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Joseph Smith and Mormon History

Updated on July 14, 2011

Joseph Smith

I realize that this subject may be somewhat touchy for Americans, but at least historically, it is most interesting, as is the figure of Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith was born in Vermont in 1805. At this time, the American movement of religious resurrection was very strong, and young Joseph was one of many, who diligently searched for the true faith.

Around 1820 he had a vision, during which he received the visit of God the Father and Jesus Christ. He was informed that their true Church no longer existed. In later years, Smith had more visions and he was informed that he would receive more detailed instructions.

The Book of Mormon

In 1827 an angel revealed to him the location of a book, buried in a nearby hill.

Every year he was allowed to read and translate the text, that was written on golden leaves.

In 1830, this translation was finished, and he wrote the Book of Mormon.

According to Smith, this book is the religious history of the ancient inhabitants of North America, which were direct descendants of the original people of God, and also had known divine apparitions.

He spread his teachings and gradually acquired more followers.

Joseph Smith
Joseph Smith

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

On 06 April 1830 he founded "The Church of Christ", which quickly became known as "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", in order to underline the contrast with the earlier saints, and what had become of them.

A year later the Smith family moved from Fayette in New York to Kirtland in northeastern Ohio, where another church, the Disciples of Christ, converted in mass and were baptized.

Almost simultaneously, another Mormon community was founded in Independence, Missouri, where Christ would come again, according to Smith.

The missionaries were very active, and many new followers joined these communities.

Local Opposition

Usually the local residents were not too happy with the Mormon beliefs and lifestyle, and soon there followed threats and violence.

One of the Mormon's obstacles was precisely their very intense missionary work, although it yielded many new followers. But at the same time it caused a strong opposition, for the "established" religions saw the exodus of "their" believers with disquiet and fear.

Finally, the Mormon community was economically extremely successful, and in a time of general hardship and malaise this obviously aroused envy.


Persecution and Expansion

In 1839 the Mormons were expelled from both communities, and they fled to the city of Commerce in Illinois, which they renamed Nauvoo . Which means "to be beautiful " in Hebrew.

However, even opposition and persecution could not interrupt their passionate missionary work, and they sent missionaries to England . This yielded a mass of English members, many of whom came over to the USA.

Military, Economic and Political Power

To avoid further persecution, Smith requested and received authorization from the government of Illinois to set up a private militia, the Legion of Nauvoo, which was in fact a private army.

In 1845, the Mormon community had more than 12,000 members, rivaling the size of Chicago at the time !

Through its utterly authoritarian leadership it became a formidable economic competitor. And even more important, it became a political bloc of votes, that was not to be underestimated.

These economic and political reasons immediately turned the local leaders against them, but as usual, in public this resentment was "politically nuanced" to what was obligingly called a "popular resistance" against the almost dictatorial rule of Prophet Joseph Smith.


A further problem was that the Mormons practiced a hidden or even open polygamy . They interpreted the text from the Bible "Go and multiply " quite literally as a command, as indeed many other religions did before them.

In the Roman Empire, the Jewish people were only a small minority among other minorities, and with continuous violence and poor living conditions, a large number of members was simply a natural necessity for survival.

In 1830, people simply wished many children to one another, just as nowadays they wish each other a good health. The harsh life of the settler also led to a greater number of women than men, given the many male victims of violence and disease, and the many (male) missionaries.

Smith himself is suspected to have had more than twenty-seven women...

Joseph Smith for President !

In February 1844, Joseph Smith announced his candidacy for the presidency, being one of the most famous figures in the West. Although his voter base was far too narrow for him to win this election, his political ambitions and popularity scared his opponents out of their wits !

A pretext for more drastic action was easily found, when Smith ordered the destruction of a newspaper that attacked his leadership.

Somewhat later Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith were imprisoned in Carthage, on the handy charges of treason and conspiracy. Their private militia was more than strong enough to have thwarted the arrest, but the governor of Illinois gave his personal assurance as to their complete safety during this "administrative procedure".

But as it was, both brothers were almost immediately lynched by a hastily drummed up, "spontaneous", and masked mob...


After the death of the Prophet, there followed a period of confusion, and some twenty small fractions seceded from the Mormon faith. In 1860, Joseph Smith III, the eldest son of the Prophet, took control over most of the seceded fractions, and he founded the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints".

