An Introduction to Joseph Smith Jr.
by Mark A. Scherer
Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon prophet, is among the most fascinating, yet controversial figures in America’s religious history. From humble beginnings to founder of a faith tradition involving millions of people literally around the world, this historical person merits careful study. His complete commitment to, and total control over, Latter Day Saintism inseparably connects his personal story to that of his religious movement.
Born on 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, Joseph Jr. was the third son of ten children in the family of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The young prophet’s heritage reaches deeply into American history. In 1692 his ancestors accused two women of witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts, and when found guilty, the two women were hanged. During the Revolutionary War, Smith family members served on a privateer that raided British shipping in the Long Island Sound and otherwise made saltpeter for gunpowder. After the war, Joseph Sr. speculated in exporting ginseng root and lost the family fortune in the China trade. This tragedy stripped the family of their community standing, reducing their living standard to poverty level, abject poverty at times, from which they never really recovered. Relegated to lowly tenant farming in Vermont, the family moved in a small geographic circle seven times in the first fourteen years of Joseph Jr.’s life, eventually landing in upstate New York.
A Youngster in Upstate New York
Joseph was severely limited in education and training. This lack of marketable skills impacted his future prospects and motivated his explorations into things spiritual. He came by this naturally, as his close family members were known for their stories of numerous personal dreams and visions. Prior to receiving his own epiphanies, Joseph watched his family become increasingly divided along denominational lines. Some of the family joined the Methodists and Presbyterians while others were partial to the Universalists. Joseph viewed these issues with great interest as they frequented family discussions, yet he remained undecided. While attending various local congregations, he discovered a gift for religious exhortation and became marginally involved in one of the local denominations.
His fertile imagination motivated him to range far beyond denominational limits and to experiment with some reportedly enchanted practices from the local culture. From his father and others, he learned something of the magical arts and developed a well known reputation as a “glass looker,” leading expeditions in search of buried treasure. In March 1826, Smith avoided criminal conviction on a technicality for his role in a venture in southern New York. Later, Joseph proposed the use of a “divining rod” to validate “the work of God” and gave an 1829 revelation authorizing his closest associate, Oliver Cowdery, to continue his practice of folk magic in discerning the divine will. Although difficult for today’s society to understand, Smith’s involvement in folk magic held great appeal for his contemporaries, especially those from the middling and lower classes where his emerging religious movement would enjoy its greatest successes. Indeed, Joseph’s ability to accommodate the spiritual needs of his followers accounts for much of his success during a time of spiritual ferment and intense denominational competition.
As a youth, Joseph claimed a face to face conversation with Jesus in a grove near the Smith home in Palmyra, New York. He later added details to this vision as it gained in theological importance, but he always considered it to have been intensely personal, although this is also the experience that launched him on a career as a religious reformer. In subsequent encounters with the divine, Joseph was shown that in a hill near his home, ancient metallic plates were buried that contained writings from the original inhabitants of the Americas. Drawing upon his miraculous ability to read and translate these writings, Smith eventually published a work he called the Book of Mormon. In this book, he told of pre-Columbian New World settlers who were said to have arrived from the Holy Land between 600 BC and AD 400. Today some view this book as a genre novel addressing themes popular to Smith’s nineteenth-century American culture. Others view the book as divine in origin, complete with literal inerrancy and thus meriting the status of scripture. The book was “written to the Lamanites, which are the remnant of the House of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile.” It was the movement’s prime missionary tool in the early period, as also in recent times.
After publishing the Book of Mormon in early 1830, Joseph founded his own church. Initially organized in April 1830 as the Church of Christ, his denomination bore various names until it arrived, by revelation in April 1838, at the designation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Informally, the prophet and his followers were called Mormons, Latter Day Saints, or simply Saints. From this early period, Smith accepted his role as a prophet and intermediary between God and his followers and asserted that his movement had restored the true and ancient order of the original first-century apostolic church.
The Move to Kirtland Mills, Ohio
As the nation’s population westered to more distant frontiers, Joseph decided to move his church from its New York origins to northern Ohio and the community of Kirtland Mills. This strategic decision freed him from the persecution of New York skeptics, and because there had been a large number of baptisms already in the Kirtland area, his small band of followers attained greater viability there. In 1831, Smith followed his missionaries even farther west to Independence, Jackson County, Missouri. Through revelation, he designated this as the New Jerusalem, or Land of Zion, identifying it as the sacred geography where the Second Coming of Jesus Christ would occur. Hundreds of Saints removed to the small town to receive their eternal “inheritances,” but the threat of political domination, as well as the Mormons’ uniquely clannish approach to commerce and religion, offended the locals. A clash of the two cultures—woodsmen, as the original settlers from Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee might be called, versus the New England oriented Latter Day Saints—came to a clash that resulted in a brutal dispersion of Mormons from Jackson County in 1833. In the spring and summer of the following year, Smith raised an army in Ohio and led an incursion into Missouri to regain the church’s lost holdings in Zion. The effort was a miserable miscalculation, from which Smith would learn valuable lessons.
