Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Christian restorationist movement popularly known as 'Mormonism'. As the leader of this group, Smith wielded considerable power and influence over the community. He rose to the status of a political and military leader in the American Midwest and was a controversial figure because of his religious and social innovations.
Smith's movement was based upon his publication of the Book of Mormon, which claimed to document the history of the lost tribes of Israel who allegedly inhabited North America since ancient times. This book became the central scripture of the Mormon community along with the Bible.
Joseph Smith, Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, in Haron, 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. Palmyra was located in a region where intense revivalism, had taken hold during the Second Great Awakening. Smith experienced limited involvement with organized religion during his youth, but like most American Christians, was interested in folk beliefs and practices.
Smith claimed during his adolescence he experienced a number of visions, including an ongoing theophany in his early teens, which has come to be referred to by Latter Day Saints as the "First Vision." In his ceaseless wonder as to which was the one true church, Joseph stumbled into a veritable "dark night of the soul" marked by confusion and desperation. One night in 1820, determined to pray for help, Joseph drifted away from his parent's cabin and went to a clearing in the nearby woods. Here Smith was allegedly visited by a pillar of light that descended from the heavens and rested itself upon him. He then saw God the Father, who forgave him of his sins and foreshadowed the religious significance Joseph would come to uphold. In later accounts, Smith claimed to have witnessed Jesus Christ in that first vision as well; he appeared as an entity distinct from the Father. On September 21, 1823, Smith experienced an even more significant vision. That night, as he prayed for the forgiveness of his sins before going to sleep, his bedroom suddenly grew intensely bright and he was visited by a figure who identified himself as an angel named Moroni. Moroni indicated that Joseph was to find and publish a long-buried book of golden plates that contained the history of the ancient inhabitants of North America. The angel provided Smith with directions to a spot several miles south east of the Smith farm, Cumorah Hill, wherein the book was buried. These mystical visitations and others of a similar nature went on from approximately 1823 to 1827. On September 22, 1827, Smith said the angel finally granted him permission to obtain the plates and other artifacts, although by this time he began having difficulties with local treasure-hunters who were trying to discover exactly where the plates were hidden on the Smith farm.
Treasure hunting had reached nothing short of a fever pitch during these early years of Smith's life, and Smith himself was allegedly not immune, belonging to a company which attempted to find buried treasure in various areas of western New York. In March 1826, Smith was convicted in a court in Bainbridge, New York after an alleged admission to being a "disorderly person" and an "impostor" in connection with his treasure digging. Accounts of this trial are contested by contemporary Mormons, while others claim that there is corroborative evidence as to the veracity of the charge and conviction. Smith actually met his first wife, Emma Hale Smith (July 10, 1804 – April 30, 1879), during a treasure hunting expedition in Harmony, Pennsylvania (now Oakland Township). Although the company was unsuccessful, Smith returned to Harmony several times seeking Emma's hand in marriage. Emma's father, Isaac Hale, refused to allow the marriage, and so the couple eloped across the state line to South Bainbridge, New York and were married on January 18, 1827. The couple initially moved to the home of Smith's parents on the edge of Manchester Township near Palmyra.
Smith and his wife moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, with the monetary and moral support of a wealthy Palmyra neighbor named Martin Harris. Here Smith began to copy out the characters on the plates and translate them, a somewhat remarkable feat considering that he was otherwise illiterate and uneducated. When Harris asked if he might see the plates for himself, Smith refused, though he did allow Harris to see portions of what he had already translated from them. Smith claimed that the characters were "Reformed Egyptian." Harris promptly took some samples of the characters to a few well-known scholars including Charles Anthon, a professor of ancient languages at Columbia University. Upon analyzing the columns, Anthon himself claimed that the characters were merely an arrangement of Greek, Latin, and Hebrew letters with an assortment of strange markings affixed to them, and concluded that were the work of a hoaxster.
Harris returned to Harmony by the middle of April 1828, and upon hearing Anthon's opinion of the characters, Smith rationalized that the scholar was obviously uniformed about this particular form of Egyptian shorthand. Harris accepted this explanation and the translation continued nonetheless. Harris acted as Smith's scribe, writing down the text as Smith translated it. Despite his illiteracy, Smith obtained his translations from the plates by reading them with Urim and Thummim, a set of seer stones bound by silver bows into a set of spectacles. Smith claimed to have found this contraption on the hill of Cumorah along with the golden plates. These assisted him in reading the plates and thereby reproducing the meaning of the revelation. All the while he stayed behind a curtain so that Martin could not see the plates.
