[This entry, The Prophet, is a biography of Joseph Smith. See also Visions of Joseph Smith.]
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805—1844), often referred to as the Prophet Joseph Smith, was the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Latter-day Saints call him “the Prophet” because, in the tradition of Old and New Testament prophets, he depended on revelation from God for his teachings, not on his own learning. They accept his revelations, many of them published as the Doctrine and Covenants and as the Pearl of Great Price, as scripture to accompany the Bible. As a young man, Joseph Smith also translated a sacred record from ancient America known as the book of Mormon. These revelations and records restored to the earth the pure gospel of Christ. Joseph Smith’s role in history was to found the Church of Jesus Christ based on this restored gospel in preparation for the second coming of Christ.
Little in his background pointed toward this momentous life. Joseph Smith’s ancestors were ordinary New England farm people. His Smith ancestors emigrated from England to America in the seventeenth century and settled in Topsfield, Massachusetts, where they attained local distinction. His grandfather Asael Smith, unable at the time to pay the debts on the family farm, sold the farm, liquidated the debts, and migrated in 1791 to Tunbridge, Vermont, where he purchased enough land to provide for his sons. Joseph Smith’s Mack ancestors, from Scotland, settled in Lyme, Connecticut, prospered for a while, and then fell on hard times. Joseph’s grandfather Solomon Mack attempted various enterprises in New England and New York, with little financial success. One of the Mack sons moved to Tunbridge, and through him Lucy Mack met Joseph Smith, Sr., one of Asael’s sons. The pair married in 1796. They had eleven children, nine of whom lived to adulthood. Joseph Smith, Jr., born December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, was the third son to live and the fourth child.
Young Joseph had little formal schooling. His parents lost their Tunbridge farm in 1803 through a failed business venture and for the next fourteen years moved from one tenant farm to another. In 1816 they migrated to Palmyra, New York, just north of the Finger Lakes, where in 1817 they purchased a farm in Farmington (later Manchester), the township immediately south of Palmyra. Clearing land and wresting a living from the soil left little time for school. “As it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family,” Joseph wrote in 1832, “we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements” (Jessee, 1989, 1:5). His mother described him as “much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of the children, but far more given to meditation and deep study” (Smith, p. 84). His knowledge of the Bible and his biblical style of writing suggest that much of his early education came from that source.
One subject he pondered was religion. His parents had been reared under the influence of New England Congregationalism but, dissatisfied with the preachers around them, they were not regular churchgoers. Both parents had deep religious experiences and an intense longing for salvation, without having a satisfactory way to worship. A few years after settling in Palmyra, Lucy Smith and three of the children joined the Presbyterians; Joseph, Sr., and the others stayed home, Joseph, Jr., among them. Young Joseph was deeply perplexed about which church to join, and the preaching of the revival ministers in the area intensified his uncertainty.
In the spring of 1820, when he was just fourteen, Joseph turned directly to God for guidance. The answer was astonishing. As he prayed in the woods near his house, the Father and the Son appeared to him. Assuring him that his sins were forgiven, the Lord told him that none of the churches were right and that he should join none. Latter-day Saints call this Joseph Smith’s first vision, the initial event in the restoration of the gospel. At the time, it made little impression on the people around Joseph Smith. He told a minister about the vision and was rebuffed. Believing the Bible sufficient, ministers were skeptical of direct revelation. The scorn upset Joseph, who had only tried to report his actual experience, and alienated him still further from the churches.
After three years with no further revelations, Joseph wondered if he still was in favor with God and prayed again for direction and forgiveness. The vision he received on September 21, 1823, set the course of his life for the next seven years. An angel appeared and instructed him about a sacred record of an ancient people. This angel, Moroni2, told Joseph that he was to obtain the record, written on gold plates, and translate it. He also told him that God’s covenant with ancient Israel was about to be fulfilled, that preparation for the second coming of Christ was about to commence, and that the gospel was to be preached to all nations to prepare a people for Christ’s millennial reign. In a vision Joseph saw the hill near his home where the plates were buried. When he went the next day to get the plates, the angel stopped him. He was told that he must wait four years to obtain the plates and that, until then, he was to return each year for instructions. On September 22, 1827, he obtained the plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon (see Moroni, Visitations of).
