Smith, Joseph

Smith, Joseph, 1805–44, American Mormon leader, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, b. Sharon, Vt. When he was a boy his family moved to Palmyra, N.Y., where he experienced the poverty and hardships of life on a rough frontier. He had visions when he was still young and later recorded that he was first told in a vision in 1823 of the existence of secret records, but it was not until 1827 during the Second Great Awakening that the hiding place of the records was revealed to him. According to his account, in 1827 he unearthed golden tablets inscribed with sacred writings that he translated. Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and others transcribed these records from his dictation, and the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Further revelations led him to found a new religion after priesthood had been conferred upon him and Cowdery by an “angel.” As prophet and seer he founded (1830) his church in Fayette, N.Y. (see Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of).

The hostility of his neighbors forced him to move his headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, where with the help of Sidney Rigdon and others he embarked on extensive business affairs. The Panic of 1837 was one of the reasons for removal farther west to Missouri. There the industrious and self-contained members of his faith again ran into difficulties with their neighbors. Smith and others were arrested but escaped, and his faithful followers were driven from Missouri.

Having obtained a favorable charter from Illinois, Smith founded the settlement of Nauvoo, which soon flourished, thanks to the concerted efforts of the members of his church. He built a religious empire, with more than 12,000 believers. The Mormons wrote a constitution, had their own courts, and established an army with Smith as general. Disaffection also grew, and some dissidents founded a newspaper, the Expositor, in which they bitterly criticized him. He put down the opposition, thereby giving hostile non-Mormons a pretext for attacking him. When in 1844 he announced himself as candidate for the presidency of the United States, his enemies moved against him. He and his brother Hyrum were arrested on charges of treason and conspiracy. They were lodged in the jail at Carthage, Ill., and there on June 27, 1844, they were murdered by a mob.

The revelations experienced by Smith—including one enjoining plural marriage, which later caused the Mormons much trouble—were the foundation stones of a faith that after his death grew to be one of the great religions of the United States. Because he was a highly controversial figure, the literature on him is also controversial, and the Mormon church itself did not issue an official acknowledgment of Smith's multiple marriages until 2014.

See biographies by L. Smith (1908, repr. 1969), F. M. Brodie (1954, repr. 1995), R. V. Remini (2002), and R. L. Bushman (2005); studies by R. L. Anderson (1971), R. L. Bushman (1984), A. Beam (2014), and B. E. Park (2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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