Joseph Smith Biography
by C. Clark Julius, MPS
The Philalethes – August 1987
In 1827 Joseph Smith and his bride, Emma, arrived at her father’s farm near Great Bend in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Here in this peaceful country along the banks of the Susquehanna River, Joseph would spend the next two-and-a-half years translating the Book of Mormon into English.
He had been born twenty-one years earlier in Sharon, Vermont. His father, also named Joseph, and his mother, Lucy, had started their marriage auspiciously with Lucy’s ample dowry of one thousand dollars. But the dowry was quickly spent and the farm was overgrown with weeds. In a last desperate attempt to recoup his losses, Joseph’s father had invested everything he had left in a shipment of ginseng to China. He had heard that the Chinese would pay high prices for the root of the ginseng plant, which grew wild in Vermont. When he failed to get a penny for his ginseng, Joseph’s father moved his family to a farm near Palmyra, New York, in the western part of the state. There he fared little better than in Vermont. The Smith family often went hungry during the winter months. As soon as they were able to work, the Smith children had to help support their family. Consequently, Joseph obtained little schooling.
When Joseph was adolescent, an itinerant magician and diviner stopped over in Palmyra and offered his services to the local residents. The diviner claimed that he could locate not only ground water near the surface, but also treasure which had been buried by Indians many years before. Some farmers hired the diviner at three dollars per day to look for buried treasure on their lands. The diviner had several magic stones which he looked into, in order to discover the sites of the buried treasures.
Young Joseph Smith took a deep interest in the diviner’s skills and spent as much time as he could in the magician’s company, trying to master the man’s divining abilities. When no treasure was found and no more farmers would pay him, the diviner left town, but by that time Joseph had picked up some of his lore. Acquiring some magic stones of his own, Joseph was successful in using the stones to locate some lost tools.
A visitor to Palmyra who heard about Joseph’s clairvoyance was interested in meeting the young seer. The visitor was from the eastern part of New York State, and convinced that Spaniards had once deposited treasure on his property. Joseph agreed to accompany the visitor east, and to help him locate the treasure, provided that Joseph was paid three dollars a day, the same fee the diviner had charged. Joseph’s father accompanied his nineteen-year-old son on this expedition in 1825.
The site of the hoped-for treasure was the Susquehanna Valey near Damascus, New York, just north of the Pennsylvania border. While hunting for the treasure, Joseph and his father lived at a farm in Pennsylvania, where the Susquehanna dips into that state near Great Bend.
A large party of diggers stowed up to help in excavating the treasure. All of them contributed to Joseph’s wage, in return for a share in the expected treasure. The work progressed slowly. For the first few days the diggers worked with a will, anticipating the riches that would soon be theirs. But as they dug and found nothing, their spirits began to sink. When Joseph told them that the treasure had begun to sink lower due to an “enchantment,” they suspected him of being a charlatan and felt that he had made fools of them.
The search for treasure ended, and Joseph’s father returned to his home in Palmyra, but Joseph stayed on in the Susquehanna Valley. He had fallen in love with Emma Hale, the daughter of Isaac Hale, in whose house Joseph and his father had boarded during the treasurehunt. Emma, who was one year older than Joseph, was a beautiful and self-contained schoolteacher who kept herself aloof from Joseph. If Joseph had gone back home with his father he would be unable to court Emma from a distance, especially without the aid of modern conference call companies.
Despite Emma’s coolness, Joseph took a job as a farmhand just over the border in New York State, within walking distance of the Hale house in Pennsylvania. In his spare time he attended school to improve his skill in reading and writing, very likely so that he would seem a worthier suitor to a schoolteacher.
As Joseph persisted in his courting of Emma, she gradually yielded to his ardor. But when Joseph asked her father for Emma’s hand in marriage, he was brusquely refused. Mr. Isaac Hale had been one of the original diggers for treasure under Joseph’s direction, and one of the first to lose confidence in the young diviner. He considered Joseph to be an arrogant, fraudulent, and lazy young man, totally unworthy to marry his daughter. After being turned down by Isaac Hale, Joseph continued to visit his daughter while Isaac was away on frequent and extended hunting trips.
