[This entry is divided into four parts:
Teachings of Joseph Smith
Writings of Joseph Smith
Legal Trials of Joseph Smith
The Prophet is a biography of Joseph Smith; Teachings of Joseph Smith
sketches his thought and teachings; Writings of Joseph Smith examines
his personal writings and the body of scripture, revelations, and history resulting
from his ministry; and Trials of Joseph Smith recounts his legal and
judicial history. See also Visions of Joseph Smith.
Historical overviews of LDS history during the Joseph Smith period are
History of the Church: c. 1820-1831; c. 1831-1844. For entries dealing
with his prophetic calling consult Prophet Joseph Smith. For Joseph Smith´s
family background, see Smith Family and Smith Family Ancestors;
see also entries for his mother, Lucy Mack Smith; his father, Joseph
Smith, Sr.; his brother Hyrum Smith, and his wife, Emma Hale Smith.]
Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805–1844), often referred to as the Prophet Joseph
Smith, was the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints. Latter-day Saints call him "the Prophet" because, in the tradition of
Old and New Testament prophets, he depended on revelation from God for his teachings,
not on his own learning. They accept his revelations, many of them published
as the Doctrine and Covenants and as the Pearl of Great Price, as scripture
to accompany the Bible. As a young man, Joseph Smith also translated a sacred
record from ancient America known as the Book of Mormon. These revelations and
records restored to the earth the pure gospel of Christ. Joseph Smith´s role
in history was to found the Church of Jesus Christ based on this restored gospel
in preparation for the second coming of Christ.
Little in his background pointed toward this momentous life. Joseph Smith´s
ancestors were ordinary New England farm people. His Smith ancestors emigrated
from England to America in the seventeenth century and settled in Topsfield,
Massachusetts, where they attained local distinction. His grandfather Asael
Smith, unable at the time to pay the debts on the family farm, sold the farm,
liquidated the debts, and migrated in 1791 to Tunbridge, Vermont, where he purchased
enough land to provide for his sons. Joseph Smith´s Mack ancestors, from Scotland,
settled in Lyme, Connecticut, prospered for a while, and then fell on hard times.
Joseph´s grandfather Solomon Mack attempted various enterprises in New England
and New York, with little financial success. One of the Mack sons moved to Tunbridge,
and through him Lucy Mack met Joseph Smith, Sr., one of Asael´s sons. The pair
married in 1796. They had eleven children, nine of whom lived to adulthood.
Joseph Smith, Jr., born December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, was the third
son to live and the fourth child.
Young Joseph had little formal schooling. His parents lost their Tunbridge
farm in 1803 through a failed business venture and for the next fourteen years
moved from one tenant farm to another. In 1816 they migrated to Palmyra, New
York, just north of the Finger Lakes, where in 1817 they purchased a farm in
Farmington (later Manchester), the township immediately south of Palmyra. Clearing
land and wresting a living from the soil left little time for school. "As it
required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the
support of the Family," Joseph wrote in 1832, "we were deprived of the bennifit
of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing
and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements"
(Jessee, 1989–, 1:5). His mother described him as "much less inclined to
the perusal of books than any of the rest of the children, but far more given
to meditation and deep study" (Smith, p. 84). His knowledge of the Bible and
his biblical style of writing suggest that much of his early education came
from that source.
One subject he pondered was religion. His parents had been reared under the
influence of New England Congregationalism but, dissatisfied with the preachers
around them, they were not regular churchgoers. Both parents had deep religious
experiences and an intense longing for salvation, without having a satisfactory
way to worship. A few years after settling in Palmyra, Lucy Smith and three
of the children joined the Presbyterians; Joseph, Sr., and the others stayed
home, Joseph, Jr., among them. Young Joseph was deeply perplexed about which
church to join, and the preaching of the revival ministers in the area intensified
In the spring of 1820, when he was just fourteen, Joseph turned directly to
God for guidance. The answer was astonishing. As he prayed in the woods near
his house, the Father and the Son appeared to him. Assuring him that his sins
were forgiven, the Lord told him that none of the churches were right and that
he should join none. Latter-day Saints call this Joseph Smith´s first vision,
the initial event in the restoration of the gospel. At the time, it made little
impression on the people around Joseph Smith. He told a minister about the vision
and was rebuffed. Believing the Bible sufficient, ministers were skeptical of
direct revelation. The scorn upset Joseph, who had only tried to report his
actual experience, and alienated him still further from the churches.
After three years with no further revelations, Joseph wondered if he still
was in favor with God and prayed again for direction and forgiveness. The vision
he received on September 21, 1823, set the course of his life for the next seven
years. An angel appeared and instructed him about a sacred record of an ancient
people. This angel, Moroni, told Joseph that he was to obtain the record, written
on gold plates, and translate it. He also told him that God´s covenant with
ancient Israel was about to be fulfilled, that preparation for the second coming
of Christ was about to commence, and that the gospel was to be preached to all
nations to prepare a people for Christ´s millennial reign. In a vision Joseph
saw the hill near his home where the plates were buried. When he went the next
day to get the plates, the angel stopped him. He was told that he must wait
four years to obtain the plates and that, until then, he was to return each
year for instructions. On September 22, 1827, he obtained the plates from which
he translated the Book of Mormon (see Moroni, Visitations of).
The discovery of gold plates in a hillside resonated strangely with other experiences
of the Smith family. Like many other New Englanders, they were familiar with
searches for lost treasure by supernatural means. Joseph Smith´s father was
reputed to be one of these treasure-seekers, and Joseph Smith himself had found
a stone, called a seer stone, which reportedly enabled him to find lost objects.
Treasure-seekers wanted to employ him to help with their searches. One, a man
named Josiah Stowell (sometimes spelled Stoal), hired Joseph and his father
in 1825 to dig for a supposed Spanish treasure near harmony, pennsylvania. The
effort came to nothing, and the Smiths returned home, but the neighbors continued
to think of the Smiths as part of the treasure-seeking company. Joseph Smith
had to learn, in his four years of waiting, to appreciate the plates solely
for their religious worth and not for their monetary value. The angel forbade
Joseph to remove the plates on his first viewing because thoughts of their commercial
worth had crossed his mind. Joseph had to learn to focus on the religious purpose
of the plates and put aside considerations of their value as gold.
While working in Harmony in 1825, Joseph Smith met Emma Hale at the Hale home
where he and his father boarded. He continued seeing her through the next year
while working at other jobs in the area, and on January 18, 1827, they married.
She was tall, straight, slender, and dark-haired; he stood over six feet tall
with broad chest and shoulders, light brown hair, and blue eyes. After the wedding
they went to live with the Smith family in Manchester, close to the hill Cumorah
where the plates still lay buried.
