Smith, Jr., Joseph Essay - Critical Essays

Smith, Jr., Joseph


Joseph Smith, Jr. 1805-1844

American religious leader.

Smith's publication of the Book of Mormon on April 6, 1830, marked the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormon Church. The Church's Prophet and First Elder, Smith became the most revered yet most reviled Mormon leader among Mormons and non-Mormons alike. Disagreement among Mormon followers over Smith's proclamations and practices led to the Church's splintering into several reorganized sects. Nonetheless, the Mormon Church today has over one million members worldwide.

Biographical Information

The fourth of nine children, Smith was born in 1805 to Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith in Sharon, Vermont. In 1816, the family moved to Palmyra, New York, and eventually settled in nearby Manchester. His family's poverty required Smith to work on the farm instead of going to school, so he received little formal education. As a young man, he developed a fascination with occultism and began using special devices and sacrificing small animals for "supernatural" assistance in attempts to discover buried treasure. This led to various accusations of fraud. In 1820, Smith claimed to have received the first of a series of visitations from a divine apparition, Moroni, who appointed him a Prophet of a new religion. Over the next several years he reported a number of similar visits. In 1827, Smith married Emma Hale, the first of his alleged forty-nine wives. In the same year he claimed to have unearthed a set of golden plates from Hill Cumorah (now called "Mormon Hill") near Manchester, a site supposedly disclosed to him by Moroni. With the help of a scribe, Oliver Cowdry, Smith began translating the plates' hieroglyphic inscriptions using two "seer" stones called the Urim and Thummim. They published their work as the Book of Mormon in 1830, officially establishing the Church of Jesus Christ. In 1831, the Church expanded westward to establish the "Land of Zion" in Jackson County, Missouri, garnering support from Ohio residents along the way and establishing a Church in Kirtland. The Mormon Church was thus divided into two main bodies, in Ohio and Missouri. Smith remained in Kirtland until 1838, when he and his followers fled to western Missouri after a number of Church members accused him of fraud and attempted murder. Soon thereafter, however, tensions between Mormons and non-Mormons in western Missouri culminated in violent clashes between the two groups, and Governor Lilburn Boggs issued an order to expel the Mormons. Smith responded by organizing his own militia, an act for which he was arrested and imprisoned. He escaped in 1839 and met his followers in Commerce, Illinois. In 1840, they obtained a charter from Governor Thomas Carlin, and, renaming Commerce, founded the city of Nauvoo, the largest city in the state. Smith became sole trustee of the Mormon Church and was given unlimited power. In 1841 he formed the Nauvoo Legion, appointing himself lieutenant-general. Elected Nauvoo's first mayor in 1842, he prophesied later that year that the Church would eventually move to the far West. In the same year he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to assassinate Governor Boggs, but was exonerated by the Nauvoo Municipal Court, an act that outraged the non-Mormon populace. Further controversy ensued with his promulgation the next year of a revelation legitimating polygamy. In 1844, Smith formally announced his candidacy for the United States presidency. On June 7 of that year, several Mormon dissidents published the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper denouncing Smith's personal behavior and political aspirations. Smith and the Nauvoo City Council responded by declaring martial law in the city and ordering the Legion to destroy the Expositor's press. The state militia arrested Smith and his brother, Hyrum, who were charged with treason and imprisoned in Carthage. There, on the evening of June 27, 1844, they were murdered by a mob of more than 100 men who attacked the jail.

Major Works

During the decade between 1820 and 1830, Joseph Smith made minimal efforts to document his visions and revelations. An 1830 revelation, however, prompted him to chronicle his life's events in order to promote the rise and progress of the Church. According to Smith, the Book of Mormon, his first publication, was a translation of a divine proclamation. In fact, most of Smith's writings recount revelations and proclamations that he claimed had been dictated to him. He also commissioned two of his closest associates, Willard Richards and Wilford Woodruff, to document his sermons, discourses, and revelations. In 1839, he dictated the first manuscript for his voluminous History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (1902-12) to his clerk, James Mulholland. In conjunction with the Book of Mormon, a publication containing Smith's revelations entitled A Book of Commandments (1833) and the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (1835) provide the foundational doctrine for the Mormon organization.

