Joseph Smith


"Prophet and polygamist, mesmerizer and rabble-rouser, saint and sinner: Joseph Smith is arguably the most influential native-born figure in American religious history, and is almost certainly the most fascinating." -Newsweek, October 17, 2005

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormon religion, was born in 1806 to a poor family in Sharon, Vermont. He received little formal education. After a failed investment in exporting ginseng to China, Joseph Smith Sr. moved the family to a farm in Palmyra, in western New York, where they did not do much better financially. In Smith's teenage years, most of his family converted from Seekers to Presbyterians. But then his thinking about Christianity began to change.

According to Mormon literature, it was around this time that the teenage Smith began wondering which of the many Christian denominations was the "true" Christian faith. Then, at the age of 14, he reports that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a vision. They told him all Christian denominations had fallen away from the true faith, advised him not to join any of those denominations, and promised to restore the true faith. Due to this "restoration" theme, the beliefs of the LDS church can differ significantly from the beliefs of orthodox Christianity. (To compare and contrast their beliefs, see the Mormonism and Christianity comparison chart.)

Joseph Smith looks for buried treasure

Also around this time, a traveling magician and diviner stopped in Palmyra. The diviner claimed he could locate water and buried treasure using magic stones for a fee of three dollars a day. Smith became interested in the visitor, and spent as much time with him as he could, trying to learn his skills. But when no treasure had been found and no one was any longer willing to pay for his services, he moved on. Smith carried on the practice of divination in Palmyra, with some magic stones of his own. He is reported to have found some lost tools using the stones.

When Smith was 17, he reports that the angel Moroni appeared to him and told him the location of two golden plates, on which was written the history of two ancient Native American Christian tribes. Joseph went to the site and found golden plates written by Ether, Mormon, Lehi and Nephi (ancient Native American authors), and a brass plate consisting of Hebrew scripture quotations and genealogies written by Laban.

Also discovered at the site was a breastplate and the "Urim and Thummim," a pair of stones that Smith said assisted him in his translation of the ancient plates. Unfortunately, he was not allowed to remove the artifacts from the site immediately. He was directed to return to the site at each Autumn Equinox for four years, until 1827.

Meanwhile, stories of Smith's divining abilities interested a visitor from eastern New York, who believed the Spaniards had left buried treasure on his property. So in 1825, Smith and his father traveled east in order to assist in locating the buried treasure, at a fee of three dollars a day.

The two lived at a farm in Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania while a party of diggers, who all chipped in for Smith Jr.'s fee, searched for the Spanish treasure just over the border near Damascus, New York. Unfortunately, no treasure was ever found, and especially after Smith suggested that the treasure had sunk deeper due to "enchantment," his employers lost their faith in Smith's gifts and believed him to be a charlatan. His father then returned home to Palmyra, but Smith stayed behind. He had fallen in love with Emma Hale, a schoolteacher.

Joseph Smith gets married and writes the Book of Mormon

Ms. Hale was initially aloof to his advances, but Smith was persistent. While wooing her, Smith worked as a farmhand and went to school part-time. When Emma finally warmed to him, Smith encountered another obstacle - her father. He was one of the diggers who felt fooled by Smith and he refused to allow his daughter to marry him. In 1826, formal charges were filed against Smith due to the divination scandal, accusing him of being an imposter. Isaac Hale was among the witnesses who testified against him.

Despite such opposition, Emma remained interested in Smith, and the couple eloped in New York in 1827. The newlyweds went to live with Smith's parents in Palmyra until they returned to Pennsylvania to pick up Emma's belongings. Upon arrival, Smith tearfully pleaded her father for forgiveness and promised to be a better person and a good husband. Mr. Hale relented, and offered the Smith a small house on his property.

It was also in 1827 that Smith was finally able to remove the golden plates from their original site, at which point he undertook the translation of the plates. Sometimes seated behind a curtain, sometimes with his head buried in his hat, and always using the two special stones, Smith dictated the English translation to various scribes - among them his wife, Emma, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery. Sometimes the tablets were not even present at the time they were being translated.

The Book of Lehi became a 116-page English manuscript, but the manuscript met a major obstacle in Martin Harris' wife Lucy. When Martin brought Lehi home to show Lucy, she promptly "lost" it. It is generally speculated that Lucy was a skeptic and wished to expose Smith by demonstrating expected discrepancies between the original and a replacement translation.

Instead of re-translating the book, however, Smith reported that God had taken away the special stones as punishment for the loss of the manuscript. For his later translations, he apparently used a single seer stone. He later translated Nephi, which described the same events as Lehi. The tablets Smith translated tell the story of an appearance of Christ in America after his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.

John the Baptist and the founding and persecution of the LDS church

John the Baptist reportedly appeared to Smith and Cowdery sometime later, ordaining the pair to the Aaronic Priesthood and teaching them water baptism. Shortly thereafter, the Apostles Peter, Paul and James appeared to the two, investing them in the Melchizedek Priesthood. This time, Smith and Cowdery were commissioned as the first two elders of a new church.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) was founded in 1830, and gained 1,000 followers within its first 12 months. The budding church faced persecution almost from the start, and began a gradual move west as a result. LDS followers first moved to Kirtland, Ohio, where a prominent preacher, Sidney Rigdon, had embraced the new faith. At Kirtland and in Jackson county, Missouri (where some Mormons had migrated), Smith founded the communistic United Order of Enoch. But strife with non-Mormons led to killings and the burning of Mormon property in the communities. Yet the Mormons continued to make converts and their numbers increased.

In Missouri, tensions between the Mormons and local slave-owners, who viewed them as religious fanatics and possible abolitionists, escalated to armed violence. In 1839, 15,000 Mormons fled Missouri for Illinois. There Smith built a new city, Nauvoo, where the Mormons' commercial success and growing political power soon provoked hostility.

Smith's death in 1844

Smith's suppression of a reform newspaper published by Nauvoo Mormon dissenters in 1844 intensified anti-Mormon hostility and gave the state government grounds for his arrest. Smith was murdered by a mob while he was held in jail in Carthage, near Nauvoo, on June 27, 1844. His unexpected death led to a succession crisis and schisms within the movement.


    - "Mormon." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. Accessed October 2005.

    • "Joseph Smith (American religious leader)." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service. Accessed October 2005.
    • "History of the Latter Day Saint movement." Wikipedia. Accessed October 2005.
    • "History of the Church." Accessed October 2005.

Further Reading


Books on Joseph Smith

Hand-selected books on Joseph Smith available for purchase at online bookstores.

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