Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from American National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 21 April 2021

Smith, Josephfree

(23 December 1805–27 June 1844)
  • Richard L. Bushman

Joseph Smith.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-90309).

Smith, Joseph (23 December 1805–27 June 1844), founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormon Church, was born in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, the son of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack, farmers. Joseph Smith was notable among religious figures for claiming to receive revelations and to translate ancient religious texts. Mormons consider these writings, published as the Doctrine and Covenants and the Book of Mormon, as scripture on a par with the Bible and think of Smith as a prophet in the biblical tradition. Smith did not consider himself to be either a reformer or the founder of a new religion. In his own eyes, he was restoring the Christian gospel as taught by Jesus and the first apostles. Nothing in Joseph Smith’s background prepared him to write scriptures or to head a religious movement. His parents were poor New England farmers who began life with a farm in Tunbridge, Vermont, but lost it in 1803 after a commercial venture failed. When Joseph Smith, Jr., was born two years later, the Smith family lived on a farm rented from a relative. In 1816 they migrated to Palmyra, New York, and in 1818 purchased 100 acres in Farmington (later Manchester) a few miles south of Palmyra village. For the first time in fourteen years they owned land of their own.

Lucy and Joseph Smith, Sr., had drifted to the margins of New England Congregationalism by the time they married in 1796. She was deeply religious but went unbaptized until adulthood, rarely attending meetings. Joseph, Sr., was suspicious of the clergy and of professing Christians. When Lucy joined the Presbyterian Church around 1819, Joseph, Sr., refused to attend. His dreams, recorded in detail by his wife, revealed a yearning for redemption and a frustration at not finding it. Along with his neighbors he searched for buried treasure, a common practice among poor New Englanders at that time. These ventures often blended quests for religious enlightenment with the exercise of magical power. He was seeking something that he could not find. Joseph Smith, Jr., was heir to the yearnings and uncertainties of his parents. He was troubled by the inability of his family to agree on a church when evangelical preaching seemed to demand a decision. At age fourteen, according to his account, he prayed to know which church was right. Two beings of indescribable “brightness and glory” appeared to him, introducing themselves as the Father and the Son. Smith said they forgave his sins and told him to join none of the churches because none of them was right. Latter-day Saints now speak of this event as the First Vision, but at the time it made little impression on the people around Smith, who easily dismissed the visions of a young boy. Ministers, believing that revelation ended with the Bible, disparaged his story and left him to his own devices, more alienated than ever from established Christianity.

From that time to the end of his life, Smith recorded visions and revelations that seemed fabulous to most of his contemporaries but attracted a growing number of believers. In September 1823 he prayed again for direction and received another revelation. According to Smith, an angel who called himself Moroni appeared at his bedside and told him about a record of prophecy from ancient America. Smith was instructed to obtain the record and translate it in preparation for the restoration of Israel and the return of Christ. Moroni, the last of the prophets purported to have written in this record, allegedly said it was engraved on gold plates buried in a hill not far from the Smiths’ house. Going there the next day, Smith reportedly found the plates in a stone box and saw Moroni again. The angel told him not to take the plates but to return the next year. For four years Smith went back to the hill on the same day and, according to his account, finally on 22 September 1827 took home the gold plates.

In the interim his ideas about the gold plates underwent a change. He had assisted his father in some treasure-seeking expeditions, among them a search for supposed Spanish treasure near Harmony in northern Pennsylvania. He later reported that on his first trip to see the plates thoughts of their worth crossed his mind, but the angel rebuked him and warned him against the money diggers and thoughts of profit. By the time he obtained the plates in 1827, he had come to focus on their contents and to put aside considerations of their value as gold. While digging for treasure in Harmony, Smith met Emma Hale at the house where he was staying, and an attraction developed between them. She was tall, slender, and dark-haired. He stood over six feet with broad chest and shoulders, light brown hair, and blue eyes. Emma’s father was not happy with the match. He had little use for a young man who dug for treasure and claimed to have revelations. Joseph continued to see Emma and married her in 1827 in spite of her father’s objections.

For the next two years Smith dictated what he said was a translation of the plates, his words taken down by Emma Hale Smith and then Martin Harris, a prosperous Palmyra farmer, and Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher. The Smiths lived in a small house on the Hales’ farm in Harmony and later moved to a house in Fayette, New York, belonging to the Whitmer family, who had heard about Smith from Oliver Cowdery. The translation went slowly because of work on the farm and other interruptions until the spring of 1829, when, between April and June, the bulk of the work was accomplished. During the translation Smith permitted no one to see the plates, but in June 1829, according to Harris, Cowdery, and one of the Whitmers, the angel Moroni appeared and showed them the plates, and Smith showed them to eight of his family and close friends. In March 1830 the translation was published as the Book of Mormon.