The discovery of gold plates in a hillside resonated strangely with other experiences of the Smith family. Like many other New Englanders, they were familiar with searches for lost treasure by supernatural means. Joseph Smith’s father was reputed to be one of these treasure-seekers, and Joseph Smith himself had found a stone, called a seer stone, which reportedly enabled him to find lost objects. Treasure-seekers wanted to employ him to help with their searches. One, a man named Josiah Stowell (sometimes spelled Stoal), hired Joseph and his father in 1825 to dig for a supposed Spanish treasure near Harmony, Pennsylvania. The effort came to nothing, and the Smiths returned home, but the neighbors continued to think of the Smiths as part of the treasure-seeking company. Joseph Smith had to learn, in his four years of waiting, to appreciate the plates solely for their religious worth and not for their monetary value. The angel forbade Joseph to remove the plates on his first viewing because thoughts of their commercial worth had crossed his mind. Joseph had to learn to focus on the religious purpose of the plates and put aside considerations of their value as gold.
While working in Harmony in 1825, Joseph Smith met Emma Hale at the Hale home where he and his father boarded. He continued seeing her through the next year while working at other jobs in the area, and on January 18, 1827, they married. She was tall, straight, slender, and dark-haired; he stood over six feet tall with broad chest and shoulders, light brown hair, and blue eyes. After the wedding they went to live with the Smith family in Manchester, close to the hill Cumorah where the plates still lay buried.
On September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith went to the hill for the fifth time. This time the angel permitted him to take the plates, with strict instructions to show them to no one. Designing people tried strenuously to get the plates, however, and he was not left in peace to begin translation. Eventually he and Emma were compelled to move, for their safety, to Harmony, near Emma’s family.
For the next three years, Joseph’s work depended on the support of a few loyal friends who came to his aid and helped buffer him from troublesome inquirers. His open manner inspired confidence, and his candor in simply narrating what had happened to him disarmed skepticism. His brother later wrote that Joseph’s youth, his lack of education, and his “whole character and disposition” convinced the family that he was incapable of “giving utterance to anything but the truth” (William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa, 1883, pp. 9—10). By the time the translation was completed and the Book of Mormon published, three or four dozen people believed in his mission and divine gifts.
Martin Harris, a prosperous Palmyra farmer, was one of these friends. He helped Joseph move to Harmony and then moved there himself to help with the translation. To enable him to translate, Joseph received with the plates a special instrument called interpreters or Urim and Thummim. As he dictated, Martin Harris wrote (see Translation of the Book of Mormon by Joseph Smith). In the spring of 1828, after three months of work, Martin Harris took the 116 pages of the translation home to show his wife, and they were lost or stolen. This interrupted the translation and left Joseph desolate. Soon after, he received a scathing rebuke in a revelation (D&C 3). About this time, Joseph and Emma’s firstborn son died on the day of his birth, June 15, 1828, wrenching Joseph’s feelings even further.
Translation resumed in the fall of 1828, continuing intermittently until the spring of 1829. Then Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher who learned of the plates from Joseph’s parents, believed in Joseph and agreed to take dictation. From April to June 1829 they labored together. When the two friends prayed on May 15 for an understanding of baptism, a messenger who announced himself as John the Baptist appeared, conferred priesthood authority upon them, and instructed them to baptize each other. Oliver later wrote: “These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude of this bosom!” (JS—H 1:71n).
Oliver was not the only additional witness to the revelations. When opposition began to build in Harmony, Oliver and Joseph moved in June 1829 to Fayette, New York, to the family home of Oliver’s friend David Whitmer. Here again Joseph received needed support from people who believed in him. Once the translation was completed, Joseph was told that others would be allowed to see the plates, which until that time only he had viewed. The angel Moroni appeared to Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer and showed them the gold plates while a voice from heaven declared that the translation was done by the power of God and was true (see Witnesses of the Book of Mormon). Joseph’s mother reported that Joseph came into the house after this revelation and threw himself down beside her, exclaiming that at last someone else had seen the plates. “Now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive” (Smith, p. 139). His words suggest the pressure he felt in being the only witness of his remarkable experiences.
In March 1830 the Book of Mormon was published, ending one phase of Joseph’s life but not his divine mission. Revelations in 1829 instructed him to organize a church. On April 6, 1830, at the Whitmers’ house in Fayette, New York, the Church of Christ was organized with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as first and second elders.
Leadership of the Church set Joseph Smith’s life on a new course. Up to this time he had been a young man with a divine gift and a mission to translate the Book of Mormon; now, without any previous organizational experience, he was responsible for organizing a church and leading a people. He had to rely on revelation. Over the next six years, he received many revelations, 90 of which fill 190 pages in the Doctrine and Covenants. They range from instructions on mundane details of administration to exalted depictions of life hereafter. Typically, when problems had to be solved, whether administrative or doctrinal, the Prophet sought divine guidance and by virtue of this help led the Church.