In the spring of 1826, some of the former treasure-hunters brought legal charges against Joseph in the court at Bainbridge, New York. Joseph was accused of “disorderly conduct” and also of being an “impostor.” One of the witnesses testifying against him was his sweetheart’s father, Isaac Hale. Joseph was found guilty on both charges. There is no record of the sentence imposed on him.
Despite this public humiliation which was aided and abetted by her father, Emma Hale remained attracted to Joseph. In January 1827, when Joseph was twenty-one, he succeeded in persuading Emma to elope with him. After getting married in New York State, they went to live with Joseph’s parents in Palmyra.
In the fall of 1827, Joseph and Emma returned to her parents’ home in Pennsylvania to pick up her belongings. There was an emotional meeting between Isaac Hale and his son-in-law, in which Isaac accused Joseph of having stolen his daughter. Amid tears, Joseph asked his father-in-law for forgiveness. Joseph promised to lead a more honest and responsible life, and to be a worthy husband to Emma. Isaac seemed reassured by Joseph’s contrition, and offered to give the young couple a small house on his property.
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Joseph and Emma moved into the small house, and Isaac expected that Joseph would help with the work on his farm. Instead, Joseph kept himself occupied with some mysterious indoor activity. One day Isaac decided to investigate what was going on in the small house, and paid a visit to his son- in-law.
Isaac found Joseph sitting at a table with a hat over his face, uttering long Biblical phrases. Emma sat behind a curtain, hidden from Joseph, while she wrote down the words Joseph was speaking. On the table-top in front of Joseph sat some square object concealed by a cloth. When Joseph removed his hat from his face, Isaac could see two stones in the hat, similar to the stones Joseph had used in divining the location of the “buried Spanish treasure.”
Alarmed, Isaac demanded an explanation of this strange activity. The explanation that Joseph and Emma gave him only alarmed Isaac more. They told Isaac that Joseph had seen a vision of an angel back in Palmyra. The angel had led Joseph to a place which Joseph called Cumorah, a hill near Palmyra. There, digging in the spot the angel indicated, Joseph had found a set of golden plates comprising a holy book, called the Book of Mormon. The book was written in symbols which Joseph called “reformed Egyptian,” but with the gold plates were two stones, with which Joseph could decipher the ancient symbols on the gold plates .
Joseph told Isaac that the gold plates were right in front of them on the table, in a box covered by a cloth. It was not necessary for Joseph to see the plates in order to decipher them. He could read the plates, understand them, and translate them into English, by gazing into the stones. However, in order to see into the stones, he had to shut out all extraneous light. Therefore, he put the stones into his hat and covered his face with the hat.
When Isaac asked to see the golden plates, Joseph refused permission. Joseph said that, if anyone besides himself looked at the golden plates, it would mean instant death for the person.
So far as Isaac could tell, no change had occurred in Joseph since his treasure-hunting days. Isaac later said, “The manner in which he pretended to read and interpret was the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stones in his hat, and his hat over his face.”
Isaac failed to notice that, although Joseph’s occult techniques had not changed, the purpose of Joseph’s life had taken a new direction. Formerly, Joseph had been looking for gold. Now, he seemed indifferent to money. As described by Joseph, the gold plates he had found at Cumorah were worth millions of dollars; yet Joseph valued only the message engraved on them.
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Isaac felt certain that there were no gold plates, and that Joseph was plotting some elaborate fraud. But Emma remained loyal to her husband, dutifully taking down Joseph’s dictation, hour after hour, day after day. The words Joseph spoke through his hat told the story of Jewish families which had migrated to America from Israel in the seventh century before Christ, becoming the ancestors of the American Indians. According to the scriptures which Joseph was translating, Christ himself had come to America before his ascension.
During his work of translation, Joseph received some financial support from a few acquaintances who believed in the importance of his task. One man mortgaged his farm to support Joseph. The man’s wife, who considered Joseph’s scriptures a hoax, was so incensed that she left her husband.
Emma worked as Joseph’s secretary until the summer of 1828, when she gave birth to a son who survived for only a few hours. Emma was so depressed by the death of her firstborn that Joseph was deeply worried about her. To give Emma a rest, he called in one of his supporters to serve as his scribe, and Emma regained her health and stability.
The following year 1829, the second secretary was replaced by a third. Finally, in 1830, the work of translation was completed. Joseph was now twenty-four years old, and had spent two and a half years translating the Book of Mormon. He had dictated a total of 275,000 words.
