Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 - June 27, 1844) was the American religious figure who founded the Latter Day Saint movement, also known as Mormonism.
Smith's followers declared him to be the first latter-day prophet, whose mission was to restore the original Church of Jesus Christ, said to have been lost soon after the death of the Apostles which caused an apostasy.
This restoration included the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the priesthood authority, and the publication of the Book of Mormon and other new scriptures. As a leader of large settlement communities, Smith also was recognized as a political and military leader in the American Midwest.
Adherents to denominations originating from Joseph Smith's teachings currently number between thirteen and fourteen million. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the largest denomination with reported membership of over 13 million.
The second largest is the Community of Christ, formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with about 250,000 members.
Other groups who follow Smith's teachings have membership numbering from dozens to the tens of thousands.
Joseph Smith, Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont to Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. After his birth, the family moved to western New York, where they continued farming just outside the border of the town of Palmyra. This region was an area of intense revivalism and religious diversity during the Second Great Awakening. Although Smith had limited involvement with organized religion during his youth, he studied the Bible, held religious opinions, and was influenced by the common folk religion of the area. Smith reported that, in 1820 at the age of 14, he experienced a theophany, an appearance of God to man, or a divine disclosure, most commonly referred to by Latter Day Saints as the First Vision. Smith recorded several accounts of the vision later in life. The version which is most well-known and read was published in 1838. Smith was concerned as to the correct church to join, and went to a grove of trees to pray. According to the most well-known version, when he did, he had a vision where he saw God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, appear to him as two separate, glorious, resurrected beings (in other accounts, they are described as heavenly beings). They told him that none of the churches established at the time were correct, and that he should join none of them. Soon after, Smith reported his vision to a local minister, who pronounced it "of the devil," because the minister believed "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 recounted that he was soon the object of much persecution and reviling in his neighborhood, for maintaining that he had seen a vision. According to Smith, an 1823 visitation from a resurrected prophet named Moroni led to his finding and unearthing (in 1827) a long-buried book, inscribed on metal plates, which contained a record of God's dealings with the ancient Israelite inhabitants of the Americas. The record, along with other artifacts (including a breastplate and what Smith referred to as the Urim and Thummim), was buried in a hill near his home. On September 22, 1827, Smith's record indicates that the angel allowed him (after 4 years of waiting and preparation) to take the plates and other artifacts. Almost immediately thereafter Smith began having difficulties with people trying to discover where the plates were hidden on the Smith farm. Smith left the family farm in October of 1825 and was hired by Josiah Stoal, who lived in nearby Chenango county, to search with others for a rumored lost silver mine established in the area by the Spanish. After working for about a month, Smith states that "I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger." During this time, Joseph Smith met Emma Hale, whom he married on January 18, 1827.
Smith and his wife moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, with the monetary and moral support of a wealthy Palmyra neighbor named Martin Harris. In Harmony, Smith reported to a few family members and colleagues including Harris that he had translated some of the Reformed Egyptian text from the Golden plates. According to Smith's history, he invited Harris to take a sample of the characters from the plates to a few well-known scholars including Charles Anthon. Harris returned to report that Anthon initially provided authentication to the translation of the Reformed Egyptian, but tore up his written statement upon hearing the story of how Joseph had obtained them. Harris returned, and acted as Smith's scribe while Smith translated words using Urim and Thummim. In June 1828, after completing the first 116 pages of the record, Smith allowed Harris to take the manuscript to Palmyra to show Harris' wife. Harris returned, long overdue, and informed Smith that the manuscript had been lost or stolen. According to Smith's record "the Lord took the Urim and Thummim and the plates", stopping the work of translation. Also, Smith's wife Emma gave birth to a stillborn son, their first child around the same time. Around February 1829, Smith recounts that the plates and the Urim and Thumim were returned to him by God. He resumed translating with Emma as scribe. Translation greatly intensified on April 7, 1829, when Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher in Palmyra, NY who had taken an interest in Smith's story while in Palmyra, and then set out for Harmony, PA to begin acting as Joseph's scribe.