The course the revelations laid out for the new Church was extraordinarily challenging. The Prophet received instructions for ventures reaching halfway across the continent and involving a reorganization of society. At the core of the instruction was the establishment of Zion. Book of Mormon teachings of Christ made reference to a New Jerusalem, a city of Zion that would be established in America (3 Ne. 20:22). Later revelations outlined the nature of the new order. The central concept was the gathering of the pure and honest from among the nations into communities where they could learn to live in unity and love under divine direction, and where temples could be built to administer the sacred ordinances of salvation.
In September—October 1830, missionaries were called to teach Native Americans who resided near the western boundary of Missouri. These missionaries were told that the city of Zion would be located somewhere in that region. Later revelations called for a gathering to Missouri to organize Zion, and a new economic order designed to enable the Saints to live together in unity. Joseph and other leading figures in the Church journeyed to Jackson County, Missouri, in the summer of 1831, and there learned by revelation that the city was to be constructed and a temple built near Independence, Missouri. The gathering was to commence immediately.
When it is remembered that Joseph Smith was not yet twenty-six, and five years earlier was an uneducated farmer notable only for his spiritual gifts, the daring of these plans is hard to comprehend. The magnitude of his conceptions never troubled him. “I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world,” he later remarked (HC 6:365). He acted in the certainty that the directions were from God and that the Church would triumph against all odds.
In the spring of 1831 virtually all Latter-day Saints left New York for Ohio. Joseph and Emma settled in Kirtland, Ohio, near a body of new converts, and for the next six years this was Church headquarters. The other focal point of Church life until 1838 was Missouri, first Independence, the site of the future city of Zion, then northern Missouri. As Latter-day Saints migrated to Missouri, tensions with old settlers increased. In Jackson County, in 1831—1833, and again in Caldwell County, in 1836—1838, efforts to establish Zion aroused violent opposition to what non-Mormons perceived as a threat to their way of life.
Joseph Smith also made efforts to realize his vision of Zion during the seven years that the Latter-day Saints were in Ohio. He organized the first stakes and set up the presiding priesthood structure of the Church. The Prophet established a bank, a newspaper, and a printing office; he supervised the building of the Church’s first temple, and initiated extensive missionary work in the United States, Canada, and England. His revelations, including a law of health, tutored the Saints in the conduct of daily life. He made a translation of the Bible. He introduced a school system to prepare the Saints for leadership and missionary roles and was himself a student of Hebrew in the school. The high point of the Kirtland years was the dedication of the temple. Although Joseph Smith had received priesthood authority several years earlier, in 1836, in the Kirtland Temple, he received important additional keys of authority from Moses, Elias, and Elijah pertaining to the gathering of Israel and the eternal sealing of families.
Opposition had beset the Prophet from the time he first told people about his visions. In 1832 he was tarred, feathered, and beaten by a mob who broke into the house where he was staying at Hiram, Ohio, an intrusion that led to the death of a child. At Kirtland, dissent arose within the Church over the nature of the new society and the Prophet’s involvement in economics and politics; some accused him of attempting to control their private lives and labeled him a fallen prophet. By early 1838, opposition, especially among Ohio leadership, grew to the point that the Prophet and loyal members moved to Missouri.
Joseph Smith arrived with his family at Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri, in March 1838, where he sought once again to establish a gathering place for the Saints and to build a temple. But, as before, the influx of outsiders with differing social, religious, and economic practices was unacceptable to the old settlers. Opposition flared into violence at Gallatin, Daviess County, on August 6, 1838, when enemies of the Church tried to prevent Latter-day Saints from voting. The ensuing fight produced injuries on both sides. A subsequent misunderstanding with a local justice of the peace led to charges against the Prophet. As rumors spread, citizens of several counties, then militias, mobilized to expel the Latter-day Saints.
The crisis came to a head on October 31, 1838, when Joseph Smith and several others, expecting to discuss ways to defuse the volatile situation, were arrested—it was the beginning of five months of confinement. A November court of inquiry at Richmond, Ray County, accused the Prophet and others with acts of treason connected with the conflict and committed them to Liberty Jail to await trial. Meanwhile, the Saints were driven from the state.
Harsh imprisonment made worse by forced separation from his family and the Church left Joseph time to reflect on the meaning of human suffering. His writings from prison contain some of the most sublime passages of his ministry. Excerpts from his letters were added to the collection of his revelations. Acknowledging all that he had experienced, one of the revelations reminded him that however great his sufferings, they did not exceed the Savior’s: “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).
