It is December 23rd of 1805. Lewis and Clark are exploring the western portion of the United States. A few weeks prior, Thomas Jefferson gave his State of the Union Address. And in the snow-covered town of Sharon, Vermont, Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith welcome an infant into the world. That child is named Joseph Smith Jr. and he will go on to found Mormonism, a subset of Christianity that is now more than 14 million members strong.
Joseph Smith’s family was unremarkable—his father was a farmer, although he soon failed at this endeavor and moved the family to Palmyra, New York. In Joseph’s mother, we see the seeds of his future religious revolution—she leaned toward Seekerism, which was a movement that sought new prophets to restore Christianity to its true form. Although religious, the family rarely attended church.
Excitement over varying religious revivals in the area, as well as rising theological differences within his own family led young Joseph on a search for his place within the religious world. At the age of 14, he prayed to God for help and clarity. It worked—according to his account, God and Christ appeared to Joseph, answering his question.
All churches were wrong, they said.
Later, in 1823, Joseph received the revelation which would forever alter his life: an angel which called itself Moroni appeared to him, telling of a set of golden plates which contained records of the ancient inhabitants of America. Following Moroni’s instructions, Joseph found these plates in a stone box a short distance from his family’s farm.
Four years passed before Moroni appeared again to Joseph, instructing the young man to remove the plates from the box and translate the engravings upon them through the use of a set of special “interpreter” stones.
Joseph translated the plates, writing down the information over a period of three months.
In March of 1830, he published it—a 588-page tome he called the Book of Mormon.
This book chronicled the history of the Israelites, who traveled from Jerusalem to a promised land in the Americas. Once they arrived, they built up a civilization, went to war with surrounding indigenous peoples, and were even visited by Christ after His resurrection—the Book of Mormon, in fact, resembles the Bible in terms of the length, scope, and complexity with which it described the story of these exiled Israelites.
The narrator of the Book of Mormon is a general named Mormon, who, according to the text, was born around AD 311 and went on to lead the Nephites—one of the four groups, descended from the exiled Israelites, that settled in the Americas. It was he who inscribed his people’s history upon the golden plates, giving them to his son, Moroni, who later appeared to Smith in angelic form.
In 1830, Smith began to convert people to his cause, gathering people into settlements he called “cities of Zion”—places where they could hide from the disasters of the last days. From these settlements, Smith sent out male missionaries to make more converts, which caused the number of newly minted Mormons—who called themselves Saints, at the time—to skyrocket into the tens of thousands.
Trouble soon arose, though, as their numbers continued to increase. Anti-Mormon sentiment began to swell in nearby communities, and the Saints were soon driven away. Evidence of why this sentiment began can be seen in Smith’s account of LDS Church history.
“... one of the Methodist preachers ... treated my communication ... with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.”
The group moved from place to place, forced to move any time their numbers reached a level that might give them political power in the communities they inhabited. In 1838, Smith attempted to defend his Missouri settlement through armed conflict, but the state’s governor ordered that the Mormons be driven from their homes or exterminated. The Mormons lost, and Smith was thrown in prison, and would have been executed if not for his eventual escape.
Eventually, Smith led his Mormons to the abandoned town of Commerce in Illinois, renaming it Nauvoo and building up his largest and most thriving settlement yet. It was here he began the construction of his first major Mormon temple, and began attracting converts from all over America and Europe.
It was here, though, that Smith met his eventual end. In 1844, dissent concerning the management of Nauvoo’s economy arose between Smith and his closest associates—a few were also angry that Smith had proposed to their wives, having adopted a polygamous lifestyle. These dissidents created a competing church, and later brought charges against Smith for polygamy and perjury.
On June 7th of that year, the dissidents published the first issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, which called for reform within the church and appealed to anti-Mormons, tearing down Smith’s doctrines.
Because of fears that the paper would bring out anti-Mormon activists and destroy the settlement, the Nauvoo city council had the Expositor declared a public nuisance and ordered it destroyed—Smith wholeheartedly supported this action, fearing a mob attack driven by the paper’s libel.
The destruction of the newspaper, though, proved to be Smith’s undoing. Seeing Smith’s suppression of a news outlet, Thomas C. Sharpe, a longtime critic of Smith and editor of the Warsaw Signal, publically called Smith out. Fearing an uprising, Smith reacted by mobilizing the Nauvoo Legion, declaring martial law.
The Illinois state governor, in response, mobilized a detachment of the state militia, threatening to bring in more men unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered themselves. Eventually, Smith did surrender, and he and his brother, Hyrum, were taken into custody for treason.
A few days later, Smith’s death came in the form of an armed mob, faces blackened, that stormed that jail in which Smith was held. Hyrum was shot in the face as he tried to reinforce the door, while Smith fought back with pistol fire before being shot while leaping from a window with a cry of “Oh Lord my God!”
Five men were tried for Smith’s killing, but all were released.
Smith’s death had opposite effects in the Mormon and non-Mormon communities. To the outside world, Joseph Smith Jr. was a religious zealot, a polygamist, and a con artist. But to the Mormon world, his death he was remembered as a prophet of God. His death was seen as martyrdom, which forever sealed and sanctified his testimony, establishing Mormonism as a permanent faith.
After Mormons left Nauvoo in 1846, they moved across the country, to Utah, where they built Salt Lake City based on a pattern created by Smith for his cities of Zion. Smith’s legacy can be seen today in the millions of Mormons who reside there, and all over the world. These men and women regard him as a prophet on the same level as Elijah and Moses, and see the Book of Mormon as a legitimate addition to the Biblical canon.
Few other historical American figures have had the influence or generated the controversy that this man did. For the multitudes of Mormons, Joseph Smith Jr. is the one and only American prophet.