The Essential Joseph SmithThe Essential Joseph Smith
Foreword by Marvin S. Hill

on the cover:
The Essential Joseph Smith contains fifty of the most important letters, diary entries, speeches, and revelations of Mormonism’s founding prophet. Selections include (original spelling):

“I am Happy in the Enjoyment of this Oppertunity”

“Satan Was Generally Blamed for the Evils Which We Did”

“Happiness is the Object and Design of Our Existence”

“There Were Some People Who Thought It a Terrible Thing that Any Body Should Exercise a Little Power”

“The Principle and Doctrine of Having Many Wives and Concubines”

“It has Gone Abroad that I Was No Longer a Prophet”

“Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the U.S.”

cover flaps:
As illuminating as commentaries are, nothing conveys Joseph Smith’s character like his own unadulterated words. In his distinctive language—a mix of biblical and frontier idiom—one senses the force of his charisma. Like Old Testament prophets, he could be both contemplative and poetic, angry and hyperbolic.

Many pervious compilations of Smith’s works have traded authenticity for acceptability. Catering to an idealized view of Smith’s life, editors have often eliminated contradictions, complexity, and deviations from contemporary Mormon doctrine. At the same time, critical editions embedded in scholarly apparata present their own obstacles to understanding.

The Essential Joseph Smith is both reliable and readable. Bracketed material and punctuation are added where needed, but the text speaks for itself. These are Joseph Smith’s own words, his most essential messages.

At times we tend to expect too much of Joseph Smith, to ask him to be more than human. This may lead to some disillusionment when we inevitably find that he did not measure up to our expectations. The early Saints usually avoided that kind of mistake. Those who would understand Joseph Smith must give equal consideration to both his spiritual and human sides. It was his strong commitment to things spiritual which made him so aware of his human failings, so desirous to overcome weaknesses and to give his all to the work of the Lord.”—Marvin S. Hill, from the foreword.

—Marvin S. Hill, Professor Emeritus of History, Brigham Young University, is the author of Quest for Refuge: The Mormon Flight from American Pluralism, co-author with Dallin H. Oaks of Carthage Conspiracy: The Trial of the Accused Assassins of Joseph Smith, and co-editor with James B. Allen of Mormonism and American Culture.

title page:
The Essential Joseph Smith
Foreword by Marvin S. Hill
Signature Books
Salt Lake City

title page:
Jacket Design: Randall Smith Associates

©1995 Signature Books, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Signature Books is a registered trademark of Signature Books, Inc.
Printed in the United States of America.
Printed on acid free paper.
99 98 97 96 95 6 5 4 3 2 1

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smith, Joseph, 1805-1844.
[Selections. 1995]
The essential Joseph Smith / foreword by Marvin S. Hill.
p. cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Smith, Joseph, 1805-1844 2. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day
Saints—Doctrines. 3. Mormon Church—Doctrines. I. Title.
BX8621.S522 1995
289.3’2—dc20 94-37258
ISBN 0-941214-71-0

Publisher’s Preface [see below]
Foreword by Marvin S. Hill [see below]
01 – “Respected Sir I Would Inform You that I Arrived at Home”
02 – “The Rise of the Church of Christ in These Last Days”
03 – “Dearly Beloved in the Lord We Are under the Necessity to Disappoint You”
04 – “Brother Martin I Send You This to Inform You that It Is Necessary for You to Come Here”
05 – “Again I Say unto You”
06 – “Hear, O Ye Heavens, and Give Ear, O Earth”
07 – “Dear Wife I Would Inform You”
08 – “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith, Jr.”
09- “Joseph Smith, Jr. Record Book”
10 – “Sir, Considering the Liberal Principles”
11 – “Respected Uncle Silas It Is with Feelings of Deep Interest”
12 – “Beloved Brother Edward, I Commence Answering Your Letter”
13 – “Blessed of the Lord”
14 – “I Shall Now Endeavor to Set Forth”
15 – “We Shall, in this Lecture, Speak of the Godhead”
16 – “I Have Something to Lay before the Council”
17 – “I Am Happy in the Enjoyment of this Oppertunity”
18 – “After So Long a Time, and After So Many Things Having Been Said, I Feel It My Duty to Drop a Few Hints”
19 – “Br[other] William [Smith], Having Received Your Letter I Now Proce[e]de to Answer It”
20 – “Dear Sir—This Place Having Recently Been Visited by a Gentleman Who Advocated the Principles or Doctrines of Those Who Are Called Abolitionists”
21 – “My Dear and Beloved Companion, of My Bosam”
22 – “To the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”
23 – “Dear—and Affectionate—Wife”
24 – “On the Doctrine of Faith”
25 – “Ever Keep in Exercise the Principles of Mercy”
26 – “The Priesthood Was First Given to Adam”
27 – “Extract, from the Private Journal of Joseph Smith, Jr.”
28 – “In Order to Investigate the Subject of the Priesthood”
29 – “Satan Was Generally Blamed for the Evils which We Did”
30 – “The Doctrine of Baptism for the Dead”
31 – “We Have again the Warning Voice Sounded in Our Midst”
32 – “Happiness Is the Object and Design of Our Existence”
33 – “Observations Respecting the Priesthood”
34 – “Verily Thus Saith the Lord unto My Servant N[ewel] K. Whitney”
35 – “Some Say the Kingdom of God Was Not Set upon Earth”
36 – “I Was Once Praying Very Ernestly”
37 – “I Have Three Requests to Make of the Congregation”
38 – “There Were Some People Who Thought It a Terrible Thing that Any Body Should Exercise a Little Power”
39 – “How Oft Would I Have Gathered You Together”
40 – “I Require Attention”
41 – “The Principle and Doctrine of Having Many Wives and Concubines”
42 – “It Has Gone Abroad that I Was No Longer a Prophet”
43 – “He Was Not Like Other Men”
44 – “An Appeal to the Freemen of the State of Vermont, the ‘Brave Green Mountain Boys,’ and Honest Men”
45 – “When I Consider the Surrounding Circumstances”
46 – “Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the U.S.”
47 – “Their Is a Differance Between the Spirit & Office of Elias & Eligah”
48 – “I Now Call the Attention of this Congregation”
49 – “The Savior Has the Words of Eternal Life”
50 – “K[ings] & P[riests] unto God & His Fa[the]r”

