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Photo of Joseph SmithJoseph Smith

(1805-1844)

As founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormons, Joseph Smith stands as one of the most charismatic and influential religious figures in American history.

Smith was born in 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, into a hard-pressed farm family that eventually included ten children. The Smiths moved ten times in nineteen years, but almost all of Joseph's later childhood was spent near Palmyra, New York, in the heart of what was called the "burned-over district" for its frequent and fervent Protestant revivals.

By his own description, Smith's first direct divine revelation came at age fourteen, on the Smith family farm. In a series of encounters, God revealed to him that all religions since the death of Christ's disciples had strayed from the true Church of Christ, which Smith was charged with restoring. Later visions instructed Smith to translate a history of ancient inhabitants of North America written on tablets of gold stored in a nearby hillside. The translations were published in 1830 as the Book of Mormon, which together with the Old and New Testaments and some of Smith's later revelations became the sacred scripture of Mormonism.

Theologically, Smith's new religion drew upon, yet transcended, important elements of 19th century American Protestantism and religious practices. God and Jesus Christ were hardly remote figures to Smith and his followers; they were material beings with the bodies of men who actively and directly intervened in human affairs. Human beings are themselves filled with the essence of divinity, and through proper conduct can literally become God-like. The Mormon Church, under the leadership of a divinely ordained Prophet, provides the structure by which humans progress toward this God-like status.

Smith formally founded his church shortly after the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830. His immediate family and close friends formed much of its early leadership. Smith's driving personality and immense personal charisma were essential to Mormonism's explosive early growth. Even sworn enemies of Mormonism were left stunned by the power of his presence and the authority with which he spoke.

Within a year of the establishment of the Church, Smith moved to Kirtland Mills, Ohio, a place that he hoped would allow the "Saints," as the Mormons referred to themselves, to gather and live in the Kingdom of God on earth. Several Mormon settlements in Missouri, however, were the predominant Mormon population centers. The settlements were not merely groupings of like-minded people, but rather communities where political, social and economic functions were intimately bound up with one another.

The 1837 banking panic across the United States caused the economic collapse of the Kirtland settlement, and this, together with spreading rumors of polygamy, caused many Mormon converts to leave the church. Undaunted, Smith headed west to Missouri with his loyal followers. Within a year, virtual civil war had broken out between the Saints and their gentile neighbors, who were hostile to the Mormon religion and fearful of the Mormon communities' economic and political might. Missouri's governor ordered all Mormons to leave the state, and when their stronghold in Far West, Missouri, was surrounded, Smith, fearing an imminent massacre, surrendered.

This time the Mormons fled East, founding the city of Nauvoo on the Mississippi River near Quincy, Illinois, in 1839. By 1844, the city had grown to over 10,000 inhabitants, and international missionary efforts had lifted the church to nearly 35,000 members. But this growth again stirred suspicion and resentment among the Mormon's gentile neighbors, now exacerbated by the spread of polygamy -- still a confidential tenet of the faith -- among Mormon leaders.

When Smith announced that he was running for the Presidency of the United States in 1844, opposition to the Mormons reached a climax. Smith was imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois, and charged with inciting a riot after he attempted to destroy a newspaper that exposed the Mormon's practice of polygamy. But before he could be tried on these charges, a mob broke into his cell and brutally killed both him and his brother.

The murder of its founder left the Mormon community at a crossroads. The majority of Saints rallied around Brigham Young, who as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles claimed to be Smith's rightful successor. Under his leadership, they moved westward again to Utah. Many rejected Young's leadership, however, and some of these Mormons eventually formed the Reorganized Latter-day Saints, a sect which has always rejected polygamy and, with several hundred thousand members today, claims to be the true church.


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