For one who had little schooling, Joseph Smith left an unusually extensive literary record. From 1828, when he began work on the Book of Mormon at age twenty-two, to 1844, when he was killed at age thirty-eight, Smith produced thousands of pages of revelations, translations, correspondence, declarations, discourses, journals, and histories. His records will fill approximately thirty volumes when publication is complete. The goal of the Joseph Smith Papers Project is to publish every extant document written by Smith or by his scribes in his behalf, as well as other records that were created under his direction or that reflect his personal instruction or involvement.
The publication of his papers some two hundred years after his birth opens a window on a life filled with what Joseph Smith called “marvilous experience.” His rise from obscurity to prominence as the founder and first prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not follow a conventional path. Though he was intelligent and strong willed, no ordinary talent can account for his success. His rise as church leader, city builder, and theologian rested on what he believed was a gift of revelation, by which he meant direct communication from God in the form of visions into heaven, heavenly visitors, or more commonly the words of God coming through direct inspiration. Controversial as his claims were, the revelations were the source of his influence among the tens of thousands of people who joined the church while he was alive and the millions who accepted his teachings after his death. Hundreds of pages of revelations accumulated over his lifetime. His major projects, plans, and doctrines originated in revelation. His followers complied with his often-demanding directions largely because they believed them to be from God. When Joseph Smith asked , an early follower, to be church historian, Whitmer initially refused and finally agreed only if the Lord would “manifest it through Joseph the Seer.”
The revelations ranged from mundane directions for keeping a history or opening a store to visions of heaven and the future. One of the most dramatic revelations came in 1832 when Smith and his associate were puzzling over a biblical passage that raised questions about rewards and punishments in the afterlife.
And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings, and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about; and we beheld the glory of the Son, on the right hand of the Father, and received of his fulness. . . . And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him, that he lives; for we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the only begotten of the Father.
The revelation went on to describe a hereafter divided into three degrees of glory, more finely graded than the usual heaven-or-hell division and more in accord with the mixture of good and evil in actual life. The revelations thrilled believers. , a newspaper editor converted a year after the church was organized, called the revelation on the three degrees of glory “the greatest news that was ever published to man.” A meeting of Latter-day Saints making publication plans voted that the revelations “be prized by this Conference to be worth to the Church the riches of the whole Earth. speaking temporally.”
The revelations derived their credibility partly from the prophetic traditions of the Bible. Joseph Smith moved into a role well known to Christians. He was another Moses or Paul. To most Christians, the Bible stood above all other books precisely because it was the word of God to prophets. Now, the Mormons claimed, God spoke again. One early convert to the church approached the preaching of Mormon missionaries skeptically but then reasoned:
I found, on searching the Scriptures, that from the commencement of time, through every age, God continued to send prophets to the people, and always when God had a message for the people, he chose a special messenger to send it by, and it was always headed with a “thus saith the Lord.” . . . If he supplied every other age and people with prophets and special messengers, why not this?
The presence of a modern prophet brought biblical history into the present.
Along with the modern-day revelations that later were compiled into a book titled the Doctrine and Covenants, Smith produced three major revealed “translations”: the Book of Mormon (from gold plates), the book of Moses (linked to Genesis), and the book of Abraham (from ancient Egyptian scrolls purchased from a dealer). The three purported to be English renditions of ancient records that, like the Bible, told of events in a distant time and place. Although termed “translations,” they were not translations in the ordinary sense. Smith did not understand the languages of the original text and convert the words to English through his own learning. As he put it in the preface to the first edition of the Book of Mormon, “I translated, by the gift and power of God.” The resulting “translations” were as much inspired texts, words given him of God, as the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.
The persuasiveness of the translations for early converts came partly from the confidence with which Joseph Smith introduced readers into ancient worlds without injecting himself into the story. The Book of Mormon opens with the phrase “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father”; the book of Moses begins, “The words of God which he spake unto Moses at a time when Moses was caught up into an exceeding high Mountain”; and the book of Abraham starts, “In the land of the Chaldeans, at the residence of my father, I, Abraham, saw that it was needful for me to obtain another place of residence.” Readers are transported to remote times and places as they are when reading Beowulf or Thucydides—or the Bible. In the book of Moses, the reader learns of Enoch, who conversed with God and built a city that was taken into heaven. In the book of Abraham, the father of nations learns astronomy by consulting a Urim and Thummim. However one accounts for these marvelous narratives, they exceed anything one would expect from a poorly educated rural visionary. They are one reason for Yale literary critic Harold Bloom’s comment that Smith was “an authentic religious genius” who “surpassed all Americans, before or since, in the possession and expression of what could be called the religion-making imagination.” Latter-day Saints, of course, consider the translations to have come from God.
The origins of the translations are not easily identified to everyone’s satisfaction. Smith had little education and no history of literary experimentation. Indeed, nothing in his background prepared him either to translate or to lead a church. He brought neither wealth, social position, nor education to his work.
Joseph Smith’s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel Smith, a third-generation New Englander, held local political offices in Topsfield, Massachusetts, a village just north of , but died with his estate insolvent. His son Asael Smith migrated to Vermont and opened farms for his sons, allowing Joseph Smith’s father and mother, and , to begin married life with substantial acreage and fair prospects. Joseph Sr. had the enterprise to open a store and export ginseng root to China at the moment when Yankee merchants, released from the constrictions of the British mercantile system, were sending ships around the globe. But by requiring him to go into debt, the trading ventures—and the dishonesty of a business partner—led to his financial downfall. He lost his farm and for the next fourteen years worked rented land to support his family.
Joseph Smith Jr. was born 23 December 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, the fifth of eleven children. The Smith family moved every few years during his boyhood until about 1816, when they migrated to , New York, a town along the future route of the Erie Canal. Here they contracted for a farm in the adjacent township of and began clearing the land, but even the combined efforts of a large family were insufficient to hold on to the farm. The Smiths made the mistake of beginning a frame house to replace their log house, and when the added expense made it impossible to make payments on their farm, the owners foreclosed.
