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.
Confused about religion during a time of intense religious revival in the state of New York where he lived in 1820, 14-year-old Joseph read a passage in the New Testament that, he wrote later, spoke to the depths of his soul. It was an admonition for those who lack wisdom to seek it from a divine source. Joseph’s response was to find a place of solitude in a wooded area near his home, and pray vocally for the first time in his life.
What followed forever changed Joseph Smith and has become a central tenet of Latter-day Saint belief. Joseph records that God the Father 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 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. Some years after his First Vision, 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 metal plates, gave the history of a people who lived on the American continent during the time of Christ, including the appearance of the resurrected Christ to them. Joseph translated the record in about three months, and the resultant Book of Mormon was first published in New York in 1830. A volume of over 500 pages, the Book of Mormon is one of the great contributions of Joseph Smith and a foundational scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Latter-day Saints believe that divine authority was lost in the ancient church after the death of the apostles and required a restoration by divine intervention. The restoration of priesthood authority through Joseph Smith in the first half of the 19th century was a literal act through angelic visitations from those who held the authority anciently.
Joseph Smith and five associates, with 50 other individuals attending, formally organized the Church in a log cabin 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 small beginnings to over 26,000.
Joseph Smith’s revelations introduced striking theological innovations and challenges to the churches of the day. He was strong in his defense of religious freedom for people of all faiths. His revelations introduced such concepts as temples where saving work can be done for the dead and an understanding of three broad degrees or levels of heaven and of the ultimate destiny in the next life of faithful children of God. His experience with the First Vision led to Latter-day Saint understanding of the physical nature of God and Jesus Christ and that humankind is created in their image. He spoke and wrote frequently about the latter-day gathering of Israel, and taught it not only in terms of the gathering of Jews to Israel but also the gathering of all God’s people to places of refuge and holiness. See also: Why and How Are Mormons Different?
Outside the Church, Joseph Smith is also known for his introduction of the ancient practice of polygamy through revelation, though this is no longer practiced in the Church and is not often discussed by Church members except in a historical context.
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 — at the same time enduring intense persecution from local mobs, which eventually drove Church members from all three cities Joseph settled.
Because Church members’ religious and civil rights as American citizens had been denied them despite 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. Joseph and his brother were killed by a mob in June of that same year, ending 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. The brothers and some close associates had been imprisoned in an Illinois jail on false charges treason after surrendering themselves to the law. Joseph was 38; Hyrum was 44. The bodies of Joseph and Hyrum were prepared and laid out for an estimated 10,000 mourners to view on 28 June, and on the following day were buried secretly to avoid further attacks or desecration by mobs.
The church that Joseph established in 1830 is today a global faith of more than 14 million members, and Joseph Smith himself is regarded by Latter-day Saints as the pre-eminent prophet of modern times. Contrary to assertions by some opponents of the Church, Joseph is not worshiped by Church members. He is honored as a prophet but was still a man with the shortcomings and faults common to other men.