Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805 – 1844) was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and author of the Book of Mormon. He was born in Vermont, but during his teen years lived in Western New York, which at that time was the epicenter of the religious revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening—a backlash to the rationalism and skepticism that had been prevalent during the Enlightenment era. Amidst an environment of competing fire-and-brimstone preachers and popular belief in visions, speaking in tongues, and other “folk magic,” young Joseph did not know which church to join. According to his own account, when he prayed for guidance he saw a vision of God and Jesus, who told Smith that no existing Christian sect was the true church. This inspired him to found his own, on the belief that as a prophet he could restore the original New Testament church.

In 1823, a second alleged vision by Smith led to the writing of the Book of Mormon; Smith saw an angel named Moroni, who told him that a book made of golden plates containing the religious text of indigenous Americans descended from one of the twelve tribes of Israel was hidden in a hill near Smith’s home. Smith made several attempts to dig up the plates, finally succeeding in 1827, and over the next two years he translated the writings etched on the plates, dictating his translation to his wife Emma and to two friends who transcribed it. In 1830, Smith published the Book of Mormon, and he and his followers formally organized the Church of Christ (later renamed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) based on its message.

The Latter-day Saints soon left New York with the ultimate goal of establishing a “city of Zion” in Jackson County, Missouri, in accordance with Smith’s revelation. Until the necessary land could be purchased, they established church headquarters and the first temple in Kirtland, Ohio, where they amassed thousands of new converts. At the same time, Mormons began to settle in western Missouri and attempted to establish settlements there, but tensions quickly arose between them and the established community. A variety of religious, social, and economic factors were involved, including the Mormons’ belief that they were destined to inherit lands presently owned by others, their tendency to vote in blocs, and the Missourians’ suspicion of anyone coming from areas sympathetic to abolitionism. By the time Smith himself came to Missouri in 1838, repeated episodes of mob violence had escalated into a conflict known as the Missouri Mormon War, which culminated in an executive order from the governor expelling all Mormons from the state. 

After leaving Missouri, the Mormons established the town of Nauvoo, Illinois, with Joseph Smith as mayor. Their reprieve from persecution was short-lived, however, and the introduction of polygamy sparked internal conflicts. In 1844, a group of dissenters published a newspaper publicly accusing Smith of trying to marry their wives; Mayor Smith and the city council declared the paper a public nuisance and ordered its press destroyed. As a result, Smith was charged with inciting a riot. He surrendered to the constable and was jailed in Carthage, Illinois. While awaiting trial, Smith was killed by an armed mob who stormed the jail.

Smith’s death precipitated a succession crisis within the church, with the majority of the Mormons opting to follow Brigham Young to Utah. Other potential leaders started their own church offshoots, some of which survive today among the variety of sects in the LDS movement. After Young’s vanguard company established Salt Lake City in 1847, Mormon pioneers continued to migrate to Utah until the end of the 19th century, traveling in wagon trains, handcart companies, and later by rail. This pioneer heritage remains an important part of Mormon culture, and is celebrated annually on Pioneer Day, a Utah state holiday.