Devoted members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints honor its founder, Joseph Smith, with saint-like reverence. For many believers, their faith relies significantly on the belief that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. LDS scripture instructs that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3). While the official LDS historical narrative understandably promotes a devotional and sometimes simplified portrayal of the prophet, the established chronology and emerging official documentation evidence a complex man. 

Joseph Smith, Jr. played a key role in the early-1800s religious restoration movement and U.S. westward migration. Smith has evoked wide acclaim from his devotees as well as strong criticism from those who express skepticism about his testable scriptural and religious truth claims, questionable financial dealings, infidelity and self serving polygamous “revelations,” his psychology and the frequency with which close relationships soured.

Historian Richard Van Wagoner, who is as well studied on Joseph Smith’s life as any, observed, “The historical record clearly demonstrates that on occasion Joseph used evasive, euphemistic, confusing, and self-contradictory language to conceal aspects of his inner self. …Ignoring the prophet’s duplicitous self will result in a failure to understand the man.” [1] Regardless of one’s view of Joseph Smith’s polarizing character or prophetic status, to understand him, we must start at the beginning. His formative years and family dynamics provided the motivations which would consume him for the remainder of his relatively brief life. While this essay acknowledges that Smith likely believed himself to be a visionary seer, we assert that his motivations were vastly more nuanced, that he was extremely intelligent and charismatic, and became well-educated for his time.


Agriculture was the dominant means of survival in early-nineteenth-century America before industrialization and urbanization slowly expanded the economy. Farming provided a difficult and often tenuous existence, as evidenced by the Smith family’s consistent poverty and forced relocation. The family’s financial prospects brightened briefly, when in 1796 Lucy Smith received a wedding gift of $1,000 from her brother and his business partner. Joseph Smith Sr. tried his hand in various small business ventures, such as a speculative ginseng investment in 1803. The effort culminated in the total loss of the family’s savings, as his business partner who retained control of both product and proceeds absconded with the profits rather than pay Joseph Sr. his share.

Joseph Smith Sr. cited poverty when petitioning for a military exemption in October 1807. The family situation had not improved by 1814, when Joseph Sr. was again deemed too poor to incur the poll tax, denying him the vote. Even the climate conspired against the Smiths, as Mount Tambora delivered the largest eruption in recorded history in 1815. Global temperatures were sufficiently reduced the following year to ruin crops in one of the region’s coldest summers on record. The Smiths abruptly relocated to Palmyra, New York as unpaid creditors seized the remainder of their funds.

The Smith family earned money selling cakes and ginger beer from a handcart at regional fairs. Through a series of ill-conceived decisions, such as failing to pay the mortgage on their farm, despite generous term extensions, the Smith family again lost their land to unpaid creditors. Only the last minute mercy of a charitable friend enabled them to remain as tenants.

The Palmyra area happened to be situated in the heart of what was known as the burned-over district, where extreme evangelical fervor was the rule rather than the exception. The Smiths were a deeply religious family and participated in various revivals of various denominations. Joseph Smith Jr. became a “very passable exhorter” at Methodist camp meetings and revivals. [2] 


Few in the early 1800s received extended formal schooling, and even fewer pursued college degrees. Most received barely a primary education. Still, literacy rates in the New England area were remarkably high during the nineteenth century. The Bible—a prominent fixture in most households—became a primary means of reading and writing instruction.

The Smith family was a literate family, as Joseph’s father, brother, and sisters were educated and even occasionally taught school. Joseph’s elder brother, Hyrum, attended Moor’s Academy, a prep school for Dartmouth College, from 1811 to 1815.  According to Dartmouth’s website, “Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans.” John Smith, cousin of Asael Smith (Joseph’s Grandfather), established and ran the theology department at Dartmouth prior to Hyrum’s arrival. John became a professor of learned languages, studied exotic dialects, and published Hebrew Grammar in 1803. He even pastored the Church of Christ at Dartmouth College until 1804, the same name Joseph Smith founded his church with in 1830. Additionally, Dartmouth had a School of the Prophets, a term Smith later appropriated for his school of theological instruction in Kirtland, Ohio.

While at the Dartmouth campus, Hyrum Smith studied numerous theological questions later reflected in Mormonism. Professor John Smith wrote extensively on the nature of God, the preexistence and plan of salvation, the concept of priesthood covenants, as well as astronomy and numerous theories which appear to have heavily influenced the Pearl of Great Price. Hyrum also became acquainted with the school’s pioneering surgeon, Dr. Nathan Smith, who participated in Joseph’s leg operation in 1813.

There are numerous examples throughout history of undereducated men and women achieving greatness. Thomas Edison, with over 1,000 patents in his name, was not formally educated. Abraham Lincoln received only one year of formal education. Samuel Clements (aka Mark Twain), the American man of letters, left school at age twelve. Similarly, the great Victorian female authors Jane Austen and Mary Shelley both produced writings that far surpassed the limited education they received.

One of the most commonly asserted claims in support of the Book of Mormon is that Joseph Smith could not possibly have created it, regardless of the time allotted to prepare such homework. Numerous LDS scholars and leaders have elaborated upon the literary complexity of the work; a view very few outside of Mormonism share. The argument that Smith could only have produced the Book of Mormon and other scriptures through supernatural miraculous intervention assumes that he remained an uneducated country bumpkin, an assertion clearly refuted by his family history and lifetime achievements. 



Joseph’s mother, Lucy, described her son’s ability to entertain the family with fascinating stories about Native Americans – years before Joseph proclaimed to have obtained the golden plates. She wrote: “During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travel, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life among them.” [3] The extent to which these stories did, or did not, reflect actual Native American culture would later be reflected throughout the pages of the Book of Mormon.

