Question: "Who was Joseph Smith?"
Answer: Joseph Smith is widely known as the founder of the Mormon Church, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Joseph Smith from an early age was thought to have certain occult powers. He was known at a young age as a seer and reportedly used a seer stone to tell him where he could find such precious metals as silver. Both he and his father were known “treasure seekers” and used divination and magic to carry out treasure-seeking excursions. This, of course, brought him a name and a reputation. To this day, he is considered by some a saint and by others a complete charlatan.
Joseph Smith grew up during a time of spiritual revival in America known as restorationism. It was at this time, 1820, that Joseph Smith claimed to have received a marvelous vision in which God the Father and God the Son materialized and spoke to him as he was praying in the woods. The account of the vision has changed dozens of times, and it is unclear whether it was Jesus, there were two angels, one angel, or the Father and the Son that appeared to Joseph. He reportedly said that the two “personages” took a rather dim view of the Christian church and, for that matter, the world at large and announced that a restoration of Christianity was needed and that Smith had been chosen to launch the new dispensation. Since its beginnings until the present day, the Mormon Church holds the position that they alone represent true Christianity (Mormon Doctrine, p. 670).
Mormon leaders have consistently taught that, after the death of the apostles, true Christianity had fallen into complete apostasy, making a “restoration” necessary (1 Nephi 13:28, Articles of Faith, p. 182-185). But, even after the supposed heavenly visitation, Joseph Smith and friends continued to dig for treasure using occult methods. These methods were illegal in that day, and Smith was convicted of “glasslooking” in 1826. But, before that conviction in Chenango County, New York, the new “prophet of the Lord” continued to stir up controversy with yet another amazing close encounter with heaven. In 1823, Smith claimed to have been contacted by an angel named Moroni, who revealed that there were golden plates at a certain location near Palmyra, New York. On the golden plates was a history of an ancient man named Mormon and his fabled ancient Hebrew tribe. These plates were said to be a new revelation, “another witness” to the truth of the Christian gospel. It is recorded in Mormon historical documents that the angel provided Smith with special spectacles needed to help him translate the writings from the golden plates. It was also reported that during the translation, the man who was helping him had the privilege of having John the Baptist, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, come to Pennsylvania on that day of May 15, 1829, to confer upon the men the “Aaronic Priesthood.” These and other amazing stories are recorded in Smith’s book Pearl of Great Price.
Joseph Smith claimed to have special visions and an incredible opening up of heaven to him (Joseph Smith – History 1:17). But a statement signed by sixty-two residents of Palmyra, New York, who wanted others to know that they had known him, his family, his beliefs, and his occult excursions to find treasure, declared him to be “entirely destitute of moral character and addicted to vicious habits.” Yet Smith claimed to be God’s mouthpiece, and, when he spoke, he claimed that God was speaking. This powerful position was taken seriously by many followers, and, when Smith had a vision it was to be taken seriously, no matter if it flew in the face of Christian moral standards. His new “revelation from God” on polygamy is but one example.
Popular or not, Smith’s pronouncements “from God” took him quite a ways for quite a few years. His highly imaginative stories always read like science fiction, mixing and twisting biblical truth with imagination. He was always careful to imitate biblical truth, and many times he rewrites the Bible. To many, his theology is a twisted mirror image of real theology. It tempts by using a smattering of the real thing, the things that people know as Bible truth.
Joseph Smith met his end at the hands of an angry mob. Having attempted to quiet the polygamy issue after the church had settled in Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith and his followers destroyed an anti-Mormon newspaper building and consequently were arrested and in a jail awaiting trial. The jail was stormed by an angry mob of two hundred people and Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered. After his untimely death, there was a split in the “church.” The church Smith established remains centralized today both in Missouri (the Community of Christ—RLDS) and in Utah, where many Mormons had followed their new leader, Brigham Young.
(Editor’s note: many of the references in our articles on Mormonism are Mormon publications, such as Mormon Doctrine, Articles of Faith, Doctrines of Salvation, History of the Church, Doctrine and Covenants, and so forth. Others are from the Book of Mormon itself, e.g., books such as 1 Nephi, 2 Nephi, and Alma.)