The undertaking was remarkable in many respects and enough to strain the credulity even of Smith’s closest friends. He said the angel provided him with interpreters (Urim and Thummim), “two seer stones set in silver bows” fastened to a “breast plate,” to assist him in translation, a claim that scarcely made Smith’s account more credible. The entire story could have been dismissed as the fabrication of an overwrought imagination if not for the 500 pages of printed text that Smith produced. The townspeople considered the book a fraud and refused to buy it. The printer undertook to publish it only because Martin Harris provided financial backing. The book purports to be a scriptural history of the people of ancient America. It was named for the prophet Mormon, who is thought by the Saints to have written the story of his people in the fourth century after Christ. Followers believe that Mormon drew on the records of prophets who had written the history of their own times, beginning with Nephi who migrated to the Western Hemisphere from Jerusalem about 600 B.C. These prophets taught the Christian gospel and prophesied the coming of Christ to America as well as to Palestine. Mormon wrote that the purpose of the book was to convince its readers that Jesus was Christ and God. The message was especially directed to the remaining descendants of the people in the Book of Mormon, who the Mormons assumed included the American Indians.

Smith collected enough believers by the time the Book of Mormon was published to form a church. On 6 April 1830, at the Whitmers’ house in Fayette, he organized the Church of Christ, with himself and Oliver Cowdery as first and second elders. Smith was also given the titles of seer, translator, and prophet. The church set his life on a new course. Until then he had been a young man claiming a divine gift and a mission to translate a book. After 1830 he became the prophetic leader of a people.

Smith claimed to lead the church, as he had translated the Book of Mormon, by direct revelation. He received scores of revelations dealing with trivial details of administration and cosmic visions of the life hereafter. Among the first was a command to take the Book of Mormon to the Indian tribes being settled along the frontier in western Missouri. In September and October of 1830 four missionaries set out, reaching their destination in midwinter. They preached to the Indians and enjoyed some small success before government agents stopped them, fearing that the presence of Christian preachers would jeopardize the fragile peace with the tribes.

Byproducts of this journey turned out to be even more significant than the mission to the Indians. En route the missionaries stopped in Kirtland, Ohio, and made more converts in a few weeks than Smith had assembled in a year. Smith’s claims to restore the authority and spiritual gifts of early Christianity appealed to people confused by competing religious denominations. Some of these new members visited him in New York, and by the end of 1830 Smith received a revelation directing the entire church to move to Ohio. Kirtland was regarded as a temporary location because of another outcome of the Missouri mission. The Book of Mormon had spoken of the construction of a New Jerusalem where all converts were to gather and form a new society called Zion in preparation for the Second Coming of Christ. Revelations had indicated that Zion was to be somewhere in the West, and in the summer of 1831 Smith and other leading figures in the church traveled to Missouri, where he received a revelation designating the exact site for the New Jerusalem near Independence in Jackson County. For the next five or six years church efforts focused on the organization of Zion. While Smith continued to live in Ohio, his ultimate aim was to direct new converts to Missouri where the New Jerusalem was to rise. But the plans for Zion quickly ran into trouble. The people of Jackson County were unhappy at the prospect of Mormons inundating their society and in the fall of 1833 drove them out of the county. The next spring Smith organized a private army called Zion’s Camp, which proved to be unsuccessful in its attempt to reinstate his followers on their property. For a few years the Mormons remained in Clay County across the Missouri River from Independence, until the Missouri government agreed to open a new area for them, organized as Caldwell County in north central Missouri. For the time being, church members were required to suspend their hopes for the establishment of Zion at the site of the New Jerusalem.

In Kirtland Smith continued to plan for Zion. He rounded out the organization of the leadership structure, appointing twelve apostles as second in command to himself, sent missionaries throughout the United States and to England, and saw to the construction of a temple in Kirtland, which was dedicated in 1836. Revelations continued to come to him, among them “the Word of Wisdom” cautioning the Mormons (by then known as Latter-day Saints) to avoid tobacco and liquor. He claimed to be visited by ancient prophets, who restored their authority to him, and by Christ himself. Smith also made plans for the Kirtland economy. In Zion property was to be redistributed to people according to their needs, and their surplus each year was to be returned to a common treasury. Although this system had to be abandoned because of the expulsion from Jackson County, Smith had become accustomed to reordering many aspects of ordinary life along religious lines. In Kirtland he organized a bank as part of a broad economic program. Undercapitalization doomed it from the start, and the panic of 1837 sealed its fate. The bank’s collapse hurt many of the investors and depositors, and they blamed Smith. The opposition rose to such a pitch that he felt his life was in danger. He and other church leaders fled Kirtland for Missouri in early 1838.