The extended Smith family openly engaged in storytelling and the discussion of their dreams. Lucy Mack Smith shared how the family discussed Joseph Sr.’s Tree of Life dream 19 years before the Book of Mormon was published. A number of other Smith family biographical facts were incorporated by Joseph in the Book of Mormon. Similarly, it is Nephi’s father who experiences the same vision early in the Book of Mormon.

Joseph’s charisma and impromptu ability to expound on elaborate ideas served him well throughout his life. Parley P. Pratt, one of early Mormonism’s most prominent leaders, observed of Joseph Smith: “He interested and edified while at the same time he amused and entertained his audience; and none listened to him that were ever weary with his discourse. I have known him to retain a congregation of willing and anxious listeners for many hours together, in the midst of cold or sunshine, rain or wind, while they were laughing at one moment and weeping the next. Even his most bitter enemies were generally overcome if he could once get at their ears.” [4]

How exciting it must have been for the early Mormons who associated directly with Joseph Smith. While most pioneer well diggers encountered only dirt and rocks, Joseph’s various excavations brought forth multiple powerful seer stones. While most see only darkness when burying their face deep into their top hat, Joseph saw light and astonishing Reformed Egyptian text. When presented with ordinary Egyptian funerary text, Joseph declared them to be the holy writings of the ancient prophet Abraham, written in his own hand. When raiding ancient Indian burial mounds during a failed march to reclaim contested property, Joseph invigorated his followers with the discovery of Zelph, a great white Lamanite leader. Even ordinary Missouri boulders became the very altar that father Adam built; fake bell-shaped (Kinderhook) plates became the ancient writings from a descendant of Ham. Richard Bushman observed in Rough Stone Rolling that Joseph “had a green thumb for growing ideas from tiny seeds.” (p. 449) 

Public lecturing and storytelling were common forms of entertainment before the invention of the radio and mass communication. Families gathered in town squares to listen to revival preachers, recitations of Shakespeare, philosophy lectures, and stories of explorers. Newspapers reported on orators who had stunned their audiences with memorization of lengthy Bible passages. Smith immersed his associates into a world where the miraculous became an everyday occurrence.

Joseph Smith’s lack of formal education manifest itself through his struggles with grammar and syntax, which was typical of the poorer classes in New England. Smith was conscious of his own deficits in grammatical style, which is likely one of the reasons that he often relied upon scribes and there remain precious few articles recorded in his own hand. He is believed to have reduced only one of his public speeches, the “King Follett sermon,” to writing. All else, a massive body of work, was either delivered impromptu or orally dictated through a string of scribes. His lack of writing prowess was not reflective of a dull mind, however. One historian observed, “His dictation had the fluency and tone of a gifted, spirit-filled preacher delivering his sermon impromptu and unrehearsed.” [5]

Following his initial attempt to produce the Book of Mormon with Martin Harris and his wife Emma as scribes, the common narrative is that the Book of Mormon emerged from start to finish in approximately 90 days.  However, beginning with his childhood fascination with treasure digging lore and mention of a heavenly guardian offering gold plates in 1823, Joseph Smith had several years to develop the Book of Mormon story. Further, the pause after Martin Harris lost the first draft lasted nearly a year. Upon restarting the effort, Joseph abandoned any pretense of using Nephite interpreters and orated the entire elaborate story whose content bears striking resemblance to numerous contemporary works and ideologies of his day. 

It is important to recognize that LDS scholars are subtly pivoting away from Joseph’s translation narrative in favor of an inspired revelatory process which closely mirrors 1800s oral tradition. Today, members are more likely to hear words from LDS scholars and leaders such as “inspiration” rather than “translation.” One example includes, Why Joseph Smith’s Dictation of the Book of Mormon is Simply Jaw Dropping, featured in the November 2018 issue of LDS Living. For many faithful members who have spent their lives defending Joseph’s literal translation of unknown characters upon ancient plates, this represents a significant shift.



Religion played a central role in the Smith family for generations. Joseph Smith, Sr. and his father Asael “helped to found a Universalist society in Tunbridge, Vermont.” [6] Despite his later insistence that he had been instructed by God not to join any religion, Joseph Smith nonetheless flirted with Methodism because of his future wife Emma’s relationship to the religion. The biographers of Emma Smith observed:

Emma’s uncle, Nathaniel Lewis, preached as a lay minister of the local Methodist Episcopal church. His congregation conducted services in the homes of various members, while a regular circuit preacher visited Harmony on Wednesdays. In early 1828, Joseph asked the circuit rider if his name could be included on the church’s class roll. Joseph “presented himself in a very serious and humble manner,” and the minister obliged him.

When Emma’s cousin, Joseph Lewis, discovered Smith’s name on the roll, he “thought it was a disgrace to the church to have a practicing necromancer” as a member. He took the matter up with a friend and when Joseph and Emma arrived for church, the two men steered Joseph aside. “They told him plainly that such character as he…could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent practices and provide some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a Christian than he had done. They gave him his choice to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation.” Joseph refused to comply with the humiliating demands and withdrew from the class. His name, however, remained on the roll for another six months. When Joseph did not seek full membership, Morse finally dropped his name. [7]

Smith’s fascination with religions and charismatic preachers likely occupied much of his time throughout the 1820s, although the magical practices and supernatural world view with which Smith engaged was viewed by many religious leaders as anathema to Protestant theology. The preacher’s assertion that Smith engaged in “necromancy” hearkens to an earlier episode in Smith’s life relating to the death and burial of Alvin Smith in 1823 and the esoteric practices of the Smith family at that time. Scrying and divination (see Treasure Digging essay) were widely derided by educated devotees of Christianity and viewed socially as passtimes of the uneducated and superstitious.


Joseph displayed an early affection for the supernatural, paired with a dislike for manual labor. His introduction and involvement in money digging is thoroughly examined in the Folk Magic / Treasure Digging essay. To briefly summarize, Joseph Jr. obtained his first of many seer stones as a teenager in 1819, then proceeded to use those rocks to seek buried treasure for hire. Later, he would use his brown seer stone to dictate the entire Book of Mormon we know today.