Harris' wife Lucy was skeptical of this translation process, and suggested that Smith was cheating her husband out of their money. In June 1828, Harris asked if he could at least alleviate his wife's doubts by showing her the first 116 pages of the manuscript. Although Smith denied him this request after consulting the seer stones, Harris persisted and Smith eventually conceded, allowing Harris to show only a select group of family members. Martin showed these family members as well as a number of friends, breaking his covenant with Smith. By the time the Smiths sent for Martin once again, the manuscript had been misplaced, never to be found. This, in concert with the fact that Emma had given birth to a stillborn son on June 15, 1828 sent Smith down into a spiral of despondency. Smith ceased his translation, until February 1829, when he began translating again from where he had left off with Emma serving as scribe. Translation greatly intensified on April 7, 1829, when Smith's friend Oliver Cowdery took over for Emma. In May, Smith received another revelation which instructed him not to retranslate the lost section of the manuscript, since those who had stolen the manuscript intended to find contradictions between the translations. Instead, he was told to translate the plates of Nephi, which dealt with the same period of time as the missing 116 pages.
At the beginning of June 1829, Smith and Cowdery moved to Fayette, New York for the remainder of the translation, where 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.
By the time the Book of Mormon was published, Smith and Cowdery had baptized several followers who collectively called themselves the Church of Christ, a new sect based on the book's substantial religious teachings. On April 6, 1830, this church was formally organized, and small branches were soon set up in Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville, New York. There was local opposition to these branches, however, and Smith soon dictated a revelation 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 Christians in Kirtland, Ohio led by Sidney Rigdon, a former Campbellite minister, doubling the church in size. Rigdon led several congregations of Restorationists in Ohio's Western Reserve area, and hundreds of his adherents followed him into Mormonism. Rigdon was soon named Smith's spokesman and quickly became one of the early leaders of the Movement. At the end of 1830, Smith dictated a revelation that the three New York branches should gather in Ohio pending the results of Oliver Cowdery's mission to Missouri.
On April 30, 1831, twins Thaddeus and Louisa were born prematurely to Emma, and like Smith's first child, they too died soon after birth. That same day, upon witnessing his own wife's death in childbirth bearing twins, a man by the name of John Murdock gave his newborn twins Joseph and Julia to the Smiths so they could be adopted. To avoid further conflict encountered in New York and Pennsylvania, Smith moved with his growing family to Kirtland, Ohio, joining with the converts that had been recruited by Rigdon. The church's headquarters were soon established in Kirtland and Smith urged the rest of the membership to gather there or at a second outpost of the church in Missouri. However, Smith was unable to escape the controversy which followed him for long.
On the night of Saturday, March 24, 1832, opposition to Smith turned vicious when a mob broke down his front door and dragged him from his bedroom. His attackers proceeded to strangled him until he fell unconscious, at which point they stripped him naked, then beat and poisoned him. After tarring and feathering his body, Smith was left by his attackers for dead. Smith limped back to shelter and cried out for a blanket. Through the night, his friends scraped off the tar until his flesh was raw. One of his adopted children died five days after the event from the condition that doctors said he developed the night of the mob violence. The critical historian Fawn M. Brodie speculated that one of John Johnson's sons, Eli, meant to punish Joseph by having him castrated for an intimacy with his sister, Nancy Marinda Johnson, but author Bushman states that hypothesis failed. He feels a more probable motivation is recorded by Symonds Ryder, a participant in the event, who felt Smith was plotting to take property from members of the community and a company of citizens violently warned Smith that they would not accept those actions.
On November 6, 1832, Joseph Smith III, who would grow to succeed his father as prophet-president in the branch of the movement known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was born.
Under Smith's leadership and direction, construction of the church's first temple began in Kirtland in 1833. The Kirtland Temple, as it came to be known, was completed by 1836. Around the time of its completion, many extraordinary events were reported, including appearances by Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and numerous angels, who spoke and sang in tongues. It was also during this period of time that Joseph and Emma Smith's fourth son, Frederick Granger Williams Smith, was born.
Opposition continued to grow against Smith and the members of his movement. On January 12, 1838 Smith and Rigdon left Kirtland for Far West in Caldwell County, Missouri, to avoid legal action which had been threatened against him. At the time, historian Brodie reports there were at least $6100 in civil suits outstanding against Smith in Chardon, Ohio courts, and an arrest warrant had been issued for Smith on a charge of bank fraud. By mid to late 1837, many Latter Day Saints, including many prominent leaders, became disaffected in the wake of the Kirtland Safety Society banking debacle, in which Smith and some of his associates were accused of illegal or unethical banking actions when the bank collapsed after one month of operation. 