The following April, while being taken under guard to Boone County, Missouri, for a change in venue, the Prophet and his fellow prisoners were allowed to escape. Within a month of rejoining family and friends at Quincy, Illinois, Joseph Smith had authorized the purchase of land on the Mississippi River near Commerce, Hancock County, Illinois, and had moved his family into a two-room log cabin. During the summer of 1839, the Saints began settling their new gathering place, which they named Nauvoo.
Like many areas along the river bottoms, Nauvoo was at first poorly drained and disease-infested. During a malaria epidemic, the Prophet gave up his home to the sick and lived in a tent. Witnesses reported miraculous healing under his administration. “There was many sick among the saints on both sides of the river and Joseph went through the midst of them taking them by the hand and in a loud voice commanding them in the name of Jesus Christ to arise from their beds and be made whole” (Wilford Woodruff Diary, July 22, 1839, Ms., LDS Church Archives). Deaths were so frequent that a mass funeral was held.
Late in 1839 the Prophet traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek redress from the federal government for losses sustained by his people in Missouri. While there he obtained interviews with President Martin Van Buren and prominent congressmen, but came away frustrated and without relief.
Nauvoo was soon incorporated under the state-authorized Nauvoo charter. Within the next few years the city grew to rival Chicago as the largest in Illinois. Joseph served on the city council and eventually became mayor. As mayor he also served as presiding judge of the municipal court and as registrar of deeds. With the rank of lieutenant general, he led the Nauvoo Legion, or municipal militia. He was also proprietor of a merchandise store and became editor and publisher of the newspaper Times and Seasons.
The relative security of Nauvoo provided Joseph Smith with an opportunity to move forward the work of the kingdom with renewed vigor. He sent the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to Great Britain, where they expanded missionary work and launched an emigration program that provided a stream of immigrants into the new place of gathering. At Nauvoo the Prophet organized the first wards, the basic geographical units of the Church. He expanded the ecclesiastical authority of the Twelve to include jurisdiction within stakes, placing them for the first time in a position of universal authority over the Church under the First Presidency. He supervised the building of the Nauvoo Temple and established the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
The Prophet faced a dilemma as he began to restore long-lost divine principles. Prompted by forebodings that his remaining time was short, he wished to hasten his efforts, but because many did not understand his mission and opposed him, he had to move slowly. “I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me . . . were the people prepared to receive them,” he wrote in 1843 (HC 5:402). To resolve this dilemma, the Prophet presented some principles privately to a small number of faithful members, intending to plant the seeds before he died. As early as 1841, he introduced plural marriage, a necessary part of the restoration of the ancient order of things, to members of the Twelve and a few others. Although he had understood the principle since 1831 and apparently had married one plural wife several years earlier, he married his first recorded plural wife, Louisa Beaman, in 1841. During his remaining years, he married at least twenty-seven others.
In May 1842 the Prophet introduced the full endowment, religious ordinances subsequently observed in all LDS temples, to a small group in the upper room of his Nauvoo store. A year later he performed the first sealings of married couples for time and eternity. In addition, he taught the Saints important doctrines pertaining to the nature of God and man. In March 1844 he organized the council of fifty, the political arm of the kingdom of God. By the time of his death three months later, he had completed all that he felt was essential for the continuation of the kingdom. By then he had transferred to the Twelve the keys of authority, confident that the program he had initiated would now continue regardless of what befell him.
Teaching these principles privately to a small circle enabled Joseph Smith to fulfill his mission but complicated the situation at Nauvoo and unleashed forces that eventually led to his death. Some Saints had difficulty in accepting these unusual teachings. Upon being taught plural marriage, Brigham Young said it was the first time in his life that he had desired the grave. Joseph’s wife Emma at one point became “very bitter and full of resentment” [“Statement of William Clayton,” Woman’s Exponent 15 (June 1, 1886): 2]. As knowledge of the private teachings leaked into the community, speculation and distorted rumors proliferated.
While the Prophet pursued his objectives, forces outside the Church organized against him. Missouri authorities tried three times to extradite him from Illinois, resulting in lengthy periods of legal harassment. Because of the loss of property in earlier persecutions, he was unable to pay his debts and had to fend off creditors. When Illinois political leaders turned against the Latter-day Saints and no national leaders would champion their cause, the Prophet declared his candidacy for president of the United States, gaining a platform from which to discuss the rights of his people.