On September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith went to the hill for the fifth time. This
time the angel permitted him to take the plates, with strict instructions to
show them to no one. Designing people tried strenuously to get the plates, however,
and he was not left in peace to begin translation. Eventually he and Emma were
compelled to move, for their safety, to Harmony, near Emma´s family.
For the next three years, Joseph´s work depended on the support of a few loyal
friends who came to his aid and helped buffer him from troublesome inquirers.
His open manner inspired confidence, and his candor in simply narrating what
had happened to him disarmed skepticism. His brother later wrote that Joseph´s
youth, his lack of education, and his "whole character and disposition" convinced
the family that he was incapable of "giving utterance to anything but the truth"
(William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa, 1883, pp. 9–10). By the
time the translation was completed and the Book of Mormon published, three or
four dozen people believed in his mission and divine gifts.
Martin Harris, a prosperous Palmyra farmer, was one of these friends. He helped
Joseph move to Harmony and then moved there himself to help with the translation.
To enable him to translate, Joseph received with the plates a special instrument
called interpreters or Urim and Thummim. As he dictated, Martin Harris wrote
(see Book of Mormon Translation by Joseph Smith). In the spring of 1828, after
three months of work, Martin Harris took the 116 pages of the translation home
to show his wife, and they were lost or stolen. This interrupted the translation
and left Joseph desolate. Soon after, he received a scathing rebuke in a revelation
(D&C 3). About this time, Joseph and Emma´s firstborn son died on the day of
his birth, June 15, 1828, wrenching Joseph´s feelings even further.
Translation resumed in the fall of 1828, continuing intermittently until the
spring of 1829. Then Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher who learned of the plates
from Joseph´s parents, believed in Joseph and agreed to take dictation. From
April to June 1829 they labored together. When the two friends prayed on May
15 for an understanding of baptism, a messenger who announced himself as John
the Baptist appeared, conferred priesthood authority upon them, and instructed
them to baptize each other (see Aaronic Priesthood: Restoration of). Oliver
later wrote: "These were days never to be forgotten—to sit under the sound
of a voice dictated by the inspiration of heaven, awakened the utmost gratitude
of this bosom" (JS—H 1:71n).
Oliver was not the only additional witness to the revelations. When opposition
began to build in Harmony, Oliver and Joseph moved in June 1829 to Fayette,
New York, to the family home of Oliver´s friend David Whitmer. Here again Joseph
received needed support from people who believed in him. Once the translation
was completed, Joseph was told that others would be allowed to see the plates,
which until that time only he had viewed. The angel Moroni appeared to Martin
Harris, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer and showed them the gold plates while
a voice from heaven declared that the translation was done by the power of God
and was true (see Book of Mormon Witnesses). Joseph´s mother reported that Joseph
came into the house after this revelation and threw himself down beside her,
exclaiming that at last someone else had seen the plates. "Now they know for
themselves, that I do not go about to deceive" (Smith, p. 139). His words suggest
the pressure he felt in being the only witness of his remarkable experiences.
In March 1830 the Book of Mormon was published, ending one phase of Joseph´s
life but not his divine mission. Revelations in 1829 instructed him to organize
a church. On April 6, 1830, at the Whitmers´ house in Fayette, New York, the
Church of Christ was organized with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as first
and second elders (see Organization of the Church, 1830).
Leadership of the Church set Joseph Smith´s life on a new course. Up to this
time he had been a young man with a divine gift and a mission to translate the
Book of Mormon; now, without any previous organizational experience, he was
responsible for organizing a church and leading a people. He had to rely on
revelation. Over the next six years, he received many revelations, 90 of which
fill 190 pages in the Doctrine and Covenants. They range from instructions on
mundane details of administration to exalted depictions of life hereafter. Typically,
when problems had to be solved, whether administrative or doctrinal, the Prophet
sought divine guidance and by virtue of this help led the Church.
The course the revelations laid out for the new Church was extraordinarily
challenging. The Prophet received instructions for ventures reaching halfway
across the continent and involving a reorganization of society. At the core
of the instruction was the establishment of Zion. Book of Mormon teachings of
Christ made reference to a New Jerusalem, a city of Zion that would be established
in America (3 Ne. 20:22). Later revelations outlined the nature of the new order.
The central concept was the gathering of the pure and honest from among the
nations into communities where they could learn to live in unity and love under
divine direction, and where temples could be built to administer the sacred
ordinances of salvation.
In September–October 1830, missionaries were called to teach Native Americans
who resided near the western boundary of Missouri (see Lamanite Mission). These
missionaries were told that the city of Zion would be located somewhere in that
region. Later revelations called for a gathering to Missouri to organize Zion,
and a new economic order designed to enable the Saints to live together in unity
(see Consecration). Joseph and other leading figures in the Church journeyed
to Jackson County, Missouri, in the summer of 1831, and there learned by revelation
that the city was to be constructed and a temple built near Independence, Missouri
(see Missouri: LDS Communities in Jackson and Clay Counties). The gathering
was to commence immediately.
When it is remembered that Joseph Smith was not yet twenty-six, and five years
earlier was an uneducated farmer notable only for his spiritual gifts, the daring
of these plans is hard to comprehend. The magnitude of his conceptions never
troubled him. "I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole
world," he later remarked (HC 6:365). He acted in the certainty that
the directions were from God and that the Church would triumph against all odds.
In the spring of 1831 virtually all Latter-day Saints left New York for Ohio.
Joseph and Emma settled in Kirtland, Ohio, near a body of new converts, and
for the next six years this was Church headquarters. The other focal point of
Church life until 1838 was Missouri, first Independence, the site of the future
city of Zion, then northern Missouri. As Latter-day Saints migrated to Missouri,
tensions with old settlers increased. In Jackson County, in 1831–1833,
and again in Caldwell County, in 1836–1838, efforts to establish Zion aroused
violent opposition to what non-Mormons perceived as a threat to their way of
life (see Missouri Conflict).
Joseph Smith also made efforts to realize his vision of Zion during the seven
years that the Latter-day Saints were in Ohio. He organized the first stakes
and set up the presiding priesthood structure of the Church. The Prophet established
a bank, a newspaper, and a printing office; he supervised the building of the
Church´s first temple, and initiated extensive missionary work in the United
States, Canada, and England. His revelations, including a law of health (see
Word of Wisdom), tutored the Saints in the conduct of daily life. He made a
translation of the Bible (see Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible). He introduced
a school system to prepare the Saints for leadership and missionary roles and
was himself a student of Hebrew in the school. The high point of the Kirtland
years was the dedication of the temple. Although Joseph Smith had received priesthood
authority several years earlier, in 1836, in the Kirtland Temple, he received
important additional keys of authority from Moses, Elias, and Elijah pertaining
to the gathering of Israel and the eternal sealing of families.