The 'Latter Day Saints' began migrating to Missouri later on in 1838 after Smith stated that Missouri would be the future center of the New Jerusalem. Independence was identified as "the center place" in which the religion would thrive  and the spot for building the next temple. Soon after the dedication of the temple, Mormon converts—most of them from the New England area—began immigrating in large numbers to Independence and the surrounding area. One main group resided in the Kirtland area, while others moved to the Missouri settlements, resulting in two main centers for approximately seven years. The Saints from Kirtland eventually followed their brethren to Missouri, increasing the church's numbers. On June 2, 1838, Alexander Hale Smith, Joseph and Emma Smith's fifth son, was born.
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, and local leaders and residents perceived the Latter Day Saint community to be a threat to their property and political power. This tension was fueled primarily by the Mormon belief that Jackson County, Missouri, and the surrounding lands would become a "promised land" to the Saints as they successfully purchased property and built settlements. 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 occurred involving a clash between Missouri state militia troops and a group of Latter Day Saints.
In the wake of this conflict, many exaggerated reports of this battle (such as the claim that half of the militia's men had been lost, when in fact they had suffered only one casualty), as well as affidavits by ex-Mormons that Mormons were planning to burn both Liberty and Richmond, Missouri, made their way to Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs. On October 27, 1838, Boggs responded by issuing an executive order 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 Governor Christopher S. Bond. Soon afterward, the 2,500 troops from the state militia converged on the Mormon headquarters at Far West, forcing Smith and with several other Church leaders to surrender to state authorities on charges of treason and murder. They were held at Liberty Jail, and spent several months in captivity before they were transferred to a jail in Columbia, Missouri. The legality of Boggs' "Extermination Order" was debated in the legislature, but its objectives were nonetheless fulfilled. As a result, 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, establishing 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, which 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, and Nauvoo was quickly built up by the faithful, as well as many new converts.
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 they had suffered in Missouri. Van Buren told Smith, "Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri." Construction of a new temple in Nauvoo began in the autumn of 1840, and the cornerstones were laid during a conference on April 6, 1841. The temple was significantly larger and more grandiose than the one left behind in Kirtland. Although Smith was instrumental in its completion, it was not finished for more than five years after Smith died. It was dedicated on May 1, 1846. Approximately four months afterward, Nauvoo was abandoned by the majority of its citizens under threats of mob action.
In March of 1842, Joseph Smith went through the necessary proceedings to become a Freemason. On March 15, 1842, Smith was initiated as an Entered Apprentice at the Nauvoo Lodge. The very next day, he was raised to the degree of Master Mason, after Abraham Jonas, the Illinois Lodge Grandmaster, waived the conventional month-long wait between degrees. In Nauvoo, Smith taught many new doctrines, some of which seem to have been influenced by his Masonic membership. The Endowment ceremony, for instance, which Smith taught to the Quorum of the Twelve but not the public before his death, is one such doctrine. This esoteric ceremony involves the speaking of an oath, the wearing of special garments, and the performance of a number of symbolic gestures, not unlike Masonic rites. During this time, Smith also introduced a number of other doctrines which differed significantly from those of mainstream Christianity. This included "Baptism for the dead," which involves baptizing a living person on behalf of an individual who is dead, and the practice of plural marriage.
In February, 1844, Smith announced his candidacy for President of the United States, with Sidney Rigdon as his vice-presidential running mate. However, growing public dissatisfaction prevented him from ever getting the chance to run. A few disaffected Mormons in Nauvoo joined together to publish a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, the first and only issue of which was published June 7, 1844. The paper was highly antagonistic toward Smith, outlining several critiques and grievances against his new doctrines and his character in general, accusations which inflamed many of Nauvoo's citizens. The city council, headed by Joseph Smith as mayor, 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, in conjunction with the city council, ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper and the press on June 10, 1844. This action was seen by many non-Mormons as illegal and Smith was accused of violating the freedom of the press. Such charges were brought against Smith and he was imprisoned in Carthage, the Hancock County seat. Smith's brother, Hyrum, and eight of his associates including John Taylor and Willard Richards, accompanied him to jail. The Governor of the state, Thomas Ford, promised protection and a fair trial. All of Smith's associates left the jail, except his brother Hyrum, Richards, Taylor and Smith himself.