Publisher’s Preface

[p.xi]Devout Mormons place Joseph Smith (1805-44) second only to Jesus Christ in redeeming the world from darkness. As God’s prophet, he is said to have accessed absolute truth, brought forth “the world’s most perfect book,” and restored necessary knowledge and ritual for people to fulfill their ultimate divine destinies.

Smith’s sense of mission, his radical activism, inspired adoration. The Essential Joseph Smith—alive with the disparities and ambiguities that characterized the life, temerity, and creative energy of its author—presents a microcosm of issues still swirling around his enigmatic teachings and personality.

Those who have never been exposed to the prophet’s scripture or sermons may appreciate the magnetism of his style. Readers already steeped in the official record may find the breadth and eccentricity of Smith’s unedited intellectual explorations surprising.

Joseph Smith’s life began in near-abject poverty on 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. He was named after his father, a barrel-maker and occasional speculator. Lucy Mack, Smith’s mother, was an independent, intelligent, stabilizing influence in her son’s life. The Smith family was among the poor whose self-image surpassed their financial status. They were proud, ambitious, and strongly-bonded.

In pursuing their dreams, the Smiths moved ten times during Joseph’s youth through Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York, where they finally came to settle on a Manchester farm near Palmyra village. There they were exposed to the sometimes spectacular displays of religious enthusiasm that swept among the under-developed and precarious frontier communities of western New York.

Joseph’s own religious loyalties were divided between his father’s iconoclastic Unitarian sympathies and his mother’s more conventional Methodism. Under the various influences of sectarian orthodoxy, Christian primitivism, charismatic revivalism, deism, and ritualistic mysticism, Smith reported a variety of personal religious experiences. Heavenly messengers appeared to him to reveal his life’s mission of preparing the way of Jesus’ second advent. As evidence of his divine [p.xii]calling, Smith published the Book of Mormon in 1830 as the writings of some of the lost tribes of Israel in the New World, which addressed religious issues disputed among Smith’s American frontier neighbors.

The spiritual audacity exhibited by Smith transcended his initial bashfulness. With revelatory byproducts in hand and charged with adolescent ambition and magnetism, he was soon in a class above other neighborhood visionaries. The prophet’s following grew beyond his extended family circle, and adherents were drawn by his bold claim to new revelation and his utopian vision of a society free of structure and dogma. Less quickly but just as surely, stewards of traditional institutions bristled at his revolutionary and disruptive vision.

Within a decade Smith’s following coalesced from an ill-defined movement into a church. The early Church of Christ comprised a string of Mormonite branches organized throughout New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, where members met in neighbors’ homes and enjoyed gatherings characterized by congregational autonomy, gifts of the Spirit, and miracle-works. Smith’s concerns, depicted in his writings of the early 1830s and often expressed in prophetic voice, centered on the impending Millennium, gathering the elect to Jesus, and balancing individual spirituality with organizational uniformity.

Gradually Smith expanded and rigidified church offices into a hierarchy answerable to him. Latter-day Saints, as they were now called, were instructed to gather to specially designated sites in Missouri and Ohio and to deed their possessions to church authorities for more equitable distribution. In vision, Smith saw that Independence, Missouri, was to be the New Jerusalem, called Zion, where Jesus would soon appear.

