Early years (1805–27)
Smith was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont to Lucy Mack Smith and her husband Joseph Sr., a merchant and farmer. Modern DNA testing of Smith's relatives suggests that his family were of Irish descent, as he carried a rare Y-DNA marker within Haplogroup R1b which is found almost entirely in people of Northwestern Irish descent.
Smith suffered a crippling bone infection when he was seven and, after receiving surgery, used crutches for three years. The family moved to the western New York village of Palmyra in 1816–17, after an ill-fated business venture and three years of crop failures, and they eventually took a mortgage on a 100-acre (40 ha) farm in the nearby town of Manchester. The region was a hotbed of religious enthusiasm during the Second Great Awakening. Between 1817 and 1825, there were several camp meetings and revivals in the Palmyra area. His parents disagreed about religion, but the family was caught up in this excitement. Smith said that he became interested in religion by age 12. As a teenager, he may have been sympathetic to Methodism. With other family members, Smith also engaged in religious folk magic, which was a relatively common practice in that time and place. Both his parents and his maternal grandfather reportedly had visions or dreams that they believed communicated messages from God. Smith said that, although he had become concerned about the welfare of his soul, he was confused by the claims of competing religious denominations.
Years later, Smith stated he had received a vision that resolved his religious confusion. In 1820, while praying in a wooded area near his home, he said that God and Jesus Christ, in a vision, appeared to him and told him his sins were forgiven and that all contemporary churches had "turned aside from the gospel." Smith said he told the experience to a preacher, who dismissed the story with contempt. The event would later grow in importance to Smith's followers, who now regard it as the first event in the gradual restoration of Christ's church to earth. Until the 1840s, however, the experience was largely unknown, even to most Mormons. Smith may have originally understood the event simply as a personal conversion.
According to his later accounts, Smith was visited by an angel named Moroni, while praying one night in 1823. Smith said that this angel revealed the location of a buried book made of golden plates, as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of interpreters composed of two seer stones set in a frame, which had been hidden in a hill near his home. Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning, but was unsuccessful because the angel returned and prevented him. Smith reported that during the next four years, he made annual visits to the hill, but, until the fourth and final visit, each time he returned without the plates.
Meanwhile, the Smith family faced financial hardship, due in part to the death of Smith's oldest brother Alvin, who had assumed a leadership role in the family. Family members supplemented their meager farm income by hiring out for odd jobs and working as treasure seekers, a type of magical supernaturalism common during the period. Smith was said to have an ability to locate lost items by looking into a seer stone, which he also used in treasure hunting, including several unsuccessful attempts to find buried treasure sponsored by a wealthy farmer in Chenango County, New York. In 1826, Smith was brought before a Chenango County court for "glass-looking", or pretending to find lost treasure. The result of the proceeding remains unclear as primary sources report various conflicting outcomes.
While boarding at the Hale house in Harmony, Pennsylvania, Smith met and began courting Emma Hale. When Smith proposed marriage, Emma's father, Isaac Hale objected, primarily because he believed Smith had no means to support Emma. Smith and Emma eloped and married on January 18, 1827, after which the couple began boarding with Smith's parents in Manchester. Later that year, when Smith promised to abandon treasure seeking, Hale offered to let the couple live on his property in Harmony and help Smith get started in business.
Smith made his last visit to the hill on September 22, 1827, taking Emma with him. This time, he said he successfully retrieved the plates. He said the angel commanded him not to show the plates to anyone else, but to translate them and publish their translation. Smith said the translation was a religious record of indigenous Americans, and were engraved in an unknown language, called reformed Egyptian. He also told associates that he was capable of reading and translating them.
Although Smith had left his treasure hunting company, his former associates believed he had double crossed them and taken the golden plates for himself, which they believed should be joint property. After they ransacked places where they believed the plates could be hidden, Smith decided to leave Palmyra.
Founding a church (1827–30)
In October 1827, Joseph and Emma moved from Palmyra to Harmony (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, aided by a relatively prosperous neighbor, Martin Harris. Living near his in-laws, Smith transcribed some characters that he said were engraved on the plates, and then dictated a translation to Emma.
In February 1828, Martin Harris arrived to assist Smith by transcribing his dictation. Harris also took a sample of the characters to a few prominent scholars, including Charles Anthon. Harris said Anthon initially authenticated the characters and their translation, but then retracted his opinion after learning that Smith claimed to have received the plates from an angel. Anthon denied Harris's account of the meeting, claiming instead that he had tried to convince Harris that he was the victim of a fraud. In any event, Harris returned to Harmony in April 1828, and continued as Smith's scribe.