Opposition had beset the Prophet from the time he first told people about his
visions. In 1832 he was tarred, feathered, and beaten by a mob who broke into
the house where he was staying at Hiram, Ohio, an intrusion that led to the
death of a child. At Kirtland, dissent arose within the Church over the nature
of the new society and the Prophet´s involvement in economics and politics;
some accused him of attempting to control their private lives and labeled him
a fallen prophet. By early 1838, opposition, especially among Ohio leadership,
grew to the point that the Prophet and loyal members moved to Missouri.
Joseph Smith arrived with his family at Far West, Caldwell County, Missouri,
in March 1838, where he sought once again to establish a gathering place for
the Saints and to build a temple (see Missouri: LDS Communities in Caldwell
and Daviess Counties). But, as before, the influx of outsiders with differing
social, religious, and economic practices was unacceptable to the old settlers.
Opposition flared into violence at Gallatin, Daviess County, on August 6, 1838,
when enemies of the Church tried to prevent Latter-day Saints from voting. The
ensuing fight produced injuries on both sides. A subsequent misunderstanding
with a local justice of the peace led to charges against the Prophet. As rumors
spread, citizens of several counties, then militias, mobilized to expel the
Latter-day Saints (see Missouri Conflict; Extermination Order).
The crisis came to a head on October 31, 1838, when Joseph Smith and several
others, expecting to discuss ways to defuse the volatile situation, were arrested—it
was the beginning of five months of confinement. A November court of inquiry
at Richmond, Ray County, accused the Prophet and others with acts of treason
connected with the conflict and committed them to Liberty Jail to await trial.
Meanwhile, the Saints were driven from the state.
Harsh imprisonment made worse by forced separation from his family and the
Church left Joseph time to reflect on the meaning of human suffering. His writings
from prison contain some of the most sublime passages of his ministry. Excerpts
from his letters were added to the collection of his revelations (see Doctrine
and Covenants: Sections 121–23). Acknowledging all that he had experienced,
one of the revelations reminded him that however great his sufferings, they
did not exceed the Savior´s: "The Son of Man hath descended below them all.
Art thou greater than he?" (D&C 122:8).
The following April, while being taken under guard to Boone County, Missouri,
for a change in venue, the Prophet and his fellow prisoners were allowed to
escape. Within a month of rejoining family and friends at Quincy, Illinois,
Joseph Smith had authorized the purchase of land on the Mississippi River near
Commerce, Hancock County, Illinois, and had moved his family into a two-room
log cabin. During the summer of 1839, the Saints began settling their new gathering
place, which they named Nauvoo.
Like many areas along the river bottoms, Nauvoo was at first poorly drained
and disease-infested. During a malaria epidemic, the Prophet gave up his home
to the sick and lived in a tent. Witnesses reported miraculous healing under
his administration. "There was many sick among the saints on both sides of the
river and Joseph went through the midst of them taking them by the hand and
in a loud voice commanding them in the name of Jesus Christ to arise from their
beds and be made whole" (Wilford Woodruff Diary, July 22, 1839, Ms., LDS Church
Archives). Deaths were so frequent that a mass funeral was held.
Late in 1839 the Prophet traveled to Washington, D.C., to seek redress from
the federal government for losses sustained by his people in Missouri. While
there he obtained interviews with President Martin Van Buren and prominent congressmen,
but came away frustrated and without relief.
Nauvoo was soon incorporated under the state-authorized Nauvoo charter. Within
the next few years the city grew to rival Chicago as the largest in Illinois.
Joseph served on the city council and eventually became mayor. As mayor he also
served as presiding judge of the municipal court and as registrar of deeds.
With the rank of lieutenant general, he led the Nauvoo Legion, or municipal
militia. He was also proprietor of a merchandise store and became editor and
publisher of the newspaper Times and Seasons.
The relative security of Nauvoo provided Joseph Smith with an opportunity to
move forward the work of the kingdom with renewed vigor. He sent the Quorum
of the Twelve Apostles to Great Britain, where they expanded missionary work
and launched an emigration program that provided a stream of immigrants into
the new place of gathering (see Missions of the Twelve to Britain). At Nauvoo
the Prophet organized the first wards, the basic geographical units of the Church.
He expanded the ecclesiastical authority of the Twelve to include jurisdiction
within stakes, placing them for the first time in a position of universal authority
over the Church under the First Presidency. He supervised the building of the
Nauvoo Temple and established the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo.
The Prophet faced a dilemma as he began to restore long-lost divine principles.
Prompted by forebodings that his remaining time was short, he wished to hasten
his efforts, but because many did not understand his mission and opposed him,
he had to move slowly. "I could explain a hundred fold more than I ever have
of the glories of the kingdoms manifested to me…were the people prepared to
receive them," he wrote in 1843 (HC 5:402). To resolve this dilemma,
the Prophet presented some principles privately to a small number of faithful
members, intending to plant the seeds before he died. As early as 1841, he introduced
plural marriage, a necessary part of the restoration of the ancient order of
things, to members of the Twelve and a few others. Although he had understood
the principle since 1831 and apparently had married one plural wife several
years earlier, he married his first recorded plural wife, Louisa Beaman, in
1841. During his remaining years, he married at least twenty-seven others.
In May 1842 the Prophet introduced the full Endowment, religious ordinances
subsequently observed in all LDS temples, to a small group in the upper room
of his Nauvoo store. A year later he performed the first sealings of married
couples for time and eternity. In addition, he taught the Saints important doctrines
pertaining to the nature of God and man (see King Follett Discourse). In March
1844 he organized the council of fifty, the political arm of the kingdom of
God. By the time of his death three months later, he had completed all that
he felt was essential for the continuation of the kingdom. By then he had transferred
to the Twelve the keys of authority, confident that the program he had initiated
would now continue regardless of what befell him (see Succession in the Presidency).
Teaching these principles privately to a small circle enabled Joseph Smith
to fulfill his mission but complicated the situation at Nauvoo and unleashed
forces that eventually led to his death. Some Saints had difficulty in accepting
these unusual teachings. Upon being taught plural marriage, Brigham Young said
it was the first time in his life that he had desired the grave. Joseph´s wife
Emma at one point became "very bitter and full of resentment" ["Statement of
William Clayton," Woman´s Exponent 15 (June 1, 1886): 2]. As knowledge
of the private teachings leaked into the community, speculation and distorted
While the Prophet pursued his objectives, forces outside the Church organized
against him. Missouri authorities tried three times to extradite him from Illinois,
resulting in lengthy periods of legal harassment. Because of the loss of property
in earlier persecutions, he was unable to pay his debts and had to fend off
creditors. When Illinois political leaders turned against the Latter-day Saints
and no national leaders would champion their cause, the Prophet declared his
candidacy for president of the United States, gaining a platform from which
to discuss the rights of his people (see Nauvoo Politics).
