Joseph Smith was the founder and first president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He and five associates formally organized the Church at Fayette, New York, on 6 April 1830. He presided over the Church until 27 June 1844, when he was martyred. Under his leadership, Church membership grew from six to over 26,000.
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In the mid-1800s, Boston mayor and nationally known writer and publicist Josiah Quincy wrote: "At some future time the question may be asked, What great American has done more to mold the minds and destiny of his countrymen than any other man upon this continent? Absurd as it may seem to some, it is not improbable that the answer to this question will be, Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet!"
Joseph Smith Jr. was born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont, to Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. Born into a poor farming family, he was the fifth child of 11 — nine of whom survived childhood. Because his family could not afford the luxury of public education, Joseph received only three years of formal schooling. Along with his brothers and sisters, he was educated mainly at home from the family Bible.
Joseph's friend Parley Pratt described him as being over 6 feet (183 centimeters) tall, "well built, strong and active; of a light complexion, light hair, blue eyes [and] very little beard." With a "naturally cheery" disposition, Joseph enjoyed playing with children or wrestling and "pulling sticks" in contests of strength. One Latter-day Saint who visited Joseph in Kirtland, Ohio, wrote: "He didn't appear exactly as I expected to see a Prophet of God. However ... I found him to be a friendly, cheerful, pleasant, agreeable man. I could not help liking him."
As a 7-year-old child, Joseph contracted typhoid fever during a local epidemic. Although he recovered in two weeks, a painful infection settled in the bone of Joseph's leg. When attempts to clean out the infection failed, the doctor insisted on amputating the leg. Joseph's mother convinced the doctor to operate one more time, and the doctor chipped out the infected bone without anesthesia or proper medical facility. Joseph, who refused to be bound to the bed or drink liquor to dull the pain, endured the operation in the arms of his father. Although he walked on crutches for three years and suffered from a slight limp the rest of his life, Joseph was healed.
Joseph Smith married Emma Hale on 18 January 1827. During their 17-year marriage, they were parents to 11 children, two of whom were adopted. Joseph and Emma's first three children died within hours of their birth. In 1831, they adopted twins, one of which, a boy, died before reaching his first birthday. Over the next 12 years, Emma gave birth to six more sons, four of whom survived infancy — the youngest was born five months after Joseph's death.
Confused about religion during a time of revival in the state of New York where he lived in 1820, 14-year-old Joseph read a passage in the New Testament and went to the woods to pray. Joseph records that God and Jesus Christ appeared to him. "I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head," he wrote, "above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me." Within that light, he saw two personages — one of whom spoke Joseph's name, pointed to the other, and said, "This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" Church members refer to this experience as the "First Vision." It forever changed Joseph Smith and has become a central tenet of Latter-day Saint belief. It began the work of restoring the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth.
Joseph Smith is perhaps best known for his translation of the Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ. Church members believe that Joseph was led to a hill near Palmyra, New York, where he received an ancient record from an angel known as Moroni. The record, engraved on gold plates, gave the history of a people who lived on the American continent during the time of Christ. Joseph translated the plates in about 3 months, and the Book of Mormon was first published in New York by E. B. Grandin in 1830.
Although born a farmer, Joseph worked as an editor, entrepreneur and businessman. In the years he led the fledgling Church, Joseph organized an international missionary program and founded what is today one of the largest women's organizations in the world. He oversaw the building of three cities and directed the construction of two temples — all the while facing intense persecution from local mobs, who eventually drove Church members from all three cities Joseph settled.
Because the Saints' religious and civil rights as American citizens had been denied them despite numerous and repeated appeals to the federal government, Church leaders announced Joseph Smith's candidacy for President of the United States in January 1844. By May, Joseph had been officially nominated by a Nauvoo, Illinois, convention. His political platform called for government intervention on behalf of religious and civil rights in the face of persecution. Ironically, Joseph and his brother were killed by a mob in June of that same year, cutting short Joseph's run for political office.
Joseph and his older brother Hyrum were shot to death on 27 June 1844 by a mob of 150 to 200 men. They had been imprisoned in an Illinois jail on false charges of riot and treason after surrendering themselves to the law. Joseph was 38; Hyrum was 44. On 28 June, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were prepared and laid out for the estimated 10,000 mourners to view, and on the following day were buried secretly to avoid further attacks or desecration by mobs.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today numbers more than 14 million. Latter-day Saints revere Joseph Smith as a prophet, just as they revere biblical prophets such as Moses and Isaiah.