In 1823, Joseph began talking about an angel that would lead him to marvelous golden plates. The LDS Church now confirms that “By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.” [8]

Elaborating on his handling of Joseph Smith’s money digging enterprise, LDS scholar Richard Bushman observed the following: “There has always been evidence of it [Joseph’s treasure digging activities] in hostile affidavits from the Smiths’ neighbors, evidence which Mormons dismissed as hopelessly biased. But when I got into the sources, I found evidence from friendly contemporaries as well, Martin Harris, Joseph Knight, Oliver Cowdery, and Lucy Mack Smith. All of these witnesses persuaded me treasure-seeking and vernacular magic were part of the Smith family tradition, and that the hostile witnesses, including the 1826 trial record, had to be taken seriously.” [9]

Looking ahead to 1826, we learn of Joseph’s arrest and conviction in “The Glass Looker“ trial relating to his ongoing money digging activities, which were deemed fraudulent. Though he had spoken of an angel guiding him to buried treasure a few years prior, this period seems to have solidified Joseph’s desire to abandon treasure digging in search of something larger. 

Further evidence of Joseph’s disinterest in farming can be found in his interactions with Isaac Hale in the spring of 1828. Disenchanted with his son in law’s employ using an ordinary rock to unsuccessfully guide believing patrons to buried treasure, and preferring his daughter be supported by a husband with gainful employment, Isaac offered Joseph a plot of farmland on favorable credit terms. Even then, Joseph did not pursue farming and ultimately resorted to unsecured borrowing to repay the debt.

Sale of copyright was the primary means of earning money as an author in the nineteenth century. Book printers also acted as publishers and retailers, and frequently promoted new works by acquiring the author’s copyright. While some LDS scholars minimize Smith’s attempt to sell the copyright, his actions throughout this episode suggests that at that time, Smith thought of the book not as scripture from God but something he himself had written for profit.

Shortly after completing the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith claimed to receive a revelation via his seer stone to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada for over $250,000 in current dollars. When the effort failed, Smith declared the revelation “not of God.” He also declare that God revealed the $1.75 sales price of the book, which was soon reduced to $1.25, with no effect on flagging sales. By January 1830, Joseph entered into a formal sales contract with his closest associates. “I hereby agree that Martin Harris shall have an equal privilege with me and my friends of selling the Book of Mormon.”

Lucy Harris, a contemporary witness to Joseph’s actions, did not mince words when describing her husband’s involvement in the bookselling enterprise: “Whether the Mormon religion be true or false, I leave the world to judge…His whole object was to make money by it. I will have one circumstance in proof of it. One day, while at Peter Harris’ house, I told him he had better leave the company of the Smiths, as their religion was false; to which he replied,if you would let me alone, I could make money by it.”

Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo mansion


Joseph Smith’s pre-prophetic resumé consists of sporadic day labor before focusing primarily on treasure digging, a practice of disrepute he extended into 1836 as he led his entire presidency on an unsuccessful treasure hunt in Salem, MA. Smith routinely aligned himself with a series of sponsors who funded his expeditions, including numerous treasure-digs, a method of financing which differed little from his later printing of the Book of Mormon, the purchase of Egyptian papyri or numerous speculative land and development projects in Kirtland, Missouri, and Nauvoo.

Joseph Smith’s history provides a well-documented trail of favors, borrowed money, and reliance upon family and wealthy friends. Clay Chandler noted, “With the founding of the new religion, and with followers behind him, Joseph had completed the transition from diviner to mystic to prophet/priest. The end result was a vastly improved social status for him and his family, regardless of whether this had been his goal. He now had support within a small, devoted, and growing group.” [10] Smith consistently befriended prosperous influencers, and by elevating them to prominent positions in his church, leveraged their time and personal resources. A partial list includes: Martin Harris, Joseph Knight Sr., Josiah Stowell, Edward Partridge, Newell K. Whitney, Algernon Sidney Gilbert, John Johnson, Isaac Morley, Frederick G. Williams, John Bennett, William Law and dozens of others, some of whom were driven to destitution.

Two of Joseph’s earliest revelations, both delivered in July 1830, focus on the material support and enhancing his position within his new church during his never-ending season of need. D&C 24 chastises members to “support him under threat of God’s curse” in exchange for spiritual and temporal blessings, as labor was not his calling.

Verse 1: …thou wast called and chosen to write the book…
Verse 3: …go speedily unto the church…and they shall support thee; I will bless them spiritually and temporally.
Verse 4: …if they receive thee not, I will send a cursing instead of a blessing.
Verse 5: …expounding all scriptures unto the church.
Verse 6: …speak and write, and they shall hear, or I will send a cursing…
Verse 9: …temporal labor…is not thy calling.

Words added, words deleted, textual changes


Smith then delivered D&C 25 to instruct his wife Emma to not murmur against him. Her duty was to comfort and console in meekness; it was God’s will that she could not see the plates. She was instructed to prepare a hymn book while “delighting in her husband.” Emma was further instructed not to “fear for livelihood”, as Joseph would support her “from the church.” This revelation was later altered to read “in the church” to soften the original economic meaning.

Joseph would also later modify the revelation to insert a bold disclaimer requiring Emma to remain faithful to “preserve thy life.” The unique caveat is fascinating in the context of Emma’s opposition to her husband’s polygamy and polyandry. This sentiment was reiterated in the revelation on polygamy (modern D&C 132:54) which commanded Emma Smith to give unto her husband the wives he desired, while simultaneously commanding her to “cleave unto my servant Joseph, and to none else,” and “if she will not abide this commandment she shall be destroyed, saith the Lord.”