By April 1844, dissenters openly challenged Joseph Smith´s leadership by organizing
a reform church and publishing a newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, for
the purpose of denouncing him. Perceiving the Expositor as a threat to
the peace of the community, the Nauvoo city council, with Joseph Smith presiding
as mayor, authorized him to order the destruction of the press—an act that
ignited the opposition. On June 12 the Prophet was charged with riot for destruction
of the press. After a flurry of legal maneuvers, Joseph submitted to arrest
at nearby Carthage, the county seat, under the governor´s pledge of protection.
Joseph had premonitions of danger, and the vocal threats of hotheads in adjoining
towns gave substance to his fears. On June 27, 1844, while in Carthage Jail
awaiting a hearing, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed when a mob
with blackened faces stormed the jail (see Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith).
The next day the brothers´ bodies were returned to Nauvoo, where ten thousand
Latter-day Saints gathered to mourn the loss of their Prophet.
Despite the adversity that dogged him from youth until death, Joseph Smith
was not the somber, forbidding person his contemporaries generally envisioned
in the personality of a prophet. An English convert wrote that Joseph was "no
saintish long-faced fellow, but quite the reverse" [John Needham to Thomas Ward,
July 7, 1843, Latter-Day Saints´ Millennial Star 4 (Oct. 1843):89]. It
was not uncommon to see him involved in sports activities with the young and
vigorous men of a community. He is known to have wrestled, pulled sticks, engaged
in snowball fights, played ball, slid on the ice with his children, played marbles,
shot at a mark, and fished. Tall and well built, Joseph Smith did not hesitate
to use his strength. Once in his youth he thrashed a man for wife-beating. In
1839, as he was en route to Washington, D.C., by stagecoach, the horses bolted
while the driver was away. Opening the door of the speeding coach, the Prophet
climbed up its side into the driver´s seat, where he secured the reins and stopped
Joseph was also deeply spiritual. His mother said of him that in his youth
he "seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything
of a religious nature" (Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, preliminary
manuscript, p. 46, LDS Church Archives). When he was just twelve, as he later
wrote, his mind became "seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns
for the wellfare of my immortal Soul" (PJS 1:5). Years after he began
receiving revelations, he continued to seek spiritual comfort. In 1832 while
on a journey, he wrote of visiting a grove "which is Just back of the town almost
every day where I can be Secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give
vent to all the feelings of my heart in meaditation and prayr" (PWJS,
p. 238). Clearly he spoke from the heart in declaring that "the things of God
are of deep import: and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and
solemn thoughts can only find them out" (HC 3:295).
Joseph Smith deeply loved his family, and his personal writings are filled
with prayerful outpourings of tenderness and concern. "O Lord bless my little
children with health and long life to do good in this generation for Christs
sake Amen" (PWJS, p. 28). His family consisted of eleven children, including
adopted twins. Of these, four sons and a daughter died in infancy or early childhood;
five were living when their father was killed, and a sixth, a son, was born
four months after his death. Occasional glimpses into his family life show him
sliding on the ice with his son Frederick, taking his children on a pleasure
ride in a carriage or sleigh, and attending the circus.
He was also a loyal friend and cared deeply about others. He repeatedly extended
a forgiving hand to prodigals, some of whom had caused him pain and misery.
"I feel myself bound to be a friend to all…wether they are just or unjust; they
have a degree of my compassion & sympathy" (PWJS, p. 548). One observer
noted that the Prophet would never go to bed if he knew there was a sick person
who needed assistance. He taught that "love is one of the leading characteristics
of Deity, and ought to be manifested by those who aspire to be the sons of God.
A man filled with the love of God, is not content with blessing his family alone
but ranges through the world, anxious to bless the whole of the human family"
(PWJS, p. 481). One Church member who stayed at the Smith home and witnessed
the Prophet´s "earnest and humble devotions…nourishing, soothing, and comforting
his family, neighbours, and friends," found observation of his private life
a greater witness of Joseph Smith´s divine calling than observing his public
actions (JD 7:176–77).
Joseph Smith spent his life bringing forth a new dispensation of religious
knowledge at great personal cost. He noted that "the envy and wrath of man"
had been his common lot and that "deep water" was what he was "wont to swim
in" (D&C 127:2). A little more than a year before his death he told an audience
in Nauvoo, "If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God,
I would back out. But I cannot back out: I have no doubt of the truth" (HC
5:336). He lived in the hope of bringing that truth to life in a society
of Saints, and died the victim of enemies who did not understand his vision.
RICHARD L. BUSHMAN
DEAN C. JESSEE
Anderson, Richard L. Joseph Smith´s New England Heritage. Salt Lake
Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History. New York, 1946.
Bushman, Richard L. Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Urbana,
Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary
Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, Utah, 1980.
Gibbons, Francis M. Joseph Smith: Martyr, Prophet of God. Salt Lake
Hill, Donna. Joseph Smith, The First Mormon. Garden City, New York,
Jessee, Dean C., ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake
Jessee, Dean C. The Papers of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1989–.
Millet, Robert L., ed., Joseph Smith: Selected Sermons and Writings.
New York, 1989.
Porter, Larry C., and Susan Easton Black, eds. The Prophet Joseph: Essays
on the Life and Mission of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1988.
Smith, Lucy. Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet. Liverpool,
Teachings of Joseph Smith
The written and spoken words of the revelations to Joseph Smith are clear,
direct, and unequivocal, yet his teachings are difficult to characterize or
summarize, since they do not fit easily into traditional theological categories,
and they always presuppose that more can, and probably will, be revealed by
God. Audiences eagerly listened to the Prophet´s bold proclamations and reasoning
on hundreds of topics, although his was not a work of systematic analysis or
synthesis. His teachings, sayings, counsels, instructions, blessings, responses,
and commentaries from 1820 to 1844 are scattered over thousands of pages of
revelations, scriptures, histories, journals, letters, and minute books (see
Joseph Smith: Writings of Joseph Smith).
The teachings of Joseph Smith may be approached in many ways. Some collections
arrange them topically; other commentaries focus on the historical settings
of his revelations and discourses; still others compare published versions with
recorded recollections of his sayings. In any case, one finds continuity and
consistency rather than conspicuous breaks or reversals.
The record shows that Joseph Smith´s access to sources and his own understanding
entailed growth processes. He said in 1842, two years before his death, that
he had "the whole plan of the kingdom" before him (HC 5:139). But it
is not clear how early in his life the "whole plan" reached maturity in his
Some of his teachings now have scriptural status; others are authoritative
but not sustained as scripture. As he himself explained, a prophet is not always
a prophet, but "only when he was acting as such" (TPJS, p. 278). Careful
scholarship will distinguish original utterances of the Prophet from later accretions;
also, some statements that he did not make or endorse have been published under
his name. The following sketch treats his revelations, his scriptural translations,
and his most characteristic sayings as comprising his teachings.