A remarkable degree of cohesion existed at this time. But when Smith’s prophecies about Missouri did not immediately materialize, when outsiders heard of Mormon political ambitions, when Smith’s Ohio bank failed due to bad timing and mismanagement, and when rumors of polygamy spread, antagonism grew without and within. Mormons organized vigilante bands to defend against agitators, but Ohioans and Missourians mustered their own militias to drive Smith and his followers from their states. Eventually church leaders were jailed for treason. During this period the prophet’s writings were marked by rationalization and regret, especially for the loss of Zion.

Smith escaped from prison, and during the early 1840s he estab-[p.xiii]lished a new gathering place in western Illinois. As crops were planted and cities built, a renewed unanimity of purpose surfaced. Also, the Illinois populace welcomed the Saints as refugees. But soon Smith faced new problems. More than before he was challenged by his own followers’ increasing disillusionment over rumors of “spiritual wifery” and establishment of an authoritarian political theocracy. To counteract dissent, Smith excommunicated many, while rewarding a tight-knit inner circle with secret knowledge guarded by oaths and ritual. The prophet’s rhetoric in Illinois illustrates this move toward stratification, esoteric wisdom, and secret ordinances.

During the last years of his brief life, Smith produced his most radical theological revisions. Inhabited worlds without number, gods and goddesses as human-like beings, humans as gods in embryo, and the pre-mortal existence and innate goodness of human spirits permeated his sermons. He also organized the political Kingdom of Heaven on Earth in the covert Council of Fifty. As mayor of Nauvoo he imposed martial law, including around-the-clock patrols. Before his death, the Mormon kingdom had become a police state.

Neighbors and disaffected Mormons oppressed Smith’s political and spiritual empire. Dissidents published the Nauvoo Expositor to expose the secret rituals, polygamy, and the Council of Fifty’s political plans, and state judicial officers arrested Smith when he ordered the Expositor and its printing press destroyed. Before he could be brought to answer the charge, a vigilante group stormed the jail where he was held and assassinated him and his older brother Hyrum.

The evolution of Smith’s writings and their polarizing effect on audiences present two roadblocks to the production of an “essential Joseph Smith.” A third difficulty is the process by which Smith’s discourse was recorded and distributed. Not only were few public sermons and private letters preserved—especially for the early period—but, as Mormon historian Dean Jessee has observed, Smith was more concerned with ideas than syntax. Later church editors wielded a sometimes heavy hand in preparing Smith-related documents for publication. Forced to interpret incomplete transcripts, they periodically refined ideas as well as spelling. Also, Smith’s reliance on scribes blurred the distinction between first- and third-person voice, resulting in the addition of material from other sources and its attribution to Smith.

Ultimately, readers today can rely on few texts credited to the [p.xiv]prophet as completely authentic. In this compilation care has been taken to present writings and speeches that are unquestionably Smith’s, and, though often recorded by fallible scribes, to offer them in their original manuscript or early published forms. Archaic grammatical constructions and spellings are usually unaltered, while obvious typographical errors, such as letter transpositions, have been frequently corrected. Punctuation has been supplied occasionally to facilitate comprehension. Editorial insertions appearing in sources that have been previously published are usually retained.

Some of these texts may be familiar to those who have read official versions without the contradictions, digressions, or occasional earthiness, which are preserved in this volume. Other documents have been published in scholarly journals, multi-volume works, or various anthologies. For more definitive editions of many of these documents, readers are directed to Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, comp., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center at Brigham Young University, 1980); Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Papers of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1989-), 2+ vols.; Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984); Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987); and Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 1+ vols.

Rather than an exhaustive, fully annotated edition, this volume provides a readable, representative selection which spans Smith’s entire lifetime, including letters, diary entries, reminiscences, revelations, visions, and speeches. As an introduction to the Mormon prophet, The Essential Joseph Smith should acquaint readers with the nucleus of his work and hopefully inspire further investigation.


by Marvin S. Hill

[p.xv]One of the things historians learn when they begin to delve into historical sources is that the great men and women of the past have always been the subject of bitter controversy. While these people have had their defenders, they have had their critics too. In the 1790s, for example, one famous hero of the Revolutionary Era wrote to another, “As to you, sir, the world will be puzzled to decide whether you are an apostate or an imposter, whether you have abandoned good principles or whether you ever had any.”1 The author of this vituperation was Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense was the catalyst of the American demand for independence from Great Britain in 1776. The recipient of this vitriolic letter was George Washington.

