Joseph Smith Jr.

Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2001), 11–21.

Joseph Smith portrait

Born: 23 December 1805, Sharon, Vermont

Ordained an apostle by Peter,

James, and John: May 1829 (age 23)

First Elder: 6 April 1830

President of the Church: 25 January 1832 (age 26)

Died: 27 June 1844 (age 38), Carthage, Illinois

A seventeen-year-old boy stood in the midst of his family relating an incredible story. His name was the same as a prophet of old whose brothers rejected him for being favored of the Lord—they stole his coat, beat him, cast him into a pit, and then sold him as a slave into Egypt. The modern-day Joseph searched the eyes of his brothers, sisters, and parents. His brother William wrote: “He arose and told us how the angel appeared to him; what he had told him. . . . He continued talking to us [for] sometime. The whole family were melted to tears, and believed all he said.” [1]

The angel referred to was the angel Moroni, who had appeared to young Joseph five times on 21 and 22 September 1823. Part of the reason his family knew he was telling the truth was that he was not educated or sophisticated enough to fabricate such a tale. William wrote: “Knowing that he was very young, that he had not enjoyed the advantages of a common education; and knowing too, his whole character and disposition, [we] were convinced that he was totally incapable of arising before his aged parents, his brothers and sisters, and so solemnly giving utterance to anything but the truth.” [2]

One of the reasons the Smith family was prepared to believe that Joseph’s spiritual manifestations were real was because his father had also seen visions: “Joseph Smith, Sr., had seven inspirational dreams over a span of years, all exhibiting a desire for belief, healing, and direction, all showing dissatisfaction with religion as it existed.” [3]

In the simplicity of this farm boy lay the majesty of his divine calling and the mystery of the incredible heights he attained in fulfilling his earthly ministry as one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. After Joseph’s assassination, John Taylor wrote: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3). Elder George A. Smith remarked, “When the Lord commenced his work . . . He passed over his Holiness the Pope, and the shops that were presiding with so much dignity, splendour, and authority over the different portions of the Christian Church. He passed over the learned institutions of the day, and went into a field and laid his hand on the head of Joseph Smith, a ploughboy—upon one who cultivated the earth, and had scarcely education enough to read his Bible.” [4]

So it was that the lot fell to Joseph Smith Jr. to experience the first marvelous manifestation of this dispensation in a grove near Palmyra, New York, at the age of fourteen: the God of heaven and his divine Son appeared to him, announced that no church then on earth taught the fulness of the gospel, and appointed Joseph to be the prophet of the Restoration. So it was that a second visitation came in the person of the angel Moroni, heralding a multitude of heavenly manifestations. These were explicit steps in the establishment of the divine kingdom of God upon the earth. Furthermore, John the Baptist returned to restore the Aaronic Priesthood; Peter, James, and John laid their hands on the head of the young prophet, giving him the

joseph smith PortraitPainting of the Prophet Joseph Smith by Sutdiffe Maudsley, early 1840s

Melchizedek Priesthood; and the angel Moroni returned again, giving him the gold plates. The plates contained the ancient history of the Americas and God’s dealings with his people, which Joseph translated into the Book of Mormon, a means by which thousands of conversions to the restored kingdom were made. Many other visions and manifestations continued throughout the life of the Prophet, for whom the veil of heaven was very thin. He received many important keys for the establishment of the Church from prophets of old—Moses, Elias, Elijah—and saw the heavens opened upon the world to come in a radiant vision of the kingdoms of heaven in their varying degrees of glory.

The Prophet’s physical appearance often surprised those who met him. Many people coming to Nauvoo expected to find a solemn prophet with a long white beard, but they found instead a very “jolly fellow.” He considered himself “one of the last persons on earth whom God would have raised up as a prophet or priest,” being “so diametrically opposite” what one would expect a prophet to be. [5] Physically “he was more than six feet in height, with expansive chest and clean-cut limbs—a staunch and graceful figure. His head, crowned with a mass of soft, wavy hair, was grandly poised.” [6] One observer said, “But the Prophet’s most remarkable feature is his eye . . . . The hue light hazel, and it is shaded, and, at times, almost veiled by the longest, thickest light lashes you ever saw belonging to a man. The brows are also light and thick indeed.” [7]

