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In comparison, Jesus Christ was crucified, rose again, and ascended into heaven in 29 AD. Three hundred years later, in 313 AD, Rome recognized Christianity as the official state religion.
Joseph Smith's life and ministry span was a mere 39 years.
Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont. Smith family members held divergent views about organized religion, but they believed in visions and prophecies and engaged in folk religious practices typical of the era.
For instance, during his youth and early adulthood, Smith himself was paid to use a seer stone to search for buried treasure. Greed had already lifted its head.
Beginning in the early 1820s, Smith said he saw visions, in some of which he said an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates, inscribed with a Christian history of ancient American civilizations.
In 1830, he published as the Book of Mormon what he said was an English translation of these plates and then organized branches of the Church of Christ, saying he had been chosen by God to restore the early Christian church. Church members were later called Latter Day Saints, Saints, or Mormons.
In 1831, Smith moved west to Kirtland, Ohio intending to establish a utopian city called Zion in western Missouri, but Missouri settlers expelled the Saints in 1833. After leading Zion's Camp, an unsuccessful expedition to recover the land, Smith began building a temple in Kirtland.
In 1837, the Kirtland Safety Society, a bank established by Smith and other church leaders, collapsed. The following year Smith joined his followers in northern Missouri, where earlier settlers fearing the rapid growth of Mormon communities fought them in the 1838 Mormon War. The Saints were defeated and expelled from Missouri, and Smith was imprisoned on capital charges.
After being allowed to escape state custody in 1839, Smith led his followers to settle at Nauvoo, Illinois on Mississippi River swampland. There he served as both mayor and commander of its large militia, the Nauvoo Legion. In early 1844, he announced his candidacy for President of the United States. Mormons sure showed an early interest in the Oval Office.
Smith's followers regard many of his publications as scripture. His teachings include unique views about the nature of God, cosmology, family structures, political organization, and religious collectivism. He is seen as one of the most charismatic and inventive figures of American history, and his followers regard him as a prophet of at least the stature of Moses and Elijah.
With his family, he took part in religious folk magic, a common practice at the time. Like many people of that era, both his parents and his maternal grandfather had visions or dreams that they believed communicated messages from God. Smith later said that he had his own first vision in 1820, in which God told him his sins were forgiven and that all the current churches were false.
The Smith family supplemented its meager farm income by treasure-digging, likewise relatively common in contemporary New England though the practice was frequently condemned by clergymen and rationalists and was often illegal.
Joseph claimed an ability to use seer stones for locating lost items and buried treasure. To do so, Smith would put a stone in a white stovepipe hat and would then see the required information in reflections given off by the stone.
In 1823, while praying for forgiveness from his sins, Smith said he was visited at night by an angel named Moroni, who revealed the location of a buried book of golden plates as well as other artifacts, including a breastplate and a set of silver spectacles with lenses composed of seer stones, which had been hidden in a hill near his home.
Smith said he attempted to remove the plates the next morning but was unsuccessful because the angel prevented him.
During the next four years, Smith made annual visits to the hill, only to return without the plates because he claimed that he had not brought with him the right person required by the angel. Meanwhile, Smith continued traveling western New York and Pennsylvania as a treasure seeker and also as a farmland. In 1826, he was tried in Chenango County, New York, for "glass-looking," the crime of pretending to find lost treasure.
While boarding at the Hale house in Harmony, he met Emma Hale and, on January 18, 1827, eloped with her because her parents disapproved of his treasure hunting. Claiming his stone told him that Emma was the key to obtaining the plates, Smith went with her to the hill on September 22, 1827.
This time, he said, he retrieved the plates and placed them in a locked chest. He said the angel commanded him not to show the plates to anyone else but to publish their translation, reputed to be the religious record of indigenous Americans.
Joseph later promised Emma's parents that his treasure-seeking days were behind him.
Although Smith had left his treasure hunting company, his former associates believed he had double-crossed them by taking for himself what they considered joint property. They ransacked places where a competing treasure-seer said the plates were hidden, and Smith soon realized that he could not accomplish the translation in Palmyra.
In October 1827, Smith and his pregnant wife moved from Palmyra to Harmony (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, aided by money from a comparatively prosperous neighbor Martin Harris.
Living near his disapproving in-laws, Smith transcribed some of the characters (what he called "reformed Egyptian") engraved on the plates and then dictated a translation to his wife.