However, by June 1828, Harris began having doubts about the project, fueled in part by his wife's skepticism. Harris convinced Smith to let him take the existing 116 pages of manuscript to Palmyra to show a few family members, including his wife. Harris lost the manuscript, of which there was no other copy. As punishment for losing the manuscript, Smith said that the angel returned and took away the plates, and revoked his ability to translate. During this period, Smith briefly attended Methodist meetings with his wife, until a cousin of hers objected to inclusion of a "practicing necromancer" on the Methodist class roll.
Smith said that the angel returned the plates to him in September 1828. In April 1829, he met Oliver Cowdery, who replaced Harris as his scribe, and resumed dictation. They worked full time on the manuscript between April and early June 1829, and then moved to Fayette, New York, where they continued to work at the home of Cowdery's friend, Peter Whitmer. When the narrative described an institutional church and a requirement for baptism, Smith and Cowdery baptized each other. Dictation was completed about July 1, 1829.
Although Smith had previously refused to show the plates to anyone, he told Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer that they would be allowed to see them. These men, known collectively as the Three Witnesses, signed a statement stating that they had been shown the golden plates by an angel, and that the voice of God had confirmed the truth of their translation. Later, a group of Eight Witnesses — composed of male members of the Whitmer and Smith families — issued a statement that they had been shown the golden plates by Smith. According to Smith, the angel Moroni took back the plates once Smith finished using them.
The completed work, titled the Book of Mormon, was published in Palmyra on March 26, 1830, by printer E. B. Grandin. Soon after, on April 6, 1830, Smith and his followers formally organized the Church of Christ, and small branches were established in Palmyra, Fayette, and Colesville, New York. The Book of Mormon brought Smith regional notoriety and opposition from those who remembered the 1826 Chenango County trial. After Cowdery baptized several new church members, the Mormons received threats of mob violence; before Smith could confirm the newly baptized members, he was arrested and brought to trial as a disorderly person. He was acquitted, but soon both he and Cowdery fled to Colesville to escape a gathering mob. In probable reference to this period of flight, Smith said that Peter, James, and John had appeared to him and had ordained him and Cowdery to a higher priesthood.
Smith's authority was undermined when Oliver Cowdery, Hiram Page, and other church members also claimed to receive revelations. In response, Smith dictated a revelation which clarified his office as a prophet and an apostle, and which declared that only he held the ability to give doctrine and scripture for the entire church. Shortly after the conference, Smith dispatched Cowdery, Peter Whitmer, and others on a mission to proselytize Native Americans. Cowdery was also assigned the task of locating the site of the New Jerusalem.
On their way to Missouri, Cowdery's party passed through northeastern Ohio, where Sidney Rigdon and over a hundred followers of his variety of Campbellite Restorationism converted to Mormonism, more than doubling the size of the church. Rigdon soon visited New York and quickly became Smith's primary assistant. With growing opposition in New York, Smith gave a revelation stating that Kirtland was the eastern boundary of the New Jerusalem, and that his followers must gather there.
Life in Ohio (1831–38)
When Smith moved to Kirtland, Ohio in January 1831, he encountered a religious culture that included enthusiastic demonstrations of spiritual gifts, including fits and trances, rolling on the ground, and speaking in tongues. Smith brought the Kirtland congregation under his own authority and tamed these outbursts. Rigdon's followers had also been practicing a form of communalism, which Smith adopted, calling it the United Order. Smith had promised church elders that in Kirtland they would receive an endowment of heavenly power, and at the June 1831 general conference, he introduced the greater authority of a High ("Melchizedek") Priesthood to the church hierarchy.
Converts poured into Kirtland. By the summer of 1835, there were fifteen hundred to two thousand Mormons in the vicinity, many expecting Smith to lead them shortly to the Millennial kingdom. Though his mission to the Indians had been a failure, Cowdery reported that he had found the site of the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. After Smith visited in July 1831, he agreed, pronouncing the frontier hamlet of Independence the "center place" of Zion. Rigdon, however, disapproved, and for most of the 1830s the church remained divided between Ohio and Missouri. Smith continued to live in Ohio, but visited Missouri again in early 1832 to prevent a rebellion of prominent church members who believed the church in Missouri was being neglected. Smith's trip was also hastened by a mob of Ohio residents who were incensed over the United Order and Smith's political power; the mob beat Smith and Rigdon unconscious, tarred and feathered them, and left them for dead.