Because of the family’s financial situation, Joseph Jr. acquired no more than a few years of schooling during the rare periods when his family could spare him from work. Indicative of the family’s aspirations, his older brother attended Moor’s Charity School at Dartmouth, but Joseph was not so fortunate in his education. He was further disadvantaged by lacking a church. His parents’ families on both sides had lost touch with the Congregational churches of New England. Grandfather Asael Smith, though ostensibly a Congregationalist, sympathized with Universalist doctrines. lost confidence in the integrity of churches altogether. He had dreams about wandering in the wilderness in search of peace and salvation. When his wife, , joined the Presbyterians in , he refused to attend.
was more amenable to churchgoing than was . Her mother, Lydia Gates Mack, was the daughter of a Congregational deacon. Her father, Solomon Mack, though he lived without religion most of his life, finally converted to Christianity in his old age. Her brother Jason became a “seeker,” as she called him—one who was searching for true religion. Early in her life, after passing through a distressing illness, Lucy tried to find a church but could not connect with the right pastor. When she finally affiliated with the Presbyterians in , three of her children— , , and —attended with her. Joseph Jr. stayed home with his father.
In their search for contact with the divine, the Smiths were susceptible to the folk magic still flourishing in rural in the early nineteenth century. Harboring the perpetual hope of the poor for quick riches, searched for lost treasure, often with the help of Joseph Jr. Like many of their neighbors, the family combined the use of divining rods and seer stones with conventional forms of Christian worship. In his early twenties, Joseph Jr. had to extricate himself from the local band of treasure seekers before he could focus on his calling to translate the Book of Mormon.
Even though connected to a church only intermittently, the Smiths were religious. They read the Bible together, and as a young man Joseph Jr. felt the need for personal salvation. He was frustrated by the denominational chaos of the early republic, which was nowhere more confusing than in the highly evangelized “burned-over district” where the Smiths lived. The repeated visits of revival preachers kept religious concern at a high pitch, but the strife of contending voices made it difficult to know where to turn for instruction. The split within the family compounded Joseph Jr.’s confusion. Was he to follow into the Presbyterian church or join in abstention? Amid the war of words, he later wrote, he could find no answer to the question “Who of all these parties are right?”
In 1820, in a solitary place where his family had been clearing land, he prayed for an answer. According to his account, he was at first unable to speak as an unseen force nearly overcame him. Then, mustering his strength, he called upon God and saw two persons, the Father and the Son, in “a pillar of light.” One told him that he was forgiven of his sins and, in answer to his query, said that he should join none of the churches; they had “a form of Godliness” but lacked godly power. A world overrun with churches was bereft of true religion.
In 1823, three years after his first vision, Joseph Smith was again visited by a messenger from heaven. As Smith retold the story later, while praying for forgiveness one night he noticed a light appearing in his room. In a moment, a white-robed angel stood in the air before him. The angel introduced himself as Moroni and spoke of the record of a people who dwelt anciently on the American continents. Moroni, Smith was to learn, was the last in a long line of prophets in the Western Hemisphere who had written their story, just as the prophets in Palestine had written the Bible. Smith would find the book, he was told, inscribed on gold plates buried in a hill near his house in . His task was to translate the record. In 1827 he obtained possession of the plates, and in 1828 he began the translation with the aid of an interpreting instrument, later called a Urim and Thummim, consisting of two stones set in a bow and attached to a breastplate. His wife, , whom he married in January 1827, was the first to take down his dictation, followed by others such as the young schoolteacher .
The Book of Mormon
In March 1830, Joseph Smith published the 584-page Book of Mormon, an unusual beginning for a life as a minister of the gospel. No other religious career in Smith’s time began this way. Others of his generation claimed visions, but none published a “translation” or wrote a parallel Bible. Charles G. Finney, an apprentice lawyer in Adams, New York, claimed to see a vision of Christ at the time of his conversion in 1821, but Finney immediately began preaching; he went on to become the most influential evangelical preacher of his generation. Other budding religious reformers took the same path, moving from visionary to preacher. Joseph Smith, instead of communicating with the world through sermons, made his entrance onto the religious stage with the translation of a large book of ancient records. Though not widely read himself, he instinctively sensed the increasing potency of print in disseminating religious knowledge.
The publication of the Book of Mormon plunged Joseph Smith into immediate controversy. Even before the book was published, his neighbors pledged not to purchase it, hoping to discourage printers from finishing the job. The Palmyrans thought the book was a scheme to swindle the gullible. One acquaintance later claimed Smith had put white sand in his frock and told his family it was the gold plates. Smith’s refusal to show the plates to curious inquirers encouraged such speculations. Though never able to silence the critics, he did have an answer to their questions about the plates. Eleven of his friends and family members said they saw the plates and agreed to have their testimonies printed in the back of the Book of Mormon.
Apart from its origins, the book itself was contested. Some early readers were enthralled. One convert, , said after obtaining a copy, “I read all day; eating was a burden, I had no desire for food; sleep was a burden when the night came, for I preferred reading to sleep.” Others were more skeptical. The Reformed Baptist theologian hypothesized that Smith had cobbled the text together from bits and pieces of cultural information swirling about him in . Campbell wrote, “This prophet Smith, through his stone spectacles, wrote on the plates of Nephi, in his book of Mormon, every error and almost every truth discussed in for the last ten years.” Campbell was referring to the book’s sermons, prophecies, and discourses on doctrine, but his explanation could not account for the extensive narrative tying the religious passages together.