For at least some of the earliest translation, Smith said he used "Urim and Thummim", a pair of seer stones he said were buried with the golden plates. Later, however, he used the single chocolate-colored stone he had found in 1822 and used for treasure hunting. As when divining the location of treasure, Smith said he saw the words of the translation while he gazed at the stone or stones in the bottom of his hat, excluding all light. The plates themselves were not directly consulted. Smith did this in full view of witnesses, but sometimes concealed the process by raising a curtain or dictating from another room.
Smith may have considered giving up the translation because of opposition from his in-laws, but in February 1828, Martin Harris arrived to spur him on by taking the characters and their translations to a few prominent scholars. Harris claimed that one of the scholars he visited, Charles Anthon, initially authenticated the characters and their translation, then recanted upon hearing that Smith had received the plates from an angel. Anthon denied this claim and Harris returned to Harmony in April 1828 motivated to act as Smith's scribe.
Translation continued until mid-June 1828, until Harris began having doubts about the existence of the golden plates. Harris importuned Smith to let him take the existing 116 pages of manuscript to Palmyra to show a few family members. Harris then lost the manuscript-of which there was no copy-at about the same time as Smith's wife Emma gave birth to a stillborn son. Smith said the angel had taken away the plates and he had lost his ability to translate until September 22, 1828, when they were restored.
Smith and his scribe claimed John the Baptist had appeared and ordained them to a priesthood. Translation was completed around July 1, 1829. Knowing that potential converts to the planned church might find Smith's story of the plates incredible, Smith asked a group of 11 witnesses, including Martin Harris and male members of the Whitmer and Smith families, to sign a statement testifying that they had seen the golden plates, and in the case of the latter eight witnesses, had actually hefted the plates.
According to Smith, the angel Moroni took back the plates after Smith was finished using them.
The translation, known as the Book of Mormon, was published in Palmyra on March 26, 1830, by printer E. B. Grandin. Martin Harris financed the publication by mortgaging his farm.
By the summer of 1835, there were fifteen hundred to two thousand Mormons in the vicinity of Kirtland expecting Smith to lead them shortly to the Millennial kingdom. Though Oliver Cowdery's mission to the Indians was a failure, he sent word he had found the site for the New Jerusalem in Jackson County, Missouri. After he visited there in July 1831, Smith agreed and pronounced the county's rugged outpost Independence to be the "center place" of Zion. Rigdon, however, disapproved of the location, and for most of the 1830s, the church was divided between Ohio and Missouri. Smith continued to live in Ohio but visited Missouri again in early 1832 in order to prevent a rebellion of prominent Saints, including Cowdery, who believed Zion was being neglected. Smith's trip was hastened by a mob of residents led by former Saints who were incensed over the United Order and Smith's political power. The mob beat Smith and Rigdon unconscious and tarred and feathered them.
The old Jackson Countians resented the Mormon newcomers for various political and religious reasons. Mob attacks began in July 1833, but Smith advised the Mormons to patiently bear them until a fourth attack, which would permit vengeance to be taken. Nevertheless, once they began to defend themselves, the Mormons were brutally expelled from the county. Under authority of revelations directing Smith to lead the church like a modern Moses to redeem Zion by power and avenge God's enemies, he led to Missouri a paramilitary expedition, later called Zion's Camp. When the camp found itself outnumbered, Smith retreated and produced a revelation explaining that the church was unworthy to redeem Zion in part because of the failure of the recently disbanded United Order. Redemption of Zion would have to wait until after the elders of the church could receive another endowment of heavenly power, this time in the Kirtland Temple then under construction.
Smith dedicated the Kirtland (Ohio) Temple in 1836. Zion's Camp was a major failure that stunned Smith for months and resulted in a crisis in Kirtland. But Zion's Camp also led to a transformation in Mormon leadership and culture. Just before Zion's Camp left Kirtland, Smith disbanded the United Order and changed the name of the church to "Church of Latter Day Saints." After the Camp returned, Smith drew heavily from its participants to establish five governing bodies in the church, all of equal authority to check one another. He also produced fewer revelations, relying more heavily on the authority of his own teaching, and he altered and expanded many of the previous revelations to reflect recent changes in theology and practice, publishing them as the Doctrine and Covenants. Smith also claimed to translate, from Egyptian papyri he had purchased from a traveling exhibitor, a text he later published as the Book of Abraham. The Saints built the Kirtland Temple at great cost, and at the temple's dedication in March 1836, they participated in the prophesied endowment, a scene of visions, angelic visitations, prophesying, speaking and singing in tongues, and other spiritual experiences. The period from 1834-1837 was one of relative peace for Joseph Smith.