According to another political partisan of the 1790s, a prominent leader of the opposition party was guilty of the “most ambitious spirit, the most overweening pride and hauteur, so that the externals of pure democracy afford but a flimsy veil to the internal evidences of aristocratic splendor, sensuality, and Epicureanism.”2 The critic here was a friend of Alexander Hamilton; the object of his denunciation was Thomas Jefferson, champion of American democracy. Still another American who was extremely controversial during his years in public office was excoriated as “illiterate, course [sic] and vulgar,” as a “mobocrat, a Southern hater, a lunatic and a chimpanzee.” This belittled man was Abraham Lincoln.3

Like other great Americans, Joseph Smith (1805-44) was not exempt from such disparagement. He had friends who spoke well of him, and he had critics who were often embittered. The result was broad disagreement as to his character and personality. If we consider such traits as his personal appearance, the first impressions he made on others, his treatment of people, his linguistic and oratory skills, and his financial integrity, we find much controversy among his acquaintances.

During his lifetime Smith developed from a poor farm boy in Palmyra, New York, to the leader of a large, influential church. In considering his early appearance, we must keep in mind his poverty. [p.xvi]One of those who knew him as a young man was Daniel Hendrix, who worked in a store in Palmyra and who said that Smith came in almost daily. Hendrix described him as “the most ragged fellow in the place, and that is saying a good deal.” Hendrix remembered him as “about twenty-five years old, I can see him now, in my mind’s eye, with his torn and patched trousers, held to his form by a pair of suspenders made out of sheeting, with his calico shirt as dirty and black as earth, and his uncombed hair sticking through the holes in his old, battered hat. In winter I used to pity him, for his shoes were so worn out that he must have suffered in the snow and slush.”4

Pomeroy Tucker, editor of a local newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel, said Smith was remembered in Palmyra from the ages of twelve to twenty as a “dull-eyed, flaxen-haired youth.”5 Isaac Hale, Smith’s future father-in-law, described him in 1825 as “a careless young man.”6

It is hard to find a description of Smith in this early period by his friends. Those that exist do not provide all the details we would like. Parley P. Pratt’s description is a good example. He said that in 1830 “President Joseph Smith was in person tall and well built, strong and active, of light complexion, light hair, blue eyes, very little beard, and of an expression peculiar to himself, on which the eye naturally rested with interest.”7 Pratt does not mention Smith’s apparel, details which would have been helpful in assessing what David Hendrix said.

If we consider Smith’s appearance in later life, we find continued variance. Charles Francis Adams, later American minister to Great Britain during the Civil War, said that when he met Smith in 1844 Smith was “clad in the costume of a journeyman carpenter when about his work. He was a hearty, athletic looking fellow, with blue eyes standing prominently out upon his light complexion, a long nose, and a retreating forehead. He wore striped pantaloons, and a linen jacket, which had not lately seen the washtub, and a beard of some three days growth.”8 But Bathsheba Smith, a Mormon, remembered Smith more favorably: “The Prophet was a handsome man—splendid looking, a large man, tall and fair and his hair was light. He had a very nice complexion, his eyes were blue, and his hair a golden brown and very pretty.”9

If we examine the sort of first impression Joseph Smith made, again we find a polarity. Orlando Saunders, who lived in Palmyra as a boy and worked with Smith on the Smith farm, said Joseph was a good worker but a “greeny, both large and strong.”10 By “greeny” Saunders meant an awkward, somewhat unsophisticated rustic. One investigator agreed, saying he lost interest in the church after discovering that Smith was “not such a [good] looking man as I expected to see. He looked green and not very intelligent. I felt disappointed and returned home.”11 On the other hand Jonathan Crosby, who joined the church, found Smith’s unpretentiousness refreshing. He said, “I thought he was a quear [sic] man for a Prophet, at first, he didn’t appear exactly as I expected to see a Prophet of God… . I found him to be a friendly, cheerful pleasant agreeable man. I could not help liking him.”12

Nancy Towles, who met Smith just after he moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in early 1831, said that he was an “ignorant plough-boy,” a “good natured,—low bred sort of chap.”13 But Newel Knight, who was Smith’s friend and convert in Chenango County, New York, said that from the first Smith made a favorable impression on the Knights. He was a hard worker and, Newel said, “I never knew anyone to gain the advantage over him, yet he was always kind and kept the good will of his playmates.”14 Some non-Mormons, however, remembered Smith as bad tempered. Michael Morse, later a brother-in-law, said he recalled that when Smith was courting Emma Hale, some of her brothers were ill disposed toward him “and took occasion to annoy and vex him.” Finally Smith had had enough and “threw off his coat and proposed to defend himself.”15

Luke Johnson, a Mormon, said that when a certain man who had grown up with Smith came to Kirtland as a minister of another denomination, the man displayed bad manners. After staying overnight at Smith’s house, he called Smith a “hypocrite and imposter.” Luke Johnson reported that Smith “covered the minister’s ears with both hands and kicked him out with his foot.”16 Peter H. Burnett, who was Smith’s lawyer in Missouri and later governor of California, said he attended a meeting in which a certain John McDaniel said publicly that he did not believe in Smith’s ability to prophesy. The next day, a Sunday, when Smith rose to speak he was enraged and said, “Nobody could slander him in that way, and that if the brethren present would not do something about it he would.”17