While in Kirtland, Smith presided over the construction of an impressive edifice he called the House of the Lord. It demonstrated the unique structural “language of Latter Day Saintism” in combining four popular architectural styles and their associated values: the spirituality of Gothic, the orderliness of Georgian, the American nationalism of Federal, and the appeal to grass-root populist ideals of Greek Revival. Smith’s followers responded with great sacrifice to complete the structure, which they dedicated with Pentecostal fervor in March 1836.
Zionic Dreams in Missouri
The construction project exposed the movement’s financial weakness. With Sidney Rigdon, a close associate in the church leadership, Smith created an investment institution to finance church programs through the accumulation of interest. But Smith’s inability to obtain a legal charter forced him into the questionable legal practice of creating what he called the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. In short order, this wildcat institution failed and charges of bank fraud quickly followed. Eventually Smith and Rigdon fled in the middle of the night on the fastest horses they could find, posse in hot pursuit, on 12 January 1838. This flight signaled either an indication of their guilt or skepticism about getting a fair trial. From these experiences—the forced exodus from Zion, the failure of its liberation, and the anti banking crisis—Smith confronted the limits of his prophetic leadership.
Smith’s and Rigdon’s flight from Kirtland took them to Far West, Missouri, mid-March 1838. That summer, the remaining Kirtland Saints united with the Independence Saints in north-central Missouri under Smith’s leadership. For the first time, Latter Day Saintism had one centralized headquarters. In the newly created Caldwell County, located approximately forty miles northeast of Jackson County, the prophet created a uniquely Mormon community. Determined to fend off attacks from without and from within, Smith created a private paramilitary organization called the Danites. This shadowy church militia intimidated followers to conform to church decisions or leave. The Danites also served as Smith’s personal bodyguard, although they failed to protect him when the Missouri state militia threatened a siege of Far West in the fall of 1838. Militia officers arrested and nearly executed Smith, then forced the Saints into exile under the threat of “extermination.” The church membership trudged some three hundred miles across Missouri to Illinois in the dead of winter in 1838-1839.
The “Beautiful Place” in Illinois
By the spring of 1839, Smith and his incarcerated compatriots had managed to escape their captors, cross into Illinois, and join the exiled Saints. In the summer, Smith initiated yet another Latter Day Saint community in western Illinois on the Mississippi River, called Nauvoo, Hebrew for “beautiful place.” The state legislature in Springfield granted Nauvoo a liberal city charter that empowered Smith to impose a draft and raise an army that eventually numbered five thousand strong, ostensibly to defend the western Illinois frontier. But the ill-defined language of the charter allowed Smith to personally command the army for his own purposes. As mayor, the charter further authorized Smith, through his city council, to pass any law that did not violate the state or federal constitutions. Perhaps most importantly, the charter granted Smith special habeas corpus immunity protecting him from the “vexatious lawsuits” and arbitrary arrests that had hounded him at every stop since his departure from Ohio. Smith’s interpretation of this outwardly innocent document turned Nauvoo into a sovereign enclave that modeled the complete combination of church and state. Over time, the charter caused growing consternation among Illinoisans.
The well controlled environment of Nauvoo allowed for a flowering of Joseph Smith’s theology. Throughout the decade of the 1830s, Smith had publicly established his bicameral priesthood, canonized three books of scripture, commissioned a missionary force that extended to Europe and the South Pacific Islands, built one temple and planned for two others, and invoked a church doctrine that emphasized salvation by works. Following his arrival in Nauvoo, he dabbled in freemasonry and built a Masonic hall, opened a mercantile store and a hotel, and promoted himself as a candidate for president of the United States in 1844. All of this transpired in the public view. But there were secret beliefs practiced in Smith’s church as well. Out of the public eye, experiments were being conducted in sacred marital practices. With roots in the Kirtland era, the practice flowered into a doctrine of polygamy in the frontier soil of Nauvoo. When these practices were exposed by leading church reformers in a Nauvoo newspaper, Smith ordered the press destroyed. This initiated a chain reaction of legal events that led to the prophet’s temporal doom. Smith’s destruction of the newspaper violated the First Amendment rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Nauvoo city charter. This lowered Smith’s habeas corpus shield and made him liable for trial in courts outside Nauvoo, prompting state authorities to take him into custody—a process that concluded in late June 1844 when authorities arrested Smith and escorted him to jail in Carthage, Illinois, to stand trial. While Joseph Smith awaited his day in court, a mob attacked the jail and assassinated him.
Joseph Smith’s widow, Emma Hale, and members of the family rejected the bold steps of one of Smith’s associates, Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles entered the leadership vacuum created by the prophet’s death. However, Smith’s esoteric theology crystallized as those under Young moved from private to public profession of practices that had caused controversy in Nauvoo, while those who stood by Emma and her sons chose to emphasize the Kirtland experience. In either case, the foundational chapter in the story of Latter Day Saintism had ended. Although the legacy of Joseph Smith Jr. is complex and controversial, the Latter Day Saint tradition he launched, as expressed within the various branches of his movement, is among the most prominent of the nineteenth-century American bred religions.