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Smith, Joseph


SMITH, JOSEPH (18051844), the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons. Joseph Smith, Jr. was perhaps the most original, most successful, and most controversial of several religious innovatorsincluding Ellen Gould White (Seventh-day Adventists), Mary Baker Eddy (Christian Science), and Charles Taze Russell (Jehovah's Witnesses)who created important religious movements in nineteenth-century America.

Born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805, Smith was the third of the nine children of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. He grew up in the unchurched and dissenting, but God-fearing, tradition of a New England Protestant biblical culture, which attracted many of those whose economic standing in established society had been eroded. In 1816, plagued by hard times and misfortune, the sturdy, self-reliant, and closely-knit Smith family left New England for western New York in search of economic betterment; they settled in the village of Palmyra, along the route of the Erie Canal.

During the 1820s, as the Smiths continued to struggle against economic reversals, the religiously inclined young man had a number of visions and revelations. These convinced him that he was to be the divinely appointed instrument for the restoration of the gospel, which in the opinion of many of his contemporaries had been corrupted. Under the guidance of an angel he unearthed a set of golden plates from a hill near his parents' farm. He translated these golden plates with divine aid and published the result in 1830 as the Book of Mormon. Smith claimed that this book, named after its ancient American author and compiler, was the sacred history of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of America, migrants from the Near East, some of whom were the ancestors of the American Indians. In 1829 divine messengers had conferred the priesthoodthe authority to baptize and act in the name of Godon Smith and his associate Oliver Cowdery. Shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith and Cowdery officially organized the Church of Christ in Fayette, New York, on April 6, 1830. In 1838 the name was changed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Prominent among those attracted to Smith's teachings was Sidney Rigdon, erstwhile associate of Alexander Campbell. Rigdon invited Smith and his New York followers to establish a Mormon settlement in Kirtland, Ohio. It was there that Smith greatly amplified and broadened his theological and organizational principles in a series of revelations (first published in 1833 as the Book of Commandments, and later enlarged into the current, canonical Doctrine and Covenants ). The Saints were enjoined to gather in communities as God's chosen people under an egalitarian economic system called the Law of Consecration and Stewardship. They were also directed to build a temple as the sacred center of the community. These revelations initiated a patriarchal order that harkened back to Old Testament traditions. Another ancient source was Smith's translation of some Egyptian papyri published as The Book of Abraham in 1842. This work became a source of some controversy when a modern translation published in 1968 suggested that these papyri were ordinary funerary documentsthough the Church has continued to accept The Book of Abraham as canonical.

In the meantime, Smith also established settlements in Missouri, which he regarded as the center of a future Zion. In 1838 economic difficulties and internal dissension forced Smith to give up the Kirtland settlement. His intention of gathering all the Saints in Missouri, however, had to be deferred after the Mormons were ruthlessly driven from the state in 1839. It was in Nauvoo, a settlement founded in 1839 on the Mississippi River, that Smith further expanded his ambitious vision of a Mormon empire that was to be both spiritual and temporal. By 1844 Nauvoo had become the largest city in Illinois, with a population of about eleven thousand. This city was under the full religious, social, economic, and political control of the Mormon kingdom, with Joseph Smith as its charismatic leader.

Some historians suggest that he may have become touched by megalomania; he assumed leadership of the Mormon militia in the resplendent uniform of a lieutenant general and announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Smith ostensibly made his gesture toward the presidency in order to avoid making a politically difficult choice between the two major parties, but he was also imbued with the millennial belief that if God wanted him to be president and establish Mormon dominion in the United States, no one could hinder him. Innovative ordinances, such as baptism for the dead, and especially plural marriagewith Smith and his closest associates secretly taking numerous wivesoffended the religious sensibilities of some Mormons. Likewise, controversial doctrines such as pre-existence, metaphysical materialism, eternal progression, the plurality of gods, and the ability of humans to become divine through the principles of Mormonism, failed to gain universal acceptance among the Saints. A group of alarmed anti-Mormons effectively capitalized on internal dissent and were able to organize a mob that killed Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27, 1844.

History has shown the killers of the Mormon prophet wrong in thinking that they had delivered a mortal blow to Mormonism, although their crime was an implicit recognition of Smith's crucial role in creating and sustaining the new religion. It was his spirituality, imagination, ego, drive, and charisma that not only started Mormonism but kept it going in the face of nearly insurmountable internal and external opposition. At the same time, these were the very characteristics that had generated much of that opposition. Smith's was a multifaceted and contradictory personality. Reports of encounters with him by both non-Mormons and believers give the impression of a tall, well-built, handsome man whose visionary side was tempered by Yankee practicality, geniality, and a sense of humor that engendered loyalty in willing followers. Though after his death his followers could not all agree on precisely what he had taught and split into several factions, they all accepted Smith's central messages of the restoration of the gospel and the divine status of the Book of Mormon, continuing revelation by prophets, and the establishment of the kingdom of God with Christ as its head.

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The literature on Joseph Smith is as controversial as his life. Most of the anti-Smith polemics are based on affidavits collected by Mormon apostate Philastus Hurlbut and published by Eber D. Howe as Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, Ohio, 1834). Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, presented the other side in Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet (1853; reprint, New York, 1969). History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, by Joseph Smith, Jr., 2d rev. ed., 6 vols., edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, 1950) is an indispensable source collection. The most authoritative account of Smith's family background and early career is Richard L. Bushman's Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, Ill., 1984).

The nineteenth-century theory that the Book of Mormon was Sidney Rigdon's plagiarized version of a novel by Solomon Spaulding was first demolished by I. Woodbridge Riley in The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr. (New York, 1902). David Persuitte has revived the argument that the Book of Mormon, especially its claim for the Israelite origins of the American Indians, was influenced by Ethan Smith's View of the Hebrews (Poultney, Vt., 1823) in Joseph Smith and the Origins of the Book of Mormon (Jefferson, N.C., 2000). The first modern interpretation is Fawn M. Brodie's No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (1945; 2d ed., rev. & enl., New York, 1971), which advances a psychoanalytic interpretation and sees him as a product of his cultural environment. Mormons prefer Donna Hill's less critical Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (Garden City, N. Y., 1977), though scholars cannot afford to bypass Brodie. The most successful attempt to avoid the prophet-fraud dichotomy is Jan Shipps's Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana, Ill., 1984). A short biography in the Penguin series by the distinguished Jacksonian scholar Robert V. Remini, Joseph Smith (New York, 2000), is essentially a PR job, skirting controversial issues. There is no reliable up-to-date biography of Smith.

Klaus J. Hansen (1987 and 2005)

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