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Who is Joseph Smith?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 17, 2024
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Joseph Smith Jr. was the founder and first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Son of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont on 23 December 1805. He is considered a prophet of God by his followers, also known as Mormons, and is known by history to be an influential and charismatic leader.

Although Joseph Smith was brought up religious, his family had not settled on a particular organized religion. During his youth and adolescence, the area of New York was a hotbed of religious discussion and the home of many religious revivals. It was often referred to as the “burned over” district because it had been so saturated with religious groups proselytizing for new members. Although he was drawn to the Methodist church, Joseph Smith was quite confused over his choices and could not settle on a particular church.

At the age of 14, in 1820, after much study of the Bible, Joseph Smith followed a particular scripture and decided to pray for an answer to his dilemma. In a grove of trees near his family’s home, Smith claims that he was visited by God and his son, Jesus Christ. He was instructed to join none of the churches. This visitation is called the “First Vision” by followers.

Over subsequent years, the Latter Day Saints believe that Joseph Smith was visited by angels and messengers from God with further instructions as to how to “restore” Christ’s original gospel to the earth. Through these visions and visitations, Joseph Smith is said to have been led to a set of gold plates that held the ancient writings of the former inhabitants of the Americas. These writings held the record of their experience with God and Jesus Christ. In 1827, Joseph Smith undertook the translation of the plates, using “the power of God.” The resulting work, which was to become the cornerstone of the Mormon’s cannon of scripture, was published as The Book of Mormon in March of 1830.

During this time, Joseph Smith met and married Emma Hale, who was supportive of her husband’s endeavors, even serving as a scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon. They had nine children together and adopted two. Only five survived past infancy.

On 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith, along with several followers, established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with Smith as president. Proselytizing began in earnest, and the church developed a following. Along with the increasing numbers came increasing opposition, and as a result, the rest of Joseph Smith’s days were plagued by persecution. Smith led the Mormons to Kirtland, Ohio, then Independence, Missouri, and finally to Nauvoo, Illinois. Under Smith, all of these communities became thriving towns and drew new converts from all over the world, until the members were driven out by angry mobs, often with the help of government leaders.

Among Joseph Smith’s accomplishments is his contribution to the church’s scriptures, the dispatching of missionaries around the world and the organization and leadership of Nauvoo’s militia. Detractors criticized and questioned Joseph Smith’s legitimacy and were threatened by the growing strength and wealth of the Latter Day Saint community.

On 27 June, 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum, while being held in a jail in Carthage, Illinois on charges of treason, were assassinated by an angry mob that had gathered outside. There was little to no government protection offered to the Smiths and their fellow prisoners, and the mob easily gained access. While many do not believe that Smith was a legitimate prophet of God, he had an undeniable impact on modern religion and the United States. His “restored” gospel of Christ currently has over 12 million followers worldwide.

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