Verse 4: Murmur not because of the things thou hast not seen, for they are withheld from thee…
Verse 5: …comfort unto Joseph…consoling words, spirit of meekness.
Verse 9: thou needest not fear, husband shall support thee from the church… (from was later altered to in)
Verse 11: …make a selection of sacred hymns.
Verse 14: …spirit of meekness, beware of pride…delight in thy husband.

Further evidence of Joseph Smith’s methods can be seen in the way he would pressure those who had joined his church to support him financially. In February of 1831, the prophet revealed that members were to consecrate “all thy properties” to the church (Book of Commandments 44:26). On March 1, 1832, he delivered additional revelation accelerating the consecration of property to the United Firm (D&C 78). Smith proceeded to aggressively solicit property and monetary donations within the community, promoting his revelations as the foundation of the controversial new practice. As time passed, these revelations evolved to provide Smith with more power and money, while he simultaneously spoke against the practice of “priestcraft” by his contemporaries.

Smith’s original revelation declared that the United Firm served a commercial purpose of building up the “mercantile and publishing establishments.” Several years later, facing increased demand from unpaid creditors, Joseph altered the revelation to imply that the United Firm (now called the “United Order”) was an ancient order to build up “the affairs of the storehouse for the poor.” Matthew Godfrey, a historian with the Joseph Smith Papers, speaking about the name change observed:

“When these revelations were finally published in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, at that time the firm had been dissolved, so church leaders apparently felt like they could publish the revelations talking about it, but because there were still these outstanding debts of the firm, the church wanted to protect the members of the firm. So, any mention of the members was replaced with pseudonyms. The real names were reintegrated back into the Doctrine and Covenants in the 1980s. . . . Now this isn’t some nefarious plot, and it’s not to say the revelations as originally given were not the mind and will of the Lord. It was more a means for the church to protect itself and its financial institutions from creditors at that time.” [11]

While Godfrey’s statements are protective of Smith, the fact remains that unpaid debts caused Smith to change both the name and stated purpose of the United Firm as well as shield those leaders involved by using pseudonyms to obscure their real names. By the time that Smith and the other leaders dissolved the United Firm, civil unrest had unfolded in Kirtland. The LDS Church disregards the ways in which Smith’s own actions sparked the resulting violence, but a clear pattern is illustrated in the way in which Smith was forced to perpetually relocate his church from state to state to escape the natural consequences of his scandals. Smith’s extraordinary charisma was matched only by his lack of ability to bridle or manage financial ambitions. This resulted in strife between the Saints and their non-member neighbors, who initiated dozens of lawsuits and seized church property with valid court orders.

Joseph Smith tarred and feathered

Late in the evening of March 24, 1832, an angry mob dragged Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, Kirtland’s religious leader prior to Smith, from their houses before violently assaulting, then tarring and feathering them. Later reports also state that the brothers of Nancy “Marinda” Hyde summoned a doctor to castrate Joseph on charges of adultery. Historian Todd Compton summarized the episode as follows:

“The motivation for this mobbing has been debated. Clark Braden…alleged…that Marinda’s brother Eli led a mob against Smith because the prophet had been too intimate with Marinda. This tradition suggests that Smith may have married Marinda at this early time, and some circumstantial factors support such a possibility. The castration attempt might be taken as evidence that the mob felt that Joseph had committed a sexual impropriety; since the attempt is reported by Luke Johnson, there is no good reason to doubt it. Also, they had planned the operation in advance, as they brought along a doctor to perform it.” [12]

What remains undisputed are the elaborate steps Smith would engage in years later, when fully protected in his religious and secular leadership positions, to obtain Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde as his polygamous wife without her husband’s knowledge. See the Polygamy Essay for a fascinating timeline of this episode.



    • Joseph Smith and the Criminal Justice System
    • The Joseph Smith Papers, Legal Cases
    • Isaac Hale’s sworn testimony – Emma’s father provides first-hand perspective of Joseph’s money digging associates and translation process – “the same as when he looked for the money-diggers, with the stone in his hat, and his hat over his face, while the Book of Plates were at the same time in the woods!”
    • There are a handful of credible first-hand accounts of Joseph admitting he could not see anything through his peep stones. (Addison Austin in court; Isaac Hale when Joseph promised to abandon money digging, and Peter Ingersoll, Joseph’s childhood friend.)
    • See dozens of contemporary affidavits about Smith’s character in Mormonism Unvailed, particularly Ezra Booth, Willard Chase, Charles Anthon.
    • When fearful that Emma would divorce him over polygamy, Joseph told his trusted aide William Clayton that he had told Emma he “would relinquish all for her sake.” Smith quickly added that “he should not relinquish any thing” (William Clayton, in George D. Smith, Intimate Chronicle, 117).
    • William Law, Smith’s former Presidency counselor, spoke publicly of Joseph’s clandestine actions. Joseph lied repeatedly to obscure the truth, abused his unchecked authority and violated the law to silence an honest man with a credible track record. William’s claims were proven true in time.


The unfinished Nauvoo House

Smith regularly used revelation to assert that God was instructing others to support his financial ambitions. D&C 124 provides revelation to build the Nauvoo House, a grand hotel where guests and royalty from around the world would be welcomed. The Smith family intended to reside in the hotel, but it was never completed. Instead, the Smiths resided in one of Nauvoo’s largest mansions, supported by a robust staff, some of whom were Smith’s wives many years his junior.

The timely command from God detailed not only who may invest in the project, how much stock they were to receive, most of which was used as credit towards tithing, but also assurance that their sins would be forgiven for their investment in the development.

