Joseph Smith

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Smith founded the first indigenous American religion, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He developed a novel exegesis of the traditional Protestant Bible and provided new scriptures, including the Book of Mormon.

Early Life

Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, the third son of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths were a hardworking but impoverished farm family of New England stock. For the first ten years of his life, Joseph’s family moved from one rocky New England farm to another, unable to achieve the financial success that would enable them to settle and become established members of the community. In 1816, the Smiths joined the stream of migrants leaving New England for the trans-Appalachian West. They settled in upstate New York, eventually purchasing a farm near Palmyra.

The Smiths, in moving to Palmyra, had arrived at one of the focal points for the religious revivals which convulsed the nation during the first three decades of the nineteenth century. In the fervor of religious controversy, mainstream denominations splintered and sects multiplied, especially in upstate New York, which was known as the “burnt over district,” because it had been repeatedly scorched by the fires of the spirit. There, shouting evangelists from the mainstream denominations competed with prophets of a forth-coming millennium and communitarian groups such as the Shakers. Others, disgusted by revivalism and competition between denominations, longed for Christian unity through a restoration of the primitive Church of apostolic times.

The Smiths, like other poor farmers in the 1820’s, suffered from the precarious conditions caused by the developing American economy. Young Smith, with only limited schooling, worked as a laborer on his father’s mortgaged farm. Upstate New York was dotted with Indian mounds. Like many others in the area, Joseph sometimes searched for buried treasure. In 1826, he was brought to trial as a disorderly person and impostor in connection with these “money-digging” activities.

Life’s Work

Smith’s outward life was that of any other farmer’s son. In 1827, he married Emma Hale and seemed to have embarked upon an ordinary life, marred only by his lack of financial security. Yet Smith’s life was far from ordinary. In 1830, he emerged as a prophet and began to build the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The series of extraordinary events which transformed Smith into the Mormon prophet began when he was fourteen. As he later told his followers, he had gone into the forest to pray for guidance as to which of the competing denominations and sects he should join. The Lord and Christ Jesus appeared to him and told him that all the denominations were in error.

The revelations which led to the formation of the Mormon Church began in 1823, when, according to Smith, he was visited by the Angel Moroni. The angel guided Smith to a buried stone box, which contained a book written on gold plates and a set of spectaclelike stones which, when worn, enabled Smith to read the book. In September, 1827, Smith was allowed to take the plates home and began translating the book, dictating the text to various scribes from behind a curtain. When the translation was completed, the plates were given back to the angel. In 1830, the Book of Mormon was published.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of a pre-Columbian settlement of Hebrews in America. They are visited by Christ after his crucifixion. He establishes his church in America. After two hundred years, this church and the Hebrew civilization in America are destroyed in a war between the Hebrew tribes, the Nephites and the Lamanites. One of the Nephite survivors, Moroni, buries golden plates containing a history of his people in a hill in upstate New York, where they could be recovered and used to restore Christ’s church in America.

With the publication of the Book of Mormon, Smith, then twenty-four, began to attract a nucleus of believers. In 1834, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized. Believers were to be guided by the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and subsequent revelations announced by Smith. The new church grew rapidly, and the Saints gathered into communities to be near their prophet, who promised that a Mormon city, a new Zion,...

(The entire section is 1811 words.)