Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith (1805-1844), American religious leader, was the founder of a unique American sect, the Mormons, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

On Dec. 23, 1805, Joseph Smith was born in Vermont; in 1816 his family migrated to western New York. Among the more prominent features of the terrain were the Indian mounds containing the skeletons of long-dead warriors. Shortly after his marriage in 1827, Smith began to talk of some golden plates he had discovered in these mounds under an angel's guidance, as well as magic spectacles that enabled him to decipher the tablets' hieroglyphics. Moving to Pennsylvania, he worked on the translation, which turned out, he said, to be a history by Mormon, an American prophet and historian of the 4th century, telling of two Jewish peoples who had migrated to North America and whom Jesus visited after his ascension. In 1830 the Book of Mormon appeared for sale and quickly became important in spreading the Mormon faith.

Smith soon announced the founding of a restored Christian church and proclaimed himself a "seer, a Translator, a Prophet, an Apostle of Jesus Christ and Elder of the Church." Eventually, his claim to special revelations stirred hostility among the residents of New York and Pennsylvania, and in 1831 he summoned his ever-increasing flock to an exodus. Settling in Kirtland, Ohio, the Mormon community evolved into a utopian communal experiment in which the church held all property and each family received sustenance from a common storehouse. When dissension inspired some to move to Independence, Mo., Smith joined them briefly to consecrate ground for a new temple.

In 1833 Smith published the "Word of Wisdom," which encouraged members of the church to abstain from tobacco, alcohol, and hot drinks and to eat meat only in winter. In 1836 Mormon temperance advocates forced a vote for total abstinence. Increasing criticism over his inept management of Kirtland's financial affairs caused Smith to rejoin his Missouri followers. That colony, too, attracted hostility, and Smith had to flee under sentence of death, leading a migration to Nauvoo, Ill.

In the 1840s Smith published a work which elaborated upon the "Hamitic curse" in such a way as to exclude blacks from the Mormon priesthood. At the same time he undertook a history of the Mormon Church. He had also arrived at a doctrinal position which permitted polygamy. He kept this potentially dangerous practice a secret, revealing it only to a privileged few. By 1844 Smith had come to regard Nauvoo as an enclave independent of the United States, and the leaders of his church crowned him king of this new kingdom of God on earth. That same year Smith offered himself for president of the United States, advocating the establishment of a "theodemocracy" and the abolition of slavery.

In 1844 an apostate published an exposé of Mormon polygamy. Smith ill-advisedly permitted his followers to destroy the defector's press, which gave the surrounding "Gentiles" an excuse to retaliate against the Mormons. The Illinois governor sent the militia to arrest Smith for riot, but the militiamen exceeded their orders and brutally murdered Smith on June 27, 1844.


Further Reading on Joseph Smith

Until recently the literature on Mormonism has been polemical, and the biographies of Smith have reflected either the uncritical views of his followers or the diatribes of disaffected converts. John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith: An American Prophet (1933), is a sympathetic account marred by important omissions. The most comprehensive treatment is Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (1945; 2d ed. 1971), which implicitly discounts Smith's claims of special gifts of revelation and prophecy but arrives at a favorable view of his accomplishments. Robert Bruce Flanders, Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi (1965), adds information on Smith's years in Illinois.