At the beginning of June 1829, Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York for the remainder of the translation. The plates' title page indicated the book was to be entitled the Book of Mormon: An account written by the hand of Mormon, upon plates taken from the Plates of Nephi. Translation was completed around July 1, 1829, and the Book of Mormon was published in Palmyra on March 26, 1830, with the financial assistance of Martin Harris. Before publication, Joseph showed the ancient record to eleven other men. These men recorded their personal witnesses of seeing an angel show them the record (plates), seeing the record, handling the plates, and hearing the voice of the Lord command them to bear witness of the veracity of the record. These testimonies are included in the title pages of the Book of Mormon as The Testimony of the Three Witnesses, and The Testimony of The Eight Witnesses. By the time the Book of Mormon was published, Smith's record indicates that he had received additional revelations and had begun the work of organizing a new Christian church. Smith and Cowdery reported having been visited by John the Baptist, the same as referenced in the New Testament. They stated that they were ordained by John the Baptist to "the Priesthood of Aaron." They said that he then commanded them to baptize one another. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery stated that they were later visited by Peter, James, and John, the disciples of Christ found in the New Testament, not long after the appearance of John the Baptist. According to Smith and Cowdery, Peter, James and John came to them in order to restore the Melchizedek priesthood, which they said contained the necessary authority to restore Christ's church. On April 6, 1830, a church was formally organized as the Church of Christ, and small branches were soon set up in Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville, New York. There was strong local opposition to these branches, however, and Smith soon dictated a revelation (D & C 57:1-3) that the church would establish a "City of Zion" in Native American lands near Missouri. In preparation, Smith dispatched missionaries led by Oliver Cowdery to the area of this new "Zion". On their way, the missionaries converted a group of Disciples of Christ adherents in Kirtland, Ohio led by Sidney Rigdon. At the end of 1830, Smith dictated a revelation (D & C 37) that the three New York branches should gather in Ohio pending the results of Oliver Cowdery's mission to Missouri.
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The church had more than doubled in size following the conversion of Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite minister in September 1830. Rigdon led several congregations of Restorationists in Ohio's Western Reserve area, and hundreds of his adherents followed him into Mormonism. Rigdon was soon called to be Smith's spokesman and quickly became one of the early leaders of the Movement.
To avoid further conflict encountered in New York and Pennsylvania, Smith moved with his family to Kirtland, Ohio, joining with the converts that joined with Rigdon. The church's headquarters were soon established there and Smith urged the rest of the membership to gather there or to a second outpost of the church in Missouri. However, due to the controversy which followed him, he was not to escape persecution for long. In March of 1832, a violent mob came to Smith's house and attacked him. According to recorded accounts of the event, the mob broke down the front door, took Smith's oldest surviving adopted child from his arms and dragged Smith from the room. The mob beat, tarred and feathered, and attempted to poison Joseph. This time period was prolific in its expansion of Church doctrine and organization; a number of new doctrines and leadership offices were added, based on Smith's teachings. An attempt to establish a communitarian economy based on Smith's "Law of Consecration" was established, but was abandoned after it was realized it was unfeasible.
Under Smith's leadership & direction, the church's first temple was constructed in Kirtland. The work of building the Kirtland Temple was begun in 1833, and was completed by 1836. Around the time of its completion, many extraordinary events were reported: appearances by Jesus, Moses, Elijah, Elias, and numerous angels, speaking and singing in tongues, prophesying, and other spiritual experiences. However, the construction of the temple, in addition to other ventures of Smith's, left him and the Church deeply in debt. To raise money, Smith planned a banking institution, which was called the Kirtland Safety Society. The State of Ohio denied Smith a charter to legally operate a bank causing Smith to rename the company under the advice of non-Mormon legal counsel as 'The Kirtland AntiBanking Safety Society' and he continued to operate the bank and print notes. The bank became insolvent after 21 days of operation in January and collapsed later that year. During this time, Smith and his associates were accused of illegal and unethical actions. In the wake of this bank failure, many Mormons, including prominent leaders who had backed the venture, became disaffected with Smith. Eventually, lawsuits and indictments against Smith and his banking partners became so severe that, on January 12, 1838, Smith and Rigdon left Kirtland by dark of night for the Far West settlement in Caldwell County, Missouri. At the time, there were at least $6,100 in civil suits outstanding against him in Chardon, Ohio courts, and an arrest warrant had been issued for Smith on a charge of bank fraud. Those who continued to support Smith left Kirtland for Missouri shortly thereafter. Independence, Missouri was identified as "the center place" and the spot for building a temple. Smith first visited Independence in the summer of 1831, and a site was dedicated for the construction of the temple. Soon afterward, Mormon converts, most of them from the New England area began immigrating in large numbers to Independence and the surrounding area. The Missouri period was marked by many instances of violent conflict and legal difficulties for Smith and his followers. The Mormons and non-Mormons in Missouri were, in general, fundamentally very different people. Local leaders and residents saw the Latter Day Saint community as a threat to their property and their political control due to the Mormon practice of voting 'en bloc'. The tension was further fueled by the Mormon belief that Jackson County, Missouri, and the surrounding lands would become a "promised land" to the Mormons as they purchased property and built settlements. The 'Latter Day Saints' began migrating to Missouri after Smith stated that Missouri would be the future center of the New Jerusalem. After Mormon leadership left Kirtland in 1838, the Saints from Kirtland followed them to Missouri increasing the church's numbers, which confirmed the fears of the local leaders and residents that the Mormons would dominate Missouri politics. Later in 1838, many non-Mormon residents of Missouri and the LDS settlers engaged in an ongoing conflict often referred to as the Mormon War. After several skirmishes, the Battle of Crooked River (which involved Missouri state militia troops and a group of Latter Day Saints) occurred. There is considerable debate as to whether the Mormons knew their opponents were government officials. Boggs issued an executive order on 27 October 1838, known as the "Extermination Order". It stated that the Mormon community had "made war upon the people of this State" and that "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace". The Extermination Order was not officially rescinded until 1976 by Missouri Governor Christopher S. Bond.
