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Joseph Smith

Prophet and Founder of Mormonism

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SMITH, Joseph, Mormon prophet, born in Sharon, Vermont, 23 December, 1805; died in Carthage, Illinois, 27 June, 1844. His parents were poor, and when he was ten years of age they moved to Palmyra, New York, and four years later to Manchester, a few miles distant.


In the spring of 1820, in the midst of great religions excitement, four of his father's family having joined the Presbyterian church, Joseph claimed to have gone into the woods to pray, when he had a vision in some respects similar to St. Paul's, but was told by his religious advisers that "it is all of the devil," and he was ridiculed by the public.


On the evening of 21 September, 1823, after going to bed, he claimed to have had another vision. According to his story, an angel named Moroni visited him and told him of a book written upon golden plates, in which was a history of the former inhabitants of this country and "the fullness of the everlasting gospel," and indicated to him where the book was deposited in the earth. He subsequently went to the spot that he had seen in his vision, found the plates of gold, but an unseen power prevented him from removing them. Moroni with whom Smith claimed to have had many interviews, told him that he had not kept the Lord's command, that he valued the golden plates more than the records upon them, and not till his love for gold had abated and he was willing to give his time to the Lord and translate the inscriptions upon the plates would they ever be delivered to him. It is claimed that this was done by the angel, 22 September, 1827.


Smith told of his visions from time to time, and, to escape the jeers and ridicule of the people of Manchester, he went to reside with his wife's family in Susquehanna county, Pennsylvania, where, according to his own account, he began to copy the characters on the plates and by the aid of "Urim and Thummim," a pair of magic spectacles, translated them from behind a curtain, dictating the" Book of Mormon" to Martin Harris and later to Oliver Cowdery, who joined him in April, 1829. These two frequently went into the woods to pray for divine instruction, and on 15 May, 1829, they claimed that they were addressed by the materialized spirit of John the Baptist, who conferred upon them the priesthood of Aaron and commanded that they baptize each other by immersion for the remission of sins. Both claimed after they were baptized to have received the gift of the Holy Ghost, and from that time had the spirit of prophecy.


The " Book of Mormon" was printed in Palmyra, New York, by Egbert B. Grandin in 1830. The Mormon church was organized, 6 April, 1830, by six "saints," at the house of Peter Whitmer, in Fayette, New York, and Oliver Cowdery preached the first sermon on the following Sunday, at the house of Mr. Whitmer, when several were baptized. The first conference of the church was held in June, 1830, at which thirty members were present, and thereafter the "prophet" claimed supernatural powers. Numerous miracles were performed by him, of which the casting the devil out of Newell Knight, of Colesville, New York, was the first that was done in the church. The membership increased rapidly, and Kirtland, Ohio, was declared to be the promised land of the Mormons. In February, Smith and the leaders of the church settled in that place, and almost at once missionaries were sent to make converts.


Early in June, Missouri was announced by Smith to be the chosen land, and in July he located the new city of Zion. Soon afterward he returned to Kirtland, and during a visit to Hiram, Ohio, with Sidney Rigdon, he was tarred and feathered. (See RIGDON, SIDNEY, for the subsequent events of this period.)


Meanwhile the building of the first "temple" in Kirtland was decided upon, and each Mormon was compelled to give one seventh of his time in labor for its completion in addition to the tithes that were paid into the treasury. It was 80 feet, long, 59 feet wide, and 50 feet high, and was dedicated on 27 March, 1836. At a conference of the elders. held 3 May, 1834, the name of "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints" was adopted, and on 14 February, 1835, a quorum of the twelve apostles was organized.


During 1837-'8 dissensions arose in the church, owing to the financial difficulties of the time, and many of the members left it. Smith was charged with having recommended two of his followers to take the life of Grandison Newell, an opponent of Mormonism, but, although he was brought before the courts, he was discharged, owing to the lack of evidence.


The failure of the bank, charges of fraud, and other difficulties occurred, and on 13 January, 1838, he made his escape to Illinois, ultimately reaching Far West, Missouri Toward the close of the year the conflict between the Mormons and Missourians, who had previously insisted that the former should leave their territory, assumed the proportions of civil war. The Mormons armed themselves and, assembling in large bodies, fortified their towns and defied the officers of the law. The militia of the state was called out by the governor. Smith and many of his associates were lodged in jail, having been indicted for "murder, treason, burglary, arson, and larceny," but on 16 April, 1839, during their removal to Boone county, made their escape to Illinois, whither their families had fled.


