Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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 (1805-1844) Founding prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and of derivative schismatic groups, the most important being the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which arose around his son, Joseph Smith III (after the main Mormon body had migrated to Utah under Brigham Young).

Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, in a large family that always lived in poverty. In 1816, the family moved to Palmyra, near Rochester, New York, an area included in the "burned over district" of the Second Great Awakening. In 1820, young Smith sought and experienced an epiphany with deity, followed in the next few years by several visionary encounters with angels (in some of which he was joined by selected disciples). The Book of Mormon was one of the ultimate products of these encounters. Smith led his persecuted but growing band of Mormons from place to place until his assassination in 1844 near Nauvoo, Illinois, a city of some 10,000, which he had established five years earlier.

Only since the mid-twentieth century has a serious scholarly literature on Smith emerged that is neither devotional nor debunking, much of it in the form of articles in scholarly journals. The first book-length work of modern times was by Fawn Brodie, No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet (Knopf 1945), a somewhat sympathetic treatment that still portrayed Smith essentially as a talented fraud and psychopath. While thus remaining rather in the debunking tradition, Brodie's study was nevertheless a sophisticated piece of psychohistory. More evenhanded treatments will be found in Richard Bushman's analysis of Smith's formative years, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (University of Illinois Press 1984) and in Donna Hill's comprehensive, one-volume biography, Joseph Smith, the First Mormon (Doubleday 1977). All there of these authors have Mormon origins but are sophisticated professional scholars. Several other works on American religion more generally have devoted major portions to Smith and his career, placing them in a broader historical context, both Christian and gnostic (see, e.g., D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View , Signature 1987, and John L. Brooke, The Refiner's Fire: The Making of Mormon Cosmology, 1644-1844 , Cambridge University Press 1994). Perhaps the most incisive of these, however, are Jan Shipps's Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (University of Illinois Press 1985) and Harold Bloom's Yale Review essay, "The Religion-Making Imagination of Joseph Smith," (80[1992]:26-42), both of which reflect the emerging scholarly consensus that Smith was neither fraud nor divine instrument but an authentic religious genius with enormous charisma.

Armand L. Mauss

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