By April 1844, dissenters openly challenged Joseph Smith’s leadership by organizing a reform church and publishing a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, for the purpose of denouncing him. Perceiving the Expositor as a threat to the peace of the community, the Nauvoo city council, with Joseph Smith presiding as mayor, authorized him to order the destruction of the press—an act that ignited the opposition. On June 12 the Prophet was charged with riot for destruction of the press. After a flurry of legal maneuvers, Joseph submitted to arrest at nearby Carthage, the county seat, under the governor’s pledge of protection. Joseph had premonitions of danger, and the vocal threats of hotheads in adjoining towns gave substance to his fears. On June 27, 1844, while in Carthage Jail awaiting a hearing, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed when a mob with blackened faces stormed the jail. The next day the brothers’ bodies were returned to Nauvoo, where ten thousand Latter-day Saints gathered to mourn the loss of their Prophet.
Despite the adversity that dogged him from youth until death, Joseph Smith was not the somber, forbidding person his contemporaries generally envisioned in the personality of a prophet. An English convert wrote that Joseph was “no saintish long-faced fellow, but quite the reverse” [John Needham to Thomas Ward, July 7, 1843, Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star 4 (Oct. 1843): 89]. It was not uncommon to see him involved in sports activities with the young and vigorous men of a community. He is known to have wrestled, pulled sticks, engaged in snowball fights, played ball, slid on the ice with his children, played marbles, shot at a mark, and fished. Tall and well built, Joseph Smith did not hesitate to use his strength. Once in his youth he thrashed a man for wife-beating. In 1839, as he was en route to Washington, D.C., by stagecoach, the horses bolted while the driver was away. Opening the door of the speeding coach, the Prophet climbed up its side into the driver’s seat, where he secured the reins and stopped the horses.
Joseph was also deeply spiritual. His mother said of him that in his youth he “seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature” (Lucy Smith, “Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith,” preliminary manuscript, p. 46, LDS Church Archives). When he was just twelve, as he later wrote, his mind became “seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul” (PJS 1:5). Years after he began receiving revelations, he continued to seek spiritual comfort. In 1832 while on a journey, he wrote of visiting a grove “which is Just back of the town almost every day where I can be Secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meaditation and prayr” (PWJS, p. 238). Clearly he spoke from the heart in declaring that “the things of God are of deep import: and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out” (HC 3:295).
Joseph Smith deeply loved his family, and his personal writings are filled with prayerful outpourings of tenderness and concern. “O Lord bless my little children with health and long life to do good in this generation for Christs sake Amen” (PWJS, p. 28). His family consisted of eleven children, including adopted twins. Of these, four sons and a daughter died in infancy or early childhood; five were living when their father was killed, and a sixth, a son, was born four months after his death. Occasional glimpses into his family life show him sliding on the ice with his son Frederick, taking his children on a pleasure ride in a carriage or sleigh, and attending the circus.
He was also a loyal friend and cared deeply about others. He repeatedly extended a forgiving hand to prodigals, some of whom had caused him pain and misery. “I feel myself bound to be a friend to all . . . wether they are just or unjust; they have a degree of my compassion & sympathy” (PWJS, p. 548). One observer noted that the Prophet would never go to bed if he knew there was a sick person who needed assistance. He taught that “love is one of the leading characteristics of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God. A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole of the human family” (PWJS, p. 481). One Church member who stayed at the Smith home and witnessed the Prophet’s “earnest and humble devotions . . . nourishing, soothing, and comforting his family, neighbours, and friends,” found observation of his private life a greater witness of Joseph Smith’s divine calling than observing his public actions (JD 7:176—77).
Joseph Smith spent his life bringing forth a new dispensation of religious knowledge at great personal cost. He noted that “the envy and wrath of man” had been his common lot and that “deep water” was what he was “wont to swim in” (D&C 127:2). A little more than a year before his death he told an audience in Nauvoo, “If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out: I have no doubt of the truth” (HC 5:336). He lived in the hope of bringing that truth to life in a society of Saints, and died the victim of enemies who did not understand his vision.
Anderson, Richard L. Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage. Salt Lake City, 1971. Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History. New York, 1946. Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana, Ill., 1984. Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, Utah, 1980. Gibbons, Francis M. Joseph Smith: Martyr, Prophet of God. Salt Lake City, 1982. Hill, Donna. Joseph Smith, The First Mormon. Garden City, New York, 1977. Jessee, Dean C., ed. PWJS. Salt Lake City, 1984. ———. The Papers of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1989. Millet, Robert L., ed., Joseph Smith: Selected Sermons and Writings. New York, 1989. Porter, Larry C., and Susan Easton Black, eds. The Prophet Joseph: Essays on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1988. Smith, Lucy. Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet. Liverpool, 1853.
Richard L. Bushman Dean C. Jessee