In Jackson County, existing Missouri residents resented the Mormon newcomers for both political and religious reasons. Tension increased until July 1833, when non-Mormons forcibly evicted the Mormons and destroyed their property. Smith advised them to bear the violence patiently until after they were attacked multiple times, after which they could fight back. After armed bands exchanged fire, killing one Mormon and two non-Mormons, the old settlers brutally expelled the Mormons from the county.
Smith ended the communitarian experiment and changed the name of the church to the "Church of Latter Day Saints," before leading a small paramilitary expedition called Zion's Camp, to aid the Missouri Mormons. As a military endeavor, the expedition was a failure; the men were outnumbered and suffered from dissension and a cholera outbreak. Nevertheless, Zion's Camp transformed Mormon leadership, and many future church leaders came from among the participants.
After the Camp returned, Smith drew heavily from its participants to establish five governing bodies in the church, all originally of equal authority to check one another. Among these five groups was a quorum of twelve apostles. Smith gave a revelation saying that to redeem Zion, his followers would have to receive an endowment in the Kirtland Temple, and in March 1836, at the temple's dedication, many participants in the promised endowment saw visions of angels, spoke in tongues, and prophesied.
In late 1837, a series of internal disputes led to the collapse of the Kirtland Mormon community. Smith was blamed for having promoted a church-sponsored bank that failed. He was also accused of engaging in a sexual relationship with his serving girl, Fanny Alger. Building the temple had left the church deeply in debt, and Smith was hounded by creditors. Having heard of a large sum of money supposedly hidden in Salem, Massachusetts, Smith traveled there and received a revelation that God had "much treasure in this city". After a month, however, he returned to Kirtland empty-handed.
In January 1837, Smith and other church leaders created a joint stock company, called the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company, to act as a quasi-bank; the company issued bank notes capitalized in part by real estate. Smith encouraged the Latter Day Saints to buy the notes, and he invested heavily in them himself, but the bank failed within a month. As a result, the Latter Day Saints in Kirtland suffered intense pressure from debt collectors and severe price volatility. Smith was held responsible for the failure, and there were widespread defections from the church, including many of Smith's closest advisers. After a warrant was issued for Smith's arrest on a charge of banking fraud, Smith and Rigdon fled Kirtland for Missouri in January 1838.
Life in Missouri (1838–39)
By 1838, Smith had abandoned plans to redeem Zion in Jackson County, and after Smith and Rigdon arrived in Missouri, the town of Far West became the new "Zion". In Missouri, the church also took the name "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints", and construction began on a new temple. In the weeks and months after Smith and Rigdon arrived at Far West, thousands of Latter Day Saints followed them from Kirtland. Smith encouraged the settlement of land outside Caldwell County, instituting a settlement in Adam-ondi-Ahman, in Daviess County.
During this time, a church council expelled many of the oldest and most prominent leaders of the church, including John Whitmer, David Whitmer, W. W. Phelps, and Oliver Cowdery. Smith explicitly approved of the expulsion of these men, who were known collectively as the "dissenters".
Political and religious differences between old Missourians and newly-arriving Mormon settlers provoked tensions between the two groups, much as they had years earlier in Jackson County. By this time, Smith's experiences with mob violence led him to believe that his faith's survival required greater militancy against anti-Mormons. Around June 1838, recent convert Sampson Avard formed a covert organization called the Danites to intimidate Mormon dissenters and oppose anti-Mormon militia units. Though it is unclear how much Smith knew of the Danites' activities, he clearly approved of those of which he did know. After Rigdon delivered a sermon that implied dissenters had no place in the Mormon community, the Danites forcibly expelled them from the county.
In a speech given at the town's Fourth of July celebration, Rigdon declared that Mormons would no longer tolerate persecution by the Missourians and spoke of a "war of extermination" if Mormons were attacked. Smith implicitly endorsed this speech, and many non-Mormons understood it to be a thinly-veiled threat. They unleashed a flood of anti-Mormon rhetoric in newspapers and in stump speeches given during the 1838 election campaign.