Joseph Smith never claimed to establish a new religion but to initiate a new
beginning, a restoration of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. "The fundamental
principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning
Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended
into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages
to it" (TPJS, p. 121). He anticipated "a whole and complete and perfect
union, and welding together of dispensations, and keys, and powers, and glories…from
the days of Adam even to the present time" (D&C 128:18). This restoration would
encompass "all the truth the Christian world possessed" (TPJS, p. 376)—including
much that had been lost or discarded—and, in addition, revelations "hid
from before the foundation of the world" (TPJS, p. 309). His teachings
were often in contrast to postbiblical additions, subtractions, and changes.
He said that he intended "to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole
world" (TPJS, p. 366).
The following are selected from among the dozens of topics and insights that
typify the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
GOD AND DIVINITY. Joseph Smith taught that God is properly called Father. He
is a glorified, exalted person, with personal attributes. Jesus Christ is the
mediator between man and God. He is not identical with God, but has become like
the Father. This strips away the mystery of many classical creeds. This doctrine
is refined anthropomorphism, and it permeates ancient and modern scriptures.
Because God is the preeminent person, he may be approached, encountered, and
known. He is subject to, and involved in, man´s struggles. He can be trusted
to move, act, respond, love, serve, and give. From the presence of God and his
Son proceeds forth a Spirit that gives light to everyone who comes into mortality.
This light is in all things, gives life to all things, and is the law by which
all things are governed, even the power of God (D&C 88:13).
TRUTH. Experience points to a plural universe. The highest knowledge is of
things, existences, in all their varieties (D&C 93:24–25). The revelations
to Joseph Smith speak of independent spheres of existence and an array of glorious
degrees (D&C 76; cf. 88:37). Thus, any mystical thrust toward metaphysical union
in which individuality is lost is abandoned.
SCRIPTURE. The Prophet taught that the scriptures are the written records of
revelatory experiences. He rejected equally the dogmas of verbal inerrancy,
of "merely human" origin, and of allegorical excess in interpreting the scriptures.
The limits of the canon are fluid, as they were originally in early Judaism
and Christianity. Scripture, spoken or written, is light to those who are quickened
by divine life and light. The need for living prophets to supplement, clarify,
and apply the written sources to contemporary needs is continual. "I told the
brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth,
and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding
by its precepts, than by any other book" (TPJS, p. 194).
CREATION AND COSMOS. Joseph Smith´s teachings have been characterized by the
word "eternalism": "Every principle that proceeds from God is eternal" (TPJS,
p. 181). The "pure principles of element" and of intelligence coexist eternally
with God: "They may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed" (TPJS,
p. 351). God created the universe out of chaos, "which is Element and in which
dwells all the glory" (WJS, p. 351). "The elements are the tabernacle
of God" (D&C 93:35). God is related to space and time, and did not create them
from nothing. Change occurs through intelligence. The universe is governed by
law. There were two creations: All things were made "spiritually" before they
were made "naturally" (Moses 3:5). Through his Son, God is the Creator of multiple
worlds. God is the Father of the human spirits that inhabit his creations. His
creations have no end.
NATURE OF MAN. As eternal intelligence, "man was in the beginning with God"
(D&C 93:29–30). But his unfolding from grace to grace is dependent on the
nurture of God. Because of the gospel and the Atonement, the children of God
are heirs of all the Father has and is, and can become gods themselves (D&C
76:58–61; 84:35–39; 88:107).
Spirit is refined matter. Individual spirits "existed before the body, can
exist in the body; will exist separate from the body, when the body will be
mouldering in the dust; and will in the resurrection be again united with it"
(TPJS, p. 207). Thus, extreme dualism between spirit and matter is rejected.
Man is free to resist or to embrace either the powers of God or those of evil.
God, man, Satan, and his hosts are independent. One cannot force another.
PLAN OF SALVATION. Finding himself in the midst of spirits and glory, God saw
fit to institute laws whereby his children might advance like himself and have
glory upon glory (see Plan of Salvation). "At the first organization in heaven
we were all present, and saw the Savior chosen and appointed and the Plan of
Salvation made, and we sanctioned it" (TPJS, p. 181). Like embraces like
(D&C 88:40); harmonies are restored: knowledge replaces ignorance, sanctity
replaces sin, and life replaces death.
FALL. The Prophet rejected the traditional theory of original sin and returned
to the doctrine of man´s innocence before the Fall. Adam and Eve transgressed,
as planned, to open the way for the contrasting experiences of mortality. The
Fall was not inevitable, but free. All men and women are, in their infant state,
innocent before God. It follows that infant baptism is unnecessary, that accountability
comes later (at the age of eight), and that accountability for sin is personal,
not inherited (D&C 68:25–27; 93:38). One becomes what one chooses to become.
God himself has a body "as tangible as man´s" (D&C 130:22), and the human body
is a temple. "The great principle of happiness consists in having a body" (TPJS,
p. 181, 297). Redemption is of the whole soul, meaning spirit and body.
ATONEMENT. The power of redemption is the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Son
of God. In the unfolding drama, the Son inherited the fulness of the Father;
he was not "eternally begotten," nor were two absolutely unlike natures inherent
in the person of Christ.
The Atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to reconcile the demands of justice
and mercy. Christ responded to this need in a voluntary act, a descent in order
to ascend (D&C 88:6).
Christ could not have known, except by experience, the depths of compassion.
He suffered pains and afflictions and temptations "that his bowels might be
filled with compassion according to the flesh," for only thus could he "succor
his people according to their infirmities" (Alma 7:12). Gethsemane was the place
and time of his most intense suffering for mankind; the cross was its final
hour (D&C 19:16–20; JST Matt. 27:54).
Christ saves men from their sins, not in them. He does not impute righteousness
where there is none. One who seeks to become a law unto himself and abides in
sin cannot be sanctified unless he repents (D&C 88:35).
The infinite Atonement is intended to bring life and redemption to all the
children of the Eternal Father, including those of other worlds who "are saved
by the very same Savior of ours" (T&S 4:82–85).
KNOWLEDGE. Intelligence, as light and truth, is the glory of God (D&C 93:36).
Mind is eternal, with access to the vast reaches of the eternities, and knowledge
is essential to salvation: "One is saved no faster than he gets knowledge" (TPJS,
p. 217); and he gains knowledge of the truths of the gospel no faster than he
is saved-that is, no faster than he receives Christ into his life. "Knowledge
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is the grand key that unlocks the glory
and mysteries of the kingdom of heaven" (TPJS, p. 298). "God hath not
revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and
even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them"
(TPJS, p. 149).