Smith had plans for another temple in Caldwell County at the Mormon settlement of Far West, Missouri, but these ambitions were never realized. Enmity toward the Saints was building once again and broke out in violence at an election in August. The concentration of Mormons in the area had allowed them to dominate voting results, arousing the wrath of other citizens. A bizarre sect could be tolerated in small numbers, but not when it threatened to control all local political offices. In the summer and fall of 1838, pitched battles broke out between the Missourians and the Mormons, claiming lives on both sides. Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an order for the Mormons to leave the state or face extermination. On 31 October 1838 Smith and other leaders were arrested and imprisoned awaiting trial while the Saints fled eastward to Illinois in search of refuge. Languishing in jail for the next five months, Smith had time to contemplate the course of his life to that point. He had always anguished over the state of his own soul; his first prayer for guidance had included a plea to know his standing with God. When traveling he would seek seclusion in the woods to “give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meditation and prayer.” In 1839 he was less worried about his sins than about the suffering of himself and his people. Why had God permitted the wicked to separate the Prophet from his people and to drive the Saints from the state? In letters from prison he told his people that their sufferings gave them experience and to remember that Christ had suffered more than any human. The Saints were not to use authority unjustly themselves, but to lead only “by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” The Missouri officials allowed Smith to escape his captors in April 1839, and he joined his followers clustered along the banks of the Mississippi near Quincy, Illinois. They were poor, suffering from fever, and uncertain about the future. Ill himself, Smith made efforts to obtain land and eventually arranged for plots at Commerce, Illinois, and across the river in Iowa. From this low point the Mormons began to rebuild their society.

Late in 1839 Smith went to Washington to seek redress from the federal government for the loss of property in Missouri. Denied such redress by President Martin Van Buren, Smith asked the Illinois legislature to charter a new city, to be called Nauvoo, where the Mormons would have control of all the agencies of government. Within the legal walls provided by the charter, he hoped once more to erect a Zion. From Nauvoo Smith launched a renewed missionary effort, and converts soon came flooding in from all over the United States and parts of Europe, especially Great Britain. He organized a female Relief Society and laid plans for another temple. In 1841 he began to teach the doctrine of eternal marriage, including the idea of plural marriage, which he himself practiced. In the temple, faithful Saints would be endowed with a deeper knowledge of the gospel and be sealed as husband and wife for eternity. Living Saints could also be baptized for persons who had died without hearing the gospel of Christ. In March 1844 he organized a Council of Fifty composed of leading Mormons and a few sympathetic non-Mormons to manage the political affairs of the kingdom. All this was more than some of the Saints could accept. Doctrines such as plural marriage went so far beyond conventional Christian teaching, not to mention the bounds of Victorian propriety, that an influential small group came to believe that Smith had betrayed his divine calling. They joined forces with anti-Mormons in surrounding towns who were jealous of the Mormon’s growing political influence. The fears of his enemies were only confirmed when Smith announced his candidacy for the presidency in the spring of 1844 and sent missionaries throughout the country to campaign on his behalf. His candidacy meant that Mormons were no longer wooed by Whigs and Democrats, which had made them enemies to whichever party they did not support, and Smith may have believed that, with divine assistance, he could be elected as a preliminary step toward a millennial kingdom.

In April 1844 dissenters in Nauvoo organized a reform church and published a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, to expose Smith’s errors. The Nauvoo City Council, with Smith presiding as mayor, determined that the Expositor was a threat to the peace of the community and a public nuisance. As mayor, Smith was authorized to close the paper and did, which ignited the opposition. On 12 June Smith was charged with inciting a riot for destruction of the press. He ultimately submitted to arrest and was taken to Carthage, the nearby county seat, under the governor’s protection. As he left for Carthage, Smith had premonitions of his own death, which proved to be accurate. On 27 June 1844, while he awaited a hearing, a mob with blackened faces stormed the jail, killing him and his brother Hyrum. The mob fled, fearing reprisal from the Mormons, who did not retaliate. The bodies were returned the next day to Nauvoo, where 10,000 Latter-day Saints gathered to mourn the loss of their prophet. Four of his eleven children (two adopted) were living, and a fifth was to be born to Emma Smith four months later.

Joseph Smith was, in the technical sense, a charismatic leader; he exercised authority by virtue of a perceived divine gift. But the movement he began did not rest solely on the strength of his personality. Soon after his death, Brigham Young, as president of the Twelve Apostles and a stalwart friend and defender of Smith, assumed leadership of the church and in 1846 led the Saints west in search of a new place to build Zion. Through the Mormon Church Smith’s influence continues to be felt. His followers to this day accept the Book of Mormon and the collection of his revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants as divine writings and honor him as a leader, Christian teacher, and prophet.


The papers of Joseph Smith, located in the Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah, are being edited by Dean C. Jessee, who published The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith in 1984 and the first volume of the Papers in 1989 and the second in 1992. Lucy Mack Smith narrated reminiscences later published as Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet (1853). The best complete biography is Donna Hill, Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (1977). See also Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History (1945), for a critical view by a disaffected Mormon, and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (1984), for a sympathetic account.