But most impressive about the descriptions of Joseph Smith are the continual references to the near transparency of his being and to the light his face radiated at the times when he communed with heaven. George Q. Cannon said, “His face possessed a complexion of such clearness and transparency that the soul appeared to shine through.” [8] Mary Elizabeth Rollins, who was present at a meeting where the Prophet spoke, wrote: “After prayer and singing, Joseph began talking. Suddenly he stopped and seemed almost transfixed, he was looking ahead and his face outshone the candle which was on a shelf just behind him. I thought I could almost see the cheek bones, he looked as though a searchlight was inside his face and shining through every pore.” [9] And Wilford Woodruff described the magnificent last speech he gave to the Quorum of the Twelve: “He was clothed upon with the Spirit and power of God. His face was clear as amber. The room was filled as with consuming fire. He stood three hours upon his feet.” [10]

In a crowd the Prophet stood out so distinctly that many left accounts of knowing him instantly without anyone pointing him out. Mary Alice Cannon Lambert wrote: “I knew him the instant my eyes rested upon him, and at that moment I received my testimony that he was a Prophet of God, for I never had such a feeling for mortal man as thrilled my being when my eyes first rested upon Joseph Smith. He was not pointed out to me. I knew him from all other men, and, child that I was (I was only fourteen) I knew that I saw a Prophet of God.” [11]

He had a peculiar magnetism and a power to lead men from all walks of life. Congressman Stephen A. Douglas said, “If I could command the following of Joseph Smith, . . . I would resign my seat in Congress and go to Oregon. In five years a noble state might be formed.” [12] Men such as the astute businessman Brigham Young, the refined Lorenzo Snow, the rough, uneducated Lyman Wight, the scholarly Orson Spencer—all were willing to follow the Prophet.

Born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, Joseph was the fourth child of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. During his early years, his parents moved several times in an effort to better provide for their growing family. In one of these locations, West Lebanon, New Hampshire, Joseph underwent an excruciating operation on his leg to have a large piece of infected bone removed. Eventually the family settled in the Palmyra/ Manchester area of western New York, where Joseph Smith Sr. and his sons began farming thirty acres of land they had cleared. [13] It was on their property in Manchester Township in a grove of trees that Joseph saw the miraculous vision in 1820 that changed his life. He continued to have many heavenly manifestations and visions leading up to receiving, from the angel Moroni, the gold plates on which the words of the Book of Mormon were inscribed. He obtained the plates 22 September 1827, approximately nine months following his marriage to Emma Hale, the daughter of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale of Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Joseph had gone to work. Upon receiving the ancient record, Joseph and Emma’s life became entirely devoted to the role the Lord had designed for Joseph—translator, organizer of the restored Church, and first prophet of the latter-day kingdom. In December of 1827, because of persecutions and disturbances in New York, where they were then living, the young prophet and his wife returned to Harmony, where he began translating the Book of Mormon. Continued persecutions soon drove them to a more secluded setting in Fayette, New York, where the book was completed and sent to Palmyra for publication. In Fayette, 6 April 1830, shortly after the sacred record was published, the Prophet formally organized the Church. In 1831, again beset by unbearable opposition, Joseph and his family, along with the main body of the Saints in the area, moved to Kirtland, Ohio, creating a central gathering place for the Church.

Membership grew rapidly in Kirtland where the Saints, under Joseph’s direction, erected the first temple of this dispensation, fashioned after plans given by the Lord. [14] But apostasy and persecutions again took their toll, and the Prophet was forced to move his family along with most of the faithful Saints to Jackson County, Missouri. In Missouri, the persecutions continued and Joseph, along with several other leading brethren, was taken prisoner by the enemies of the Saints. Even in these degrading circumstances the Prophet displayed his remarkable character. Parley P. Pratt described an incident that took place in Richmond Jail in Missouri:

[The guards] boasted of defiling by force [Mormon] wives, daughters and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of men, women and children.