Verse 56: And now I say unto you…I have commanded you to build…and let my servant Joseph and his house have place therein, from generation to generation.
Verse 59: Therefore, let my servant Joseph and his seed after him have place in that house, from generation to generation, forever and ever, saith the Lord.
Verse 62: Behold, verily I say unto you, let my servant George Miller…Lyman Wight…John Snider, and…Peter Haws, organize themselves, and appoint one of them to be a president over their quorum for the purpose of building that house.
Verse 63: And they shall form a constitution, whereby they may receive stock for the building of that house.
Verse 64: And they shall not receive less than fifty dollars for a share of stock in that house, and they shall be permitted to receive fifteen thousand dollars from any one man for stock in that house.
Verse 76: …I will forgive all his sins, saith the Lord. Amen.

While Smith’s financial and personal relationship goals appear to have been micromanaged from on high, a trail of destruction and abuse often followed. If we accept that God wanted members to invest in these endeavors, we must accept that God indeed wanted many of them to become financially destitute and file for bankruptcy a short time after his revelations were dictated through his prophet.


In November of 1836, Joseph Smith pronounced divine mandate from God to open a bank, which in violation of a recently denied application for state charter, began operations in January 1837. During this time, Smith and others warned non-Mormon Justice of the Peace, Ariel Hanson, to “depart forthwith out of Kirtland.” With Sidney Rigdon as president and Smith as cashier, they issued formal written declarations requesting member deposits. Of this marvelous day, Wilford Woodruff recorded: “[H]e [Smith] had received that morning the word of the Lord upon the subject of the Kirtland Safety Society.” [13] Warren Parrish said Smith declared “the audible voice of God instructed him to establish a anti-banking institution, which, like Aaron’s rod, should swallow up all other banks.” [14] While these accounts reflect a faithful response to their prophet’s demands, outsiders maintained a different view.

The Cleveland Weekly Gazette warned its readers of Smith’s bank on January 18, suggesting Smith would “take up what little money they have, and depart hence,” which is precisely what soon occurred. The undercapitalized bank collapsed within months, resulting in Smith and Rigdon fleeing town under cover of darkness. Accusations of falsified valuations and fraud led to conviction and fines for both. 

Even those who had once been loyal to Smith were compelled to be honest about his habit of deceiving those around him for financial gain. Warren Parrish, Smith’s scribe, testified, “I have set by his side and penned down the translation of the Egyptian Hieroglyphics as he claimed to receive it by direct inspiration of Heaven. I have listened to him with feelings of no ordinary kind, when he declared that the audible voice of God, instructed him to establish a Banking-Anti Banking institution, which like Aaron’s rod should swallow up all other Banks (the Bank of Monroe excepted), and grow and flourish and spread from the rivers to the ends of the earth, and survive when all others should be laid in ruins.I have been astonished to hear him declare that we had 60,000 Dollars in specie in our vaults, and $600,000 at our command, when we had not to exceed $6,000 and could not command any more; also that we had but about ten thousand Dollars of our bills in circulation, when he, as Cashier of the institution, knew that there was at least $150,000. Knowing their extreme poverty when they commenced this speculation,I have been not a little surprised to hear them assert that they were worth from three to four hundred thousand Dollars Cash, and in less than ninety days after, became insolvent without any change in their business affairs… And such has been their influence over this Church in this place, thatthey have filched the monies from their pockets and obtained their earthly substance for the purpose of establishing a Bank and various wild speculations,in order that they might aggrandize themselves and families, until they have reduced their followers to wretchedness and want.For the year past their lives have been one continued scene of lying, deception, and fraud, and that too, in the name of God.” [15]

Though the LDS Church excuses Smith’s actions as the result of his youth and inexperience building The Kingdom, one might reasonably ask if God would anoint such a character out of all the honest men capable of building up His one true church, or if perhaps there is merit in the alternate explanations of Smith’s motivations and authority claims.


From Kirtland to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith promoted a doctrine of communal sacrifice to his followers while personally engaged in a pattern of credit-driven speculation, benefitting from a steady stream of immigrant converts and Mormon refugees who purchased his land acquisitions. He continued promoting the sale of Nauvoo bottomland to immigrant saints, despite a letter to the previous land owner decrying it a “deathly sickly hole…unable to realize valuable consideration…keeping up appearances…holding out inducements to encourage immigration.” [16] Smith boasted of how he had bought 900 acres and all others who trusted him as a prophet had to purchased their land from him. [17]

Smith’s financial problems are not in dispute, as he commingled personal and church assets with little regard for accountability. LDS General Authority, Dallin H. Oaks, commented, “During the first 2 years of the Mormon settlement in Nauvoo, the financial activities of the Church and the personal financial affairs of Joseph Smith were indistinguishable.” [18]

During the resettlement from Missouri to Illinois and Iowa, Smith incurred significant debts by signing contracts with land speculators under the assumption the Mormons would receive a payout from the Federal Government for redress of their Missouri grievances. For much of 1839, Smith was occupied with compiling a report for Congress with thousands of signatures and dozens of affidavits from himself and church members. Smith travelled to Washington D.C. and petitioned Congress for $1.2 million in redress. After multiple appearances before Congress and a personal meeting with President Martin Van Buren, the petition was denied in full. The proceeds with which Smith hoped to pay the land speculators never materialized, accelerating his financial ruin.

