Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography/Smith, Joseph (prophet)

SMITH, Joseph, Mormon prophet, b. in Sharon, Vt., 23 Dec., 1805; d. in Carthage, Ill., 27 June, 1844. His parents were poor, and when he was ten years of age they moved to Palmyra, N. Y., and four years later to Manchester, a few miles distant. In the spring of 1820, in the midst of great religious 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 Sept., 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 fulness 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 Sept., 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, Pa., 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, N. Y., 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, N. Y., 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, N. Y., 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 Feb., 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 Jan., 1838, he made his escape to Illinois, ultimately reaching Far West, Mo. 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, Ill., 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 Dec., 1840. The municipal election was held on 1 Feb., 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 Feb., 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, b. in Kirtland, Ohio, 6 Nov., 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, Ill. He then went abroad and preached frequently for about fifteen years, and then removed to Lamoni, Iowa, continuing to reside there 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.