The Book of Mormon is an elaborate, thousand-year history of a civilization that flourished and then collapsed more than fourteen hundred years before Joseph Smith published the book. In its ambitious scope, the Book of Mormon most resembles the Bible. The first hostile reports immediately called it the “Gold Bible,” partly because of the echoes of King James English in the prose. The text begins with the flight of two Israelite families from Jerusalem in about 600 BC and ends with the destruction of their civilization in about AD 421. The text is divided into “books” named for prophets, similar to the prophetic books of the Bible, and tells stories of God’s intervention in human affairs. In a reprise of the New Testament, Christ appears to these people after his resurrection and teaches the Christian gospel. Although many New England writers of Smith’s generation tried to produce scripture-like writing, the literary historian Lawrence Buell has pointed out that none succeeded in completing more than a few fragments of inspired poetry. “The new Bible did not get written,” he says, “unless one counts The Book of Mormon.”
Though like the Bible in many respects, the Book of Mormon is not a copy. It introduces scores of distinctive characters and tells dozens of original stories about the struggle to establish a righteous society. The account, which takes place largely in the Western Hemisphere, where the migrating families arrive by ship, re-creates an economy, a culture, a political system, a military, and a church. The complexity of the story and the scene makes it difficult to sustain the hypothesis that the Book of Mormon merely imitates the Bible or that, as argued, the uneducated Joseph Smith pulled together snatches of theological and political controversy to patch the book together. Considering that Smith dictated the bulk of the book in less than three months, it is perhaps the most notable example of untutored genius in all of American history.
To account for the narrative complexity, critics soon began to hypothesize the existence of another author. In 1834, , a newspaper editor writing from , Ohio, near Mormon headquarters in , argued that the Book of Mormon was derived from the work of Solomon Spalding (or Spaulding), a Dartmouth graduate, then dead, who had been fascinated with the history of the American Indians. Spalding had written a romance about a Roman legate to Great Britain who was cast ashore on the North American coast and lived among the native inhabitants for several years. Although Spalding’s manuscript was not published, his friends thought they remembered characters resembling those in the Book of Mormon. Howe speculated that Joseph Smith’s learned associate had seen Spalding’s manuscript, transformed it into the Book of Mormon, and somehow smuggled it to Smith.
The theory fell apart when the Spalding manuscript was discovered in the 1880s and found to bear only a faint resemblance to the Book of Mormon., the Brahmin who visited Joseph Smith in , Illinois, in 1844 and later read Spalding, saw no comparison between Spalding’s “tedious romance” and the Book of Mormon. In recent years, the preponderance of non-Mormon scholarly opinion has returned to ’s theory of an ingenious Smith writing the book himself.
The debate over the Book of Mormon’s origins has partially obscured the actual nature of the text. Critics have been so absorbed in proving or disproving the book’s historical authenticity that the literary and theological qualities have been relatively neglected. The authoritative Cambridge History of American Literature makes virtually no mention of the book. But even at first glance, it is evident that the Book of Mormon is first and foremost a work of intense piety. Long before Jesus is born, Christ figures in sermons and visions. The urgency of the preaching comes through in passage after passage. Jacob, son of the patriarch in the founding family, exhorts his people to believe:
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, I beseech of you in words of soberness, that ye would repent, and come with full purpose of heart, and cleave unto God as he cleaveth unto you. . . . Will ye reject the words of the Prophets? and will ye reject all the words which have been spoken concerning Christ, after that so many have spoken concerning him?
The pleading, exhorting, and promising continue down through the final prophet, Moroni, writing four centuries after the birth of Christ:
Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is his grace sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ.
The text is saturated with Christian faith, a side of Joseph Smith’s mentality sometimes overlooked by biographers drawn to the more sensational episodes in his life.
On 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith organized a handful of followers into the Church of Christ, later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But that was only the first of Smith’s complex religious projects. Less than six months after the church’s organization, he sent out missionaries to locate a site for a city that the revelations called the “City of Zion” or “New Jerusalem,” evoking powerful imagery from the Revelation of John. The city was to be a gathering place for his followers, a refuge from the calamities of the last days, and the place for a temple. Here Christ was to come when he returned to the earth. In summer 1831, Smith traveled to , on the western edge of American settlement, where a revelation designated the little village of , Jackson County, as the site for the city.
Sometime in that year, Joseph Smith realized it was his mission, at whatever cost, to lay “the foundation” of the city of Zion. In the years to come, he tried in , Missouri, and when defeated, went on to , Missouri, and , Illinois. He pursued the building of the city of Zion to the exclusion of more conventional programs like the construction of chapels for church members in the towns where they already lived. Distributed in smaller numbers, his followers would have been less threatening to their neighbors and probably less subject to persecution. But Smith never constructed a typical meetinghouse for ordinary worship. He gave himself entirely to cities and temples. This vision drove him until the end of his life; and after his death the same vision inspired Mormon settlement in the Great Basin.
Building cities was a strange mission for a person reared in the rural villages of New England and . When Smith drafted a plat for the city of Zion in 1833, it called for fifteen to twenty thousand residents—a major city in those days, considering that had fewer than seven thousand residents and , the largest city in the West, fewer than thirty thousand. He envisioned missionaries shepherding converts to Zion, where each family would receive an inheritance of land and have access to the temple for spiritual instruction. His answer to the failings of American society was to gather believers out of the world and organize them into a community where the poor were cared for and everyone stood on an equal material plane. When one city filled up, others were to be laid out until, as he said, the world was filled with cities of Zion.
The Zion project imparted a material, practical side to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism that has persisted to the present. The plat drawing specified the width of the streets and the size of the lots for a city that in biblical literature was an ethereal creation of the heavens, descending from the sky at the last day. Smith’s faith in scripture was literal in wanting to embody visions that most Christians thought were purely ideals. He had a sense of making heaven on earth. Later in life he said, “That same sociality. which exists amongt us here. will exist among us there only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” In that spirit, one revelation specified a dietary code forbidding the use of tobacco and liquor and recommending grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables, coupling these prescriptions with a high promise, in part echoing Isaiah:
And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel, and marrow to their bones and shall find wisdom, and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.
His was a religion of the body as well as the spirit.