Parcels of church owned property were granted to Smith’s newly-acquired polygamous wives, generally with no evidence of payment, to conceal the truth from parishioners and to soften the reality of what he was doing from his wife. In fact, Emma Smith was the largest recipient of church assets, as Joseph shifted significant holdings into her personal name prior to filing for bankruptcy. Examples include:

  • Sept 6, 1842 – Smith deeds Sarah Ann Whitney a parcel of church property, Lot 2, Block 139, one block from his mansion, for $1,000. Female ownership of land in Nauvoo was extremely rare, unheard of for 17 year olds.
  • Feb 10, 1843 – Smith deeds a parcel of church property, Lot 2, Block 146, to Eliza and Emily Partridge for $1,000.
  • March 10, 1843 – Smith deeds a parcel of church property, Lot 4, Block 158, to Elizabeth Davis Dufree for $200
  • March 10, 1843 – Smith deeds parcel of church propertyLot 4, Block 140, one block from his mansion to Sarah Phinney Foster for $1,000. The transaction was witnessed by Newell Whitney as Justice of the Peace.
  • June 7, 1843 – Smith deeded a parcel of church property, Lot 2, Block 118, to Helen Mar Kimball for $50. The transaction is witnessed by Newell Whitney as Justice of the Peace.
  • July 12, 1843 – Smith dictates D&C 132 revelation outlining polygamy to scribe William Clayton. Hyrum presents it to Emma but she rejects it. The same day, Smith agrees to deed Emma 65 parcels of church property, comprising dozens of individual lots, including 9 entire blocks of the bustling City of Nauvoo, for a total sum of only $10,000. The transaction is witnessed by Newell Whitney as Justice of the Peace.Joseph Smith remained extremely leveraged financially, unable to repay the various land speculators with whom he had engaged. Smith was fearful that the loss of such significant assets, which were held in his individual name, would bring down the house of cards. Thus, he instructs Emma via D&C 132:57 to “let not my servant Joseph put his property out of his hands, lest an enemy come and destroy him; for Satan seeketh to destroy.” The Satan Joseph Smith was most concerned about were his creditors. Pursuant to the instruction delivered as part of the transaction, Emma did not record the property deeds until after Smith’s death, as creditors swarmed to secure whatever tangible assets they could find.
  • July 13, 1843 – William Clayton’s journal records, “This A.M. J. sent for me & when I arrived he called me up into his private room with E. and there stated an agreement they had mutually entered into they both stated their feelings on many subjects & wept considerable O may the Lord soften her heart that she may be willing to keep and abide by his Holy Law…”
  • July 15, 1843 – William Clayton’s journal records “Made deed for 1/2 Steamboat Maid of Iowa from J. to Emma. Also a deed to E. for over 60 city lots…”

Joseph’s grant of church owned land to his wife Emma.




While contributing virtually no money of his own, Joseph Smith rapidly propelled his extended family from extreme poverty to prominence. Yet his heavily leveraged financial network began to collapse; losses mounted. Joseph Smith took out two $25,000 mortgages against the Church’s future income, not including fees, then urged members to sell their property to pay the debt. [19] Smith’s eventual indebtedness has been estimated to have ranged between $100,000 to $150,000 ($5 million in 2023 dollars), a staggering sum considering the average family earned $400 annually. [20] The Red Brick Store, constructed in Nauvoo in 1841, incurred debts of $73,000 attributed largely to mismanagement of church funds. Smith’s equally disastrous riverboat venture in 1841, also financed entirely on credit, led to additional loss of church funds.

The financial situation grew so dire that Joseph Smith, his brothers Hyrum and Samuel, and other church leaders including Sidney Rigdon filed for bankruptcy on April 18, 1842. In preparation, Joseph and Emma Smith made several major transfers of church property and deeds to their minor children, the last transfer occurring just two days before their bankruptcy petition. They sold the properties for $100 when in fact they were worth thousands of dollars. [21]

Ultimately, the court disallowed Joseph’s bankruptcy petition in October 1842 on the grounds of wrongful conveyance, preferential transfers, concealment of assets and omissions from inventory. On January 3, 1843, the U.S. District Court Clerk in Illinois reported that no decrees of final discharge had yet been refused in that court and that only eight of the 1,433 applications then pending in bankruptcy had been opposed by creditors. If, as the LDS Church often claims, Smith was simply bad with money but honest in his dealings with his fellow man, why did he so blatantly attempt to abscond with church assets while he and his extended family resided in one of Nauvoo’s largest mansions, paid for entirely with consecrated church funds? [22] Smith’s financial profile in Nauvoo and penchant for speculative self-enrichment casts into question his providence as the Lord’s anointed.


Marriage certificate of Sarah Whitney & Joseph Kingsbury


Many episodes illuminating Joseph’s character pertain most directly to his practice of polygamy, and his tendency to pursue vulnerable young girls living under his roof. With numerous episodes to select from, Sarah Ann Whitney’s experience proves one of the most compelling, as many of the original documents are preserved in Joseph’s own handwriting. See the Polygamy Essay for a more thorough examination of Joseph’s practices with women.  

On Aug 18, 1842, while in hiding to avoid extradition, Smith penned a hand-written letter to Newel and Elizabeth Whitney asking them to visit with their 17-year-old daughter Sarah, whom he had secretly married on July 27 without his wife Emma’s knowledge. He writes, “If you three would come and see me in this my lonely retreat, it would afford me great relief…do love me, now is the time to afford me succor, in the days of exile.”

Joseph instructed that “The only thing to be careful of…is to find out when Emma comes… (because) it cannot be safe.” He suggested that the reason for their visit would be to “git the fullness of my blessings sealed upon our heads,” and this cannot refer to the parents’ sealing, which had already been performed just days prior. Joseph further instructed them to “burn this letter as soon as you read it,” and later to keep the marriage secret from their son, whom he feared could cause “serious trouble.”

Smith’s desire to conceal his relationship with Whitney was reinforced three weeks after penning the letter, when Smith exercised his authority as sole Trustee of Church assets to grant young Sarah Ann Whitney a parcel of land for $1,000 ($31,000 in 2017 dollars), owned by the Church, one block from his own home.