Critical Reception

Mormons and non-Mormons alike recognized Smith's talent for public speaking. Charles Smith, an eyewitness to one of the Mormon leader's sermons, claimed that when the Prophet spoke, he "drew your soul out in love towards him." Those who met Smith noted his persuasive charm and compelling enthusiasm. His writings, however, were not as well received. Before its first publication by the Wayne Sentinal, the Book of Mormon was refused publication in the Rochester Anti-Masonic Inquirer as "a jumble of unintelligent absurdities." Upon its publication, many commentators judged Smith to be delusional. The book's publication drew bitter opposition from non-Mormon religious groups who considered themselves the true followers of Jesus Christ. Many of Smith's detractors charged that he had plagiarized the text and characterized him as a clever leader of misguided followers and a political menace rather than a Prophet. Beginning in the early twentieth century, some scholars began to approach the Book of Mormon as a valuable historical document reflecting the ideals of nineteenth-century American frontier settlers. Modern critics have also regarded the work as an informative biographical source that provides insight into the psychology of the Mormon leader. While the nature of the Book of Mormon continues to be hotly debated, it nonetheless stands as one of the most influential American religious books of the nineteenth century. It became a cornerstone of a large and powerful religious movement that played a major role in the settlement of much of the American West and that continues to be an influential force in the American cultural landscape.

Principal Works

*The Book of Mormon (theology) 1830

A Book of Commandments (theology) 1833

Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints (theology) 1835

The Pearl of Great Price, being a choice selection from the revelations, translations, and narrations of Joseph Smith (theology) 1851

History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Period I. History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself [6 vols.] (theology) 1902-12

Smith claimed to have translated this work from golden plates between 1827 and 1829.

† The first manuscript for this work is dated June 11, 1839.


Joseph Smith, Jr. (essay date 1838)

SOURCE: "Extracts from the History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet," in The Pearl of Great Price, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1958, pp. 46-58.

[In the following excerpt, written in 1838, Smith recounts the circumstances surrounding the transcription and publication of the Book of Mormon.]

1. Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world—I have been induced to write this history,...

(The entire section is 5686 words.)

The Nauvoo Expositor (essay date 1844)

SOURCE: An untitled article in The Nauvoo Expositor, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 7, 1844.

[The following excerpt is taken from the first and only issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, a paper published by Mormon opponents of Joseph Smith's leadership. In response to the Expositor's attacks on himself and Mormonism, on the evening of June 10, Smith and the Nauvoo city council ordered his Nauvoo Legion to destroy the newspaper. Smith's action against the Expositor spawned the series of events which led to the murder of Smith and his brother Hyrum on June 27. In the following excerpt, seceders from the Mormon Church at Nauvoo explain the reasons for their dissension.]


(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Francis M. Higbee (essay date 1844)

SOURCE: "Citizens of Hancock County," in The Nauvoo Expositor, Vol. 1, No. 1, June 7, 1844.

[In the following excerpt, dated June 5, 1844, the author attempts to dissuade the citizens of Hancock County from voting for Joseph Smith's brother Hyrum in an upcoming election by portraying Joseph Smith as an enemy of the U.S. government.]


It is well known to all of you that the August election is fast approaching, and with it comes the great and terrible conflict. It is destined to be a day pregnant with big events; for it will be the index to the future.—Should we be defeated upon that occasion, our die is cast, and our...

(The entire section is 1011 words.)

I. Woodbridge Riley (essay date 1902)

SOURCE: "The Author's Mentality," in The Founder of Mormonism: A Psychological Study of Joseph Smith, Jr., Dodd, Mead & Company, 1902, pp. 141-73.

[In the following excerpt, Riley presents a psychological sketch of Joseph Smith based on his writings in the Book of Mormon, a work Riley suggests is more useful when regarded as biographical rather than historical or literary.]

Without further quotation or digression, it remains to get at a psychological estimate of the Book of Mormon. As literature it is not worth reading,—the educated Mormons fight shy of it; as history it merely casts a side light on a frontier settlement in the twenties; but...

(The entire section is 1918 words.)

Fawn M. Brodie (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Witnesses for God," in No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, second edition, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971, pp. 67-82.

[Brodie, a distinguished biographer and historian and Senior Lecturer in the Department of History at UCLA, is considered a leading authority on Mormon history. In the following excerpt from her biography of Joseph Smith, originally published in 1945, Br odie discusses the content and style of the Book of Mormon and the events surrounding its publication.]

The Book of Mormon was a mutation in the evolution of American literature, a curious sport, at once sterile and potent. Although it...

(The entire section is 6104 words.)

Whitney R. Cross (essay date 1950


SOURCE: "The Prophet," in The Burned-over District: The Social and Intellectual History of Enthusiastic Religion in Western New York, 1800-1850, Cornell, 1950, pp. 138-50.

