachings number approximately 14.5 million.
Family and descendants
Smith wed Emma Hale in January 1827. She gave birth to nine children, five of whom died before the age of two. The first three children (a boy Alvin in 1828 and twins Thaddeus and Louisa on April 30, 1831) died shortly after birth. When the twins died, the Smiths adopted twins, Julia and Joseph, whose mother had recently died in childbirth. (Joseph died of measles in 1832.) Joseph and Emma Smith had four sons who lived to maturity: Joseph Smith III (November 6, 1832), Frederick Granger Williams Smith (June 29, 1836), Alexander Hale Smith (June 2, 1838), and David Hyrum Smith (November 17, 1844, born after Joseph's death). As of 2011, DNA testing had provided no evidence that Smith had fathered any children by women other than Emma.
Throughout her life and on her deathbed, Emma Smith frequently denied that her husband had ever taken additional wives. Emma claimed that the very first time she ever became aware of a polygamy revelation being attributed to Joseph by Mormons was when she read about it in Orson Pratt's booklet The Seer in 1853. Emma campaigned publicly against polygamy and also authorized and was the main signatory of a petition in Summer 1842, with a thousand female signatures, denying that Joseph was connected with polygamy, and as president of the Ladies' Relief Society, Emma authorized publishing a certificate in October 1842 denouncing polygamy and denying her husband as its creator or participant.
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 what became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now the Community of Christ), first headed by her son, Joseph Smith III. Emma never denied Joseph Smith's prophetic gift or repudiated her belief in the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.