After this the leaders of the church were frequently arrested on various charges, the "prophet" being in custody nearly fifty times. Most of the refugees met in Hancock county, Illinois, and on the site of the town of Commerce the city of the saints, Nauvoo, was founded and a charter obtained, signed by the governor, 16 December, 1840. The municipal election was held on 1 February, 1841, Smith was elected mayor, and two days previously he was chosen sole trustee of the Mormon church, with unlimited powers. The charter of the city granted the right to form a military organization called the Nauvoo legion, which at one time contained about 1,500 men, and on 4 February, 1841, Smith was elected lieutenant-general.


The erection of a new temple was begun, missionaries were sent to England, through whom large accessions were made to the church, and in 1842 Smith was at the height of his prosperity. Not only was his fame known from one end of the land to the other, but his favor was sought eagerly by the leaders of the two great political parties, who flattered and praised him that they might win his support.


Jealousies soon arose among the leaders, some of whom were driven from the church, and by his revelation of 12 July, 1843, authorizing him to take spiritual wives, he antagonized certain of his followers, among whom were Dr. Robert D. Foster and William Law, whose wives he had solicited to enter into the married state with him.


In 1844, with other apostate Mormons, Foster and Law decided upon the establishment of a newspaper in Nauvoo, for the purpose of making war upon the leaders of Mormonism. This was the "Nauvoo Expositor," the first and only number of which contained what purported to be affidavits from sixteen women who insisted that Smith and Sidney Rigdon were guilty of moral impurity and were in favor of the "spiritual-wife" system, which they openly denounced. These accusations greatly incensed the "prophet," and the city council declared the paper a nuisance, and ordered that it should be abated. Under cover of this ordinance the followers of Smith attacked the building, destroyed the presses, and made a bonfire of the paper and furniture.


Foster and Law fled to Carthage, and a warrant was issued for the arrest of Joseph Smith, the mayor of Nauvoo, and seventeen of his adherents. He refused to acknowledge the validity of the warrant, and the constable who served it was marched out of Nauvoo by the city marshal. The militia was called out, and the Mormons gave up their public arms. Joseph and Hyrum Smith were arrested on a charge of treason and taken to Carthage jail. The governor visited the Smiths in jail, made a promise of protection to them, and had a guard placed over the building. On the evening of 27 June, 1844, a band of more than 100 men, with blackened faces, rushed into the jail and fired upon the brothers, killing Hyrum first, while Joseph was pierced with four bullets and fell dead.


See "Mormonism and the Mormons," by Daniel P. Kidder (New York, 1842); "The Mormons; or Latter-Day Saints, with Memoirs of Joseph Smith" (London, 1851); and the "Early Days of Mormonism," by J. H. Kennedy (New York, 1888).


--His son, Joseph Smith, born in Kirtland, Ohio, 6 November, 1832, after the death of his father in 1844 remained in Nauvoo with his mother, who would not acknowledge the authority of Brigham Young. For years she kept a hotel, in which her son assisted her. He also was clerk in a store, worked on a farm, was sub-contractor on a railroad, and studied law. After standing aloof from the Mormon church till he was about twenty-four years of age, he resolved to put himself at the head of a " reorganized" branch of it, which he did in 1860. In 1866 he left Nauvoo and took up his abode as editor and manager of "The Saints' Herald" at Plano, Illinois He then went abroad and preached frequently for about fifteen years, and then removed to Lamoni, Iowa, where he now (1888) resides, as the acknowledged head of the reorganized church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a strong opponent to the doctrine and practices of the polygamists of Utah.

Edited Appletons Encyclopedia by John Looby, Copyright © 2001 VirtualologyTM


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Joseph Smith, the founder and first president of the sect, was the son of a Vermont farmer, and was born in Sharon township, Windsor County, in that state, on 23 December, 1805. In the spring of 1820, while living with his parents at Manchester, Ontario (now Wayne) County, New York, he became deeply concerned upon the subject of his salvation, a condition partly induced by a religious revival which proselytized a few of his relatives to the Presbyterian Faith. Joseph himself was inclined toward Methodism; to satisfy his mind as to which one of the existing sects he should join, he sought Divine guidance, and claimed to have received in answer to prayer a visitation from two glorious beings, who told him not to connect himself to any of these Churches, but to bide the coming of Church of Christ, which was about to be re-established. 