All of this makes it difficult to situate Joseph Smith’s restored gospel among the religions of its time. The gathering to Zion seems to place Joseph Smith among the communitarian reformers. At the same time, he was certainly a millenarian. Because Smith adhered to New Testament organizational patterns, such as appointing twelve apostles, his Church of Christ has been classed with the “restorationist” churches, such as ’s Disciples of Christ, which aimed to strip away every historical accumulation until only a perfectly reformed New Testament church remained. Although all are applicable in part, no single category is completely satisfactory. While paralleling other restorations in emphasizing faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost as fundamentals of salvation, Smith went beyond them in dispensing scripture like Peter or Paul. The claim to revelation appalled Campbell, who sought only to restore the forms and teachings of early Christianity, not the revelatory powers of the first apostles.
Other restorationists were baffled by Joseph Smith’s return to Old Testament principles such as priesthood and the gathering of Israel. Most Protestants thought that Old Testament priesthood had ended with Christ, the great high priest of salvation. More immediately, Protestants associated priesthood with Roman Catholicism and the oppressive old regimes of Europe. Heedless of the negative associations, Smith’s revelations included ordinations to Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. Male converts to Mormonism could not only be appointed to the office of elder, a New Testament title, but could also be made high priests, a title right out of the Old Testament. Moreover, beginning in 1836, these priesthood holders underwent “washings” and “anointings” in the , echoing the prescriptions for ordaining priests in Exodus. The revelations spoke of the “restoration of all things,” which was interpreted to include not only the New Testament church as Christ established it but the temple and all its associated ordinances. In , the earlier temple rituals evolved into an elaborate course of instruction called the endowment, which led men and women through the course of life from the Creation and Fall to the return to God. All this gave a ritualistic, ceremonial quality to Joseph Smith’s restoration quite out of keeping with the radical Protestant background of many converts.
Smith’s various initiatives—city building, priesthood, and temples—were shaken at regular intervals by devastating persecutions. In 1833, two years after the city of Zion was begun in , Missouri, the Latter-day Saints were expelled and required to start all over. In 1838, Smith and his followers in , Ohio, were forced out of that area and moved to , Missouri, where his followers were forming another Zion. In 1838 and 1839, they were expelled when the ’s extermination order compelled Mormon withdrawal. Their next resort, , Illinois, begun in 1839, grew into the largest Mormon city to that point, with ten to twelve thousand inhabitants—until the Mormons were driven out and began the trek to what would become Utah. The pattern was unrelenting: Mormons gathered until their enemies forced them out, requiring them to begin still another city.
One of the perplexities of Mormonism is why a religion formed in was so constantly in conflict with the society around it. Why could no American community tolerate the Latter-day Saints’ presence for more than a few years? In each instance of persecution, particular local complaints contributed to the enmity. The Missourians suspected the predominantly Yankee Mormons of encouraging the immigration of free blacks. Others accused the Saints of conniving with Indians to slaughter white settlers because of Book of Mormon prophecies about the ultimate redemption of America’s aborigines. In Illinois, Mormons were accused of counterfeiting, thieving, and being clannishly exclusive.
But one issue underlay all the local concerns: Mormonism and democratic government clashed. Joseph Smith’s enemies feared that he thought himself above the law. They believed that because his revelations came first, he would sacrifice obedience to worldly government. He was determined, they were sure, to build his kingdom by force if necessary. There were few specific instances of his actually breaking the law, though he wearied of what he called “vexatious lawsuits” brought for payment of debt and once declared in open meeting that he would stand for it no more. But he went to court anyway, scores of times, assuring government officials he was submissive to legal processes.
Nothing he did could allay suspicion. Smith’s claim to revelation by its very nature conflicted with democracy. There was always the question of which took precedence, the voice of the people acting through democratic government or the voice of God speaking through his prophet. Roman Catholics, with their belief in the pope’s infallibility, were entangled in the same conflict. Smith assured the world he had no intention of breaking the law, and a revelation admonished his followers to submit to legal proceedings. But the potential for conflict was always there, and in the case of plural marriage, Smith did put his revelation first. A committee of Illinois anti-Mormons summed up the prevailing reasoning. “A certain class of people have obtruded themselves upon us,” the committee reported, who have assumed “the sacred garb of Christianity.”
We find them yielding implicit obedience to the ostensible head and founder of this sect, who is a pretended Prophet of the Lord. . . .
We believe that such an individual, regardless as he must be, of his obligations to God, and at the same time entertaining the most absolute contempt for the laws of man, cannot fail to become a most dangerous character, especially when he shall have been able to place himself at the head of a numerous horde, either equally reckless and unprincipled as himself, or else made his pliant tools by the most absurd credulity that has astonished the world since its foundation.
That was the essential anti-Mormon argument: a pretended prophet, who put himself above the law, leading a horde of unprincipled or credulous believers. The political implications were obvious. As Mormon numbers grew, one newspaper editor warned, the Mormons would “give to Revelation the balance of power in the District.”
Mormons, on the other hand, felt that they had been repeatedly “deprived of our rights & privileges as citizenship driven from town to town place to place State to State, with the sacrifice of our homes & lands & our Blood been shed & many murdered” and never given justice. The Mormons could not forget the long string of abuses they had suffered at the hands of mobs. After their expulsion from , they vowed that they would never be subjected to such abuses again. In Illinois, they negotiated a strong city charter as a form of protection against further persecution and organized a state-sanctioned militia, the Nauvoo Legion, to withstand attack. Over and over, they rehearsed the horrible tale of their sufferings, certain the manifest injustice of their treatment would evoke sympathy and bring redress. But few came to their aid. Governor of Illinois explained why. A democratic government, he wrote, is helpless to defend an unpopular group: “The people cannot be used to put down the people.”
The Mormons magnified the critics’ fears by arming themselves and resorting to judicial maneuvers their enemies considered illegal. It did not help that the temperature of Mormon rhetoric rose to match that of their enemies. Fearing mobs were forming in Illinois like those that had expelled the Mormons from , Joseph Smith let loose his anger and frustration. He had taken more than he could tolerate. “The time has come when forbearance is no longer a virtue,” he declared. “If you are again taken unlawfully you are at liberty to give loose to Blood and Thunder.” The Mormons would not attack, but neither would they sit still if mobs came after them again.
