Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was an American religious leader. He is the purported translator of the Book of Mormon, a "lost testament" of Jesus Christ's apparition to indigenous peoples of the Americas, and is the founder of the modern Latter-Day Saint movement.
Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, to Lucy and Joseph Smith, Sr. on December 23, 1805. He grew up on a series of tenant farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Smith's education consisted of a very limited exposure to reading, writing, and arithmetic. In Lucy Smith's diaries, she later recalled that Joseph was alternately "studious and given to meditation" and "uneducated."
In addition to seeing visions of treasure, gold mines and lost tools, Joseph Smith also claimed visits from angels, the devil, John the Baptist, Elijah and other characters from the Bible and Book of Mormon. The most significant of these visions, and the most often repeated by Mormons, is called the First Vision. The official version of the First Vision evolved significantly over time. The earliest versions were written in 1838, 18 years after the event supposedly took place, and the details vary with each version (Brodie 1945).
In the official version, now circulated by the Mormon church, Joseph recalls being confused in 1820 by the varying claims made by Revivalist preachers who flooded New York and Pennsylvania. He encountered James 1:5 , instructing any who lacked wisdom to "ask of God". Early one morning in the spring of 1820, Joseph said he retired to the secluded woods near his Palmyra home to ask God which church he should join. The following is a direct quote from the official account:
It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally ... I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction. But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction -- not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being -- just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I beheld two personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name, and said -- pointing to the other -- "This is my beloved Son, hear Him." My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therfor, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right -- and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong, and the personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in His sight: that those professors were all corrupt; that "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the comandments of men: having a form of godliness, but they deny the power therof." He again forbade me to join with any of them: and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. (History of the Church, Vol. I, pp. 5-7)
Although Joseph Smith claimed that he told others of this vision, and was harshly persecuted by neighbors and the local clergy, there is no mention of any such local uproar or the vision in local papers or even family documents of the time (Brodie 1945).
The First Vision is a major proselyting tool for Mormon missionaries.
History provides us with evidence suggesting that Joseph Smith had a great interest in treasure hunting or money-digging. He even claimed to be able to use seer stones and diving rods to find lost treasures. The only documented "find" that Joseph ever made is categorized as "lost tools". Usually, Joseph would approach local farmers, claim to have the ability to find treasure, dig a few holes, and then try to collect his fee. An ex-Mormon, named Hurlbut, collected 100 affidavits from Smith's neighbors regarding his various cons, including precursors to his claims about finding golden plates, which evolved into the Book of Mormon story (Brodie 1945).
Joseph Smith claimed he was visited by an angel named Moroni in 1823, who told him of an ancient record containing God's dealings with the former inhabitants of the American continent.
During the years between 1823 and 1827, Joseph and his family were engaged in many treasure hunts, throughout the north-eastern United States. It should be noted that none of those hunts resulted in the discovery of any significant treasures—other than the preported discovery of the Book of Mormon. When questioned about the lack of discovery, Smith would often claim that the treasures "had sunk lower" because of a lack of spirituality on the part of the seekers.
Bainbridge court trial
Court records from Bainbridge, in Chenango County, New York, show that on March 20, 1826, Joseph Smith Jr. was tried and convicted of disorderly conduct and of being an imposter in relation to an event where he pretended to be able to find buried gold and treasure through the use of a magic stone or by looking into a hat. Court records show that in that same year Joseph Smith Jr. was tried in Norwich, New York for the misdemeanor crime of "glass looking" (treasure-hunting). Contrary to claims by the Mormon church history, Joseph was convicted (Brodie 1945).
Joseph testified in court that he had a seer stone, which he pretended to look into, divining the location of buried money, treasure and artifacts. In the event in question, Joseph had been working for a Josiah Stoal (a.k.a. "Stowel"), who paid him to look into the stone. Ironically, Stoal's impassioned testimony at the Bainbridge trial revealed damning details of Joseph's deceptive practices. It was obvious that Stoal had been taken in, and Smith was convicted.
Book of Mormon
There is discrepancy in the record of when Joseph retrieved the Book of Mormon. Some accounts place the discovery as early as 1823, while others place the discovery closer to the time at which Smith transribed the account, inscribed on thin golden plates. Smith claimed that the angel, Moroni, had shown him the place where the account had been buried and asked him to dig it up. Martin Harris met Smith in Harmony, Pennsylvania, in February of 1828. They "purposed to transcribe" the plates and record the Book of Mormon. Joseph used two seer stones, the Urim and Thummim (deposited with the plates), and a hat, to translate the plates. Martin Harris would sit on the other side of a curtain and record Joseph's words. This first account, transcribed by Martin Harris, was lost when Harris took the chapters home to his wife. Harris' wife claimed that "if Joseph is telling the truth, then re-writing these chapters should not prove difficult." It is unknown what Mrs. Harris did to the original transcription, but it is thought that she threw it into the fire. Martin Harris had to return to Smith and tell him what his wife had done. Joseph spent a few days in a "melancholy state" (according to the diaries of Lucy Smith) and then told Harris that God had decided that Smith should no longer translate the story of Lehi, but would translate the story of Nephi and Mosiah, through the book of Moroni. Thus, any rediscovery of the original 116 "lost pages" would not contradict the latter translations. They are simply a different testimony. The resulting manuscript, the Book of Mormon, was published in March 1830. On April 6, 1830, Joseph Smith organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became its first president.
Joseph married Emma Hale on January 18, 1827, and was described as a loving and devoted husband. Emma Hale and Joseph Smith had eleven children (two adopted), only five of whom lived past infancy. During the thirty-nine years of his life, Joseph established thriving cities in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; produced volumes of scripture; sent missionaries throughout the world; orchestrated the building of temples; served as mayor of Nauvoo, one of the largest cities in Illinois, and as general of its militia, the Nauvoo Legion; and was a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Joseph also created the idea of plural marriage, as one of God's holy ordinances, and had at least thirty-three wives. He was a controversial figure in American history—beloved of his followers and hated by his detractors. Joseph was killed along with his brother Hyrum by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, on June 27, 1844. Hyrum was shot. Joseph likely succumbed to two mortal wounds: a gun shot and blunt force trauma (sustained upon impact with the ground, after jumping out of a second story window).
- Brodie, Fawn. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith. New York: Vintage Books, 1945. No Man Knows My History
- No mention of Joseph Smith's "First Vision" or denouncement by religious leaders during the time he claimed (Ch 2, pp 23).
- Earlier versions of Joseph's first vision include only one personage, angels and finally God and Christ (Ch 1).
- Joseph didn't start is autobiography until 1838 (Ch 2, pp 25).