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Joseph Smith: The Founder of Mormonism

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Joseph Smith: The Founder of Mormonism

The Bottom-Line Guide to Mormonism, Part 1
Robert M. Bowman Jr.

Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844) was born on December 23, 1805, in Vermont. When he was a young boy, his family moved to Manchester in the western part of New York State. In September 1827, Joseph, now 21, reported that an angel had entrusted to him some gold plates on which were written ancient scriptures from an Israelite people that had journeyed to the Americas six hundred years before Christ. Over the course of the next two years, Joseph produced an English version of these records, called the Book of Mormon, which he claimed to have translated from the gold plates with supernatural help. Close friends and family members affirmed that Joseph put a magic peep stone in his hat and then dictated to a scribe the words that appeared when he put his face in the hat. Joseph saw himself as an inspired prophet, giving over a dozen prophetic messages during this period (mostly pertaining to the production of the Book of Mormon). In late March 1830, Joseph began selling copies of the Book of Mormon.

A couple of weeks later, Joseph Smith founded what he called the Church of Christ in either Fayette or Manchester, New York, on April 6th, 1830. In establishing “the Church of Christ” in 1830, Joseph did not see himself as starting a new denomination; nor was he trying to start a movement that transcended denominational lines (as the Campbellite “Church of Christ” movement, which was in its early years at the time, saw itself as doing). Rather, Joseph claimed to be the prophet of the one and only true, restored church. He renamed the church twice, finally settling in 1838 on the name The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Key Dates in the Life of Joseph Smith

1820     Smith’s purported “first vision”
1827     Smith reports finding the Book of Mormon plates
1830     Smith publishes the Book of Mormon, establishes the LDS Church
1836     The first LDS temple is dedicated in Kirtland, Ohio
1839     The Mormons move to Nauvoo, Illinois
1843     Smith delivers a revelation authorizing plural marriage (polygamy)
1844     Smith and his brother Hyrum are killed while in jail 

Joseph Smith continued to issue revelations throughout the rest of his life. A collection of such revelations in a book called Doctrine and Covenants is viewed by Mormons as Scripture. Of the 138 chapters in this book, Joseph produced all but three, and slightly more than 100 were produced before 1834.

Joseph’s most controversial revelation concerned the “First Vision,” an experience he claimed to have had as a teenager in the spring of 1820. According to the official account, written in 1838 and first published in 1842, the teenager Joseph, confused by the different denominations during a revival, had gone into the woods to ask God which church to join and was answered with a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. The account—part of another scripture known as Pearl of Great Price—reports that Jesus told Joseph to join none of the churches. In the earliest known, handwritten version of the story, dated to 1832, Joseph reported that he had gone into the woods seeking forgiveness of sins because he had already concluded that all of the churches were wrong, and that he was answered with a vision of “the Lord” assuring him of his salvation. There are several good reasons to question whether Joseph ever had such an encounter: major contradictions between these two accounts (both originating from Smith himself), evidence showing that no revival took place in Joseph’s area during the period in question, and a lack of credible evidence that anyone heard any version of this First Vision story before 1832. If he did see supernatural beings, though, from an orthodox Christian perspective they could not have been the Father and the Son. Mormons understand the appearance to prove that the Father and Son are two separate Gods, that God the Father has a body of flesh and bone, and that Jesus told Joseph that all of the churches were wrong and their creeds were all abominations. These claims contradict the Bible’s teaching that the Father and the Son are one God (e.g., John 1:1; 10:30), that God is Spirit (John 4:24), and that Christ’s church would continue until the end of the age (Matt. 28:18-20).

Almost immediately after he founded the LDS Church, Joseph Smith began leading his followers westward, first to Kirtland, Ohio, where the first LDS temple was built, then to Far West, Missouri, and later to Commerce, Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo. Joseph and the Saints were increasingly in trouble with the law, and he was even jailed for a period of time. In Nauvoo, he formed a militia with himself as its general. Between 1841 and 1843 Joseph, who may have been practicing polygamy in secret as early as 1831, “married” at least thirty women—including many who remained legally married to other men. During this same period Joseph Smith produced new scriptures and began teaching that many Gods made the world. In a notorious sermon called the King Follett Discourse on April 6, 1844, Joseph taught that God the Father himself had not always been God, but was a man who became a God by the same process of exaltation by which humans were meant to become Gods.

These developments, especially polygamy, led to increasing dissent within the Mormon movement as well as legal and social pressures from outside, and brought the movement to its most serious crisis. On June 10, 1844, Joseph Smith had a dissident newspaper, the Nauvoo Expositor, destroyed. The legality of this and other actions Joseph took remains a matter of debate. On June 25 he was arrested in Carthage, Illinois, and on June 27 a mob stormed the jail. Joseph and his brother Hyrum were killed; although they died in a gun battle (with Joseph managing to wound one of the attackers), Mormons regard them as martyrs.

Mormons believe in Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Restoration and really as the greatest man who has ever lived second only to Jesus Christ. Their basis for this belief is essentially their subjective spiritual experience, the “testimony” they believe God has given them to confirm Smith’s claims. From an orthodox Christian point of view, Joseph Smith taught clearly unbiblical doctrines, issued false prophecies (for example, that a temple would be built on the temple lot in Jackson County, Missouri, before that generation died), and instituted unbiblical and unethical practices (notably polygamy). Based on these concerns, orthodox Christians view Joseph Smith as a false prophet.