This language and the combination of powers bestowed on Mormons by the charter inflamed their enemies. By building up the Nauvoo Legion to thousands of men, Smith appeared to his enemies as a prophet armed. Using the Nauvoo Municipal Court to protect himself from arrest made him seem to set himself above the law. His acquisition of the major offices in the city, the courts, and the militia, as well as in the church, opened him to charges of megalomania. By 1844, hundreds of citizens from nearby towns were ready to invade Nauvoo and drive the Mormons out.
His enemies may have feared Joseph Smith all the more because he was formidable personally. , soon to be the mayor of , visited in spring 1844 with Charles Francis Adams, son of former American president . Quincy compared Smith to the Rhode Island congressman Elisha Potter, who had impressed Quincy in . Quincy said both Smith and Potter “were of commanding appearance, men whom it seemed natural to obey,” who emanated “a certain peculiar moral stress and compulsion which I have never felt in the presence of others of their countrymen.” Peter Burnett, one of Smith’s attorneys in the aftermath of the war and later governor of California, saw the steel in his client’s character. “He possessed the most indomitable perseverance,” Burnett wrote after watching Smith’s conduct in prison. He “deemed himself born to command, and he did command.” By comparison, church counselor , though a man of superior education and fine appearance, “did not possess the native intellect of Smith, and lacked his determined will.”
Joseph Smith seems rarely to have been intimidated. , one of the better-educated early converts, was impressed that when Smith entertained callers “of almost all professions—Doctors, Lawyers Priests,” he
was always equal to the occasion, and perfectly master of the situation; and, possessed the power to make every body realize his superiority, which they evinced in an unmistakable manner. I could clearly see that Joseph was the captain, no matter whose company he was in, Knowing the meagerness of his education, I was truly gratified, at seeing how much at ease he always was, even in the company of the most scientific, and the ready off hand manner in which he would answer their questions.
Joseph Smith may have tried for the upper hand because of a sensitivity to insult. He came from a social class that bore the onus of contempt almost as a way of life. Poor tenant farmers like the Smiths were looked down upon as shiftless and crude. The ridicule that followed his stories of revelation may have magnified his unease and led him to compensate with abrasive behavior and brave flourishes. He clung to his military title in the Nauvoo Legion as a badge of honor and expected recognition of his standing. When slighted, he would lash back. As , a great admirer, said, “Criticism even by his associates was rarely acceptable & contradiction would rouse in him the Lion at once for by no one of his fellows would he be superseded.”
Against his enemies he was adamant. , the vitriolic editor of the Warsaw Signal, received a hot burst from Smith after publishing an editorial critical of the Mormons. Upon reading the piece, Smith canceled his subscription:
Mr. Sharp, Editor of the Warsaw Signal:
Sir--You will discontinue my paper--its contents are calculated to pollute me, and to patronize the filthy sheet--that tissue of lies--that sink of iniquity--is disgraceful to any mortal man. Yours, with utter contempt,
P.S. Please publish the above in your contemptible paper.
Although Smith was perpetually caught up in controversy, strife pained him. His ideal for the city of Zion was for all to be “of one heart and of one mind.” In a letter from the in , he described himself perfectly when he advocated “reproving be-times with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and then showing forth afterwords an increas of love.” He dreamed of a society filled with love and peace. The anger and hatred the Mormons suffered was exactly the opposite of his own vision. During the expulsion of Mormons from in winter 1838–1839, he was kept under prison guard for five months, charged with treason for having resisted attack. During those months, Smith meditated on the evils of power—in society and within the church. He had “learned by sad experiance,” he wrote to the Saints, “that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men as soon as they get a little auth[o]rity as they [s]uppose they will imediately begin to [e]xercise unritious dominion.” He wanted it otherwise.
[No power or influence] can or ought to be maintained [b]y v[i]rtue of the Priesthood only by persuasion by long suffering by gentleness and meekness and by love unfaigned by kindness by pure knowledge which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and with out guile reproving be-times with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and then showing forth afterwords an increas of love toward him whom thou hast reproved lest he esteem the[e] [to] be his enimy.
Joseph Smith’s overflowing affection for his people was one reason for their loyalty. He entered long exclamations of gratitude in his diary when the Latter-day Saints cut wood for him in the winter, and he often laid his hands on his clerks’ heads to give them personal blessings. “Fri[e]ndship,” he told his people, “is the gr[a]nd fundamental prniple [principle] of Mormonism, to revolution[ize] [and] civilize the world.— pour forth love.” In prison following the war, chained to six of his companions in two-foot intervals, Smith wrote cheerily to :
is chained next to me he has a true heart and a firm mind, , is next, , next, , next, , next, , 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 persicuted for christ sake.
In the same letter he wrote to his wife and children:
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 I am your husband and am in bands and tribulation.
Sadly, in the end, the bands between the couple were tried to the breaking point.
At times revelation became a burden as well as a blessing, at no time more than when plural marriage was revealed. Plural marriage was the final component of the logic of restoration. Smith had prayed for an understanding of Old Testament polygamy and was commanded to do the “works of Abraham.” Although he hated adultery and was deeply loyal to his wife , he believed he was to take additional wives as had the ancient patriarchs. He went about it carefully, one woman at a time, usually approaching her relatives first and going through a prescribed wedding ceremony. During his lifetime, he was married to approximately thirty women. Although conjugal relations were apparently involved, he spent little time with these women, the need for secrecy and the demands on his time keeping them apart. At first aghast at what her husband was doing, Emma eventually agreed to a few of the plural marriages but then pulled back. She oscillated between hesitant submission and outright opposition to the practice, but according to Maria Jane Johnston Woodward, who worked for a time as a servant in the Smith household, Emma told her, “The principle of plural marriage is right. . . . [I]t is from our Father in Heaven.” After her husband’s death, Emma refused to go west, where plural marriage would be practiced. She never admitted to her children that their father had been involved.
