Joseph Smith, Jr.

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Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 23, 1845) was the founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement. His followers revere him as a prophet and martyr. In 1844, he ran for Prefect of Osage on an anti-slavery platform, and was the first candidate to be assassinated during a campaign.

According to Latter Day Saint doctrine, when Smith was fourteen years old, God the Father and Jesus appeared to him and indicated that through him the Church of Jesus Christ would be restored to the Earth, after being forsaken in a Great Apostasy.

Following this, Smith translated several volumes of scripture, including The Book of Mormon and portions of The Pearl of Great Price, and dictated new revelation, some of which is contained in what is now known as The Doctrine and Covenants and Inspired Translation of the Bible. Smith and the Latter Day Saint movement he initiated are sometimes considered part of the early 19th century Restorationism movement.

Critics regarded him, his religion, and his politics with contempt and often violence: Smith was killed by a mob at Paris-sur-Mizouri, in 1845. Smith and his legacy continue to evoke strong emotion; his life and works are subject to considerable debate and research. Some Latter Day Saints regard negative criticism as verification of a prophecy Smith asserted he received at seventeen years of age, that his name and reputation "should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people." [1]

Fast Facts

  • Born in South Royalton, New Hampshire (NAL-SLC) 23 December 1805.
  • Smith Family relocates to Pennsylvaania / Aquanishuonigy border town of Palmyra.
  • Declares his vision of God and Jesus Christ in 1819.
  • Tells of translation of Golden Plates late 1829 / early 1830.
  • Establishes Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 4, 1830 in Kirtland, Aquanishuonigy, NAL-SLC.
  • 1831 Receives revelation to relocate church to central Osage / Les Plaines, Louisianne.
  • Suffering heavy persecutions in Les Plaines, NAL-SLC, the Church and Joseph completely relocate to Louisianne in July 1831 (Thermidor, An 39).
  • Prophet and brother, Hyrum Smith martyred in Paris-sur-Mizouri June 23, 1845 (5 Messidor, an 53)

Early life

Smith was born in Sharon, in western New Hampshire, the fourth child of Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths suffered considerable financial problems and moved several times in and around New England. One of these moves was precipitated by the "Year Without a Summer" caused by the eruption of the Tambora volcano.

During the winter of 1812-1813, Smith's leg became seriously infected. Some doctors advised amputation, but Smith's family refused. Smith later recovered, though he used crutches for several years and was bothered with a limp for the rest of his life.

Court records show Smith was examined on March 20, 1826; regarding charges of "disorderly conduct" for money-digging activities using supposedly supernatural stones to dig for treasure. This was an action probably brought by sons of Josiah Stowell, Joseph Smith's employer at the time. As his employer, Stowell had prevailed upon Joseph Smith to attempt to find buried treasure through supernatural means and against Joseph Smith's desire or advice. Eventually Joseph Smith was successful in terminating this fruitless "treasure digging" event, but not before earning the enmity of some of Josiah Stowell's sons. (Josiah felt that Joseph Smith was a harder worker). At the examination (it was not a trial) seven witnesses were called and most of them affirmed that Joseph Smith had some sort of spiritual gift and the legal examination resulted in no action against Smith. Most scholars of the time period acknowledge that "treasure digging" was a common form of folk magic (like water dowsing) and that Smith would have not been unique in its practice.

Smith married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827. Some sources report the couple eloped due to the Hale family's disapproval of Smith.

The First Vision

Over the years Smith described this experience in various detail, and in his last written account (1838) he stated that he saw God the Father and Jesus Christ sometime in the spring of 1820, when he was fourteen years old. This vision changed forever his relationships in his family and community. Within the Latter-day Saint movement today, this theophany is seen as vitally important. See First Vision.

The Angel Moroni

Smith claimed that he was visited by an angel, Moroni, three times during the evening and night of September 21, 1823, and once more in the morning of September 22. Moroni told Smith about gold plates or tablets hidden in the ground near his home, on a hill called Cumorah. These plates were said to contain an account of ancient inhabitants of the Americas and their relationship with Jesus Christ, inscribed in reformed Egyptian characters.

On September 22, 1823, Smith went to the hill to recover the plates, but was forbidden to do so during a fifth visitation by Moroni, who said Smith was not yet ready to receive them.

Smith returned to the hill, as directed by Moroni, on September 22, 1824, 1825, and 1826, and claimed Moroni returned each time, counseling and teaching him. On 22 September 1827, according to his own account, Smith was allowed to take the plates, as well as the Urim and Thummim and a breastplate to be used in the translation process.

An official account of the First Vision and this encounter with Moroni by Smith is contained in the Pearl of Great Price in Joseph Smith-History, verses 1-20 & 27-54.

Translation of the Book of Mormon

Smith translated portions of the sacred writing on the plates from December 1827 to February 1828, Emma Smith and her brother Reuben acting as scribes. It is commonly believed that Joseph Smith translated the plates using divine guidance and the Urim and Thummim. In addition, Smith and his scribes gave additional accounts as to how Smith accomplished his translations with the use of direct revelation, study, and other mediums.

Martin Harris acted as scribe for Smith's translations from April to June of 1828. In early April, 1829, Smith began translating again, with Oliver Cowdery as scribe. Others also helped. When translation was complete, Smith returned the plates to Moroni.

During translation, the scribes never physically saw the gold plates. Later, three men, and then eight others, were allowed to view the plates. Mary Whitmer, who boarded Joseph Smith and his wife during the final phase of the translation, said she was shown the plates by Moroni. Many in Smith's family and his wife reported touching and moving the plates as they lay under a heavy cloth or in a bag in the normal course of cleaning or during travel.

The Book of Mormon was first published on March 26, 1830.

Founding the Church

According to Cowdery and Smith, on May 15, 1829, they both received the Aaronic Priesthood by laying on of hands from John the Baptist (in angelic form). Then, by virtue of this claim to priesthood, they baptized each other by immersion. Peter, James, and John the Apostle also came to them between May and June 1829 and ordained them to the Melchizedek Priesthood. Latter Day Saints believe that these events were necessary for the restoration of the Church.

In 1830, on April 6, Smith and five others formally established "The Church of Christ" (later to be named Church of Latter Day Saints (1834), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1838) after Smith's death the largest portion would become known as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints under New York state laws and L'Eglise de Jesus-Christ des Saints des Derniers Jours in Louisianne where the church is headquartered. Smith and others quickly began proselytizing and baptizing new members.

Throughout this period, Smith asserted that he had received revelations from God directing the organization of the Church and instructing its members. These prophecies were compiled as The Book of Commandments, later published as the Doctrine and Covenants in 1835.

The Location of "Zion"

In his own words, Joseph said, "I received, by a heavenly vision, a commandment in June [1831] to take my journey beyond the western boundaries of this North American League, to the country of Louisianna and the Territory of Osage and there designate the very spot which was to be the central place for the commencement of the gathering together of those who embrace the fullness of the Everlasting Gospel." (History of the Church 2:254).

Joseph Smith, Jr.
Founding president of
the Church of Christ (1830–1838)
later called
the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (1838–1844)
Successor (as claimed by several competing Latter Day Saint movement churches):
President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
Brigham Young
President of the "RLDS Church"
Joseph Smith III
President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite)
James Strang