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Smith, Joseph (1805-1844)

Joseph Smith (1805-1844)

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Mormon prophet

Family Background. Crafty charlatan, brilliant psychopath, inspired prophetsuch were the varied conclusions drawn by contemporaries and later writers about the person of Joseph Smith. He was born in Western New York to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, the third of eight children. The recollections of his mother are the primary source for his early family life, but they were written after her sons death and so contain the inevitable distortion of hindsight. By all accounts the family was a closely knit circle whose bonds were strengthened by repeated disappointments. Lucy had come from wealthy New England stock, but her own parents had struggled on the edge of poverty. Although she and Joseph Smith Sr. began their marriage in comfortable circumstances, with a small farm and store in Vermont, Joseph was cheated in a speculative venture. Overwhelmed by debt, the couple became tenants in 1803. From that time until the founding of Nauvoo, the Smith family lived in the midst of economic uncertainty, with periods of brief prosperity sabotaged by unexpected setbacks. Driven by changing circumstances, the family moved frequently; the children thus grew up painfully aware of the insecurity facing those on the margins of the market economy. In 1825, at last on the verge of landownership, Lucy and Joseph found themselves at the mercy of an unscrupulous land agent and were once more reduced to tenancy. From her reminiscences it is apparent that Lucy bore these misfortunes with long-suffering indignation, believing the family deserved better for all their industry and virtuous living.

A Family of Seekers. In their religious inclinations both Joseph and Lucy were seekers, concerned with matters of faith but unchurched because of their disdain for denominational strife and discord. Lucy would get swept up in revival preaching but then find no merit in the churches themselves. She eventually joined a Presbyterian church in Palmyra and took some of the younger children on occasion, but for the most part the family worshiped together by means of Bible reading and family prayers. Joseph Sr. had at least seven visions (inspirational dreams) during his adult life, which he reported to his wife. All of them expressed his search for a religious home and confirmed his belief that he would find no solace in contemporary churches. Their spiritual journeys reflected the negative side of revivalism, when raised expectations evaporated for lack of sustenance.

Early Life. Joseph Jr., born 23 December 1805, received basic schooling at home from his parents and participated in the family economy at an early age. However, when he was 7, he fell victim to the typhoid epidemic raging through the region. The infection (osteomyelitis) invaded his shin bone, and he had to undergo painful surgery to remove diseased sections. Joseph was so weak that his mother had to carry him from place to place, and for three years he was more or less an invalid. When he was about fifteen, he evinced a serious concern for the state of his soul. As with his father, Josephs religious inquiry gravitated to the revelations imparted in visions. While deep in prayer one night, he believed that God and Jesus Christ appeared before him, assuring him that his sins were forgiven and that his dissatisfaction with the contemporary churches was well-placed since all were false. The apparitions also hinted at his future role in the restoration of the true church. Like his parents, the young Joseph had rejected the churches around Palmyra, but his vision suggested a deeper critique: all churches had turned away from God, and therefore none possessed religious authority. The emotionalism of the revivals had simply masked the emptiness of their claims of truth. Several years passed. Then, on the night of 21 September 1823, as Smith again sought divine guidance through prayer, the angel Moroni visited him and told him of ancient gold plates buried nearby that contained a previously unknown religious history. Following Moronis directions, Smith uncovered a box with the plates and two stones, Urim and Thummim, to be used in translation, though he was not permitted to remove them from their hiding place. According to his mothers later narrative the family rejoiced when Smith related what had transpired, having now found something upon which we could stay our minds.

Between Visitations. In his youth Joseph had found that, with the help of a seerstone, he could locate items not visible to the naked eye. A local farmer heard of this reputation and contracted Joseph in 1825 to search for a Spanish treasure that he believed was buried on his property in northeastern Pennsylvania. This stint as a money digger was to dog Smith all his life, as was his arrest on a charge of disturbing the peace in connection with a treasure hunt. During 1826, as he waited for the angel Moroni to allow him to remove the plates, he worked on the farm of Isaac Hale in Harmony, Pennsylvania, and he fell in love with Hales daughter Emma. Isaac disapproved of the match, questioning Josephs prospects, but the pair eloped anyway in January 1827. Then, on 22 September, Joseph took possession of the golden plates and began their translation. His first assistants were Emma and Martin Harris, a local farmer and benefactor of the young seer in this early period. Progress was slow until Oliver Cowdery, a Palmyra schoolteacher, became involved. From April to July 1829 the bulk of the work was transcribed.