To add to his unpopularity, in the final six months of his life Joseph Smith set out on a course of political action that outraged his critics. In January 1844, he announced his candidacy for president of the and a few months later organized a shadow government called the Kingdom of God, which may have been envisioned as a prototype of Christ’s millennial government of the earth. Whether or not he believed he could win the presidency, he spoke optimistically, as candidates do in the beginning of a campaign. Certainly his patience with government had run out. The Mormons had been abused many times with no compensation for confiscated property from any level of government, and in 1844 they felt the tide of hatred rising again. Smith could not understand why the Constitution did not compel the government to protect the rights of Mormons. His platform defended all downtrodden people of his time: slaves, whom he felt should be purchased from their masters with revenues from public lands; prisoners held under cruel and unsanitary conditions; court-martialed soldiers; and sailors, whose suffering at the hands of tyrannical ship captains was attracting the sympathy of reformers. To all, he promised justice.
One close associate said after a meeting to organize the Kingdom of God, “It seems like heaven began on earth, and the power of God is with us.” But Joseph Smith’s enemies in the church and the surrounding towns could see nothing noble in his program. A number of onetime believers, some who had been high in the church’s hierarchy, took plural marriage as evidence that he had fallen as a prophet. They organized to remove him from office and return the church to its pre-polygamy and pre–Kingdom of God course. When they published a newspaper to rally the opposition, Smith, fearful the paper would incite mob violence, had the press shut down by city authorities and destroyed. Nearby citizens were infuriated. When Smith went to , the county seat, for trial, a mob attacked him in jail. He was shot through an open window, fell to the ground, and died on 27 June 1844.
Joseph Smith’s Place in History
From the viewpoint of the present, what is the significance of this charismatic and forceful man? His claims to direct revelation put him too far beyond the pale of conventional Christianity to be taken seriously while he was alive; outside of Latter-day Saint circles, he is scarcely studied as a thinker or a theologian to this day. But he aimed a question at the heart of the culture: Do Christians believe in revelation? If believers in the Bible dismissed revelation in the present, could they defend revelation in the past? By 1830, when Smith came on the religious scene, revelation had been debated in Anglo-American culture for well over a century. Since the first years of the eighteenth century, rational Christians had struggled with deists, skeptics, and infidels over the veracity of miracles and the inspiration of prophets and apostles. In 1829, debated the atheist Robert Owen for a full week on the value of religion and the truth of the Bible. Campbell believed he had proven God’s presence in the Bible, but doubt lingered on. Over the course of the nineteenth century, belief in revelation eroded among the educated classes, reflecting the notorious disenchantment of the world. At first the loss of confidence in revelation was only dimly perceived by everyday Christians, but in the century to come, the issue divided divinity schools and disturbed ordinary people.
Joseph Smith stood against that rising tide. He received revelation exactly as Christians thought biblical prophets had done. In effect, he reenacted the writing of the Bible before the world’s eyes. Most put him aside as an obvious charlatan without bothering to evaluate his doctrine. After one incredulous visitor marveled that the Mormon prophet was “nothing but a man,” Smith remarked that “they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any intercourse with his Maker.” Smith’s historical role, as he understood it, was to give God a voice in a world that had stopped listening. Smith stood on the contested ground between the Enlightenment and Christianity. At a time when the foundations of Christianity were under assault by Enlightenment rationality, he turned Christian faith back toward its origins in revelation.
Mormonism could be categorized as another rearguard action against advancing modernity had not Smith complicated the picture. In the political realm, for example, he thought of himself as democratic. He composed a “motto” for the church that proclaimed: “Exalt the standard of Democracy.” He honored the right to free worship: “It is one of the first principles of my life. & one that I have cultivated from my childhood. having been taught it of my father[s], to allow every one the liberty of conscience.” One of the first ordinances passed under the charter granted freedom of worship to every denomination, including Roman Catholicism and Islam.
He was, moreover, no enemy of learning. An early revelation explained that “truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come,” and his followers were urged to seek that kind of truth. They were to “obtain a knowledge of history, and of countries, and of kingdoms, of laws of God and man, and all this for the salvation of Zion.” A revelation commanded them to open a school, where, among other things, the students studied grammar as well as theology. In that same spirit, they established a school at which the students studied Hebrew under the tutelage of a . “Teach one another,” they were enjoined, “words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom: seek learning even by study, and also by faith.” The City Council moved to establish a university soon after the charter was granted.
Godly knowledge, to be sure, outranked secular learning in Smith’s thinking, but revelation was not set in opposition to reason. “The glory of God is intelligence,” one revelation declared, “or, in other words, light and truth.” Among his many superlative qualities, God was the most intelligent of all beings. Church members were told to seek knowledge as part of their salvation. “If a person gains more knowledge in this life through his diligence & obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”
Combining a set of apparently conflicting impulses, Smith left a complex legacy for his people. His revelations sustained a literal belief in scriptural inspiration yet promoted learning and knowledge as if religion and the Enlightenment were compatible. He never wavered in his belief that God had spoken to him but made it an article of faith to let all men “worship how, where, or what they may.” While reviving traditional Christian faith, he was equally a prophet of the coming age.
In the fourteen years he led the church, Joseph Smith created a religion and a culture that incorporated these paradoxes into its core beliefs. After his death, Mormons withdrew from the to a refuge in the Great Basin, where for a half century they nurtured their faith in relative isolation. Never, however, did they cut themselves off from the world. During this period of consolidation, they carried on a worldwide missionary program that brought tens of thousands of converts to Utah. Although removed from the nation’s cultural centers, they founded universities, sent people east for schooling, opened theaters, and gave women the vote, all the while believing that God had revealed himself to their prophet.
