“Joseph Smith Jr.,” Church History Topics
“Joseph Smith Jr.”
Joseph Smith Jr. was the founding prophet and first President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Between his birth into a poor Vermont family in 1805 and his death at the hands of an Illinois mob in 1844, Joseph published multiple sacred texts, founded and organized cities, received revelations that restored vital truths about God and humanity, and established the restored Church of Jesus Christ under the Lord’s direction and based on authority he received from angelic messengers.
The Smiths were a close-knit family of tenant farmers whose financial struggles led to frequent moves. Joseph lived in five different New England towns before 1816, the “year without a summer,” when late frosts hit. Hunger drove his family out of the region and into a part of upstate New York known, due to its fervent religious revivalism, as the “burned-over district.”
Although they were honest and hardworking people, accounts from some of the Smiths’ neighbors suggest that the family was never entirely accepted into their new community. In his early years in New York, the teenage Joseph Smith was comforted by the harmony he saw in nature but troubled by the discord he saw in humankind, awed by the goodness of God but frustrated by his own failings.
Young Joseph was drawn to the Christianity of the New Testament, but he felt confused about the competing churches of his time. Seeking forgiveness and wanting to know which church to join, Joseph went into the woods to pray one morning in the spring of 1820. In a grove near his family’s farm, he experienced a miraculous vision in which God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a pillar of light. This experience later came to be known as his First Vision.
Latter-day Saints point to the First Vision as the beginning of Joseph’s prophetic calling although he made no attempt to preach or gain converts at the time. His preparation to establish a church began in earnest three years later, when an angel called Moroni appeared to him one night and told of a hidden record that contained the sacred history of an ancient American civilization. Shortly after Joseph’s marriage to Emma Hale in 1827, the angelic messenger entrusted Joseph with the records, which he translated by the power of God. When the translation was finished, Joseph published the Book of Mormon, a compilation of ancient scripture comparable to the Bible.
From the start, the Book of Mormon both attracted converts and provoked fierce opposition. Joseph soon found himself with religious critics, who viewed additional scripture as unacceptable, and rationalist critics, who saw the miraculous story of the book’s translation as a dangerous superstition. But many others were deeply moved by their prayerful encounters with the book and became committed to its teachings.
As work on the Book of Mormon neared completion, the Lord instructed Joseph Smith to formally organize a church. This church, established on April 6, 1830, was based on the Bible, the Book of Mormon, continuing revelation, spiritual gifts from God, and the restoration of ancient priesthood authority. To the faith’s adherents, more was happening than simply the founding of another church: God was reclaiming scattered Israel, fulfilling covenants made long ago. Inspired by Book of Mormon prophesies of America’s native peoples, Joseph soon sent four missionaries on a 1,500-mile journey to preach in Indian villages west of the Mississippi River. Conversions en route led to the founding of church branches in New York, Ohio, and Missouri.
Joseph Smith, only 24 years old when the Church was organized and acutely aware of his own limitations, frequently sought divine guidance for the newly established Church and its members. The guidance he received was recorded and later published in a book of revelations, known as the Doctrine and Covenants. These revelations instructed Church members to gather to Kirtland, Ohio, and to prepare for the building of a city called Zion in western Missouri where the “pure in heart” would find refuge and harmony. Zion was to be righteous: poverty would be eliminated and goodness would prevail. Zion was also to be beautiful: art, education, and religion would flourish together. Joseph moved to Ohio, introduced an economic system based on the revelations he received, and then traveled to Missouri to lay the cornerstone for the Church’s first planned temple.
In the early 1830s, the Lord’s revelations to Joseph Smith taught an expansive view of God’s kingdom in the afterlife that countered the traditional Christian division of heaven and hell; established a School of the Prophets, for both religious and secular education; and introduced a health code called the “Word of Wisdom” that also promised spiritual blessings to those who kept it. Joseph and his counselors also drew a plan for the city of Zion, which had a major influence on later cities in the American West.
But Joseph’s joy in working toward Zion was accompanied by personal and community tragedies. Four of Joseph and Emma’s first five children died in infancy. And in both Ohio and Missouri, impassioned opposition to the Church turned violent. In Ohio, critics tarred and feathered Joseph. In Missouri, resentment toward the growth of the Church, as well as fears of Mormon sympathy toward slaves and American Indians, motivated mobs to drive the Church members from Jackson County. The loss of the planned site of Zion was painful to Joseph, who made multiple attempts to restore the Saints in Missouri to their homes. Joseph’s political thought was ultimately shaped by the U.S. Constitution’s promise to protect religious minorities and by the American government’s failures to live up to that promise.
While Church members in Missouri settled on temporary lands in the mid-1830s, Joseph focused on building up the Church in Kirtland. He ordained twelve apostles, published a collection of the revelations the Lord had given him, and completed and dedicated the first temple, or House of the Lord. The spiritual outpouring at the temple dedication included a vision of Jesus Christ and the return of the prophet Elijah in fulfillment of biblical prophecy.
Temple construction costs, losses in Missouri, and immigration to Kirtland all put financial pressure on the Church. In 1837, Joseph and others attempted to promote economic growth by launching a financial institution with a broad base of small shareholders rather than the few wealthy backers most banks relied on. Enthusiasm for the project was high, but the institution failed later that year during a national financial panic, devastating Joseph and many in the community.