Nevertheless, after the dedication of the Kirtland temple in late 1837, "Smith's life descended into a tangle of intrigue and conflict" and a series of internal disputes led to the collapse of the Kirtland Mormon community. Although the church had publicly repudiated polygamy, behind the scenes there was a rift between Smith and Oliver Cowdery over the issue. Smith had by some accounts been teaching a polygamy doctrine as early as 1831. Sometime between 1833 and 1836, Smith engaged in a furtive relationship with his adolescent serving girl Fanny Alger. Although Cowdery claimed the relationship was a "filthy affair," Smith insisted the relationship was not adulterous, presumably because he had taken Alger as a plural wife. Cowdery, who was in the process of leaving the church, was eventually charged with slander and expelled from the church. Emma Smith "suspected a relationship and threw Fanny out of the house."
Building the temple left the church deeply in debt, and Smith was hounded by creditors. After Smith heard about treasure supposedly hidden in Salem, Massachusetts, he traveled there and received a revelation that God had "much treasure in this city." After a month, he returned empty-handed. Smith then turned to wildcat banking, establishing the Kirtland Safety Society in January 1837, which issued bank notes capitalized in part by real estate. Smith invested heavily in the notes and encouraged the Saints to buy them as a religious duty. The bank failed within a month. As a result, the Kirtland Saints suffered intense pressure from debt collectors and severe price volatility. Smith was held responsible for the failure, and there were widespread defections from the church, including many of Smith's closest advisers. After a warrant was issued for Smith's arrest on a charge of banking fraud, Smith and Rigdon fled Kirtland for Missouri on the night of January 12, 1838.
After leaving Jackson County, the Saints in Missouri established the town of Far West. Smith's plans to redeem Zion in Jackson County had lapsed by 1838, and after Smith and Rigdon arrived in Missouri, Far West became the new Mormon "Zion." In Missouri, the church also received a new name: the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," and construction began on a new temple. Soon after Smith and Rigdon arrived at Far West, hundreds of disaffected Saints in Kirtland, suddenly realizing "the enormity of their loss," followed them to Missouri. But Smith was unable to reconcile with many of the oldest and most prominent leaders of the church, and he purged those critics who had not yet resigned.
Though it had not been an issue in his preliminary hearing, he denied rumors of polygamy, as he quietly planned how to reveal the principle to his followers. Many Saints now considered Smith a fallen prophet, but he assured them he still had the heavenly keys. He directed the Saints to collect and publish all their stories of persecution, and to moderate their antagonism to non-Mormons. Smith and his companions tried to escape at least twice during their four-month imprisonment, and on April 6, 1839, on their way to a different jail after their grand jury hearing, they succeeded by bribing the sheriff.
Smith introduced baptism for the dead in 1840, and in 1841, construction began on the Nauvoo Temple as a place for recovering lost ancient knowledge. An 1841 revelation promised the restoration of the "fulness of the priesthood," and in May 1842, Smith inaugurated a revised endowment or "first anointing." The endowment resembled rites of freemasonry that Smith had observed two months earlier when he had been initiated into the Nauvoo Masonic lodge. At first the endowment was open only to men, who once initiated became part of the Anointed Quorum.
In April 1841, Smith secretly wed Louisa Beaman as a plural wife, and during the next two and a half years he may have married 30 additional women, ten of whom were already married to other men, and about a third of them teenagers, including two 14-year-old girls. Meanwhile he publicly and repeatedly denied that he advocated polygamy. Smith told at least some of his potential wives that marriage to him would ensure their spiritual exaltation.
Although Smith's first wife Emma knew of some of these marriages, she almost certainly did not know the extent of her husband's polygamous activities. Smith kept the doctrine of plural marriage secret except for potential wives and a few of his closest male associates, including Bennett.
Smith's plural relationships were preceded by a "priesthood marriage," which Smith believed legitimized the relationships and made them non-adulterous. Bennett, on the other hand, ignored even perfunctory ceremonies. When embarrassing rumors of "spiritual wifery" got abroad, Smith forced Bennett's resignation as Nauvoo mayor. In retaliation, Bennett wrote "lurid exposÚs of life in Nauvoo."