Faith in revelation persists to this day among Latter-day Saints. It energizes the church now as it powered Joseph Smith’s ascent from obscurity to eminence in the first half of the nineteenth century. The same force that enabled him to build cities and gather thousands of converts motivates ordinary church members today. Modern Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is a revealed translation, solemnly receive priesthood ordination, and consider temples to be houses of God, much as Smith anticipated. The publication of his papers will permit readers to observe the origins of this resilient religious culture and throw light on the achievements—and the complexity—of its intrepid founder.
Joseph Smith and Record Keeping
Joseph Smith’s own revelations instructed him to keep a record of the church’s rise. At the time of the church’s organization in 1830, he was instructed that “there shall be a record kept among you, and in it thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ.” Smith understood early on that he must keep an account, even though his training did not qualify him to write such a record himself. He had only a modest education and no literary aspirations. He keenly felt the limitations of writing. In a letter to newspaper editor he wrote: “Oh Lord God deliver us in thy due time from the little narrow prison almost as it were totel darkness of paper pen and ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect language.” Yet over the years a large collection of documents accumulated. He dictated revelations, prepared translations of ancient documents, and assigned clerks to write letters, his history, and his journals.
Joseph Smith started writing in 1828 when he began dictation of the Book of Mormon in earnest. The first 116 pages were lost through the error of his , but Smith began again, and in the three months between early April and the end of June 1829, he dictated most of what became 584 pages of printed text in the first edition. In that same period, he received more than a dozen revelations and by fall 1830 was preparing them for publication. They appeared first in serial form in the church newspaper The Evening and the Morning Star, beginning in June 1832, and later in the Book of Commandments.
For the first two years after the organization of the Church of Christ on 6 April 1830, Smith assigned the work of keeping a history first to and then to , two of the early believers. In 1832, he himself wrote a history of the visions he had received as a young man and in the same year started a personal journal and began to preserve correspondence and other documents in a letterbook. These record-keeping projects soon faltered, however: the history ended after six pages, and the journal keeping lapsed after ten days. Only gradually did Smith establish a pattern of assigning scribes to work on histories, journals, letters, minutes, and other documents. Spotty at first, his record keeping eventually settled into more consistent patterns. By the early 1840s, he and his clerks were composing a comprehensive history, keeping a continuous diary, accumulating minutes from meetings and councils, preserving correspondence, and taking notes of many of his numerous discourses.
Joseph Smith drew upon these materials in 1838, when he again turned his own hand to history. He began by dictating an autobiographical narrative interspersed with revelations, correspondence, and other documents pertaining to his life and the beginnings of the church. When the chronology of the story reached November 1832, the narrative evolved into a day-by-day diary format using Smith’s journals as the featured text, supplemented by additional documentary material. Where the journals were written in third person by Smith’s scribes, the narrative was changed to first person, and where the journal was deficient it was fleshed out from other sources, which were also edited to maintain the first-person style. When Joseph Smith was killed in June 1844, work on the history had proceeded only as far as 5 August 1838, but his secretary and clerks continued to utilize his journal and other available documents to extend the narrative to the end of his life.
In addition to the published revelations and history, the manuscripts resulting from Smith’s record keeping include two volumes of revelations, ten volumes used as journals, two copybooks of correspondence, a half-dozen volumes containing the proceedings of civic and church administrative organizations that he organized, and numerous miscellaneous papers, many of which are legal and business records. The flow of documents sometimes slowed to a trickle during times of stress, and he often required outside impetus to refocus his attention amidst a life teeming with meetings, moves, lawsuits, and persecutions. But record keeping clearly was important to him. As his life went on, he became ever more diligent in collecting the raw materials for his history, accumulating by the end a large trove of papers.
This substantial body of documents does not, however, assure us a clear view of his mind and heart. The reason is that with all of the responsibilities he bore during a tumultuous life, he could not keep a record on his own. Only a tiny proportion of Smith’s papers were written by Smith himself, meaning that in most of the documents we come at Joseph Smith through another mind. Though small in number, the autograph writings and the relatively small body of personal writings dictated by him probably offer the best close-up view of his temperament and outlook. They are more direct imprints of his personality than the records of his sermons and speeches. Probably fewer than one-fifth of his sermons were reported in any detail—most from the last years of his life and most in highly abbreviated form by clerks or listeners who took notes. Smith seems never to have spoken from a prepared text or even from an outline. Records of his sermons are at best like class notes taken by students at a lecture, giving only limited access to the speaker’s style. His dictated revelations and translations are couched in his plain language, but as Smith documents they are problematic in another way. By his own account, neither the Book of Mormon nor the revelations were his own compositions. “I translated, by the gift and power of God,” he said of the Book of Mormon. The revelations stand out as the most interesting and influential of all his recorded words, but they are purportedly not his words at all. They came from him in his special role as revelator.
The large majority of the remaining papers—beyond the revelations, personal writings, dictated documents, and discourses—were not only penned but also composed by his clerks. Smith’s scribes must be credited for recording much of what we know about him. Those close associates who wrote his journal, for example, recorded views of his life and work often on a daily basis, especially in the later years. But those same scribes often stand between Joseph Smith and the reader hopeful of capturing his character and magnetism. Even writings issued over Smith’s name or written in first person are often the compositions of clerks. Extensive as the papers of Joseph Smith are, they do not afford readers unobstructed access to his mind and heart. In a famous sermon near the end of his life, he said, “You don’t know me—you never will,” and the nature of his papers only adds force to that assertion.
History of the Joseph Smith Papers
The work of collecting Joseph Smith’s papers, which began during his lifetime, continued after his death. In February 1846, the papers—then in the possession of and other church leaders—were packed into two boxes for the exodus to the West. The papers were unpacked in Salt Lake City in June 1853 and, beginning in April 1854, were used to complete the history Smith started in 1838. Not all the records made it west. retained the history he wrote at Smith’s behest, declining to turn it over when requested in 1838. Other significant documents remained with Smith’s widow , who stayed in Illinois. These and other documents eventually came under the care of the Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). The relevant items, with the permission of the Community of Christ, will be published in The Joseph Smith Papers.