He rejected polygamy and some of his father's doctrines. The name of the church became too long, and in 2001 it was renamed to "Community of Christ". This church has its headquarters in Independence, Missouri, and it has about 250,000 members in 40 countries.

The Mormon Trail

Most of the remaining Mormons were now led by the Twelve Apostles.

In 1846, the Mormons decided to withdraw to Mexican territory in the west, because they were persecuted in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. They sought a very secluded area, far removed from the gentiles or non-Mormons, and found it near the Great Salt Lake.

The Mormon Trail extends from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The pioneer movement began in 1846, when Young decided to abandon Nauvoo and to establish a new home for the church in the Great Basin.

That year the Mormons crossed Iowa. Along their way, some were assigned to establish settlements and to plant and harvest crops for later emigrants.

During the winter of 1846–47, the emigrants wintered in Iowa, other nearby states, and the unorganized territory that later became Nebraska. In the spring of 1847, Young led the vanguard company to the Salt Lake Valley, which was then outside the boundaries of the US, and later became Utah.

The trail was used for more than 20 years, until the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. Among the emigrants were the Mormon handcart pioneers of 1856–1860.

Brigham Young
Brigham Young


In 1847, Utah was still a part of Mexico, but one year later, after the Mexican War, the territory went to the US. The Mormon convention wanted to create a new state of Deseret , which in the Book of Mormon means "honeybee ".

In the new "beehive ", life was difficult, but through hard work and with a little luck the colony grew strongly.

After the exodus, Brigham Young , head of the Twelve Apostles, became the new Prophet.

In 1849 Brigham Young asked Congress for an enormous territory, that comprised no less than eight of the present states , and he also wanted an outlet to the sea through San Diego in California...

In 1850, Congress befell of a Solomon's judgment , which gave a little something to everybody, and it founded the new Utah Territory .

Though Brigham Young didn't obtain his own Mormon state, "his" Utah Territory included present Utah, almost all of Nevada, and major parts of Wyoming and Colorado.

He also became its first governor !

Major Expansion

Ten thousand Mormons moved to Utah, and soon the cities Salt Lake City, Ogden, Bountiful, Provo and Manti were founded.

Ten years later they had increased to forty thousand people !

Eventually more than 300 Mormon communities were founded throughout the US, from California to Colorado and from Mexico to Canada, even though most Mormons still lived in Utah.

Continuing Problems

But still the problems weren't over. Their experiments with economic communities, and their successful cooperatives were seen as a major obstacle to THE American deity, which is business...

Furthermore, all Mormons voted in bloc for the political party that was approved by their church.

In 1852, polygamy was openly professed. Even though it was only performed by a small minority of the believers (ca. 15 %), it continued for thirty-eight years.

The traditional convenient charges of treason, conspiracy, and lack of loyalty to the authority, became legion. Equally obvious, most of these charges usually happened to come from those politicians who weren't allowed to share from the Deseret bountiful honey pot...

Political Flip-Flops...

In 1857, President James Buchanan turned with the wind, and he fired Young as governor, despite his enormous voters potential. He sent troops to Utah to convince the Mormons to abide by federal laws, which promptly provoked the Utah War.

Young sent out scouts to delay or stop the federal army by any means, which succeeded so extremely well, that it had to overwinter in Wyoming. After several political gaffes, a real war was only narrowly avoided...

Just before the presidential election, and considering the enormous number of votes that Young controlled, Buchanan changed his political tack again, and he renegotiated with Young. All offenses would be forgiven and forgotten, as long as someone else became governor...

The Occupation of Utah

Federal troops were stationed in Utah until after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861.

Young then sent a telegram with congratulations to the new president Abraham Lincoln. He assured him of his eternal loyalty (and at the same time of the votes of his constituents...), something which Lincoln could certainly use well.

Things remained muddy, until in 1890 president Wilford Woodruff issued a proclamation that meant the end of polygamy.

This led to the immediate integration of the Mormons in the American society.

Legacy : The Story of the Mormon Pioneers

In 2003, the North Visitor Center of the Salt Lake City Temple Square presented the 50-minute movie "Legacy", about the history and the persecution of the Mormon Church.

The film was made very professionally, even though all "historic sharp edges" had carefully been filed off...

Even though somewhat emotional and melodramatic, it was definitely worth seeing ! The movie was later replaced by "The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd".

Part I lasts 33 minutes, and Part II lasts 19 minutes. It can still be viewed on :


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