In March 1843, Smith took additional steps to solidify the secret arrangement, providing Sarah a hand-written blessing assuring the salvation of her extended family, provided that she remain in the “Everlasting Covenant”, a term used to describe the Church’s practice of polygamy, as sanctioned by Joseph Smith. The following month, as Sarah turned 18 and would be expected to pursue courtship and marriage, Smith arranged a pretend wedding between Sarah and Joseph Kingsbury (Sarah’s deceased aunt’s husband) to avoid suspicion, by promising widower Kingsbury eternal sealing to his recently deceased wife Caroline (died Oct 1842). This episode was one of several instances connecting a young daughter’s hand in marriage to prompt sealings, blessings and/or eternal salvation for the entire extended family. [23] 

By this time, Smith had already taken numerous wives, in various suspicious arrangements, from young women living in his house as servants to young daughters of his acquaintances, the widow of his younger brother, even the wives of some of his closest associates, some of whom he had sent away on missions. Leveraging his position of power over those who believed him to be not only a friend but a prophet of God does not paint Smith in a positive light. The standards and morals of the era, however different the LDS Church claims they may have been, did not justify Smith’s behavior and remain a major source of contention concerning Smith’s character.



William Law was a successful Canadian who invested in real estate, lumber, and construction. He was quickly appointed as Second Counselor in Joseph’s presidency but later grew uncomfortable as he learned of Smith’s secretive practice of polygamy, his establishment of a secret theocratic political kingdom (Council of Fifty), and what he believed to be Smith’s possible role in the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs. 

The historical record suggests that Joseph Smith approached William’s wife, Jane Law, to be his polygamous wife while her husband was away; a pattern Smith had demonstrated many times prior. Some scholars suspect there may also have been talk of arranging a spousal swap between William and Emma. D&C 132:51, originally a revelation to Emma, hints at this possibility, “of that which I commanded you to offer unto her.” The personal journal of William Clayton and other contemporary records seem to validate this interpretation. 

Although William Law is spoken of in Mormon circles as the Judas of the early church whose actions led to the assassination of Smith, each of his “anti-Mormon lies” have been largely proven true over time. The argument that it was Law’s infidelity to his own wife which caused the falling out between him and Smith becomes less plausible when the larger body of evidence is considered, including the number of married women to whom Joseph Smith solicited polyandrous relationships.

Despite early attempts to disparage William Law, he was widely regarded as an honest man with a credible track record. In addition, the LDS Church-sanctioned Joseph Smith Papers Project now corroborates many of Law’s assertions. The LDS Church’s claim that “William Law was holding secret meetings with others on how to kill the Prophet” remains unsubstantiated and discredited, though it is true that he briefly named himself head of The True Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints after Smith’s death; a decision he later regretted. [24]


Along with other dissenters, Law obtained warrants for Smith’s arrest for perjury, treason, adultery, and counterfeiting. He helped found the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, which published one issue containing a list of claims and proposed reformations. William Law was not alone in accusing the prophet. The week prior, Joseph H. Jackson printed Startling Disclosures in The Warsaw Signal, accusing Smith of counterfeiting, seduction and the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs.

Perhaps feeling attacked on all fronts, Joseph Smith boasted: “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. The followers of Jesus ran away from Him; but the Latter-day Saints never ran away from me yet.” [25]

In the end, William lost everything because Joseph, as sole Church trustee and land agent, forbade all from buying dissenters’ land. The day following Smith’s murder, Law wrote, “One of Joe Smith’s weakest points was his jealousy of other men. He could not bear to hear other men spoken well of. If there was any praise it must be of him; all adoration & worship must be for him. He would destroy his best friend rather than see him become popular in the eyes of the Church or the people at large. His vanity knew no bounds. He was unscrupulous; no man’s life was safe if he was disposed to hate him. He sat the laws of God and men at defiance… He claimed to be a god, whereas he was only a servant of the Devil, and as such met his fate. His wife was about as corrupt as he was.” [26]

After separating from Mormonism, William moved to Wisconsin and sought no publicity. He granted only one interview in 1887 to The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune. In it, Law comes off as a decent man who raised a family of lawyers, doctors, and judges. He never allowed the interviewer to make claims that were beyond his knowledge, and even corrected some distortions that would have benefited him. He published his first-hand experience with Smith and never once changed his story. William lamented, “The greatest mistake of my [life was my] having anything to do with Mormonism. I feel [it to] be a deep disgrace and never speak of it when I can avoid it. For over 40 years I have been almost entirely silent on the subject and will so continue after this. Accept my kind regards.” [27]

When asked about his involvement in Smith’s murder, Law replied, “No. I had no idea, no idea. I had been ruined by that man; all my property was gone; all my dearest illusions destroyed, and through my connection with him I got a black spot on my life, which will pain me to the very last minute of my existence. But I tell you [The old gentlemen buried his head in his hands and when he removed them, his eyes were wet.] I tell you, no, if I had had any idea of any such scheme, I would have taken steps to stop it. I have always considered the killing of Joseph Smith a wrong action. It is my opinion that he deserved his fate fully, much more than thousands of men who paid the penalty of their crime to Judge Lynch–but I would have preferred that he should have been tried by court and sent to the Penitentiary.”


Joseph Smith in Nauvoo Legion military dress


Mormons do not explicitly worship Joseph Smith, yet his regular veneration in song, such as “Praise to the Man,” and frequent official citations regarding his importance suggests a near-deity status. As nearly all of the unique doctrines of the LDS Church flow back to Smith’s revelations, there remains a defensiveness about him which perhaps suggests concern that if he is perceived as less than super-human, his flaws and improprieties might become more meaningful.  

Instruction to follow the prophets is not taken lightly in Mormon culture. Members were counseled “Safety lies in loving the Brethren. . .  to follow them is to build one’s house on a rock. . .  Do as the prophets request. . .  pray for the prophets. . .  Declare in quiet tones that you love the Brethren and you are going to follow them. Add exclamation marks to your words as you quietly and faithfully follow the Brethren.” [28]

Church leaders have instructed “Our salvation is contingent upon our belief in a living prophet and adherence to his word. . . . His words, above those of any other man, ought to be esteemed and considered by the Church as well as the world.” [29] 

Brigham Young: “…no man on the earth can say that Jesus lives, and deny, at the same time, my assertion about the Prophet Joseph.”

