For most of us, the name most closely associated with the Mormon faith is probably Brigham Young, the founder of the university that now bears his name. But the roots of the religion began with Joseph Smith, the man who found golden tablets in upstate New York and translated them into the Book of Mormon.
By the time he was 39, Smith had created a religion, served as a mayor, did a stint as a gold digger, and married 24 women. And he was very controversial. In his new book, "American Crucifixion," author Alex Beam tells the story of Joseph Smith and what led to his murder in 1844.
Read an excerpt from "American Crucifixion":
Smith was a gregarious, articulate man, six feet tall and solidly built, with a long nose, a slightly receding hairline, and riveting blue eyes. He had a chipped front tooth, and sometimes a slight whistle crept into his speech. Like the barely noticeable verbal fluting, Joseph also had a hard-to-detect limp, the vestige of a grisly childhood leg operation. An innovative surgeon removed nine infected bone fragments from the seven-year-old Joseph’s lower leg, without benefit of anesthesia. The normal treatment for serious bone abscesses was amputation, which Joseph refused.
Essentially unlettered, he was a charismatic speaker capable of exerting extraordinary suasion on his audiences. Brigham Young proclaimed himself mesmerized when he first heard Joseph preach. “He took heaven, figuratively speaking, and brought it down to earth” was Young’s famous observation. Joseph taught that a restoration of Bible times was happening now, in nineteenth-century North America, and that his adherents were saints, as Luke and Paul called Jesus’s followers in the New Testament.
Joseph hadn’t limited himself to transcribing the wondrous Book of Mormon. He likewise undertook to retranslate the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, adding or expunging passages that he deemed to have been mistranslated or suppressed by corrupt church fathers. (He deleted the Song of Solomon, dismissing the sensuous text as “not Inspired Writing.”) Most notably, Smith added fourteen chapters to the Book of Genesis, and wrote himself into the narrative:
A seer will I raise up out of the fruit of thy loins… bringing them to a knowledge of their fathers in the latter days; and also to the knowledge of my covenants, saith the Lord.
And that seer will I bless, and they that seek to destroy him shall be confounded… and his name shall be called Joseph.
If Smith indulged in megalomania, he came by it honestly. From his humble beginnings as a diviner and scryer—a person who sees miraculous occurrences through translucent “seer” stones—in upstate New York, he had accomplished the work of several lifetimes.
There were plenty of millenarian preachers with apocalyptic scenarios spinning their tales in northern New York’s “burned-over district” when Smith launched his career. Charles Grandison Finney, who became one of Smith’s detractors, claimed to have entertained
Jesus Christ in his law office. The Campbellites, the Millerites, the Rappites; by 1844, they were mostly forgotten. “I am the only man that has ever been able to keep a whole church together since the days of Adam,” Smith bragged to his followers just a month before this parlous river crossing. “A large majority of the whole have stood by me. Neither Paul, John, Peter, nor Jesus ever did it. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.”
Increasingly alienated from the US government, Smith now envisioned himself as the spiritual monarch of his putative Kingdom of God. “I am above the kingdoms of the world, I have no laws,” he said. A devoted follower of Jesus Christ, Smith had been comparing himself to Mohammed, the warrior-prophet of Islam. To the world, Smith’s recently announced campaign for the US presidency seemed quixotic at best. But not to Joseph. “When I look into the Eastern papers and see how popular I am, I am afraid I shall be President,” he proclaimed.
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FOR THE SEVENTH TIME IN HIS SHORT LIFE, SMITH WAS FLEEING justice. He had been tarred and feathered, tried, jailed, and exiled. A furious mob in Hiram, Ohio, once ordered Dr. Dennison, a local doctor, to castrate him. But Dennison, who by coincidence had attended baby Joseph’s delivery into the world in Vermont, couldn’t bring himself to do it. A virulent Mormon-hater, Dennison did try to force a vial of deadly nitric acid down Joseph’s throat. That explained the broken tooth, sheared off in Dennison’s botched murder attempt. Joseph was once condemned to death and saved by a militia commander who refused to carry out the spurious execution order.
Joseph and his people were no strangers to biblical flights. They escaped their first settlement in Ohio just ahead of furious citizens who had lost money in a dubious Mormon banking venture. Reestablished in Missouri, the Mormons were chased eastward across the Mississippi in the winter of 1838, into Illinois. Just four years later, Joseph was on the run again from Missouri lawmen, hiding on the Mississippi shoreline and spending many nights in leaky skiff s much like the one he was now riding through the summer storm.
After each setback, Smith successfully led his flock to a new town, to a new state, to new strengths and to greater prosperity. The Mormons’ theology, which places Smith’s revelations on an equal footing with the Bible, was controversial, but their social ethic was not. Firmly committed to their co-religionists and to their families, the Mormons embraced hard work. One of their symbols, borrowed from Freemasonry, was the beehive. They endured unimaginable hardships and thrived wherever they put down roots.
Compared with his previous legal scrapes, the most recent charges against Smith must have seemed innocuous. Three weeks before this flight to Iowa, a Carthage magistrate accused the Smith brothers of inciting a riot, and of breaching the First Amendment’s guarantee of a free press. Smith had indeed demanded the destruction of Nauvoo’s sole opposition newspaper, the Expositor, at a public meeting, calling the broadsheet “a greater nuisance than a dead carcass.” As mayor, he ordered the city marshal to destroy the paper’s printing press, and as Lieutenant General Smith, he instructed the Nauvoo Legion to help. Illinois governor Thomas Ford, who fancied himself a skillful intermediary between the politically powerful Mormons and their many enemies in the state, had promised Smith safe passage to Carthage. But Joseph feared the shadowy, marauding Illinois militiamen who despised the Mormon religion, hated the Saints’ anti-slavery politics, reviled them as Indian lovers, and equated polygamy with orgiastic excess.
Just a few days earlier, Smith’s mortal enemy, the firebrand newspaper editor Thomas Sharp, wrote that “we would not be surprised to hear of [Smith’s] death by violent means in a short time. He has deadly enemies—men whose wrongs have maddened them—and who are prepared at all times to avenge themselves.”
Pitching to and fro on the stormy waves, peering westward to discern the far bank, Joseph believed that he was fleeing for his life. He was right.