His translation complete, Joseph had one further use of the golden plates. To assure skeptics that the plates did, indeed, exist, he showed them to several trusted witnesses, who signed statements affirming that they had beheld the plates. In preparation for viewing the plates, the chosen witnesses prayed for several hours. After lengthy praying, one witness reported that he saw only an empty box. Joseph sent him out for additional prayer, after which the golden plates were fully visible to the witness.
Joseph later announced that he had returned the plates to the angel who had first led him to them. The angel took them off to eternity.
The manuscript of the translation then went to a printer in Palmyra. On March 25, 1830, the Book of Mormon went on sale in the bookstore in Palmyra. A week later the book was reviewed in the newspapers of Rochester, New York, under the headlines: “Blasphemy!”
Leaders of established churches were, in general, shocked by the emendations of the Bible that were contained in the Book or Mormon. But many people/living in western New York State were fascinated by the Mormon narratives, which tied together their religious and patriotic sentiments. Utilizing the popular theory that the Indians were the descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, the Book of Mormon incorporated the history of the western hemisphere within Biblical history. The entire book was written in the style of the King James Version of the Bible and abounded with phrases like, “And it came to pass…” Judeo-Christian and American traditions were welded in the Book of Mormon, in which America’s “fruited plain” was an extension of the Holy Land.
Before and during Joseph’s time, western New York State had seethed with religious ferment. Fantastic religious sects had arisen and briefly flowered there. Camp meetings, with their unbridled exhibitions, had been frequent. Seasoned evangelists tended to avoid western New York State because they considered it “burnt over territory.” Its inhabitants had participated in so many revivals that they had become jaded with religious ecstasy.
They were weary of agonizing guilt and had lost faith in the healing power of Christ’s sacrifice. Western New York was ripe for a new religious message, and for many that message was contained in the Book of Mormon.
Several days after the publication of the Book of Mormon, Joseph organized his first congregation of the Mormon church. Among the converts who were baptized by total immersion in Lake Seneca were his parents and brothers.
Joseph and Emma traveled back to her parents’ neighborhood in the Susquehanna Valley, where they made some converts. But they did not convert any of his former associates in treasurehunting. Joseph’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, thought that Joseph was the same charlatan as before, and was merely practicing a new confidence game. With the encouragement of the local Presbyterian minister, Joseph was once more put on trial on the charge of “disorderly conduct.” After the trial, Joseph and Emma left the Susquehanna Valley. Emma would never see her parents again.
Despite setbacks, the church grew and spread. Mormonism had distinct advantages over conventional churches; it had its own unique scriptures and its own living prophet, who had brought its sacred writings down from Cumorah Mount, as Moses had brought the ten commandments down from Sinai.
Joseph, whose powers as a writer had increased as he translated the Book of Mormon, now grew as an orator. Unlike the evangelists with whom he was competing for souls, he did not terrify his audiences with vivid pictures of hellfire; in fact, Joseph’s sermons were punctuated with humor. His audiences laughed more than they quaked.
He held out for his converts not the dangers of hell but the likely prospect of eternal bliss. Heaven was not hard to attain. Ordinary sinners like blasphemers and adulterers would not go to hell. It was true that frequent sinners would not go to the luxurious and carefree abode of the saintly, but the heaven of sinners would be comfortable enough.
Joseph taught that every person contained some divinity which could be augmented indefinitely, transforming the human into a god. Each person who wanted such exalted status could one day become master or mistress of one of the many stars in the firmament. There were plenty of stars in God’s creation to go around. For many people, Joseph was a welcome relief from the itinerant fire-and-brimstone evangelists.
By the early fall of 1830 there was only one person whom Joseph wanted to convert who had still not joined his church. That holdout was his wife, Emma. Why Emma refused to join Joseph’s church for six months we do not know, just as we do not know whether she believed in the existence of the golden tablets. It was, of course, embarrassing for Joseph to be proselytizing for his new church while he was unable to win the soul of his own wife. Under considerable pressure from Joseph, the woman who had recorded the first words of the Book of Mormon finally became a Mormon herself.
