Joseph Smith

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Smith, Joseph,

1805–44, American Mormon leader, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, b. Sharon, Vt. When he was a boy his family moved to Palmyra, N.Y., where he experienced the poverty and hardships of life on a rough frontier. He had visions when he was still young and later recorded that he was first told in a vision in 1823 of the existence of secret records, but it was not until 1827 during the Second Great AwakeningGreat Awakening,
series of religious revivals that swept over the American colonies about the middle of the 18th cent. It resulted in doctrinal changes and influenced social and political thought. In New England it was started (1734) by the rousing preaching of Jonathan Edwards.
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 that the hiding place of the records was revealed to him. According to his account, in 1827 he unearthed golden tablets inscribed with sacred writings that he translated. Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and others transcribed these records from his dictation, and the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Further revelations led him to found a new religion after priesthood had been conferred upon him and Cowdery by an "angel." As prophet and seer he founded (1830) his church in Fayette, N.Y. (see Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ ofLatter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of,
name of the church founded (1830) at Fayette, N.Y., by Joseph Smith. The headquarters are in Salt Lake City, Utah. Its members, now numbering about 5.
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The hostility of his neighbors forced him to move his headquarters to Kirtland, Ohio, where with the help of Sidney Rigdon and others he embarked on extensive business affairs. The Panic of 1837 was one of the reasons for removal farther west to Missouri. There the industrious and self-contained members of his faith again ran into difficulties with their neighbors. Smith and others were arrested but escaped, and his faithful followers were driven from Missouri.

Having obtained a favorable charter from Illinois, Smith founded the settlement of NauvooNauvoo
, historic city (1990 pop. 1,108), Hancock co., W Ill., on heights overlooking the Mississippi River; inc. 1841. Situated in an agricultural area where fruit, corn, and soybeans are grown, the city produces wine and cheese, but tourism is the major industry.
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, which soon flourished, thanks to the concerted efforts of the members of his church. He built a religious empire, with more than 12,000 believers. The Mormons wrote a constitution, had their own courts, and established an army with Smith as general. Disaffection also grew, and some dissidents founded a newspaper, the Expositor, in which they bitterly criticized him. He put down the opposition, thereby giving hostile non-Mormons a pretext for attacking him. When in 1844 he announced himself as candidate for the presidency of the United States, his enemies moved against him. He and his brother Hyrum were arrested on charges of treason and conspiracy. They were lodged in the jail at Carthage, Ill., and there on June 27, 1844, they were murdered by a mob.

The revelations experienced by Smith—including one enjoining plural marriage, which later caused the Mormons much trouble—were the foundation stones of a faith that after his death grew to be one of the great religions of the United States. Because he was a highly controversial figure, the literature on him is also controversial, and the Mormon church itself did not issue an official acknowledgment of Smith's multiple marriages until 2014.


See biographies by L. Smith (1908, repr. 1969), F. M. Brodie (1954, repr. 1995), R. V. Remini (2002), and R. L. Bushman (2005); studies by R. L. Anderson (1971), R. L. Bushman (1984), A. Beam (2014), and B. E. Park (2020).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

Smith, Joseph

(1805–44) religious leader; born in Sharon, Vt. He moved to New York state with his parents in 1816 and received his first "call" as a prophet four years later, at age 15, when he claimed that God confided in him the first of several revelations of the true Christianity. In 1823 an angel told him of a hidden gospel on golden plates, with accompanying stones that would enable him to translate the text from "reformed Egyptian." On September 22, 1827, these records were delivered to him. He published them as The Book of Mormon in 1830 and organized the Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) in April of that year. Despite ridicule, hostility, and occasional violence, Smith's sect gained converts. In 1831 the Mormons established a headquarters in Ohio and later built a community called Zion in Missouri. After an anti-Mormon uprising in Missouri in 1838, Smith founded the community of Nauvoo in Illinois; by the early 1840s nearly 20,000 Mormons had settled there. Meanwhile, Smith introduced the custom of polygamy, and when he announced he would run for the presidency in 1844, he and his brother Hyrum Smith were imprisoned. On June 27 a mob of 150 men broke into the jail at Carthage, Ill., and shot them both dead. The Mormons thereafter migrated westward to Utah under Smith's successor, Brigham Young.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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The small percentage of church members who practiced polygamy did so because Joseph Smith, Joseph F.
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