I had listened till I became so disgusted, shocked, horrified, and so filled with the spirit of indignant justice that I could scarcely refrain from rising upon my feet and rebuking the guards; but had said nothing to Joseph, or any one else, although I lay next to him and knew he was awake. On a sudden he arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words:

“SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and bear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!”

He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained, and without weapon; calm, unruffled and dignified as an angel, he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards. [15]

Then Brother Pratt commented on the scene: “I have seen the ministers of justice, clothed in magisterial robes, and criminals arraigned before them, while life was suspended on a breath, in the Courts of England; I have witnessed a Congress in solemn session to give laws to nations; I have tried to conceive of kings, of royal courts, of thrones and crowns; and of emperors assembled to decide the fate of kingdoms; but dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri.” [16]

When the Mormons were forced out of Missouri and found refuge in Illinois, the Prophet Joseph Smith had a short respite from persecutions and an opportunity to accomplish the gigantic undertakings of which he was capable. In the unhealthy swamplands along the Mississippi, near Commerce, Illinois, he raised the thriving city of Nauvoo, making advances in education, city planning, politics, economics, military endeavors, and architecture—all of which were far ahead of his time. Aside from these secular contributions, he unfolded the organization of a vast church possessing the same structure and authority as the biblical Christian church established by the Savior; he unveiled many heavenly doctrines concerning the pre-earth life, the true nature of God, salvation for the dead, eternal marriage and family relationships, and many others. President David O. McKay summarized his unparalleled accomplishments: “Joseph Smith’s span of life extended from December 23, 1805, to June 27,1844—thirty-eight years and six months. During that period even before he was twenty-five years of age, he translated the Book of Mormon by divine guidance; published the Doctrine and Covenants; translated the Pearl of Great Price; rose from a day laborer on the stubbornly yielding farms of New England to be mayor of the largest city in Illinois, when Chicago was but a village; organized the School of the Prophets; founded a university; and organized the Church, which, in completeness, in organization and in helpfulness to its members, commands the admiration even of the hypercritical and prejudiced.” [17]

Yet in all of the tremendous power he wielded, he remained ever affable, easy to approach, and often surprisingly informal. He was sometimes criticized for playing ball with the boys of Nauvoo, even by his brother Hyrum. In response to this criticism he declared: “Brother Hyrum, my mingling with the boys in a harmless sport like this does not injure me in any way, but on the other hand it makes them happy and draws their hearts nearer to mine; and who knows but there may be young men among them who may sometime lay down their lives for me!” [18] The Prophet loved athletics; he was especially fond of wrestling and pulling sticks. He was almost impossible to beat in those two sports. One time while traveling, he told the Saints: “In the evening, when pulling sticks, I pulled up . . . the strongest man in Ramus, with one hand.” Several days later he reported, “I wrestled with . . . the most expert wrestler in Ramus, and threw him.” [19]

Displaying great love and concern for all people, he had a special tender affection for little children. Mosiah Hancock remarked, “It was the disposition of the Prophet Joseph when he saw little children in the mud to take them up in his arms and wash the mud from their bare feet with his handkerchief.” [20] He treated his own family with the same love and consideration and was a devoted husband and father. His journal indicates that he spent many happy moments in recreation with his wife and children.

Joseph possessed the gifts of healing and prophecy to a remarkable degree. On one occasion sickness pervaded an entire company of Saints as they camped along the banks of the Mississippi River. Wilford Woodruff wrote: “[Joseph] healed all in his house and door-yard, then, in company with Sidney Rigdon and several of the Twelve, he went through among the sick lying on the bank of the river and he commanded them in a loud voice, in the name of Jesus Christ, to come up and be made whole, and they were all healed.” [21]

Many prophecies that Joseph Smith made were fulfilled to the letter, including the commencement of the Civil War, the political future of Stephen A. Douglas, the establishment of the Saints in the Rocky Mountains, and even the imminence of his own death. In preparation for his death, the Prophet transferred the priesthood keys to the Twelve: “I have seen this burden, which has rested on my shoulders, rolled on to the shoulders of other men; now the keys of the kingdom are planted on the earth to be taken away no more for ever. . . .You have to round up your shoulders to bear up the kingdom. No matter what becomes of me . . . . You are called upon to bear off this kingdom.” [22] In a sermon preached more than a year before his martyrdom, he again foreshadowed his death: “I know what I say; I understand my mission and business. God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend? I shall not be sacrificed until my time comes; then I shall be offered freely.” [23]

