Joseph Smith, Jr., born in Sharon, Vermont, on 23 December 1805, was the founding prophet and first president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He grew to manhood in New York, lived his adult life in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, never ventured as far west as the Great Plains, and died three years before the first Mormon pioneers reached the Great Basin. Nonetheless, perhaps no one more profoundly influenced life in early Utah than he. Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and other Latter-day Saint leaders who had been his close associates sought to build in Utah a commonwealth on a foundation begun long before by Joseph Smith.
Little in Joseph Smith's background foreshadowed his later public prominence. His New England ancestors were ordinary farm people and his boyhood was not unlike that of his neighbors. The third son and fourth child born to Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith (six more followed), young Joseph grew up knowing the hard labor required for a large family to survive on marginal New England farmland and then later to clear new land in New York. Largely without formal schooling, young Joseph was tutored at home in religion and in "reading, writing, and arithmetic." The Bible served as his primary textbook. The family did not regularly attend meetings together, but from an early age Joseph listened to the preachers and pondered his parents' religious teachings and what he read in the Bible.
For the most part, the Smiths enjoyed a reputation much like that of most of their neighbors--hard-working, struggling to make ends meet, trusted by those who knew them--until young Joseph, at age fourteen, reported his first intense religious experience, a vision. Among people for whom the Bible was sufficient, his insistence that he had received such a vision brought ridicule and scorn. Strange stories and opposition against the family multiplied in 1823 when young Joseph Smith began speaking of an angel and gold plates. In 1825, working in Harmony, Pennsylvania, he met Emma Hale, whom he married on 18 January 1827, several months before he said that he finally obtained the plates. These he then claimed to translate "by the gift and power of God," and in 1830 he published them as The Book of Mormon, referred to derisively by his neighbors as "the gold bible." A month later, in April 1830, Joseph Smith organized the Church of Christ at Fayette, New York; this launched the unsophisticated farm boy on a new and public career as a religious leader.
Opposition and persecution followed Joseph Smith throughout his adult life, placing tremendous pressure on Emma and his family and forcing them to relocate several times. In 1832, a year after they joined a body of converts in Kirtland, Ohio, he was tarred and feathered in a brutal attack that resulted in the death of one of the couple's twins. Altogether Joseph and Emma were the parents of eleven children, including adopted twins, six of whom died in infancy. A devoted family man whose letters reveal deep feelings for wife and children, Smith's public duties and frequent absences nonetheless left Emma with the principal challenge of maintaining the home.
In Ohio, Joseph Smith first taught the central teachings which came to distinguish the Latter-day Saints as a "people apart," an identity that further emerged once they moved to the isolation of the West. He envisioned the "revolutionizing" of society in temple-centered communities where the temporal and spiritual were to be united under divine direction. Unity and sharing would inform all spheres of life, the social, political, and economic, as well as the religious. Missionaries would "gather" the faithful to central locations where temples could be built, the people empowered, and the process continued.
Though important beginnings were made in Missouri (in 1831 to 1833 and again in 1838), and a temple was actually finished in Ohio in 1836, the process in both locations was cut short by opposition. Joseph Smith was then imprisoned in Missouri in 1838-39, and all his followers driven from the state. After emerging from jail nearly six months later and rejoining his family and coreligionists, Smith devoted all his energies toward making the city that became Nauvoo, Illinois--for a time Chicago's rival as the state's largest--the most successful gathering place and temple city yet. Nauvoo was Joseph Smith's only full-scale implementation of the patterns, practices, and teachings that would later help shape early Utah.
Joseph Smith was revered by his followers as a divinely inspired religious leader and prophet. For many he was also friend, mentor, and associate--a man who inspired deep loyalties. Compassionate and a lover of people, he was in turn loved by many. Men like Brigham Young watched him closely, learned at his feet, as it were, and dedicated their lives in Utah to carrying out "all the measures of Joseph." For them, Nauvoo with its temple became the model for community building. Placing farms outside the city allowed Nauvoo residents to live near one another on small city lots where they could advance religion, education, and culture. This model and the earlier "Plat of the City of Zion" in Missouri, never implemented, informed later decisions about city planning and colonization in Utah. Plural marriage, introduced privately by Joseph Smith in Nauvoo, became public and widespread in Utah, where it seriously influenced society and politics for two generations.
In February 1844 Joseph Smith formally commissioned Brigham Young and his fellow members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles to explore the West "& find a good location where we can move after the Temple is completed" and "have a government of our own." Four months later he was dead, murdered by a mob on 27 June 1844 while held in the Carthage, Illinois, jail awaiting trial under the protection of the state.
After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others with faith in his vision presided over the completion of the Nauvoo LDS Temple, the "endowing" of Latter-day Saints therein, and the subsequent trek of the Mormon pioneers to Utah, where the "gathering" and temple-building continued. In addition to more narrowly defined "religious development," city-planning, colonization, land and water distribution, cooperative and church-directed enterprises, the conduct of government and politics, social organization, Indian policy, and more were influenced in early Utah by the teachings and example of Joseph Smith. Even the very selection of the area, which Mormons saw as a prophesied place of refuge where they could live relatively unmolested, they attributed to the planning and prophetic insight of Joseph Smith.
Ronald K. Esplin