Joseph Smith, Jr. was a religious leader and founder of the Mormon Church. By the time of his death, he had attracted tens of thousands of followers and his religion, now known as the Latter Day Saints continues to the present with millions of followers.
Joseph Smith was born December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont to Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. Joseph Sr., a merchant and farmer, moved the family moved ten times during his youth, but Smith spent the majority of his childhood near Palmyra, New York, in the heart of what was called the “burned-over district” for its frequent and fervent Protestant revivals. At the age of 14, he claimed to have had an intense spiritual revelation of God and Jesus Christ.
At the age of 20, Smith claimed that an angel called Moroni had directed him to a collection of engraved golden tablets that had been buried in a hill near Palmyra. He said that a prophet named Mormon had produced the tablets over a thousand years ago and he was instructed to translate the history. In 1930, he completed the work and published the “Book of Mormon,” which together with the Old and New Testaments and some of Smith’s later revelations became the sacred scripture of Mormonism.
Later that year he founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Fayette, New York. In 1831, they moved their headquarters to Kirkland, Ohio, but there, they found persecution, especially due to spreading rumors of polygamy. In 1837, Smith moved the group to Missouri. But, they would find no peace in the “Show-Me State,” as within a year, all-out “war” broke out with their fearful neighbors. Missouri’s governor soon ordered all Mormons to leave the state, and when the Mormons refused, their stronghold in Far West, Missouri was surrounded, and Smith, fearing an imminent massacre, surrendered.
The Mormons then fled back eastward, founding the city of Nauvoo near Quincy, Illinois in 1839, where the community thrived. In 1844, Smith announced that he was running for the Presidency of the United States and this, coupled with the practice of polygamy within the church, prompted his arrest. He was charged with inciting a riot after he attempted to destroy a newspaper that exposed the Mormon’s practice of polygamy and imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois. However, before he could be tried on these charges, a mob broke into his cell on June 27, 1844 and brutally killed both him and his brother.
After his death, non-Mormon newspapers were almost unanimous in portraying Smith as a religious fanatic. However, within the church, Smith was remembered first and foremost as a prophet, as well as one of the most influential, charismatic, and innovative figures in American religious history.
Polygamy was avidly endorsed by both Smith and his religion but was practiced in relative secrecy. Smith was always thought to have married more than 30 women, producing numerous children, the details of which were uncertain due to the secrecy surrounding his plural marriages. The Mormon Church acknowledged for the first time in October of 2014 that Smith had between 30 and 40 wives in a series of church-sanctioned essays. His first, and only “legitimate” wife, Emma Hale Smith, bore him nine children.
When Smith was murdered in 1844, the Mormons were temporarily left without a leader, but the congregation continued to grow and by the next year, Nauvoo boasted some 10,000 inhabitants and church membership increased to nearly 35,000. In 1846, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, moved the community westward, first to Winter Quarters, Nebraska, and the next year to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley, where Young hoped the Mormons would, at last, find the freedom to worship and live as their faith decreed.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated March 2020.