[In the following excerpt, Cross suggests that the doctrines and organization of Mormonism were products not of the American frontier but of "that Yankee, rural, emotionalized, and rapidly maturing culture which characterized western New York so markedly in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. "]

The Mormon Church, having survived and grown in the last hundred years as did none of its companion novelties, interests the present generation far more than any other aspect of...

(The entire section is 3868 words.)

Francis W. Kirkham (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "Final Words, Summary, and Conclusion," in A New Witness for Christ in America: The Book of Mormon, Brigham Young University, 1959, pp. 315-26.

[In the following excerpt, originally published in 1951, Kirkham outlines five different investigations into the origin and teachings of the Book of Mormon.]

This strange book, the Book of Mormon, has been before the world for one hundred and twenty years. The person who dictated its contents and secured the copyright declared, "It is not a modern composition by any man in this generation." It came forth and was translated "by the gift and power of God, to convince all men that Jesus is the...

(The entire section is 2308 words.)

David E. Miller and Della S. Miller (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: An introduction to Nauvoo: The City of Joseph, Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1974, pp. 5-10.

[In the following excerpt, the authors describe the historical significance of the Mormon experiences in Nauvoo, Illinois, and suggest that Joseph Smith's religious and political activity there facilitated the Mormon migration to Utah.]

During the spring and summer of 1839 thousands of Mormon refugees (recently expelled from the hostile state of Missouri under a harsh gubernatorial "extermination" order accompanied by military force) swarmed into a partially swampy, somewhat fever-infested Mississippi River peninsula in Hancock County, Illinois, to take over the small hamlet...

(The entire section is 2604 words.)

Donna Hill (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Book of Mormon," in Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1977, pp. 98-105.

[Hill, herself a Mormon, is an Assistant Professor and head of Teachers 'Central Laboratory at Hunter College Library in New York. In the following excerpt, Hill briefly describes the content of the Book of Mormon and the responses of contemporary and subsequent readers.]

The Book of Mormon, nearly six hundred pages of small print in the first edition, contains the chronicles of three groups of immigrants to the New World, most of it concerning a period from about 600 B.C. to A.D. 421. It is in fifteen main divisions, or books, each...

(The entire section is 3463 words.)

Richard L. Bushman (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: An introduction to Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, University of Illinois Press, 1984, pp. 3-8.

[In the excerpt below, Bushman describes the religious milieu from which Joseph Smith emerged, arguing that Smith can be "best understood as a person who outgrew his culture. "]

Mormonism, it must be remembered, began with one family, the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith of Vermont and New York. Joseph Smith, Jr., the fourth child among nine, became the Prophet and First Elder of the Church of Christ when it was organized on April 6, 1830, but three of the six original organizers were Smiths, just as previously three of the eight...

(The entire section is 1993 words.)

Jan Shipps (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: A prologue to Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition, University of Illinois Press, 1985, pp. 1-23.

[In the excerpt below, Shipps provides a comprehensive, chronological background of Joseph Smith's life prior to the publication of the Book of Mormon. Shipps maintains that examining the religious, psychic, social, and economical impact of the "Burnt-Over District" on the Smith family best contextualizes Mormonism's foundational claims and elucidates the integral relationship between magic and religious seership in Smith's early life.]

Historical chronologies of Mormonism ordinarily open by identifying Joseph Smith as the Mormon prophet and...

(The entire section is 9271 words.)

Richard S. Van Wagoner (essay date 1986


SOURCE: "The Restoration of all Things," in his Mormon Polygamy: A History, second edition, Signature Books, 1989, pp. 1-16.

[In the following excerpt, first published in 1986, Van Wagoner describes the philosophical and theological influences on Joseph Smith's attempt at creating a Mormon utopia in the United States.]

Joseph Smith, Jr., the charismatic founder of Mormonism, emerged from the ferment of Jacksonian America during a time when religion was regaining its hold over American life, when abolitionist groups, temperance movements, and benevolent societies were thriving. Utopian experiments testified to the exuberance of a nation...

(The entire section is 5312 words.)

Further Reading


Barrett, Ivan J. Joseph Smith and the Restoration. Second edition. Provo: Young House, 1973, 674 p.

Outlines the history of Joseph Smith and the Mormon Church to 1846.

Kirkham, Francis W. A New Witness For Christ in America: The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Utah Printing Co., 1967, 503 p.

Traces the history of the Book of Mormon from its origins to its printing.

Stenhouse, T.B.H. The Rocky Mountain Saints. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1878, 781 p.

A comprehensive...

(The entire section is 278 words.)