On August 6, 1838, non-Mormons in Gallatin tried to prevent Mormons from voting, and the election-day scuffles initiated the 1838 Mormon War. Non-Mormon vigilantes raided and burned Mormon farms, while Danites and other Mormons pillaged non-Mormon towns. In the Battle of Crooked River, a group of Mormons attacked the Missouri state militia, mistakenly believing them to be anti-Mormon vigilantes. Governor Lilburn Boggs then ordered that the Mormons be "exterminated or driven from the state". On October 30, a party of Missourians surprised and killed seventeen Mormons in the Haun's Mill massacre.
Smith was held for four months in Liberty jail.
The following day, the Latter Day Saints surrendered to 2,500 state troops and agreed to forfeit their property and leave the state. Smith was immediately brought before a military court, accused of treason, and sentenced to be executed the next morning; Alexander Doniphan, who was Smith's former attorney and a brigadier general in the Missouri militia, refused to carry out the order. Smith was then sent to a state court for a preliminary hearing, where several of his former allies testified against him.
Smith and five others, including Rigdon, were charged with "overt acts of treason", and transferred to the jail at Liberty, Missouri, to await trial.
Smith's months in prison with an ill and whining Rigdon strained their relationship. Meanwhile Brigham Young, the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, rose to prominence when he organized the move of about 14,000 Mormon refugees to Illinois and eastern Iowa.
Smith bore his imprisonment stoically. Understanding that he was effectively on trial before his own people, many of whom considered him a fallen prophet, he wrote a personal defense and an apology for the activities of the Danites. "The keys of the kingdom," he wrote, "have not been taken away from us". Though he directed his followers to collect and publish their stories of persecution, he also urged them to moderate their antagonism toward non-Mormons. On April 6, 1839, after a grand jury hearing in Davis County, Smith and his companions escaped custody, almost certainly with the connivance of the sheriff and guards.
Life in Nauvoo, Illinois (1839–44)
Many American newspapers criticized Missouri for the Haun's Mill massacre and the state's expulsion of the Latter Day Saints. Illinois accepted Mormon refugees who gathered along the banks of the Mississippi River, where Smith purchased high-priced, swampy woodland in the hamlet of Commerce. Smith also attempted to portray the Latter Day Saints as an oppressed minority, and unsuccessfully petitioned the federal government for help in obtaining reparations. During the summer of 1839, while Latter Day Saints in Nauvoo suffered from a malaria epidemic, Smith sent Brigham Young and other apostles to missions in Europe, where they made numerous converts, many of them poor factory workers.
Smith also attracted a few wealthy and influential converts, including John C. Bennett, the Illinois quartermaster general. Bennett used his connections in the Illinois legislature to obtain an unusually liberal charter for the new city, which Smith named "Nauvoo" (Hebrew נָאווּ, meaning "to be beautiful"). The charter granted the city virtual autonomy, authorized a university, and granted Nauvoo habeas corpus power—which allowed Smith to fend off extradition to Missouri. Though Mormon authorities controlled Nauvoo's civil government, the city promised an unusually liberal guarantee of religious freedom. The charter also authorized the Nauvoo Legion, an autonomous militia whose actions were limited only by state and federal constitutions. "Lieutenant General" Smith and "Major General" Bennett became its commanders, thereby controlling by far the largest body of armed men in Illinois. Smith made Bennett Assistant President of the church, and Bennett was elected Nauvoo's first mayor.
In 1841, Smith began revealing the doctrine of plural marriage to a few of his closest male associates, including Bennett, who used it as an excuse to seduce numerous women wed and unwed. When embarrassing rumors of "spiritual wifery" got abroad, Smith forced Bennett's resignation as Nauvoo mayor. In retaliation, Bennett left Smith's following and wrote "lurid exposés of life in Nauvoo".
Smith planned the construction of the Nauvoo Temple
, which was completed after his death.
The early Nauvoo years were a period of doctrinal innovation. Smith introduced baptism for the dead in 1840, and in 1841, construction began on the Nauvoo Temple as a place for recovering lost ancient knowledge. An 1841 revelation promised the restoration of the "fulness of the priesthood"; and in May 1842, Smith inaugurated a revised endowment or "first anointing". The endowment resembled rites of freemasonry that Smith had observed two months earlier when he had been initiated "at sight" into the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. At first, the endowment was open only to men, who were initiated into a special group called the Anointed Quorum. For women, Smith introduced the Relief Society, a service club and sorority within which Smith predicted women would receive "the keys of the kingdom". Smith also elaborated on his plan for a millennial kingdom. No longer envisioning the building of Zion in Nauvoo, Smith viewed Zion as encompassing all of North and South America, with Mormon settlements being "stakes" of Zion's metaphorical tent. Zion also became less a refuge from an impending tribulation than a great building project. In the summer of 1842, Smith revealed a plan to establish the millennial Kingdom of God, which would eventually establish theocratic rule over the whole earth.