John Taylor: “I thought, why must God’s nobility, the salt of the earth, the most exalted of the human family, and the most perfect types of all excellence, fall victims to the cruel, fiendish hate of incarnate devils?”

Lorenzo Snow: “There never was a man that possessed a higher degree of integrity and more devotedness to the interest of mankind than the Prophet Joseph Smith…. No one that was as intimately acquainted with him as I was could find any fault with him, so far as his moral character was concerned…. One day he called the brethren of the Twelve Apostles together and other prominent Elders…. They felt that they were in the presence of a superior being.”

Joseph F. Smith: “I am familiar with [Smith’s] work, and I know that he never wronged a living soul. He did not injure his fellowmen, but he did much to exalt them.”

Marion Romney: Referring to President Grant, who told him, “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [27]

Ezra Taft Benson:  “Like the mission of the Savior, “a lamb slain before the foundation of the world,” Joseph was truly foreordained to his great mission…. I testify to you that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of God…, a God-like prophet of the Lord, a truly noble and great one of all time.”

Thomas Monson asserted in a 2005 General Conference that “Joseph was arrested on trumped up charges.” Verifiable history suggests that he indeed abused religious and governmental authority before destroying the independent press which revealed inconvenient truths. [28]


Joseph Smith was indeed a rough stone, a controversial figure of American religious history whose actions and motivations are difficult to reconcile. The Joseph Smith that members are taught to revere and venerate is at best a sanitized two-dimensional portrait, devoid of his most human elements, that cannot be substantiated by the factual historical record. 

Whether or not one believes Smith to be a prophet of God, a conman or merely a pious fraud who believed in his own revelations, it is clear that he was often self-serving in his finances and pursued numerous secret relationships with females over whom he exerted influence. His persecutions and ultimate assassination came about largely because of his own pride and self-aggrandizement, rather than any supernatural power set upon thwarting God’s one true church, a distinction often disguised by the Church under the aegis of a martyr’s death.

It is clear why the LDS Church remains insistent upon maintaining Joseph Smith’s near divinity, often minimizing or wholly ignoring inconvenient aspects of his life that the leadership has deemed too faith-destroying; because a complete telling of his history seriously strains the official narrative of the restoration. The Church’s frequent narrative of “trumped up charges…a lamb to the slaughter” ignores the abundance of historical evidence. Often, when members learn of the issues surrounding Smith’s character and attempt to juxtapose the facts against the version of the prophet they’ve known all their lives, it creates extreme cognitive dissonance, even a sense of betrayal. 

If the Joseph Smith that members have been presented is not real, then his actual legacy represents one of the greatest challenges to Mormon truth claims. We invite the reader to more fully consider the Smith family dynamics, Joseph’s actions in context, as well as the cultural context which brought forth Mormonism.



Much has already been written about Mormonism’s founding prophet. Excellent resources include:

  • Dan Vogel delivers a thorough examination of how Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon came to be in Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet.
  • Michael Quinn provides the most comprehensive examination of the Smiths’ treasure digging heritage in Early Mormonism and the Magic World View.
  • Fawn Brodie’s less apologetic portrait of Smith, No Man Knows My History, broke new ground in 1945. Though her work was immediately derided as anti-mormon lies, many of her assertions have now been validated in official LDS materials.
  • Deseret Book provides an LDS approved biography of Joseph Smith via Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling.

[1] Dan Vogel, Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet, 120.
 Lucy Mack Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85.
 Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 47.
 Tunbridge Town Record in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 1: 633–34.
[5] Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery, Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, 314n 2.
[6] Rough Stone Rolling, P. 473 / The Whitney letter.
 R. Scott Lloyd, “Matthew Godfrey: Understanding Wording Changes in the Doctrine and Covenants,” Deseret News, August 16, 2014. Accessed March 14, 2019.
Todd M. Compton, In Sacred Loneliness: The Plural Wives of Joseph Smith, 231.
 Times and Seasons, May 15, 1844.
[10] Joseph Smith, History of the Church 6, chapter 19.
 Clay L. Chandler, “Scrying for the Lord,” Dialogue 36, no. 4.
In his journal under the date January 6, 1837. BYU Studies, Oct 1972, 381.
Painesville Telegraph, Feb 9, 1837.
Warren Parrish, “Letter to Editor,” Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838.
Joseph Smith to Horace R. Hotchkiss, History of the Church, 4: 406; 5: 357.
The Liberator, Boston, MA, Jan 7, 1842.
 Dallin Oaks, “Joseph Smith and Legal Process,” BYU Law Review , 1976, no. 3.
 Richard L. Bushman, Rough Stone Rolling, 31, 430–31.
Marvin S. Hill, C. Keith Rooker, and Larry T. Wimmer, “The Kirtland Economy Revisited: A Market Critique of Sectarian Economics,” BYU Studies Quarterly 17, no. 4; Fawn M. Brodie, No Man Knows My History, 201.
John C. Bennett, History of the Saints: An Expose of Joe Smith and Mormonism, 96–97.
[21] J
oseph Butterfield, U.S. Attorney for the District of Illinois Letter to C. B. Penrose, Solicitor of the Treasury, 13 October 1842, National Archives of the U.S.
[22] Russell R. Rich, Nineteenth-Century Break-offs,
 William Law’s Nauvoo diary entry, 28 June 1844; see also Lyndon W. Cook, William Law: Nauvoo Dissenter, 60–61.
[24] William Law Interview
[25] General Conference, October 1987.
[26] Ensign, July 1973.
LDS Church Conference Report, October 1960, 73–78.
[28] The Prophet Joseph Smith – Teacher by Example