Knowledge of God and divine things comes through the Spirit. Revelation includes
the visible presence, visions, dreams, the visitations of angels and spirits,
impressions, voices, prophetic flashes of inspiration and light, and the flow
of pure intelligence into mind and heart. Such direct communications are essential
to the religious life of every person. At least one gift of the spirit is given
to each person of faith. "It is impossible to receive the Holy Ghost and not
receive revelation" (TPJS, p. 256). "No man can know that Jesus is the
Lord but by the Holy Ghost" (WJS, p. 115). "No generation was ever saved
or destroyed upon dead testimony neither can be; but by living" (WJS,
p. 159). Within limits, these experiences can be verbalized and communicated.
PURPOSE OF LIFE: JOY. "Happiness is the object and design of our existence"
(TPJS, p. 255). "We came to this earth that we might have a body and
present it pure before God in the Celestial Kingdom" (TPJS, p. 181).
Glorified bodies have powers and privileges over those who have not, and to
be denied or separated from the body is bondage. The combination of spirit body
and physical body can maximize joy (D&C 93:33–34).
God´s glory is to work for the benefit of other beings. Likewise, man cannot
find himself until he loses himself in the Christlike desire to elevate, benefit,
and bless others (PWJS, p. 483). Even in mortality, members of the family
of God may begin to experience the joy that will be in full hereafter (TPJS,
TRIALS AND AFFLICTION. Evil and pain are real, losses are real, temptation
is real, overcoming is real. Both risk and reward attend the mortal experience.
These are the conditions of soul growth. God´s purpose is to lift his children,
but he cannot do so without their cooperation; nor can he intervene in a way
that removes the need for experience, even bitter experience. Life is a trial,
a probation: "All these things shall give thee experience" (D&C 122:7). Abraham´s
willingness to sacrifice Isaac was a similitude of the Father´s sacrifice of
his Only Begotten Son. One cannot attain the heirship of the Son without being
willing to sacrifice all earthly things. The overcoming of such trials is the
foundation of perfected love, and until one has perfect love, one is liable
to fall (TPJS, p. 9). The view that all suffering in the world is punishment
for sin is "an unhallowed principle" (TPJS, p. 162). The Saints must
expect to wade through much tribulation, but afflictions may be consecrated
to their gain.
PRIESTHOOD. Priesthood is authority and power centered in Christ. It is conferred
only by tangible ordination, by the laying on of hands of one having authority.
Joseph Smith taught the importance of priesthood keys: Jesus Christ "holds the
keys over all this world" (TPJS, p. 323). John the Baptist, Peter, James,
John, Moses, Elijah, and Elias held various keys of priesthood functions and
restored them to the earth by conferring them upon Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.
Priesthood is not indelible; it can be lost. It is not infallible; only under
the influence of the Spirit can one speak for and with the approval of God.
The opportunity for the fulness of priesthood blessings is conferred on both
men and women when they make and keep unconditional covenants with Jesus Christ
and then with each other as husband and wife (see Fatherhood; Motherhood). In
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith explained and
established the roles of apostles, prophets, bishops, Evangelists, pastors,
teachers, and so on, in analogue to their New Testament functions. He dissolved
the distinction between laity and a priestly class: All priests, teachers, and
administrators are lay people, and all worthy laymen are priesthood holders.
ORDINANCES. Joseph Smith restored and taught a progressive series of ordinances
that confer spiritual enlightenment and power. These ordinances were "instituted
in the heavens before the foundation of the world" (TPJS, p. 308). "Being
born again comes by the Spirit of God through ordinances" (TPJS, p. 162).
All essential ordinances, from baptism to temple marriage, involve prayer, covenant
making, and divine ratification.
TEMPLES. Some ordinances pertain to the holy temple, where "the power of godliness
is manifest" (D&C 84:20). Temples embody and manifest sacred truths, "the mysteries
and peaceable things" (D&C 42:61). They will enable the children of God to overcome
the corruptible elements of their lives and enter the realms of light and fire,
the presence of the Father and the Son. All of the temple functions and powers
are reestablished today, with the authority of the high priesthood: baptism
for the dead, the holy Endowment, and the sealing of families are their essence.
"We need the Temple more than anything else," Joseph Smith taught (Journal
History, May 4, 1844).
All temple ordinances point to Christ. The temple is presently, as it was anciently,
his sanctuary, endowed with his glory, blessed with his name and ultimately
with his presence. Christ is a living temple, and through him one may become
a living temple (D&C 93:35; cf. Rev. 21:22).
MARRIAGE, FAMILY, AND HOME. Reversing the Augustinian tradition that celibacy
is preferable to marriage in this life and universal in the next, the Prophet
taught that the Christlike life reaches its zenith in marriage and parenting.
The greatest prophets and prophetesses are also Patriarchs and matriarchs. The
highest ordinance is marriage, when king and queen begin their eternal family
kingdom: The symbols are ordination, coronation, and sealing.
SOCIAL, ECONOMIC, AND POLITICAL THOUGHT. In the earthly government of God,
a theodemocracy is contemplated: a covenant kingdom led by Jesus Christ, the
benevolent King of Kings. The kingdom of God on earth is to become like Enoch´s
city of Zion, with utopian thought and culture realized in a community of the
Joseph taught a law of stewardship and consecration. All the earth is the Lord´s;
property in Zion is, in effect, held in trust for the establishment of Zion.
In the infancy of the Church, the Saints tried to live this economic system
and failed, foundering on what it was designed to overcome: greed, covetousness,
jealousy. Consequently, the Prophet was instructed to substitute the law of
tithing to prepare the Saints to live this higher law.
"The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded
in the wisdom of God" (TPJS, p. 147). The protections of constitutional
government should extend to all (see Politics: Political Teachings). Wilford
Woodruff recalled Joseph Smith´s saying "that if he were the Emperor of the
world and had control over the whole human family he would sustain every man,
woman and child in the enjoyment of their religion" (Journal History,
Mar. 12, 1897). This would allow, without compulsory means, the growth of a
kingdom of God eventually to be administered in two world capitals, Jerusalem
in the East and the New Jerusalem in the West.
The Church is the body of members who have entered the covenant and formed
a community for the perfecting of its individual members. The living prophets,
seers, and revelators are the authority nucleus of the kingdom of God, but the
Church performs its work in intimate communities: families, wards, and stakes.
RESURRECTION. Eternal family life is perfected only in the highest degree of
God´s Celestial Kingdom. In the resurrection and judgment, each body with few
exceptions (see sons of perdition) will receive a degree of glory. One´s identity
in both spirit and body is secure and eternal. God´s celestial being, perfected
and glorified, is the ideal. The earth itself, having been baptized by water
and then by fire, will die, be resurrected, glorified (D&C 88:25–26), and
rolled back into the presence of God. The beauty, glory, perfection, and powers
of a glorified resurrected body are unspeakable: "No man can describe it to
you—no man can write it" (TPJS, p. 368). "All your losses will be
made up to you in the resurrection provided you continue faithful. By the vision
of the Almighty I have seen it" (TPJS, p. 296).