Witnesses to the Translation. According to David Whitmer, one of his first converts, as Joseph held the sacred stones Urim and Thummim to his eyes, a symbol would appear on the plate with the English translation below it. Joseph would dictate the translation, the scribe would read it back for verification, and then another symbol would replace the one translated. That Joseph was more than a lens in this work was demonstrated when Cowdery became insistent about attempting a translation. Joseph finally relented, but Oliver was unable to fathom the markings. Emma also was convinced of the divine inspiration behind the translation, telling of the steady stream of dictation that always began where it left off without any prompting from the scribe. She declared that for one so ignorant and unlearned as he was, it was simply impossible. The Book of Mormon included a statement from Smiths three associates in the work of translationOliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmeras to the reality of the engraved plates and the veracity of the translation. Smith had acquiesced to their entreaties and led them in prayer one day until the angel Moroni appeared. Moroni allowed the trio to see what Smith had seen on the plates. The three were ecstatic, though when pressed, Harris could simply report that the engravings were discernible only with the eye of faith. Smith then returned the plates and sacred stones to Moroni. Although Cowdery, Harris, and Whitmer all eventually left the church, they never recanted their witness to the divine origin of The Book of Mormon.

Joseph Becomes the Prophet. Historians have scrutinized Joseph Smiths early origins for clues to the man, the movement, and the times because, with the publication of The Book of Mormon in 1830, Josephs personal life became inseparable from his role as the prophet of God. By all accounts the role came to him naturally. Whether he was hated or loved, one fact is apparent from the historical record: Joseph Smith was a man of remarkable magnetism and persuasive power. He recognized talent and surrounded himself with trusted apostles and counselors, but he never doubted his authority as prophet and freely excommunicated any who questioned him. The currents surrounding his early life doubtless influenced the type of religious movement he created, in which order, certainty, structure, and divine charisma replaced the chaos of the times. From the standpoint of biography rather than hagiography, his martyrs death at the hands of a Carthage mob on 27 June 1844 turned him from religious leader to insoluble enigma. Whatever ones verdict on Joseph Smith personally, the testimony of Mormonisms growth made him impossible to dismiss lightly.

Sources

Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, The Mormon Experience: A History of the Latter-Day Saints (New York: Knopf, 1979);

Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984).

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Joseph Smith

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

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. □

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Smith, Joseph

Joseph Smith, 1805–44, American Mormon leader, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, b. Sharon, Vt. When he was a boy his family moved to Palmyra, N.Y., where he experienced the poverty and hardships of life on a rough frontier. He had visions when he was still young and later recorded that he was first told in a vision in 1823 of the existence of secret records, but it was not until 1827 that the hiding place of the records was revealed to him. According to his account, in 1827 he unearthed golden tablets inscribed with sacred writings that he translated. Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and others transcribed these records from his dictation, and the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Further revelations led him to found a new religion after priesthood had been conferred upon him and Cowdery by an "angel." As prophet and seer he founded (1830) his church in Fayette, N.Y. (see Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of).

The hostility of his neighbors forced him to move his headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, where with the help of Sidney Rigdon and others he embarked on extensive business affairs. The Panic of 1837 was one of the reasons for removal farther west to Missouri. There the industrious and self-contained members of his faith again ran into difficulties with their neighbors. Smith and others were arrested but escaped, and his faithful followers were driven from Missouri.

Having obtained a favorable charter from Illinois, Smith founded the settlement of Nauvoo, which soon flourished, thanks to the concerted efforts of the members of his church. Disaffection grew, however, and some of the dissident members founded a newspaper, the Expositor, in which they bitterly criticized him. He put down the opposition, thereby giving the hostile non-Mormons a pretext for attacking him. When in 1844 he announced himself as candidate for the presidency of the United States, his enemies moved against him. He and his brother Hyrum were arrested on charges of treason and conspiracy. They were lodged in the jail at Carthage, Ill., and there on June 27, 1844, they were murdered by a mob.

The revelations experienced by Smith—including one enjoining plural marriage, which later caused the Mormons much trouble—were the foundation stones of a faith that after his death grew to be one of the great religions of the United States. Because he was a highly controversial figure, the literature on him is also controversial, and the Mormon church itself did not issue an official acknowledgment of Smith's multiple marriages until 2014.

See biographies by L. Smith (1908, repr. 1969), F. M. Brodie (1954, repr. 1995), R. V. Remini (2002), and R. L. Bushman (2005); studies by R. L. Anderson (1971), R. L. Bushman (1984), and A. Beam (2014).

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Smith, Joseph

Smith, Joseph (1805–44) US religious leader and founder of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (1830). His Book of Mormon (1830) was based on sacred writings he claimed were given to him on golden plates by a heavenly messenger named Moroni. In 1830, Smith and his followers set out to found the New Zion. In 1844, Smith was jailed on a charge of treason at Carthage, Illinois, where he was murdered by a mob.

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Smith, Joseph

Smith, Joseph (founder): see MORMONS.

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