By mid-1842, popular opinion had turned against the Saints. Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal became a sharp critic after Smith attacked the paper. When Lilburn Boggs, the Governor of Missouri, was shot by an unknown assailant on May 6, 1842, many suspected Smith's involvement because of rumors that Smith had predicted his assassination. Evidence suggests that the shooter was Porter Rockwell, a former Danite and one of Smith's bodyguards. Smith went into hiding, but he ultimately avoided extradition to Missouri because any involvement in the crime would have occurred in Illinois. Rockwell was tried and acquitted. In June 1843, Illinois Governor Thomas Ford issued an extradition writ against Smith, but Smith countered with a Nauvoo writ of habeas corpus. Ford later wrote that this incident caused a majority of Illinois residents to favor expelling Mormons from Illinois.
In 1843, Emma reluctantly allowed Smith to marry four women who had been living in the Smith household-two of whom Smith had already married without her knowledge. Emma also participated with Smith in the first "sealing" ceremony, intended to bind their marriage for eternity. However, Emma soon regretted her decision to accept plural marriage and forced the other wives from the household, nagging Smith to abandon the practice. Smith dictated a revelation pressuring Emma to accept, but the revelation only made her furious. Nevertheless, in the fall of 1843, after Smith allowed women to be initiated into the Anointed Quorum, Emma participated with Smith in the first second anointing. According to Smith, this ritual was the prophesied "fullness of the priesthood" in which participants were ordained "kings and priests of the Most High God" and thus fulfilled what Smith called "[a] perfect law of Theocracy." The Anointed Quorum became Smith's advisory body for political matters.
In December 1843, under the authority of the Anointed Quorum, Smith petitioned Congress to make Nauvoo an independent territory with the right to call out federal troops in its defense. Smith then wrote the leading presidential candidates and asked them what they would do to protect the Mormons.
After receiving noncommittal or negative responses, Smith announced his own third-party candidacy for President of the United States, suspending regular proselytizing and sending out the Quorum of the Twelve and hundreds of other political missionaries. In March 1844, following a dispute with a federal bureaucrat,
Smith organized the secret Council of Fifty with authority to decide which national or state laws Mormons should obey. The Council was also to select a site for a large Mormon settlement in Texas, California, or Oregon, where Mormons could live under theocratic law beyond other governmental control. In effect, the Council was a shadow world government, a first step toward creating a global "theodemocracy". One of the Council's first acts was to elect Smith as "prophet, priest and king" of the millennial monarchy.
By the spring of 1844, a rift developed between Smith and a half dozen of his closest associates. Most notably William Law, Smith's trusted consular, and Robert Foster, a general of the Nauvoo Legion, disagreed with Smith about how to manage Nauvoo's economy.
Both also believed that Smith had proposed marriage to their wives. After one of the dissidents was heard predicting an uprising in Nauvoo, Smith excommunicated them on April 18, 1844. The dissidents formed a competing church and the following month, at Carthage, the county seat, they procured grand jury indictments against Smith for polygamy and other crimes. Smith vehemently denied he had more than one wife.
On June 7, 1844, the dissidents published the first (and only) issue of the Nauvoo Expositor, calling for reform within the church. The paper decried polygamy and Smith's new "doctrines of many Gods," and it alluded to Smith's kingship and theocratic aspirations, promising to present evidence of its allegations in succeeding issues.
Fearing the newspaper might bring the countryside down on the Mormons, the Nauvoo city council declared the Expositer a public nuisance and ordered the Nauvoo Legion to destroy the press. In the words of historian Richard Bushman, Smith "failed to see that suppression of the paper was far more likely to arouse a mob than the libels. It was a fatal mistake."
Destruction of the newspaper provoked a strident call to arms by Thomas C. Sharp, editor of the Warsaw Signal. Fearing an uprising, Smith mobilized the Nauvoo Legion on June 18 and declared martial law. Carthage responded by mobilizing its small detachment of the state militia, and Illinois Governor Thomas Ford appeared, threatening to raise a larger militia unless Smith and the Nauvoo city council surrendered themselves. Smith initially fled across the Mississippi River, but under pressure from Emma and other Saints, he returned and surrendered to Ford.
On June 23, Smith and his brother Hyrum were taken to Carthage to stand trial for inciting a riot. Once the Smiths were in custody, the charges were increased to treason against Illinois.
On June 27, 1844, an armed group with blackened faces stormed Carthage Jail where Smith and Hyrum were being held, killing Hyrum instantly with a shot to the face. Smith fired a pepper-box pistol that had been smuggled into the prison, then "sprang to the window" before being shot several times.
He died shortly after falling to the ground. Smith was buried in Nauvoo.
Five men were tried for his murder, but all were acquitted.
Watch for an announcement of another post abut the religious cult of Mormonism and the relationship of Mitt Romney running for president as a conservative Republican.
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