ESCHATOLOGY. Joseph Smith uttered many prophetic statements about the future.
His eschatology is extensive and inclusive. The gospel will be taught to all
mankind, either on this earth or in the world of the spirits, so that all may
receive it. The family of Abraham, which has permeated all races of men, will
be united. The families of Judah and Joseph will join hands in redemptive fulfillment.
Many of these expectations and realizations are beyond the power of man to achieve
or to impede. The work is "destined to bringing about the destruction of the
powers of darkness, the renovation of the earth, the glory of God, and the salvation
of the human family" (TPJS, p. 232).
TRUMAN G. MADSEN
Burton, Alma P., comp. Discourses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 3rd ed.
Salt Lake City, 1968 (arranged topically).
Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook, eds. The Words of Joseph Smith: The
Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo,
Utah, 1980 (excerpts from 173 addresses).
Roberts, B. H. Joseph Smith: The Prophet Teacher. Salt Lake City, 1908;
rep., Princeton, N.J., 1967.
Smith, Joseph Fielding, comp. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Salt Lake City, 1938 (arranged chronologically).
Widtsoe, John A. Joseph Smith: Seeker After Truth, Prophet of God. Salt
Lake City, 1957.
Writings of Joseph Smith
The Prophet Joseph Smith´s writing career began at age twenty-two when he commenced
translation of the Book of Mormon. At his death seventeen years later, in 1844,
he had left a substantial archive for the study of his life and the church he
was instrumental in founding. In addition to the Book of Mormon, his papers
include diaries covering intermittently the period 1832–1844; correspondence;
reports of discourses; more than 130 revelations, published as the Doctrine
and Covenants; a record of Abraham; a Bible revision, including some restored
writings of Enoch and Moses; and the beginnings of a multivolume documentary
History of the Church based upon his papers.
Several factors influenced and initially limited the extent of Joseph Smith´s
writings and the literary style of his prose. Because of the indigent circumstances
of his family, his formal schooling was very little, the basics of reading,
writing, and arithmetic constituting, so he said, his entire scholastic preparation.
Some who heard him noted that he seemed to have little native talent or training
as a speaker. He felt inadequate as a writer, referring on one occasion to "the
little narrow prison almost as it were total darkness of paper, pen, and ink."
But whatever the Prophet lacked in formal rhetorical training was compensated
for by his message. Beginning in his early life, religious experiences inspired
him with a strong sense of mission that propelled him onto the stage of public
controversy. He saw his mission as laying a foundation that would revolutionize
the whole world, not by sword or gun but by "the power of truth." The articulation
of that truth was the impetus of his writings. Many who heard him were awed
by his ability to make plain the way of life and salvation. Many outsiders found
his views striking and magnetic. His writings carry the same sense of purpose
A study of early Mormon sources indicates that only a fraction of Joseph Smith´s
writings and teachings were preserved. This was the result of haphazard record-keeping
procedures during his early lifetime; the incompetence or untimely death of
some of his clerks; long imprisonments; vexatious and repeated lawsuits; poverty;
and disruptive conditions that forced the migration of the Latter-day Saints
across two-thirds of the American continent.
Joseph Smith´s dependence upon others to write for him also complicates the
record. His philosophy was that "a prophet cannot be his own scribe." Hence,
most of his writings were dictated, and some ghostwritten, but approved and
accepted by him. While the presence of clerical handwriting in his papers helps
date the source material, it does obscure his own image and necessitates a careful
look at the sources for those who would distinguish the Prophet´s mind and personality
from those who assisted him.
Joseph´s writings are characterized by long, unbroken sentences connected by
conjunctions, descriptive images, and an astute narrative sense. As a keen student
of the scriptures, his prose is interspersed with biblical word forms and examples,
and breathes a positive tone, reflecting a sense of vitality and love. His writing
style and personality show up most clearly in his holograph writings. These
show a conversational style, in contrast to the more formal manner of associates
like Sidney Rigdon. Typical of his handwritten prose is this extract from an
1838 letter to his wife Emma written while in jail at Richmond, Missouri: "…Brother
Robison is chained next to me he has a true heart and a firm mind, Brother Whight,
is next, Br. Rigdon, next, Hyram, next, Parely, next Amasa, next, and thus we
are bound together in chains as well as the cords of everlasting love, we are
in good spirits and rejoice that we are counted worthy to be persecuted for
Christ sake, tell little Joseph, he must be a good boy, Father loves him With
a perfect llove, he is the Eldest must not hurt those that Are smaller then
him, but cumfort them tell little Frederick, Father, loves him, with all his
heart, he is a lovely boy. Julia is a lovely little girl, I love hir also She
is a promising child, tell her Father wants her to remember him and be a good
girl, tell all the rest that I think of them and pray for them all,…little baby
Elexander is on my mind continuly Oh my affectionate Emma, I want you to remember
that I am a true and faithful friend, to you and the children, forever, my heart
is intwined around you[r]s forever and ever, oh may God bless you all amen you
I am your husband and am in bands and tribulation &c—" (Jessee, 1984, p.
DEAN C. JESSEE
Works by Joseph Smith:
Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook., comps. and eds. The Words of Joseph
Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph.
Provo, Utah, 1980. A compilation of original reports of Joseph Smith´s discourses
during the Nauvoo years (1839–1844) of his life.
Faulring, Scott H., comp. and ed. An American Prophet´s Record: The Diaries
and Journals of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1987. A compilation of Joseph
Smith´s diaries, but missing his 1842 journal, one of his largest.
Jessee, Dean C., comp. and ed. The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith.
Salt Lake City, 1984. A compilation of all of Joseph Smith´s known holograph
writings and core dictated material.
Jessee, Dean C., comp. and ed. The Papers of Joseph Smith, Vol. 1, Autobiographical
and Historical Writing. Salt Lake City, 1989. The first volume of a comprehensive
edition of Joseph Smith´s papers.
Smith, Joseph, ed. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Period 1. History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself. Introduction and
notes by B. H. Roberts. 2nd ed., 6 vols., Salt Lake City, 1964. Written in the
form of a first-person daily journal, using the text of Joseph Smith´s diaries
interspersed with his correspondence and other documents, this work is the most
extensive publication of the Prophet´s papers to date. Its main limitation is
the outdated editorial treatment of the sources.
Smith, Joseph Fielding, comp. and ed. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Salt Lake City, 1938. A compilation of excerpts from sermons, letters, and other
writings of Joseph Smith taken almost exclusively from History of the Church
and arranged in chronological order.
Jessee, Dean C. "The Writing of Joseph Smith´s History." BYU Studies
11 (Summer 1971):439–73.
King, Arthur Henry. The Abundance of the Heart. Salt Lake City, 1986.