Again, however, there were those who saw Smith quite differently. Daniel Tyler, a Mormon, told of a time in Kirtland when William Smith—Joseph’s younger brother—and some others openly challenged Smith’s leadership of the church, and tempers were hot. Smith called a special meeting and then opened with prayer, the tears [p.xviii]running down his cheeks. Turning his back so that his sorrow would be less visible, Smith prayed. Tyler recorded: “I had heard men and women pray—especially the former—from the most ignorant, both as to letters and intellect, to the most learned and eloquent, but never until then had I heard a man address his maker as though he was present, listening as a kind father would listen to the sorrows of a dutiful child. [The prayer] was in behalf of those who accused him of having gone astray and fallen into sin, that the Lord would forgive them and open their eyes that they might see aright… . There was no ostentation, no raising of the voice as by enthusiasm, but a plain conversational tone, as a man would address a present friend… . It was crown of all the prayers I had ever heard.”18

In his treatment of others, some non-members thought Smith abrupt, even rude. William A. West, a visitor to Kirtland, said he went toward the temple one day and saw Smith talking with several of the brethren. They were “talking bank, money, stream mills and so on, and the Prophet was very busy.” West said that Smith finally broke away, but then another man caught up with him and asked to speak with him for a moment longer. In frustration Smith exclaimed, “O God, I wish I were translated,” and walked away grumbling that “everyone want[s] to speak with him for just a minute.”19 Later, at an outdoor meeting in Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith was upset when the congregation was distracted by a flock of geese that flew over while he was speaking. He stopped his sermon and walked off the stand, saying, “If you are more interested in the quak [sic] of a flock of geese than in what I am saying it’s all right.”20

There are several stories that render an entirely different view of Smith. Emma recalled to her son, Joseph III, how often the elders sought out her husband and how much he enjoyed their company. She said to her son: “Well Joseph … I do not expect you can do much more in the garden than your father would, and I never wanted him to go into the garden to work for if he did it would not be fifteen minutes before there would be three or four, or sometimes a dozen men round him and they would tramp the ground faster than he would hoe it up.”21

Jane S. Richards said emphatically that Smith took “a personal interest in all his people.”22 A story which seems to support this is told about his last days in Nauvoo. During a heavy rain some members of the Nauvoo Legion, a quasi-military organization, had been out all [p.xix]night on patrol looking for mobbers that threatened the city. When his men rode in at dawn foot-sore and tired, Smith was waiting for them and began inquiries about their work. After a time he noticed that one of the men had bled on a log where they were sitting, and Smith found that the man’s shoes were worn to ribbons and his feet badly cut. Looking further he found others in the same condition. He immediately invited the men to his store for a new pair of shoes. When the storekeeper told him there were no shoes but only expensive boots, Smith said, “Let them have boots then.”23

Another story provides further support. While Smith was conversing with some of the brethren near his home in Nauvoo, a man came up who said that his home had just been burned down by a mob. Smith took out five dollars, looked at the other men, and said, “I feel sorry for this brother to the amount of five dollars; how much do you feel sorry?”24
Not only have some of Smith’s critics said he was rude to strangers, they have even affirmed that he was contemptuous toward his father. Isaac Hale said that Smith was “very saucy and insolent toward his father.”25 Yet a story related by Joseph Knight suggests a bond of love between Smith and his father. When Smith saw Martin Harris and his father, Joseph Sr., baptized, he was almost overcome with emotion. Knight related: “Joseph was filled with the spirit to a great degree to see his father and Mr. Harris that had been with him so much [baptized]. He burst out with … joy and appeared to want to get out of sight of everybody and would sob and cry and after a while he came in, but he was the most wrought that I have ever seen any man.”26

The author of the History of Wayne County, New York, said he heard reports indicating Smith tended to be taciturn unless spoken to.27 Daniel Hendrix, however, remembered that Smith had a “jovial, easy, I-don’t-care way about him that made him a lot of friends.” Hendrix said, “He was a good talker, and would have made a fine stump speaker, if he had the training.”28 Peter H. Burnett said that in “conversation he was slow, and used too many words to express ideas, and would not generally go directly to the point.” Burnett affirmed that Smith was an “awkward but vehement speaker.”29 Yet Christopher Crary, a non-Mormon, said, “His language, so far as I was qualified to judge, was correct, forcible, and right to the point and convincing.”30 Wandle Mace said Smith was “very interesting and [p.xx]eloquent in speech,”31 while Job Smith said he was “powerful in invective and occasionally sarcastic.”32

