Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr. (1805-1844), was a product of the Second Great Awakening: a period of intense religious excitement following America’s first industrial wave. This was an era of both unprecedented optimism and uncertainty. The greatest industrial achievement of the time, the 363-mile Erie Canal that ran through Smith’s hometown, brought such a flurry of religious revivals into upstate New York that Presbyterian minister Charles Grandison Finney labeled the area the “burned-over district.” Beyond Protestant revivals, the New England frontier was also an epicenter of spiritualist practices: folk-magic, divination, and treasure-seeking followed legends of buried Spanish treasure and speculations about the mysterious Mound Builders: the long-vanished indigenous American society whose only remaining traces were large, earthen burial mounds.
Smith’s parents did not align themselves with a particular denomination. Lucy, Smith’s mother, leaned towards Presbyterianism and spiritualism, while his father maintained universalist beliefs. The Smith family experienced financial troubles, crop failures, illnesses, and struggles not atypical to frontier life. Of the nine Smith children, seven reached adulthood. Their eldest son, Alvin, died in 1823 at the age of twenty-five, which left an indelible mark on young Joseph. Education was often rudimentary, typically centered on the family Bible with irregular stints in village schoolhouses. Joseph was described by his mother as a clever boy with a wild imagination who could memorize lengthy passages of the Bible.
Perhaps motivated by financial distress and by the local lore of buried Spanish treasure, Smith and his father tried their hands at treasure-digging. Smith’s reputation of being skilled at using seer stones led to a number of hires by speculators. Although critics of Smith have long pointed to his treasure-digging activities as evidence of his charlatanism, some scholars counter that folk magic practices such as “glass-looking” and water-witching were common during the nineteenth-century, particularly among the lower-classes of New England, although practitioners were viewed as unseemly within polite Christian society.
Smith’s claims, audacious to many, have become the foundation of the Mormon faith. Believers maintain that, while in his teenage years, Smith received a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ; that he translated an ancient American record titled The Book of Mormon; that he restored the “true” Church of Christ; and that he restored ancient apostolic authority in the form of priesthood keys. Beyond these claims, however, Smith was a man of the Jacksonian Era and the democratization of American religion. Smith was politically astute and, at times, militantly minded. Some of his contemporaries compared him to an American Muhammad, which speaks to his complexity and controversial nature. Much of what Smith did bucked against the conventions of the established churches and, in some cases, American democracy. For this, he and his followers were reviled, ultimately seeking refuge outside of the United States—a refuge that Smith would not live to see.
Perhaps no religious figure in America has caused more debate than has Joseph Smith Jr. While numerous biographies have been published about Mormonism’s founder, the most comprehensive is Richard L. Bushman’s, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. Prior to publishing his biography of Joseph Smith, Bushman also published a shorter biography dealing only with Smith’s earliest years up to the founding of his church, titled Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism. Bushman wrote his biographies from the perspective of a believer in Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, but was not shy about the more controversial details of Smith’s life. Decades before Bushman’s biographies, historian Fawn Brodie published a psychoanalytic history titled No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith where she concluded that Joseph Smith was a pious fraud. Non-LDS historian Robert Remini published a brief, general-market take on the Mormon prophet, titled simply Joseph Smith, which was a judicious treatment that excelled in placing Smith into the Jacksonian Age, but avoided dwelling on the controversial issues that surrounded the Mormon prophet. Signature Books, an independent publisher in Salt Lake City, has published several critical biographies of Joseph Smith, beginning with Donna Hill’s Joseph Smith: The First Mormon. Where Hill explored the controversial aspects of Joseph Smith’s life, she did little to historically contextualize Smith into his surrounding culture. Historian Dan Vogel published his appraisal of Joseph Smith, relying on many of the same psychoanalytic tools as Fawn Brodie (and reaching much of the same conclusion), titled Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet. More recently, the Smith-Pettit Foundation has begun publishing a multi-volume biography of Joseph Smith, which includes Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830 and Martha S. Bradley-Evans, Glorious in Persecution: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1839-1844. More volumes are planned to fill in the dates between these two. In addition to biographical work, several important documentary histories also detail the life of Mormonism’s founder, the most prominent being the ongoing LDS Church-sponsored Joseph Smith Papers project, which estimates nearly two dozen volumes to be published by its completion. Among the various historical interpretations of Joseph Smith, the debate is typically centered around his character. As historian Kathleen Flake noted: “Thinking about Mormonism, and Joseph Smith in particular, is like a religious Rorschach test.” (PBS documentary, The Mormons). Of course, supernatural questions are largely unanswerable through historical methodology, leaving the crux of the debate on whether or not Joseph Smith acted with moral integrity as the leader of the Mormon faith.
Historical context: Donald Scott, “Evangelism, Revivalism, and the Second Great Awakening” and Mark A. Scherer, “An Introduction to Joseph Smith Jr.”