Depending on the source, Joseph Smith, the founder and First Prophet of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was a divinely-inspired spiritual leader whose recurring revelations and supernatural experiences legitimated his claim to power, a charlatan of incredible pursuasive abilities, or possibly even a brilliant paranoid schizophrenic. Regardless of the category he is placed in by historians, Mormon and non-Mormon alike, there can be no doubt that Smith's story is an extraordinary one. His vision of American history, as evinced in the Book of Mormon, not only spawned a new religion but provided his followers with a model of an America to which they could return. In a time of great confusion for America as the new and unstable country, adrift with little history, sought a collective narrative under which to reside, Joseph Smith gave to his followers America's past; he gave them the story of a once perfect and now reclaimable garden.
Joseph Smith was born 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. Smith is characterized as being literate, but far from well-educated. His family's hard-scrabble existence led them across Vermont and eventually to Rochester, New York; it left little time for the luxury of education, although Smith's mother recalled his penchant for story-telling as one of the few things that could uplift the family.
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Sometime in 1820, Smith's life changed; it was that year that he experienced the First Vision:
"The Lord heard me cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of
calling upon the Lord in the
16th year of my age a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from
above and rested upon me. I was filled with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens
upon me and I saw the Lord.
He spake unto me saying, Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of Glory. I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life. Behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of earth to visit them according to their ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Apostles. Behold and lo, I come quickly as it is written of me, in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father."
A year later, Smith reported another vision, one that would decisively shape the rest of his life:
"And it came to pass when I was seventeen years of age, I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision. For behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me. It was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins. He revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni and his fathers, the servants of the living God in Ancient days, deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them. He revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments and revelations."
What the angel Moroni had further told Smith (as Smith wrote in the later, canonized version of the visions) was that on these gold plates were the records of the first Americans. Along with these were two special stones, the Urim and Thummin; Moroni explained that the possession and use of these stones were what constituted seers in ancient or former times, and that God had prepared them for the pupose of translating the book.
Smith attempted to retrieve the golden plates from the hill in New York; he could not, however, for another three years. He reported in his journal that the angel Moroni had refused him access: "You have not kept the commandments of the Lord which I gave you...And in his own due time thou shalt obtain them." Interestingly, during this period Smith and his father were known in their area as "treasure-finders" or "money-diggers". Prior to the First Vision, Joseph found a "seerstone", a smooth stone "the size but not the shape of a hen's egg." According to the tenets of folk magic which were popular in that region at the time, the seerstone possessed magical powers which allowed the holder of it to locate lost objects and precious metals beneath the earth's surface. Many believed that Smith could not have found the golden plates of Moroni had it not been for this magical stone.
This narrative operates in several ways within an American and Mormon ideology. First and most obviously, the visions and the story of the displaced Isreaites creates a communal understanding among believers; the appearance of the text itself validates the visions of Joseph Smith, as the visions validate the text. Many believed that such inspiration must have been divine, for surely a five hundred page work such as the Book of Mormon could not have come from the mind of a just-literate farm boy, and that in itself seemed to attest to the powers of Smith. Although the Book seems fantastic to non-believers, to those who embraced the teachings of Smith, the story seemed rational; it offered a historical, tangibly-based (assuming the veracity of the golden plates), Biblically-validated way of looking at America's history at a crucial time when Americans were questioning their own place in the world.
Further, as America as a whole leaned into the nineteenth century tenets of Manifest Destiny, the story of Lehi and his family seemed fairly well in step. These first immigrants to the North American continent had been assured by God that they were being sent to "a land of promise, which was choice above all other lands, which the Lord God had preserved for a righteous people....and whatsoever nation shall possess it, shall be so free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ." Explicit in this passage is the image of the Edenic garden, anyone's for the taking who will live within the covenent; implicit, however, is the validation for such acts of nineteenth century America as the Mexican-American war or the conversion or extermination of the Native American tribes--the fallen Lamanites who forget their history and do not worship the one true God deserve no better. It is clear that in one way, the promised land, fallen into the hands of the Lamanites, has become the Puritans' "howling wilderness" rather than God's Edenic garden. Surely a part of the impetus to move westward was, for the Mormons, not an expansion, but a reclamation.
As the Mormon religion grew within the United States, Joseph Smith remained at its head. Not a remote figure delegating responsibility, Smith continued to convert new members and presided over the first move west to Kirtland, Ohio and the second to Commerce (later Nauvoo), Illinois. There, he was forced to deal with an increasingly antagonistic situation; the distaste and even outright hatred with which much of the rest of the country seemed to view the Mormons erupted not infrequently into mob violence, and Smith himself and his close associates were arrested more than once on various charges. Near the end of his life, Smith seemed to style himself in the role of a dictator over his small kingdom. Aside from being "sealed" polygynously to over twenty Mormon women during the last three years of his life, he also ran for the United States presidency, destroyed the printing press and business of a group of Mormon dissenters, and by mid-June of 1844, declared martial law in Nauvoo. For this (and other real or imagined offences), Smith and his brother Hyrum were arrested. Although they first fled across the Mississippi River, they both returned three days later and surrendered at Carthage, Illinois. Two days after their arrest, in jail and under the protection of state marshals, Joseph and Hyrum Smith were shot to death by a mob.