A Universalist minister who met Smith complained that he disliked Smith” swagger and brag.”33 But David Whitmer, a close friend of Smith, and that when he first met Smith, “he was a very humble and meek man.”34 There is another discrepancy between the Wayne County historian, who said that Smith was “never known to laugh,”35 and U.S. congressman Elisha Potter, who said that Smith had “a keen wit.”36 And still another between Benjamin F. Johnson, who said that no one made greater mistakes in his choice of associates than did Smith,37 and Peter H. Burnett, who said that Smith was a good judge of men.38

A resident of Kirtland, Sam Brown, claimed that near the end of the Mormon stay in Kirtland, he was unwilling to lend more money to Smith for fear he would not get it back.39 Christopher Crary, on the other hand, said that Smith was always scrupulously honest in paying debts.40 While temporarily estranged from the prophet following the failure of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, Apostle Parley P. Pratt accused Smith of charging “extortionary prices” for three lots of land.41 David Osborne, however, said that on another occasion Smith was upset with some of the rich brethren who bought government land cheaply and resold it in small lots to the poor for a high price.42 Whatever the issue at hand concerning Joseph Smith, one can find contradictory testimony.

With so much that is controversial about Smith, how does one go about finding the truth? How does one separate fact from fiction? To start with let us consider the matter of Joseph Smith’s appearance and the initial impressions he made upon people. In trying to assess Daniel Hendrix’s remarks about how destitute Smith looked, we must keep several things in mind. Daniel Hendrix was eighty-seven years old when he was interviewed as to his recollections of Smith, and it is difficult to determine how accurate his memory might have been. He indicates that Smith was habitually dressed in old, tattered clothes. This seems possible in these years, for we know that the Smith family was having a hard time financially.43 Yet, on the other hand, some of the things Hendrix says are not born out by other facts that are firmly established. He says Smith was lazy, but this is contradicted by other testimony from the period when Smith was in Palmyra. It is also contradicted by much direct evidence that comes from a later pe-[p.xxi]riod.44 Consequently, one must be careful with an account like Hendrix’s, written at a time when it was popular to say disparaging things about Smith.

It is significant, I think, that when Parley P. Pratt described Smith in 1830, he said nothing of what Smith wore but indicated his general size, complexion, and personality. When Parley P. Pratt told us Smith was a person upon whom his eye rested with interest, he was saying that he responded affirmatively to Smith and that he was more interested in his character and personality than in his outward appearance. This would appear to be characteristic of a follower. Bathsheba Smith, a Mormon, remembered that Smith’s hair was “pretty” but said nothing about his clothing. One might surmise from this oversight that Smith’s apparel was not unusual so far as Bathsheba was concerned. When Charles Francis Adams saw Smith as rather careless in his personal appearance, he was probably judging him by the standards of the Boston elite not by western standards.

When it comes to Smith’s treatment of others, the negative evidence often seems biased. Isaac Hale remembered that Smith was unkind to his father. But one must ask how many times did Isaac Hale see Smith with his father? It could not have been many. Lucy Mack Smith reports only two occasions Smith and his father were together in Harmony, Pennsylvania.45 Thus Hale may have made a broad generalization based on a few brief encounters. Other evidence suggests strongly that throughout most of his life Smith went out of his way to care for his father, that he loved him deeply. If there was some temporary estrangement between them in 1825 when Hale knew them, there is no evidence it continued. Hale’s purpose when he wrote his affidavit for Philastus Hurlbut in 1833 was to discredit Smith. He was angry about Mormonism in general and about Smith’s moving away with his daughter. His assertion therefore cannot be taken at face value.

There is enough evidence from what Smith’s friends have said and from admissions by Smith himself, however, to make it evident that he did have a temper. One of his most intimate friends, Benjamin F. Johnson, said Smith “would allow no arrogance or undue liberties; and criticisms, even by associates, were rarely acceptable; and contradictions would arouse in him the lion, at once.”46 We know from newspaper accounts and court records that Smith was involved in more than one fight. Yet the evidence is plentiful that he had to be [p.xxii]provoked by direct insult before he would resort to violence. We must remember it was customary in this period of American history for direct confrontations and even duels to be fought over personal differences. Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, and Senator Thomas Hart Benton, to name but three, were involved in duels to protect their honor or public image.47 Many a frontier preacher took to brawling when heckled from the crowd. This was a rough age by our standards. As for Joseph Smith we know that he did not relish fighting, that he felt deep remorse over it. He told Allen Stout in Nauvoo on one occasion that he had been too quarrelsome at times, that “in his youth he had learned to fight much against his will,” and “whenever he laid his hand in anger on a fellow creature, it gave him sorrow and a feeling of shame.”48 Apparently Smith sought repentance in this area.