Soon afterward, the 2,500 troops from the state militia converged on the Mormon headquarters at Far West. Smith and several other Church leaders were brought into the Missouri Militia by Colonel George M. Hinkle. Hinkle then handed the prisoners over to General Lucas. They were held at Liberty Jail, and spent several months in captivity. They were later transferred to a jail in Columbia, Missouri. Most of the Mormon community in Missouri had either immediately left or been forced out by the spring of 1839.
After escaping Missouri in 1839, Smith and his followers regrouped. They established a new headquarters in a town on the banks of the Mississippi River, called Commerce, in Hancock County, Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo. They were granted a charter by the state of Illinois, and Nauvoo was quickly built up by the faithful, including many new arrivals. The Nauvoo city charter authorized independent municipal courts, the foundation of a university and the establishment of a militia unit known as the "Nauvoo Legion." These and other institutions gave the Latter Day Saints a considerable degree of autonomy. In October 1839, Smith and others left for Washington, D.C. to meet with Martin Van Buren, then the President of the United States. Smith and his delegation sought redress for the persecution and loss of property suffered by the Saints in Missouri. Construction of a new temple in Nauvoo began in the autumn of 1840. It was significantly larger and more grandiose than the one left behind in Kirtland, as it was intended for different functions (member endowments and baptisms) than the first temple (which could be used for large gatherings). The cornerstones were laid during a conference on April 6, 1841. Although Smith was instrumental in its completion, it was not finished for more than five years after Smith's death. It was dedicated on May 1, 1846, well after Nauvoo citizens had begun abandoning the city for points west (the first significant exodus occurred in February 1846). Approximately four months afterward, Nauvoo had been abandoned by the majority of its citizens under threats of mob action.
On March 15, 1842, Smith was initiated as an Entered Apprentice Mason at the Nauvoo Lodge. The next day, he was raised to the degree of Master Mason; the usual month-long wait between degrees was waived by the Illinois Lodge Grandmaster, Abraham Jonas. In Nauvoo, Smith taught doctrines which he claimed were practiced in the early Christian church such as Baptism for the dead. He also introduced other teachings and ordinances such as the Endowment, and "the principle" of plural marriage neither of which are found in mainstream Christianity. In February, 1844, Smith announced his candidacy for President of the United States, with Sidney Rigdon as his vice-presidential running mate. He also theorized a quasi-republican political system which he termed Theodemocracy and organized the Council of Fifty based upon its principles.
A few disaffected Mormons in Nauvoo joined together to publish a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor. Its first and only issue was published 7 June 1844. The paper was highly antagonistic toward Smith; the bulk of the Expositor's single issue was devoted to criticism of Smith's practice of polygamy and his political power. The city council, headed by Smith, who was mayor of Nauvoo, responded by passing an ordinance declaring the newspaper a public nuisance designed to promote violence against Smith and his followers. Under the council's new ordinance, Smith and the city council ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper and the press. This action was seen by many non-Mormons as illegal; Smith was accused of violating the freedom of the press. Violent threats were made against Smith and the Mormon community in Nauvoo. Charges were brought against Smith and he submitted to incarceration in Carthage, the Hancock County seat. Smith's brother, Hyrum, and eight of his associates including John Taylor and Willard Richards, accompanied him to the jail. The Governor of the state, Thomas Ford had promised protection and a fair trial. All of Smith's associates left the jail, except his brothers. On June 27, 1844, an armed group of about 200 men stormed the jail, and went to Smith's cell. After a brief struggle, the group was able to open fire on Smith and his associates. Hyrum Smith was shot in the face, and died immediately. As the mob burst through the doorway, Joseph Smith (who had earlier been given a six-shooter by a visitor) managed to fire three shots at the mob. Richards was unharmed, while Taylor was shot several times, but survived. Smith, however, was shot multiple times while trying to jump out an open window. After he fell from the window, he was shot several more times, killing him. He was 38 years of age. Smith and his brother were initially buried below the Smith Homestead in Nauvoo. They were later disinterred on the orders of Smith's grandson Frederick M. Smith and reburied along with Smiths' wife Emma in a location thought to be safer from Mississippi flooding.
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