By Eric Johnson
Joseph Smith (1805-1844) is the founder and first president/prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While he is not worshiped by followers of the church, he is certainly the most highly esteemed leader this religion has ever had.
According to the official account told by the church, Joseph Smith saw both God the Father and Jesus in 1820 when he was a 14-year-old boy. The account is recorded in the first chapter of Joseph Smith-History, which is found in the Pearl of Great Price. One church manual says,
In this glorious manifestation, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared in person to young Joseph. Joseph conversed with the Savior, who told him to join none of the churches of his day, for “they were all wrong” and “all their creeds were an abomination in his sight;. . . they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof” (Joseph Smith—History 1:19). Joseph was also promised “that the fullness of the Gospel should at some future time be made known unto [him].” After centuries of darkness, the word of God and the reality of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, had been revealed to the world through this youthful and pure vessel (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, 2007, p. 5. Ellipsis and brackets in original).
Another manual explains,
The First Vision was a pivotal event in the rise of the kingdom of God on the earth in the last days. Joseph Smith, although only an unlettered youth, learned profound truths that have become the foundation of the faith of the Latter-day Saints. He had actually seen and spoken with God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ” (Church History in the Fulness of Times: Religion 341-43, p. 35).
Book of Mormon
In 1823, Joseph Smith claimed that the angel Moroni appeared to him and over the next few years visited a set of gold plates that were said to have been compiled by Moroni’s father Mormon. These plates were then buried in the Hill Cumorah until Joseph Smith was allowed to take them in 1827. They were said to be translated by Joseph Smith, as he used a magical seer stone that was placed in a top hat and revealed the English working of the plates. According to Apostle James E. Talmage,
THE Book of Mormon is preeminently an American book, comprising the history of the aboriginal peoples of the New World. It professes to be the modern translation of certain records, covering the period from B. C. 600 to about A. D. 420, with which is incorporated the abridgment of a yet earlier history. The original account was inscribed on thin sheets of gold, in small characters of the Reformed Egyptian style. The plates were taken from their repository on the side of a hill near Palmyra, New York. This was in September, 1827; and in the early months of 1830 the English translation was published. The Book of Mormon story deals in part with the general history of the ancient peoples, their rise and fall as nations, their wars and intrigues of state, their alternating epochs of material prosperity and adversity; but more particularly it preserves an account of the Divine revelations, the prophets and prophecies with which the ancient Americans were blessed; and thus the work stands before the world as the Scriptures of the Western Continent” (The Vitality of Mormonism, p. 132).
Thirteenth President Ezra Taft Benson said that this book proves Mormonism to be true. He explained,
If the Book of Mormon is true, then Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was His prophet, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, and it is being led today by a prophet receiving revelation” (Ezra Taft Benson, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson, 2014, p. 108).
Joseph Smith taught that God restored the biblical practice of polygamy, or plural marriage. Over the course of a decade, Smith married about three dozen women, some girls as young as 14 and others who were married to living husbands. Historian Richard van Wagoner explained,
Much of the development of Mormonism can be linked to the introduction, promotion, and eventual abnegation of polygamy. To those who accept Joseph Smith as a prophet of God, plural marriage can be evidence of his divine calling; to those who question or reject his prophetic claims, polygamy is more readily explained as evidence of his downfall (Mormon Polygamy, p. 212).
Some leaders have taught the importance of Smith’s existence for salvation to even be possible. Apostle Bruce R. McConkie said, “If it had not been for Joseph Smith and the restoration, there would be no salvation” (Mormon Doctrine, 1966, p. 670). Tenth President Joseph Fielding Smith said,
Mormonism, as it is called, must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground (Doctrines of Salvation 1:188. Italics in original).
Other unique teachings
Smith had a number of unique teachings. For instancing, concerning God the Father he said:
We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did, and I will show it from the Bible (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-346. Italics in original. See also Gospel Principles, 1997, p. 305).
He also had a huge ego, as demonstrated by this quote:
I have more to boast of than ever any man had. I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam. A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. I boast that no man ever did such a work as I (May 26, 1844, History of the Church 6:408-409).
Smith was murdered at the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. Latter-day Saints believe he was a martyr for his faith.