During this difficult period, Joseph sent the first Latter-day Saint missionaries to Europe and shifted the center of the Church to Missouri. But as the Saints moved there in increasing numbers, they intensified local fears of Mormon influence. On Election Day in 1838, citizens of one Missouri county used force to keep them from voting, and citizens of another county passed a resolution to expel Mormon settlers. Widespread violence against the Saints followed, and their attempts at self-defense were used to justify an “extermination order” by the Missouri governor.
During an attempt to negotiate peace with the state militia, Joseph was taken into custody and summarily condemned to death. Only the outspoken protest of a militia officer against the execution order saved his life. Though not executed, Joseph remained imprisoned through the winter of 1838–39 while his wife, four young children, and members of the Church were forced out of Missouri across the frozen Mississippi River. His anguished March 1839 letter from Liberty Jail remains influential among Latter-day Saints for its inspired teachings on suffering, injustice, and the nature of true authority.
In 1839, many Missouri lawmakers began to complain about the cost of military actions against the Mormon community and questioned the wisdom of mass arrests. Though some public pressure remained to convict Joseph Smith, he and most of the other Mormon prisoners were released or allowed to escape by July. Joseph joined fellow Church members in Illinois, ministered to the sick during a malaria epidemic, and then founded the city of Nauvoo, which grew quickly as converts from across the Atlantic immigrated to join Saints from the United States and Canada.
In Nauvoo, Joseph enjoyed pastimes like wrestling, dancing, and theater—activities considered inappropriate for a minister by many contemporary denominations but increasingly encouraged in the Latter-day Saint community as part of a rich, God-filled life.
Truths from Joseph’s earlier revelations led to teachings and practices that did not always agree with the expectations of many of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries. An 1833 revelation taught that “man was also in the beginning with God”; in Nauvoo, Joseph taught that human beings could ultimately become like God. An 1836 revelation assured Joseph that his deceased brother Alvin, who had died without baptism, could yet receive all the blessings of baptism; in Nauvoo, Joseph restored the ancient practice of baptism for the dead. In the early 1830s, Joseph’s work with the book of Genesis had raised questions about polygamy; in Nauvoo, he received revelation that restored the practice of plural marriage—a significant influence on Mormon life in the 1800s—to a group of about 80 men and women, including the Twelve Apostles.
Vital steps in the organization of the Church also took place in Nauvoo. Joseph was inspired to establish a women’s organization called the Relief Society, teaching that the organization was essential to the Lord’s work. His wife Emma served as the first Relief Society president. After the Twelve Apostles returned from a mission to Great Britain, Joseph gave them substantial responsibilities that prepared them for a future as leaders in the Church. In Nauvoo, Joseph taught that families bound together on earth could be bound for eternity in heaven through covenants made in the temple, placing family and the temple at the heart of the restored Church.
The combination of Joseph’s new teachings and the concerns of some that he had too much political power in the growing city led to several high-profile defections within the Church as well as opposition from influential figures in neighboring towns and renewed attempts at capture or extradition by authorities in Missouri. During the last years of his life, Joseph periodically went into hiding and sometimes considered relocating further west, into a more isolated part of the American frontier (or what was then Mexican territory in the Western United States). Three months before his death, Joseph formed an organization called the Council of Fifty, designed to protect the religious liberty of Latter-day Saints and lay the foundation for the literal kingdom of God on the earth. Joseph worked with members of this council to seek possible settlement sites.
In the summer of 1844, the Nauvoo City Council ordered the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor, a dissident newspaper they accused of libel. The council had approved the decision, but as mayor of Nauvoo, Joseph Smith was held responsible. The destruction of the press enraged Joseph Smith’s enemies, eventually spurring them to violence. Pressure mounted for Joseph to stand trial outside Nauvoo, and an area newspaper went so far as to threaten a war of extermination if he refused to leave the Mormon-majority city. Though concerned for his personal safety, Joseph agreed to be tried in nearby Carthage, Illinois.
On June 25, Joseph wished his family farewell. His oldest daughter was thirteen at the time, and his wife Emma was five months pregnant with their youngest son. Two days later, a mob stormed Carthage Jail. Joseph Smith saw them kill his brother Hyrum and then died himself after being shot at least three times through the chest and back. He was 38 years old.
Joseph’s most outspoken critics considered the murder necessary to preserve a local way of life from the influence of an unfamiliar faith and expected it to lead to the collapse of the Church he had organized. Joseph’s fellow Latter-day Saints, in stark contrast, saw Joseph as a martyr who had sealed his testimony with his blood, and they preserved and attested to the teachings, ordinances, and authority he had helped restore.
Related Topics: Joseph Smith’s First Vision Accounts, Book of Mormon Translation, Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, Joseph and Emma Hale Smith Family, Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith Family, Joseph Smith and Plural Marriage, Joseph Smith’s 1826 Trial, Prophecies of Joseph Smith, Revelations of Joseph Smith, Joseph Smith’s 1844 Campaign for United States President, Deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Joseph Smith’s Leg Surgery