Childhood & Early Life
Joseph Smith Jr. was born in on December 23, 1805, to Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith at Sharon, Vermont. His father was a farmer and merchant.
He suffered from typhoid fever at the age of seven which led to a bone infection. After a couple of operations the infection was successfully cured although he had to be on crutches for three years and limped slightly throughout his life.
Following ill fate and monetary losses, his family shifted to Palmyra, New York during 1816-17.
His interest in religion began at twelve and he started reading Bible and attended church classes.
Like his family members he also got involved in religious folk magic. His parents and maternal grandfather believed that the dreams and visions that they experience are nothing but messages from God.
In 1820, Joseph Smith had a vision when he turned to the woods to seek guidance from God. He said while he was praying God appeared and assured that all his sins were forgiven and that no church is right, thus he should not join any. When he narrated his vision to a minister he was rebuffed and scorned. At that time, the incident, referred to as the ‘First Vision’, made little effect. Most of the Mormons were also not aware of the event till the 1840s which is now considered as the very fundamental incident of Mormonism.
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In 1823, an angel named Moroni visited him one night and informed him of an ancient book, a breastplate and two seer stones among other artefacts that were hidden at Hill Cumorah in Manchester. After several unsuccessful attempts for years, he retrieved the book made of golden plates on September 1827 while he visited the hill with his wife Emma. He said he was instructed by Moroni not to reveal the plates to anyone rather translate and publish the record which contains religious practices of indigenous Americans.
With the help of his rich neighbour, Martin Harris, he moved to Harmony in October 1827 along with his pregnant wife Emma.
Harris took interest in transcribing Smith’s dictation, thus he came to Harmony in February 1828. After convincing Smith, Harris took the manuscript in mid-June to show his family members, but lost it. Smith’s new-born son Alvin died on the same day.
Smith said Moroni took away the plates and also his translating power as he lost the manuscript and returned it to him on September 22, 1828. Thereafter, he worked with Oliver Cowdery who transcribed his dictation. The translations were published in a book ‘Book of Mormon’ in March 1830.
There were eight witnesses of the plates including Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris and David Whitmer along with male members of families of Smith and Whitmer who testified to have seen the plates by signing statements. Smith said after he finished using the plates, angel Moroni took them back.
There was a mention of an institutional church and a need for baptism in the book after which John Smith and Oliver Cowdery baptized each other. Thereafter, he founded the ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ on April 6, 1830 with its small branches in Colesville, Fayette and Palmyra. When many new members were baptized as Mormons, he faced opposition by mobs, was arrested and brought to trial as a disorderly person but was later released. To avoid mob gathering he along with Cowdery moved to Colesville.
Sidney Rigdon a follower of Campbellite Restorationism and over hundred such followers converted themselves as Mormons. Soon after Rigdon became the primary assistant of Smith.
He instructed his followers to assemble in Kirtland, Ohio, as according to his revelation New Jerusalem’s eastern boundary was Kirtland and he moved there in January 1831. The congregation of Kirtland came under his power after he produced two revelations. He adopted a form of communalism practiced by followers of Rigdon and christened it the ‘United Order’. In June 1831, he established greater power of a ‘High ("Melchizedek") Priesthood’ for the chain of command of the church.
Tensions brewed up in Jackson County, Missouri, till mid-1833 when non-Mormons tried to destroy properties of Mormons and evict them. Smith re-christened the church as ‘Church of Latter Day Saints’ and lead a paramilitary team called the ‘Zion’s Camp’ to help the Mormons in Missouri.
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The Mormon community of Kirtland collapsed in 1837 following several in-house conflicts. ‘Kirtland Safety Society’, a joint stock company was created by him and other leaders of the church in January 1837 but it failed in a month. He was made liable for the failure resulting in issuance of a warrant against him for banking fraud.
On January 12, 1838, he fled to Missouri along with Rigdon. Here, the church was re-named as ‘Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints’ and a new temple was constructed. Within a few months, thousands of ‘Latter Day Saints’ from Kirtland joined them. With approval from Smith some of the most powerful and eminent leaders including David Whitmer and Oliver Cowdery were expelled from the church as ‘dissenters’.
The non-Mormons did not allow the Mormons to vote on August 6, 1838 in Gallatin resulting in beginning of the 1838 ‘Mormon War’. It witnessed raids by non-Mormons including burning of farms of Mormons. The Mormons, on the other hand, ransacked the towns of non-Mormons. The Mormons mistook the Missouri state militia as a group of non-Mormon vigilantes and attacked them. The encounter was known as ‘Battle of Crooked River’ following which Governor Lilburn Boggs ordered expulsion of the Mormons from the state.
The Missourians killed 17 Mormons on October 30 which was known as the ‘Haun’s Mill massacre’. Smith was convicted of treason and although at first sentenced for execution, he was later tried and transferred to a jail in Liberty, Missouri.
On April 6, 1839, after spending months in prison, he and his supporters were able to escape custody following hearing of a jury in Davis County.
He purchased land in Illinois along the Mississippi River and shifted with his family followed by other Saints. They named the place Nauvoo meaning ‘’to be beautiful’. Later that year, he went to Washington, D.C. and met prominent congressmen and also President Martin Van Buren but was unsuccessful in seeking relief and aid from the federal government for the Mormons of Missouri.
A charter was obtained for the city of Nauvoo which granted it virtual power. The civil government was controlled by the authorities of Mormons. An autonomous militia called the ‘Nauvoo Legion’ with Smith as its Lieutenant General and John C. Bennett as its Major General was formed.
In 1841, he disclosed the doctrine of plural marriage to Bennett and some of his close associates. When Bennett used it inappropriately for seducing several married and unmarried woman, Smith enforced resignation of Bennett as the mayor of Nauvoo.
In 1844, he declared his candidature for the position of President of the U.S. from his own third-party. The same year, some of his closest associates accused him of proposing marriage to their wives. Anticipating plotting by the dissidents against his life, he expelled them on April 18, 1844.
A competing church was formed by the dissidents who also obtained indictments against him. The non-Mormons were outraged by the Nauvoo city council and Joseph Smith for their act of destroying a newspaper that was critical about his power and for his practice of polygamy. He was taken into custody and put in Carthage jail in Illinois.