Partridge, Elinore H. "Characteristics of Joseph Smith´s Style." Task Papers
in LDS History, No. 4, 1976. Typescript, LDS Church Archives.
Searle, Howard C. "Early Mormon Historiography: Writing the History of the
Mormons 1830–1858." Ph.D. diss., UCLA, 1979.
Legal Trials of Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith believed that his enemies perverted legal processes, using them
as tools of religious persecution against him, as they had been used against
many of Christ´s apostles and other past martyrs. Although he often gained quick
acquittals, numerous "vexatious and wicked" lawsuits consumed his time and assets,
leading to several incarcerations and ultimately to his martyrdom. Beginning
soon after his ministry began and continuing throughout his life, Joseph Smith
was subjected to approximately thirty criminal actions and at least that many
civil suits related to debt collection or failed financial ventures.
The first charge of being a "disorderly person" involved treasure hunting for
hire, brought against him at South Bainbridge, New York, in 1826 by a disgruntled
Methodist preacher related to Josiah Stowell, Joseph´s employer. When Stowell
refused to testify against him at the trial, Joseph was discharged. In July
1830 in the same venue, Joseph was tried and acquitted by another magistrate
on charges of "being a disorderly person, of setting the county in an uproar
by preaching the Book of Mormon, etc." (HC 1:88). The trial ended at
midnight. The next day, he was seized and tried in neighboring Broome County
on the same charges, as well as charges of casting out a devil and using pretended
angelic visitations to obtain property from others. Following a twenty-three-hour
trial involving some forty witnesses, Joseph was again acquitted (HC
After the Church moved to Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, several religious-based
charges were prosecuted against Smith and other LDS leaders, but were dismissed
on the grounds listed following each charge: assault and battery (self-defense),
performing marriages without a valid license (one was procured), attempted murder
or conspiracy (lack of evidence), and involuntary servitude without compensation
during the Zion´s Camp military crusade to Missouri (won on appeal). In turn,
Church leaders successfully instituted charges and recovered damages for assaults
occurring while they were acting in a religious capacity. However, the financial
Panic of 1837 swamped the Prophet and others with civil debt-collection litigation.
Worse still were suits for violating Ohio banking laws when the Kirtland Safety
Society Anti-Banking Company (see Kirtland Economy) failed soon after it was
organized in 1836 without a state charter. Charges of fraud and self-enrichment
were raised but not proven; a jury conviction was appealed, but Joseph Smith
left Ohio for Missouri before it was heard.
In Missouri, most actions against the Latter-day Saints were extralegal, brought
by non-Mormon vigilantes prejudiced against the Saints´ opposition to slavery,
their collective influx, and Smith´s religious teachings concerning modern revelation
and the territorial establishment of Zion in Jackson County. Civil magistrates
routinely refused to issue peace warrants for Mormons or to redress their personal
injuries or property damage. For example, despite being beaten and tarred and
feathered and having the printing office destroyed, the LDS printer was awarded
less than his legal fees and the Presiding Bishop received "one penny and a
peppercorn." All three branches of state government seemed paralyzed or supportive
of mob action, as the Saints were repeatedly dispossessed and expelled from
county to county.
Finally, election-day violence between Mormons and non-Mormons erupted at Gallatin
in Daviess County, Missouri, on August 6, 1838. Joseph Smith and others called
on Justice of the Peace Adam Black to obtain an "agreement of peace" from Black
to support the law and not attach himself to any mob. This resulted in Joseph
Smith´s and Lyman Wight´s being arrested, based on an affidavit alleging riot
and assault by them, while obtaining the writs from Black (HC 3:61). Smith and
Wight appeared before Judge Austin King and were ordered to appear at the next
hearing of the grand jury in Daviess County (HC 3:73).
On October 25, 1838, Moses Rowland, a Missouri state militiaman, was killed
at the Battle of Crooked River in a clash with a company of Saints who were
attempting to rescue three kidnapped brethren. Upon hearing of this engagement,
coupled with other reports, Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued his infamous Extermination
Order. Joseph and other leading Saints were arrested, and received a preliminary
court hearing before Judge Austin King in Richmond, Missouri, on November 12–29,
1838. Joseph Smith and some other defendants were confined for four and a half
months in Liberty Jail pending a grand jury indictment on such charges as murder,
arson, theft, rebellion, and treason. While en route to stand trial in a more
impartial venue, Joseph and others were allowed to escape, thereby preventing
widespread official embarrassment on the part of the state.
In 1838–1839 the Saints settled in Nauvoo, illinois, after their wrongful
expulsion from Missouri. To avoid the "legal" persecutions suffered in earlier
states, they obtained a liberal city charter for Nauvoo, which granted broad
habeas corpus powers to local courts. These helped to free Joseph Smith and
other Latter-day Saints when they were sought on writs by arresting officers
from outside of Nauvoo. In 1841 state judge Stephen A. Douglas set aside a Missouri
writ to extradite Joseph for charges still pending there, and in 1843 a federal
judge did the same for a similar requisition after the alleged shooting of then
ex-governor Boggs. However, the increasing use of the writ of habeas corpus
by Nauvoo magistrates, preempting even state and federal authority, escalated
distrust among non-Mormons who felt that Joseph Smith considered himself above
The Prophet´s final use of habeas corpus came after his arrest in June 1844
by a county constable for inciting a "riot" by ordering suppression of the Nauvoo
Expositor. This action climaxed a series of lawsuits between the Prophet and
several apostates, who had charged him with perjury and adultery; he had countercharged
with perjury, assault, defamation, and resisting arrest. After a subsequent
trial on the merits and his acquittal in Nauvoo, the governor persuaded the
Prophet to let himself be arrested and tried again for the "riot," this time
in Carthage, where he was incarcerated without bail on a new charge of "treason"
for declaring martial law and ordering out the Nauvoo militia to keep peace.
Joseph Smith´s enemies charged that he was going on the offensive against citizens
of Illinois. Two days later, he and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob in
Even after death, legal trials involving the Prophet continued. Of sixty potential
assassins named before a grand jury, nine were indicted and five stood trial
at Carthage for the murder of Joseph (a separate trial was to follow for the
murder of Hyrum). After a six-day trial, all defendants were acquitted in June
1845 for insufficient evidence. The final legal indignity to Joseph Smith and
the Church in Illinois was a series of federal court decrees in 1851 and 1852
that liquidated all remaining personal and Church assets held by Joseph Smith
during his lifetime, in order to discharge an 1842 default judgment. He had
guaranteed a promissory note to the federal government in an early Nauvoo business
transaction; when the note was unpaid, a succession of lawsuits followed, forestalling
his efforts in bankruptcy and prompting charges of fraud and misconduct. Although
plagued by bad advice and misfortune in business matters, the Prophet was never
found guilty of any misconduct.