According to his own statement, there appeared to him on the night of 21 September, 1823, a heavenly messenger, who gave his name as Moroni, and revealed the existence of an ancient record containing the fullness of the Gospel of Christ as taught by the Saviour after his Resurrection to the Nephites, a branch of the House of Israel which inhabited the American continent ages prior to its discovery by Columbus. Moroni in mortal life had been a Nephite prophet, the son of another prophet named Mormon, who was the compiler of the record buried in a hill situated about two miles from the modern village of Manchester. 

Joseph Smith states that he received the record from the Angel Moroni in September, 1827. It was, he alleges, engraved upon metallic plates having the appearance of gold and each a little thinner than ordinary tin, the whole forming a book about six inches long, six inches wide, and six inches thick, bound together by rings. The characters engraved upon the plates were in a language styled the Reformed Egyptian, and with the book were interpreters -- Urim and Thummim -- by means of which these characters were to be translated into English. The result was the "Book of Mormon", published at Palmyra, New York in March, 1830; in the preface eleven witnesses, exclusive of Joseph Smith, the translator, claim to have seen the plates from which it was taken. On renouncing Mormonism subsequently, Cowdery, Whitmer, and Harris -- the three principal witnesses -- declared this testimony false. 

The "Book of Mormon" purports to be an abridged account of God's dealings with the two great races of prehistoric Americans -- the Jaredites, who were led from the Tower of Babel at the time of the confusion of the tongues, and the Nephites who came from Jerusalem just prior to the Babylonian captivity (600 B.C.). According to this book, America is the "Land of Zion", where the New Jerusalem will be built by a gathering of scattered Israel before the second coming of the Messiah. The labours of such men as Columbus, the Pilgrim Fathers, and the patriots of the Revolution, are pointed out as preparatory to that consummation. The work of Joseph Smith is also prophetically indicated, he being represented as a lineal descendant of the Joseph of old, commissioned to begin the gathering of Israel foretold by Isaias (11:10-16) and other ancient prophets. 

In another part of his narrative Joseph Smith affirms that, while translating the "Book of Mormon", he and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery, were visited by an angel, who declared himself to be John the Baptist and ordained them to the Aaronic priesthood; and that subsequently they were ordained to the priesthood of Melchisedech by the Apostles Peter, James and John. According to Smith and Cowdery, the Aaronic priesthood gave them authority to preach faith and repentance, to baptize by immersion for the remission of sins, and to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper; the priesthood of Melchisedech empowered them to lay on hands and bestow the Holy Ghost. 

The "Book of Mormon" being published, its peculiar doctrines, including those just set forth, were preached in western New York and northern Pennsylvania. Those who accepted them were termed "Mormons", but they called themselves "Latter-Day Saints", in contradistinction to the saints of former times. The "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints" was organized on 6 April, 1830, at Fayette, Seneca County, New York; Joseph Smith was accepted as first elder, and prophet, seer, and revelator. 

The articles of faith formulated by him are as follows: 

"(1) We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost. 
"(2) We believe that men will be punished for their own sins, and not for Adam's transgression. 
"(3) We believe that through the atonement of Christ all men may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. 
"(4) We believe that these ordinances are: First, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ; second, repentance; third, baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; fourth, laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost 
"(5) We believe that a man must be called of God by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands by those who are in authority, to preach the Gospel and administer the ordinances thereof. 
"(6) We believe in the same organization that existed in the primitive church, viz. apostles, prophets, pastors teachers, evangelists, etc. 
"(7) We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, etc. 
"(8) We believe the Bible to be the word of God, as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the 'Book of Mormon' to be the word of God. 
"(9) We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God. 
"(10) We believe in the literal gathering of Israel and in the restoration of the Ten Tribes. That Zion will be built upon this continent. That Christ will reign personally upon the earth, and that the earth will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory. 
"(11) We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our conscience, and allow all men the same privilege; let them worship how, where, or what they may. 
"(12) We believe in being subject to kings, president, rulers and magistrates, in obeying. honoring and sustaining that law. 
"(13) We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul, 'We believe all things, we hope all things' we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely or of good report, or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."  -
The Catholic Encyclopedia Robert Appleton Company

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