Shortly after 5:00 P.M. on June 27, 1844, a mob of about 200 men stormed the jail, and went directly to the place in which Smith and his associates were imprisoned. Although they attempted to hold the door shut against the mob, the mob opened fire through the still-closed door, shooting Hyrum Smith in the face and killing him immediately. Taylor was shot several times, but survived because one of the bullets hit his pocket watch, saving his life. Richards was unharmed. 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. Smith ran to the open window, where he was shot multiple times simultaneously, and fell from the window, dead. Mormons view Smith's violent death as martyrdom. Smith and his brother were both interred below the Smith Homestead in Nauvoo, and later excavations ordered by his grandson Frederick M. Smith rediscovered the bodies. Smith's body along with his wife's, were reinterred in a location thought to be more safe from Mississippi flooding. Almost five months after Smith's death in November of 1844, David Hyrum Smith, Joseph Smith's final son, was born.
During his adult life—from the time he began dictating the Book of Mormon in 1827 until his death in 1844—Smith introduced a large number of religious teachings. Although a number of his teachings are similar to doctrines circulating during his lifetime, several are unique to Smith. Nearly all of Smith's teachings had some root in the King James Version of the Bible. However, he believed that in some instances, the Bible was translated incorrectly. Thus, he produced a so-called "Inspired Version" of the King James Bible, an interpretation/elaboration of the original text that was dictated before his death and published posthumously. In addition, Smith also "restored" temples, orders of priesthood, and other elements of the Bible that he felt had been wrongly abandoned by mainstream Christianity as part of a Great Apostasy. Much of this "restoration" is presented in the Doctrine and Covenants, a work which can be best described as modern scripture.
In many cases, Smith's doctrines or interpretations of the Bible, as well as his own claimed revelations, placed him at odds with mainstream Christianity. For example, Smith rejected Christianity's long-standing formulation of the Trinity as recorded in the fourth century Nicene Creed. Smith taught that God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost are unified in purpose but not in substance. This is primarily based upon his assertion that he saw God the Father and Jesus as two distinct beings in his First Vision. Jesus and the Father are separated because they have physical bodies of flesh and bone. The Holy Ghost, meanwhile, is another distinct being with a "spirit body".
Joseph Smith, Jr. wrote the basic beliefs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and collected them in The Articles of Faith, a comprehensive list of beliefs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which are shown below and are credited to Joseph Smith, Jr.:
Smith's feelings on polygamy have been debated, since he publicly condemned the practice during his lifetime and denied that such doctrines had ever existed in official church publications. Scattered evidence exists, however, suggesting that he was 'sealed' (the Mormon word for 'marriage') throughout eternity to a number of other women, although many of these were not reported until long after Smith's death in 1844. However, many documented cases were supposedly witnessed. A few of the 'sealings' perhaps took place years after his death by proxy in the 1850s in Utah. Letters and statements by these "plural wives" make the claim that most of the marriages were consummated. Although Smith had many children with Emma, no additional offspring from the women making this "plural wife" claim were ever proven to have been fathered by Smith. Claims that Smith neither taught nor practiced polygamy are also contradicted by the official publication of the Doctrine and Covenants Section 132 nearly a decade after Smith's death. This revelation, in which Jesus Christ  states through Smith that "a new and an everlasting covenant" of plural marriage is given, contains numerous Biblical references to and justifications of polygamy, as well as the demand that Smith's first wife, Emma, accept all of Smith's plural wives. Furthermore, it warns of damnation if the new covenant is not observed.
In accordance with Smith's claim that he had never practiced polygamy, his widow and sons were vehement in arguing throughout their lifetimes that Smith had no association with the practice, and that no offspring were produced from the many women claiming after his death to have been his plural wives. Emma Smith's deathbed testimony stated "no such thing as polygamy, or spiritual wifery, was taught, publicly or privately, before my husband's death, that I have now, or ever had any knowledge of.. .He had no other wife but me; nor did he to my knowledge ever have". Portions of this comment may have been directed at clearing up the aftermath of an incident in which John C. Bennett, mayor of Nauvoo and adviser to Joseph Smith used the teaching [of plural marriage] to his own advantage, telling women that they were married "spiritually," even if they had never been married formally, all for the sordid purpose of engaging in illicit sexual relationships with them. In congruence with the position of his mother, Joseph Smith III also denied that his father had ever supported polygamy, and did not include it among the doctrines of his RLDS branch.
