Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, was born on December 23, 1805, in Vermont. His family eventually settled in the western part of New York state, after experiencing crop failures in Vermont. The town where they settled, Palmyra, was home of a large group of people who felt themselves to be strongly on fire for the Spirit during the Second Great Awakening. While a large portion of the community participated in the religious movement, Smith later stated that as a young man he did not find himself to be particularly religious.
At the age of 14, Smith felt compelled to pray about the matter and stated later that he while praying in the woods near his home he received instructions from God and Jesus Christ to not affiliate himself with any denomination. Three years later he described being visited for the first time by a heavenly messenger. Throughout his life, he would report many similar visits. At this time he reported receiving information regarding golden plates on which a book was written; which he was told by the messenger that he would not be allowed to receive until a few years later. The messenger further told him that he would only be able to receive the plates if he carefully followed the messenger’s instructions.
About this time he met a young woman named Emma Hale. Although Emma’s father did not approve of Smith, the couple eloped in 1827 and moved in with the groom’s parents. By that fall, Smith reported that he had been allowed to take the gold plates but was not allowed to reveal them to anyone else without permission. Smith then began to work on translating the script written on the plates. He and his wife moved to Pennsylvania to live near her family. Emma gave birth to their first child not long after. During the next few years, he and his followers worked at completing the translation and completed the Book of Mormon in early 1830. A few weeks later, Smith founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. His family were some of the first converts. By the next year, Smith and his young family had moved to Ohio as a result of persecution they encountered in their former home.
Here, they built a temple; however, persecution of their beliefs continued. He and his family were attacked violently and it is reported that one of his children died as a result. In 1838, they relocated to Missouri to build a gathering place where he and his followers could gather and await the return of Jesus Christ. They continued to encounter harassment and persecution. The local community came to see them as a threat, particularly as the number of followers settling in Missouri continued to increase.
An executive order was issued by the Governor of Missouri to drive them from the area. It is interesting to note that this order actually remained in effect from 1838 until 1976, when it was officially rescinded by then Governor Christopher S. Boyd.
As a result of the order 2,500 troops from the state militia marched into the area and several of the Mormon followers were killed in the ensuing battle. Smith as well as several others church elders surrendered and were charged with treason. The men were held in prison for the next several months. They were later able to escape and travel to Illinois, where they once again resettled on the banks of the Mississippi River and named the settlement Nauvoo.
They remained here for settle years, with the settlement growing steadily with converts. Although work on a temple was begun, the Mormons once again encountered problems. The city of Nauvoo had become almost as large as Chicago and those who opposed the religion sought to have the charter for the city revoked. Critics of Smith and his followers published a newspaper for the purpose of expounding critical beliefs of Smith and the Mormon church. Smith, as mayor of the city, forced the newspaper to close down and went so far as to have printing press destroyed. He was charged with violating freedom of the press and incarcerated in June of 1844. Within days a mob consisting of several hundred people attacked the jail in which Smith and several of his followers were being held. In the gunfire that ensued, Smith, as well as one of the men, was killed.