By mid-1842, popular opinion had turned against the Mormons. After an unknown assailant shot and wounded Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs in May 1842, anti-Mormons circulated rumors that Smith's bodyguard, Porter Rockwell, was the shooter. Though the evidence was circumstantial, Boggs ordered Smith's extradition. Certain he would be killed if he ever returned to Missouri, Smith went into hiding twice during the next five months, before the U.S. district attorney for Illinois argued that Smith's extradition to Missouri would be unconstitutional. (Rockwell was later tried and acquitted.) In June 1843, enemies of Smith convinced a reluctant Illinois Governor Thomas Ford to extradite Smith to Missouri on an old charge of treason. Two law officers arrested Smith, but were intercepted by a party of Mormons before they could reach Missouri. Smith was then released on a writ of habeas corpus from the Nauvoo municipal court. While this ended the Missourians' attempts at extradition, it caused significant political fallout in Illinois.
In December 1843, Smith petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent territory with the right to call out federal troops in its defense. Smith then wrote to the leading presidential candidates and asked them what they would do to protect the Mormons. After receiving noncommittal or negative responses, Smith announced his own independent candidacy for President of the United States, suspended regular proselytizing, and sent out the Quorum of the Twelve and hundreds of other political missionaries. In March 1844 — following a dispute with a federal bureaucrat — Smith organized the secret Council of Fifty. Smith said the Council had authority to decide which national or state laws Mormons should obey. The Council was also to select a site for a large Mormon settlement in Texas, California, or Oregon, where Mormons could live under theocratic law beyond other governmental control.
A 19th-century painting depicting the mob attack inside Carthage Jail
By early 1844, a rift developed between Smith and a half dozen of his closest associates. Most notably, William Law, Smith's trusted counselor, and Robert Foster, a general of the Nauvoo Legion, disagreed with Smith about how to manage Nauvoo's economy. Both also said that Smith had proposed marriage to their wives. Believing the dissidents were plotting against his life, Smith excommunicated them on April 18, 1844. These dissidents formed a competing church and the following month, at Carthage, the county seat, they procured indictments against Smith for perjury and polygamy.
On June 7, the dissidents published the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, calling for reform within the church and appealing to the political views of the county's other faiths as well as those of former Mormons. The paper decried Smith's new "doctrines of many Gods", alluded to Smith's theocratic aspirations, and called for a repeal of the Nauvoo city charter. It also attacked Smith's practice of polygamy, implying that Smith was using religion as a pretext to draw unassuming women to Nauvoo in order to seduce and marry them.
Fearing the newspaper would bring the countryside down on the Mormons, the Nauvoo city council declared the Expositor a public nuisance and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press. Smith, who feared another mob attack, supported the action, not realizing that destroying a newspaper was more likely to incite an attack than any libel.
Smith was shot multiple times before and after falling from the window.
Destruction of the newspaper provoked a strident call to arms from Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal and longtime critic of Smith. Fearing an uprising, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion on June 18 and declared martial law. Officials in Carthage responded by mobilizing their small detachment of the state militia, and Governor Thomas Ford appeared, threatening to raise a larger militia unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered themselves. Smith initially fled across the Mississippi River, but shortly returned and surrendered to Ford. On June 23, Smith and his brother Hyrum rode to Carthage to stand trial for inciting a riot. Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason.
Gravesite of Joseph, Emma, and Hyrum Smith, in Nauvoo, Illinois
On June 27, 1844, an armed mob with blackened faces stormed Carthage Jail where Joseph and Hyrum were being held. Hyrum, who was trying to secure the door, was killed instantly with a shot to the face. Smith fired three shots from a pepper-box pistol that his friend, Cyrus Wheelock, had lent him, wounding three men, before he sprang for the window. He was shot multiple times before falling out the window, crying, "Oh Lord my God!" He died shortly after hitting the ground, but was shot several more times before the mob dispersed. Five men were later tried for Smith's murder, but were all acquitted. Smith was buried in Nauvoo, and is interred there at the Smith Family Cemetery.
After his death, non-Mormon newspapers were almost unanimous in portraying Smith as a religious fanatic. Conversely, within Mormonism, Smith was remembered first and foremost as a prophet, martyred to seal the testimony of his faith.