Given Smith's questionable history as a treasure-hunter, combined with the discovery that the ancient peoples of North America are genetic descendants of Asiatic rather than Semitic peoples, and a general lack of archaeological evidence to support the existence of such people in North America during biblical times, the authenticity of Smith's translation of the Book of Mormon has often been called into question. In the tradition of Charles Anthon, some scholars have dismissed the book as an elaborate hoax, thereby identifying Smith as a charlatan.
In the wake of such possibility, high-ranking members of the Community of Christ have not hesitated in identifying the difficulties presented by the Book of Mormon. In 2001, for instance, then-President W. Grant McMurray acknowledged questions concerning the book's merit:
"The proper use of the Book of Mormon as sacred scripture has been under wide discussion in the 1970s and beyond, in part because of long-standing questions about its historicity and in part because of perceived theological inadequacies, including matters of race and ethnicity." At the 2007 Community of Christ World Conference, President Stephen M. Veazey ruled a resolution to "reaffirm the Book of Mormon as a divinely inspired record" out of order. In so doing he stated that "while the Church affirms the Book of Mormon as scripture, and makes it available for study and use in various languages, we do not attempt to mandate the degree of belief or use. This position is in keeping with our longstanding tradition that belief in the Book of Mormon is not to be used as a test of fellowship or membership in the church."  Thus, belief in the Book of Mormon is not necessarily a fundamental priority for the Community of Christ and its members. In contrast, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the major branch of Smith's movement, identifies the Book of Mormon as the paramount revealed scripture and Joseph Smith as their prophet regardless of such criticisms.
Smith left highly ambiguous instructions concerning his successor as leader of the Latter-day Saints movement. Consequently, his death in 1844 created a crisis for the remaining Latter Day Saints. Without a divinely-sanctioned leader, there came a period of immense travail marked by arguments and disagreements among the church's members and its governing body. Numerous individuals claimed ascendancy to the position of leader. On August 8, 1844, Brigham Young was selected as the successor to Joseph Smith. Eyewitness accounts state that when Young spoke regarding the claims of succession by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he appeared to look or sound like the late Smith.
However, ongoing tensions lead the state legislature to revoke Nauvoo's city charter, and so the city was disincorporated. All protection, public services, self-government and other public benefits were dissolved. Those who lived in the former City of Nauvoo referred to it as the City of Joseph—Smith being its founder— until the city was again granted a charter. Without official defenses, city residents continued to be persecuted by opponents, leading Young to consider other areas for settlement, including Texas, California, Iowa, and the Great Basin region. Mob violence and conflict continued to grow, and by the end of 1845 it became clear that no peace was possible, and most of the Latter Day Saints prepared to abandon the city. The winter of 1845-1846 saw the enormous preparations for the Mormon Exodus across the Great Plains; in early 1846, the majority of the Latter Day Saints emptied the city. The leadership of the Church, headed by Young, led the Latter Day Saints out of the United States, across the Great Plains and into Utah, which was then Mexican territory. The followers of Young became the mainline Mormon sect, and today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints boasts approximately 12.5 million members.
Most Latter Day Saints followed Young, but some aligned themselves with various other figures who claimed to be Smith's successor, most notably his son Joseph Smith III. The church had published a revelation in 1841 stating "I say unto my servant Joseph, In thee, and in thy seed, shall the kindred of the earth be blessed", and this was widely interpreted as endorsing the concept of lineal succession. Documentary evidence indicates also that Smith set apart his son as his successor at various private meetings and public gatherings With this in mind, some Latter-day Saints looked past Smith III's young age at the time of his father's death and waited for him to assume leadership of the church upon reaching maturity. Indeed, Brigham Young himself assured the bulk of Smith's followers as late as 1860 that young Joseph would eventually take his father's place. That year, the younger Smith established what was to later be incorporated as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ church) in the Midwest, made up of scattered church members who did not journey west with Young. Community of Christ is currently the second largest Latter-day Saint denomination with about 250,000 members.
In addition, Smith's vice-presidential running mate Sidney Rigdon formed the Church of Jesus Christ, headquartered in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, with a number of additional congregations scattered throughout the area. Many of these smaller groups were spread throughout the midwestern United States, especially in Independence, Missouri, and several remain viable as religious groups today. A number of other off-shoots claim to derive from the teachings of Joseph Smith, including the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) which currently practices Smith's alleged teaching of plural marriage. These other Latter Day Saint denominations have membership numbering in the tens of thousands. Needless to say, issues relating to the succession crisis are of great importance to Mormons, and are still the subject of much discussion and debate in contemporary Mormonism. Thus, whether he is thought of as a genuine prophet or as an enterprising charlatan, Smith's religious influence remains significant.
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