In June of 1844 Governor Thomas Ford joined with enemies of the Church to demand the arrest of the Prophet. At the urging of those who thought that perhaps he would be given a fair trial, Joseph rode to Carthage to meet the charges, even though he knew this journey meant certain death. On the way he pronounced these poetic words filled with pathos: “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but my mind is calm as the summer’s morning, I have a conscience void of offence towards God and towards all men. . . . I am going voluntarily to give myself up, and it shall be said of me that I was murdered in cold blood.” [24] A mob with faces painted black stormed the jail where the Prophet was imprisoned, shooting him as he leaped from a window. His devoted brother Hyrum perished with him in martyrdom that day, and the two brothers sealed their testimonies with their blood. John Taylor, who received several grave wounds during the assault, expressed the feelings that filled the hearts of the Saints who had loved the Prophet more than life itself. He wrote:

I felt a dull, lonely, sickening sensation. . . . When I reflected that our noble chieftain, the prophet of the living God, had fallen, and that I had seen his brother in the cold embrace of death, it seemed as though there was a void or vacuum in the great field of human existence to me, and a dark gloomy chasm in the kingdom, and that we were left alone. Oh, how lonely was that feeling! How cold, barren and desolate! In the midst of difficulties he was always the first in motion; in critical positions his counsel was always sought. As our prophet he approached our God, and obtained for us His will; but now our prophet, our counselor, our general, our leader was gone, and amid the fiery ordeal that we then had to pass through, we were left alone without his aid . . . he had spoken for the last time on earth! [25]

After nearly a quarter of a century of continual persecution, the Prophet shortly before his death expressed his weariness to Benjamin F. Johnson. He stated, “I am getting tired and would like to go to my rest.” His friend was deeply touched and queried, “O! Joseph, what could we, as a people, do without you . . . if you should leave us?” To this the Prophet answered with the comforting assurance that his preeminent role in the latter-day kingdom would not end with his death. He said “I would not be far away from you, and if on the other side of the veil, I would still be working with you, and with a power greatly increased, to roll on this kingdom.” [26]


[1] William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism: A True Account of the Origin of the Book of Mormon (Lamoni, IA: Herald Stream, 1883), 9–10.

[2] Smith, William Smith on Mormonism, 9–10.

[3] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 5.

[4] Journal of Discourses, 7:11.

[5] History of the Church, 5:432.

[6] George Q. Cannon, The Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986), 19.

[7] Edwin F. Parry, comp., Stories about Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1934), 159–60.

[8] Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, 19.

[9] Elsie E. Barrett, “Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner,” typescript, LDS Church Archives, 3.

[10] Conference Report, April 1898, 89.

[11] “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal, December 1905, 554.

[12] John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, an American Prophet (New York: Macmillan, 1933), 4.

[13] Francis M. Gibbons, Joseph Smith: Martyr, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 19–25.

[14] Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet and His Progenitors for Many Generations (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853; reprint, Orem, UT: Grandin Book, 1995), 202.

[15] Parley P. Pratt, ed., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 179–80.

[16] Pratt, Autobiography, 180.

[17] David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness, comp. Llewelyn R. McKay (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1957), 285.

[18] Lorenzo Snow, quoted in Parry, Stories about Joseph Smith, 97.

[19] History of the Church, 5:302.

[20] The Life Story ofMosiah Lyman Hancock (n.p., n.d.), 2.

[21] Wilford Woodruff, Leaves from My Journal (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1881), 100.

[22] Journal of Discourses, 13:164.

[23] History of the Church, 5:259.

[24] “History of Joseph Smith,” Millennial Star, 6 December 1862, 775.

[25] Daniel Tyler, A Concise History of the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican War 1846–47 (Chicago: Rio Grande, 1964), 51–52.

[26] Benjamin F. Johnson, “An Interesting Letter from Patriarch Benjamin F. Johnson to Elder George S. Gibbs,” typescript, BYU Special Collections, 7.