When finished in 1856, nearly two decades after the project was launched, Joseph Smith’s history consisted of six large handwritten volumes numbering some twenty-two hundred pages. Publication of the history had commenced in the Times and Seasons in 1842 and was continued in church publications in territorial Utah and England until 1863. Because of its lengthy serial publication, the history was almost totally inaccessible by the turn of the century. In 1901, Brigham H. Roberts, assistant church historian, was commissioned to make the Smith history available again. Between 1902 and 1912, Roberts edited the previously published installments to produce a six-volume publication titled History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Period I: History of Joseph Smith, the Prophet, by Himself. Because of the inclusion of so many complete documents, the History of the Church has been widely referred to among Mormons as the “Documentary History of the Church.”
As the culmination of Joseph Smith’s history-writing endeavor, the History of the Church will continue to be an important resource for students of Mormonism, but its limitations detract from its value as a scholarly resource. The chief fault is a failure to distinguish Smith’s writings from others whose writings are presented as his own. Although such a practice was acceptable at the time, modern editorial standards require authorship and provenance to be described as fully as possible. The Joseph Smith Papers will include an edition of the original manuscript of Smith’s history that will identify underlying sources. Other series of the Papers will also include numerous items not published in the History of the Church and will present exact transcriptions of the originals.
Roots of the current effort to publish Smith’s papers extend back to the late 1960s when Truman G. Madsen, then director of the Institute of Mormon Studies at Brigham Young University, invited Dean C. Jessee, then an employee of the Church Historian’s Office of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to contribute to special issues of Brigham Young University Studies focusing on Joseph Smith and early Mormon history. Work on the articles reinforced Jessee’s desire to understand and publish the complete documentary record. Jessee’s opportunity came following Leonard J. Arrington’s 1972 appointment as the official historian of the church. Arrington assigned Jessee to locate, collect, and transcribe Smith’s writings. As Jessee developed a methodology, he was aware of the massive documentary editing projects sprouting around the following the initiation of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson in the 1940s. In response to the publication of Jefferson’s early papers, United States president Harry S. Truman had directed the National Historical Publications Commission to promote publication of the papers of America’s Founding Fathers. It was said that “no country in the world will have so complete a record of its beginnings.” Jessee and Arrington believed that the papers of Joseph Smith were equally essential to the study of Mormon beginnings.
In 1980, the project was transferred from the Church Historian’s Office to Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. There Jessee continued his work as a member of the newly formed Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Latter-day Saint History, encouraged and aided by institute directors Leonard Arrington and then Ronald K. Esplin. In 1984, Jessee published The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (with a second edition in 2002), containing nearly every document Smith wrote himself and a substantial portion of his dictated writings. This was followed by a broader initiative that resulted in the publication of the two-volume The Papers of Joseph Smith—a volume of Smith’s autobiographical and historical writings in 1989 and a volume of journals in 1992.
As this work proceeded, a more comprehensive plan for publishing Smith’s papers emerged. In 2001, the Joseph Smith Papers Project was established as a collaboration between Brigham Young University and the Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jessee, now general editor, Esplin, now executive editor, and Richard Lyman Bushman, chairman of the Smith Institute’s executive committee, took responsibility for coordinating teams of historians serving as editors of various volumes and a central staff of editors and researchers to update, expand, and complete the project. Fortunately, as the expanded project got under way, Larry H. and Gail Miller offered to fund the operation. In 2005, the project returned to the Church Archives, now known as the Church History Library.
The new Joseph Smith Papers Project has adopted an enriched editorial procedure and a new organization of materials. All the material in the two previously published volumes of The Papers of Joseph Smith that qualifies for inclusion under new criteria will appear in the new format, with expanded annotation, as part of The Joseph Smith Papers. In this edition, we intend to publish, both in paper and electronic form, every extant document to which we can obtain access. Work is under way on seven series of Joseph Smith papers:
1. The Journals series will contain the ten volumes of journals kept by Smith and his various scribes and clerks from 1832 through the end of his life in 1844.
2. The Documents series will bring together early versions of revelations, correspondence sent and received, sermons and other addresses, selected minutes and proceedings, editorials and articles in periodicals, official declarations and pronouncements, and other such documents for which Smith was responsible.
3. The Histories series will publish the entire manuscript history that Smith began in 1838, which was continued by his clerks after his death. The first volume in this series will serve as an introduction chronicling Smith’s history-writing initiative that began in 1830 and led up to the larger work begun in 1838.
4. The Legal Records series will reproduce legal papers from the scores of judicial proceedings in which Smith was either a plaintiff, defendant, witness, or judge.
5. The Financial Records series will comprise records of Smith’s personal or family finances and records relating to Smith’s involvement in development efforts and enterprises in behalf of the church. The latter category includes notes and other loan documents; records of purchases, sales, and other transactions relating to land; and store accounts and accounts of church-owned businesses.
6. The Revelations and Translations series will present the earliest manuscript texts of the Joseph Smith revelations and those published during his lifetime. These include the Book of Mormon and the printer’s manuscript from which it was produced. In contrast to the Documents series, this series will present the texts of the revelations alone—without other Smith documents interspersed—and will focus mainly on textual, not contextual, annotation.
7. The Administrative Records series will publish minutes and other records pertaining to institutions that were established under Smith’s direction and that contain his personal instruction and involvement.
Most of Joseph Smith’s papers are located in the Church History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah, while another significant body of his materials is found in the Library-Archives of the Community of Christ in , Missouri. Additional important items have been located in other public and private repositories.
The diversity and expansiveness of this documentary collection stem from Smith’s extensive leadership in religious and civic roles. He was a translator, revelator, church president, city builder, mayor, city council member, judge, militia leader, and presidential candidate, and his papers reflect all those roles. These volumes provide essential resources for the study of Joseph Smith’s life and times.
Richard Lyman Bushman, Columbia University
Dean C. Jessee, Church History Library