The membership of the Mormon church was significantly increased in 1831, when a preacher in another denomination in Kirtland, Ohio, converted and took his entire congregation with him into the Mormons. The church in Kirtland grew so rapidly that it became the largest center of Mormons in the country. Joseph and his elders moved the headquarters of the new national church to Kirtland, from where Joseph exerted a tight control over his rapidly expanding movement. Joseph announced new policies for the church as revelations which he had received direct from God.
Mormons were hard workers and their communities prospered. The economy in Kirtland was at first communistic, like that of the early Christians. When communism proved itself impractical the Mormons returned to free enterprise, with members paying one-tenth of their incomes to the church as tithes. Eventually a temple was built in Kirtland, an architectural gem which was the grandest building in the west. The Mormons’ prosperity was consistent with Joseph’s theology: the Kingdom of God, he taught, was to prevail not only in heaven but on earth, too.
Despite their affluence, the Mormons were continually suffering abuse from their non-Mormon neighbors, whom the Mormons called “gentiles.” The Mormon beliefs struck many gentiles as being strange, distant from the mainstream of American life. The Mormons’ serene assurance of the correctness of their beliefs impressed the gentiles as being smug. Joseph once said, “Truth is Mormonism. God is the author of it.” A whispering campaign against the Mormons was concerned largely with what gentiles considered the bizarre sexual practices of the Mormons.
Joseph began to plan for an earthly paradise for Mormons that would be far removed from people of other faiths. In 1832 Joseph was tarred and feathered by a gentile mob near Kirtland. The fury of the mob was ignited by rumors that Joseph had made sexual advances to a seventeen-year-old girl. The attack on his person intensified Joseph’s determination to establish a Mormon utopia far away from the gentiles. The Mormon’s new home, with its ideal society, would be called Zion.
At first Joseph placed his hope for Zion in Missouri. Although Joseph himself remained in Ohio during the middle 1830’s, other Mormons settled in Independence, Missouri, then a frontier town. As soon as the Mormons were settled and had begun to thrive in Independence, however, gentiles began to harass them and drove them out of town. A new Mormon settlement outside of Independence was also harried, forcing a flight to a completely new settlement in Missouri, which the Mormons named Far West. Joseph, still maintaining his headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, began referring to Far West as Zion.
When Far West was attacked by the gentiles, Joseph decided that the Mormons had taken enough punishment. He organised a company of armed Mormons in Ohio and marched at their head to defend their beleagured brethren in Missouri.
By the time the small Mormon fighting force arrived in Missouri, however, the gentiles had called out the Missouri state militia and were waiting to do battle. Joseph was outnumbered ten-to-one and saw at once that a shoot-out with the Missourians would be suicidal for him and his men. He capitulated.
Despite Joseph’s surrender, he was charged with treason for appearing in Missouri in command of an armed force, and was also charged with plotting the murder of a Missouri gentile killed in a skirmish with Mormons. While Joseph was in jail awaiting trial, gentiles attacked Far West and drove the Mormons east toward the Mississippi River.
Fifteen thousand Mormons crossed the Mississippi into Illinois in 1839. There they were most unexpectedly welcomed by politicians of both the Whig and Democratic persuasions, who hoped the Mormons would vote their way in the next elections. Joseph got out of his Missouri jail by bribing the sheriff with a jug of whiskey and eight hundred dollars, then joined the last straggling Mormon refugees from Missouri in their retreat to Illinois. He was thirty-three years old.
In Illinois, Joseph became mayor of a new Mormon town called Nauvoo. Thanks to the eagerness of Illinois politicians to win the Mormon vote, he was commissioned as a lieutenant general in command of the Nauvoo militia. He delighted in wearing his general’s uniform and reviewing his troops . In 1844, at age thirty-eight, he announced his candidacy for the office of the President of the United States.
Outwardly, Joseph’s troubles seemed to be over, but appearances were deceiving. Despite his titles, gaudy uniforms, and vaulting political ambitions, Joseph was standing on a very shaky foundation. His position was weakest within his own church.
All his life, Joseph had a tendency to quarrel with his closest friends, who then became his bitter enemies. As a young treasure-hunter, he had made lifelong foes of the men who had helped him dig for treasure. After translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph had a series of close friends and colleagues who worked with him in building the Mormon church. After a limited time of cooperation, however, Joseph quarreled with each friend. The former friend either left the church or was excommunicated from it by Joseph. Outside the church, these former friends circulated malicious rumors about Joseph among the gentiles.
