Smith, Jr., Joseph Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.