Nonetheless, evidence of his temper does not offset the many examples we have of his general tendency to treat people with courtesy and consideration. Peter H. Burnett said in this regard: “There was a kind, familiar look about him, that pleased you. He was very courteous in discussion, admitting what he did not intend to controvert, and would not oppose you abruptly but had due deference to your feelings.”49 If on the occasion in Kirtland he dismissed the request for another minute of his time, this is not sufficient evidence by itself of general impatience or lack of consideration. Negative or positive impressions about Smith’s language and manners are again dependent upon who is doing the observing. Smith was not nor did he pretend to be educated. Still his skills seem suitable for his time and place. This was an age when Andrew Jackson reached the White House, and Jackson was neither polished nor educated.

So far as his sense of humor goes, the Wayne County historian says Smith was “good natured,” thus contradicting himself on this point. We have an example of Smith’s humor preserved by Willard Richards, who said that one day Smith told him he was going to study law to become “a very great lawyer.” Perhaps Emma had been encouraging his studying law, for she told her son Joseph III after his father’s death that Smith would have avoided many legal entanglements had he known more about the law. In any case on the occasion described by Richards, Smith’s way of studying was to lie “down on the writing table with \back of the head\ on Law Books,” upon which he “fell asleep and went to snoring.”50 Smith did not think much of lawyers, which was a widely held attitude in the early nineteenth century.

[p.xxiii]On the questions raised by Pratt and Sam Brown on the matter of Smith’s financial integrity, this issue was the subject of much controversy at the time and still is among historians.51 Many accused Smith of reckless speculation, even fraud. They maintained that Smith imprudently invested in land and charged exorbitant prices for it, that he established an illegal bank with intent to print worthless currency and exchange it for valuable goods, that he ran up an enormous debt and fled from Kirtland to avoid paying it. Whereas it is true that Smith bought land in Kirtland and resold it, the prices were not out of line with the general demand for land nor with land prices in nearby communities. Smith had large debts as a result of his business transactions, but he also had large assets with which he could have paid his debts had the economy not collapsed. Smith started his bank to transfer landed wealth into ready capital and, had he been able to secure a charter from the state legislature, he may have been able to establish a modest but successful bank. But in 1836-37, for political and economic reasons, the state legislature granted no new charters for banks, and Smith had to improvise. He set up an anti-banking society that was in fact a simple corporation with note-issuing powers. He may have acted on bad legal advice here, but similar banks were being established elsewhere in the state at this time.52 When Smith learned that the notes would not circulate at face value, he withdrew his support from the bank, sustaining larger personal losses than any other person. He did not risk other people’s money where he would not risk his own. Smith was a naive capitalist, but he did not envision that his gain would be anyone else’s loss. When he reached Nauvoo, he ultimately declared bankruptcy, though he first tried to settle many of his Kirtland debts.

Careful research can help offset the negative interpretations some try to impose on Joseph Smith. The existence of contradictory evidence should make scholars hesitate to jump to hasty or unwarranted conclusions or to claim definitiveness for historical studies that are more in the nature of interim reports. If my characterization of Joseph Smith has seemed at times unflattering, it has come from no desire to diminish him. It comes rather from the belief that at times in the Mormon church we tend to expect too much of him, to ask him to be more than human. This may lead to some disillusionment when we inevitably find that he did not measure up to our expectations. The early Saints usually avoided that kind of mistake. Brigham Young said of Smith: “Though I admitted in my [p.xxiv]feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.”53 Young chose to stress the positive side. Parley P. Pratt said that Smith was “like other men, as the prophets and apostles of old, liable to errors and mistakes which were not inspired from heaven, but managed by … [his] own judgment.”54

These men knew Smith as a man with human weaknesses, yet they believed in his divine calling and in his greatness. It seemed to them that what he had achieved as a prophet far outweighed his imperfections. In the long run their love of him and their faith in his calling were decisive in shaping their lives. Seeing Smith in his various moods, they still called him a prophet of God. That seems to me to be the right attitude for faithful Latter-day Saints, who see the Lord’s will at work, even though he must effect that will by the means of earthen vessels. Aware of some things earthen in Joseph Smith, Benjamin F. Johnson still had this to say of him: “From my early youth to the day of his martyrdom, I was closely associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith, was his trusted friend and business partner, his relative, and bosom friend. And I knew him as the purest, the truest and noblest of manly men.”55

Smith said of himself, “I do not, nor never have pretended to be any other than a man, subject to passion and liable without the assisting grace of the Saviour, to deviate from that perfect path in which all are commanded to walk.”56 He also said, “God is my friend, in him I shall find comfort. I have given my life unto his hands. I am prepared to go at his call and desire to be with Christ. I count not my life dear to me only to do his will.”57 And he said, “The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it.”58 Those who would understand Joseph Smith must give equal consideration to both his spiritual and human sides. It was his strong commitment to things spiritual which made him so aware of his human failings, so desirous to overcome weaknesses and to give his all to the work of the Lord.