Along with breaks in his relationships with ecclesiastical colleagues, a rift grew between Joseph and his wife, Emma. Although Emma continued to live with Joseph and bear him children, a problem arose between them in the 1830’s which was never resolved.
That problem was Joseph’s pursuit of other women. Ever since Joseph had founded the Mormon church, his status as a prophet had brought him the adoration of his followers, including many attractive women. Seducing Mormon women was easy for him, and was apparently irresistible to him.
As much as she was able, Emma tried to ignore Joseph’s infidelities and pretended they had not happened. But once when she caught Joseph embracing a woman whom Emma considered her good friend, Emma lost control of herself and attacked the woman with a broomstick.
There is evidence that Joseph started to think about making plural marriage a moral practice within his church as early as 1831, one year after the church was founded. He knew, however, how shocking such a practice would be not only to many Mormons, but to the gentiles also. He intended to postpone the announcement of the new practice until people were more ready to accept it. Meanwhile, he let a few trusted colleagues know that plural marriage had been sanctioned by God in a special revelation to Joseph. God, said Joseph, was no more opposed to polygamy in 1831 than He had been in the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who all had large harems.
Meanwhile, although Joseph had not announced God’s sanction of plural marriage to the entire church, Joseph himself was practising it. He proposed what he called “celestial” marriage to a number of women, some of whom were already legally married to other men. Joseph considered celestial marriages to be on a higher plane than earthly marriages, lasting forever, and taking precedence over mundane marriages.
Only polygamy – the custom of one man taking multiple wives was sanctioned. Women were not allowed to have more than one husband. Joseph taught that a woman’s possibility of entering heaven depended largely on the worthiness of her husband, rather than on her own worthiness.
When Joseph mentioned his revelation about plural marriages to Emma, she was beside herself with rage. She had helped him translate the Book of Mormon and had never asked to see his gold plates. She had borne him children. She had scraped tar and feathers from his naked and bruised body. But she was not going to bless her husband’s practice of polygamy. He might have God’s permission to sleep with other women, but he would never get her permission. She begged him to renounce the new doctrine.
More than one former colleague with whom Joseph fell out was the husband, brother, or father of a woman to whom Joseph had proposed celestial marriage. In 1844 a major schism occurred among the Mormons of Nauvoo which resulted directly from Joseph’s proposals of marriage to the wives of several leaders of the church. The husbands who felt wronged by their prophet challenged Joseph’s leadership of the church, bought a printing press, and issued a dissident Mormon newspaper with editorials attacking Joseph’s policies.
Joseph ordered his followers to destroy the printing press of his opponents. After the press was wrecked, the governor of Illinois charged Joseph with violating the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, and ordered his arrest. The state militia marched to Nauvoo and took Joseph into custody.
The governor did not send the militia because, he expected mass resistance by the Mormons to Joseph’s own protection. The governor feared that, if peace officers tried to conduct Joseph to jail, gentile mobs would overwhelm the lawmen in order to lynch Joseph.
The militia conducted Joseph to the jail in Carthage, Illinois, and locked him up with other loyal Mormon leaders in a cell on the second floor. The militia was stationed outside the jail to guard it.
On the second day of Joseph’s imprisonment, other militiamen who had been dismissed by the governor, marched into Carthage. Their faces were painted to conceal their identities. They were obviously about to commit some mayhem.
When the disguised militiamen approached the jail, the guards on duty did nothing to impede their progress. As they mounted the steps of the jail, the vigilantes fired several shots. Joseph, who had a six-shooter, opened fire on the first vigilantes to reach the second floor. He wounded several of the attackers: then his pistol was emptied.
As the vigilantes came on unopposed, Joseph ran for a window. As he straddled the window sill he was shot from behind by vigilantes inside the jail. At the same time, he was shot by their comrades on the ground below. Calling out, “Oh, my God!” Joseph fell to the ground. He was still alive when he hit the earth. Vigilantes standing over him put several more shots into him, ending his life at age thirty-eight.
When his body was brought home to Nauvoo, Emma flung herself across it and moaned, “Oh Joseph, Joseph, they have killed you at last.”