1. James Thomas Flexner, Washington: The Indispensable Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1974), 354.

2. Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1951), 474.

[p.xxv]3. Stephen B. Oates, With Malice Toward None (New York: Mentor Books, 1979), 203.

4. Saint Louis Globe Democrat, 21 Feb. 1897, 34.

5. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 16.

6. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, or a Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: the Author, 1834), 263.

7. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1961), 45.

8. In William A. Mulder and A. Russell Mortensen, eds., Among the Mormons (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1958), 133.

9. Young Woman’s Journal 16 (1905): 549.

10. Frederic G. Mather, “The Early Days of Mormonism,” Lippincott’s Magazine 26 (1880): 198.

11. “Journal of Luman Andrus Shurtliff,” 19, typescript, Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; hereafter BYU Special Collections.

12. “Journal of Jonathan Crosby,” 13-14, archives, Historical Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah; hereafter LDS archives.

13. Nancy Towles, Vicissitudes Illustrated (Portsmouth, NH: John Caldwell, 1833), 157.

14. “Newel Knight’s Journal,” Scraps of Biography, Tenth Book of the Faith-Promoting Series (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1883), 46.

15. True Latter Day Saints Herald 26 (15 June 1879): 190-91.

16. “History of Luke Johnson,” LDS archives.

17. Peter H. Burnett, An Old California Pioneer (Oakland, CA: Biobooks, 1946), 34.

18. “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor 27 (15 Feb. 1892): 127-28.

19. William A. West, A Few Interesting Facts Respecting the Rise, Progress and Pretensions of the Mormons (n.p., 1837), 14.

[p.xxvi]20. Edwin F. Parry, Stories about Joseph Smith, the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1934), 22-23.

21. Emma Smith to Joseph Smith III, 1 Aug., no year, but after 1847, in the Emma Bidamon Papers, Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.

22. “Reminiscences of Mrs. F. D. Richards,” 11, Hubert Howe Bancroft Library, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, California.

23. Parry, 126-28.

24. Ibid., 22.

25. Howe, 263.

26. “Autobiography of Joseph Knight,” 10, LDS archives.

27. History of Wayne County, New York (Philadelphia: Everts & Ensign, 1877), 150.

28. Saint Louis Globe Democrat, 21 Feb. 1897, 34.

29. Burnett, 40.

30. Christopher Crary, Pioneer & Personal Reminiscences (Marshalltown, IA: Marshall Printing Co., 1893), 21.

31. “Autobiography of Wandle Mace,” 37, BYU Special Collections.

32. Diary of Job Smith,” 6, Henry E. Huntington Libary, San Marino, California.

33. W. S. B. was a Universalist who visited Nauvoo in 1844. See the Universalist Union, 27 Apr. 1844, 393.

34. Deseret News, 16 Aug. 1878.

35. History of Wayne County, 150.

36. Mulder and Mortensen, 134.

37. “An Interesting Letter from Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs,” 17, BYU Special Collections.

38. Burnett, 40

39. James H. Kennedy, Early Days of Mormonism (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1888), 158.

40. Crary, 21.

[p.xxvii]41. In Richard Livesey, An Exposure of Mormonism (Preston, Eng.: J. Livesey, 1838), 9.

42. Juvenile Instructor 27 (15 Mar. 1892): 173.

43. Lucy Mack Smith recounts some of the financial difficulties of the family in her History of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954), 65, 85, 93-99. Orlando Saunders of Palmyra told William H. Kelley that they were poor. See his testimony in “The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon,” Saints Herald 28 (1 June 1881): 165.

44. “Journal of Newel Knight,” 46; and Orlando Saunders to William H. Kelley. Joseph’s history cites several occasions where he worked in the fields with the elders or on the temple, while William Walker says on many a day Joseph cut hay in Nauvoo for ten-hour stretches (Life Incidents and Travels of Elder William Holmes Walker [1943], 8).

45. Smith, History of Joseph Smith, 93, 133.

46. “Benjamin F. Johnson to George F. Gibbs,” 4.

47. See Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The National Experience (New York: Vintage Books, 1965), 208.

48. Cragun Cox, “Reminiscences of Joseph Smith,” Utah State Historical Society, Salt Lake City.

49. Burnett, 40.

50. See Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987), 335.

51. Marvin S. Hill, Keith Rooker, and Larry T. Wimmer, Kirtland Economy Revisited: A Market Critique of Sectarian Economics (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1977).

52. Crary, 37.

53. Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1855-86), 4:297.

54. Elders Journal 1 (July 1838): 50.

55. Benjamin F. Johnson, “Mormonism as an Issue: An Open Letter to the Editor of the Arizona Republican,” n.d.

56. Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate 1 (Dec. 1834): 40.

[p.xxviii]57. Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832, Chicago Historical Society.

58. In New York Spectator, 23 Sept. 1843.