Joseph Smith

The LDS Church romanticize its founder, Joseph Smith, with a saint-like reverence. Congregations frequently praise him in song and lecture while while distancing critical information as persecution. However, as is often the case with complex figures, verifiable history presents a dramatically different Joseph than the simplistic narrative many adherents to the faith grew up hearing in Church. Smith’s name has evoked a range of responses, from wide acclaim, to striking anger, even scornful laughter in a Broadway Musical. To uncover the true history behind this polarizing figure, it is critically important to understand the context surrounding the extended Smith family’s lifestyle and motivations prior to the events that established Joseph’s role as “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.”

Contemporary historians have learned a multitude of information regarding Joseph Smith’s rise to prominence in the nineteenth century. For example, sources confirm that Joseph Smith was involved in suspicious activities surrounding treasure digging at a young age. Many members are surprised to learn that Joseph stared into a peep stone in a hat to translate the Book of Mormon, and that his frequent run-ins with the law most often did not stem from unrighteous persecution. Additionally, LDS Church now concedes that Joseph married girls as young as 14 years old, as well as women who were already married to other men (see Plural Marriage in Kirtland and Nauvoo).

Perhaps more than any other inquiry, believers and non-believers alike most often pursue answers to why Joseph did what he did. For many believers, their world view depends on the assertion that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. While acknowledging that Joseph likely believed himself to be a visionary seer, when viewed in true historical context, Smith’s motivations appear more complicated. 

Joseph was often anxious for his people to be led away from their tormentors, yet so often the tormentors were his closest counselors and disaffected leaders. The official LDS narrative follows Smith to his eventual martyrdom at the hands of an angry mob in Carthage, Illinois. Historical records complicate this story, revealing that Joseph was not exactly a lamb led to slaughter. His ultimate demise stemmed from his decision to burn down his former counselor’s printing press for publishing uncomfortable facts.

Loved and hated by many, Joseph Smith will go down as one of the most controversial figures in American History. This essay intends to provide insight to his upbringing, his rise to prominence, and is downfall. 


How could a simple farm boy write or recite such a complex story? Few people in the early 1800s received extended schooling, and even fewer pursued college degrees. The Bible was a prominent fixture in the Smith household, and Joseph’s father, brother and sisters all taught school. Throughout his life, Joseph repeatedly demonstrated his genius at improvisation and storytelling.

It is fascinating to observe that Joseph’s older brother Hyrum attended Moor’s Academy, a prep school for Dartmouth College, from 1811 to 1815.  The Dartmouth website today notes that, “Dartmouth’s founder, Rev. Eleazar Wheelock, minister from Connecticut, established the College as an institution to educate Native Americans.” It reiterates, “In 1972…Dartmouth reaffirmed its founding mission and established one of the first Native American Programs in the country.”

John Smith, the cousin of Asael Smith (Joseph’s Grandfather) established and ran the theology department prior to Hyrum’s arrival. He became a professor of learned languages, studied exotic dialects and published Hebrew Grammar in 1803. John Smith was even a pastor of the Church of Christ – the same name Joseph used to found his church – at Dartmouth College until 1804. In addition, Dartmouth had a School of the Prophets, just like Joseph would later establish.

While at the Dartmouth campus, Hyrum Smith studied the very curriculum, ideology and theological questions that Mormonism would soon mirror. Hyrum’s relationships led to the school’s pioneering surgeon, Dr. Nathan Smith, participating in Joseph’s leg operation in 1813.

Uneducated – Not Unintelligent

There are numerous examples of the undereducated achieving greatness, but certainly Smith’s achievement is difficult to ignore. Thomas Edison, America’s greatest inventor, with over 1,000 patents in his name, was not formally educated. Abraham Lincoln received only one year of formal education. Mark Twain, the American man of letters, a man of Smith’s same era, left school at age 12. That didn’t stop Twain from writing some of our greatest works of literature (William Faulkner called him the father of American literature). See also Jane Austin, Sense and Sensibility, 1811 and Mary Shelley’s 1818 work.

Where Joseph’s lack of formal education does manifest itself is in his struggles with grammar and syntax,. For example when he dictating his own history, he exclaimed “wherefore the plates was taken from me by the power of God?” (Joseph Smith History, 1832 p. 6) Similar grammar issues appeared in the first edition of the Book of Mormon. “And it came to pass that as Ammon and Lamoni was a journeying thither…” (Alma 20:8, Book of Mormon, 1830 edition, 280).  

Passages like this seem much more likely to be the product of a brilliant frontier storyteller lacking formal writing experience than those of a formally educated author – which may explain why thousands of poorly worded revealed passages were later altered to create the Book of Mormon we know today. 



Joseph Smith seldom actually wrote anything, and is reported to have reduced only one of his countless public speeches – the King Follett sermon – to writing. Everything else, a massive body of work, was delivered impromptu or orally dictated to a long string of scribes.

Dan Vogel, leading Joseph Smith historian, writes “He did not possess a writer’s soul and seldom, if ever, recorded in advance his own sermons or took pleasure in a well-crafted essay… He preferred to accumulate ideas and images and then share them with others as more or less spontaneous musings and montages. His dictation had the fluency and tone of a gifted, spirit-filled preacher delivering his sermon impromptu and unrehearsed.” (Joseph Smith, The Making of a Prophet, 120)

Joseph’s mother described his profound ability to entertain the family with fascinating stories during his teenage years. She writes, “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.” (Biographical Sketches, Lucy Smith, 85)

Smith openly engaged his extended family in storytelling and the discussion of their dreams. Lucy Mack Smith confirms that the family discussed Joseph Sr.’s Tree of Life dream 19 years before the Book of Mormon was published. Scholars have noted a number of other Smith family biographical facts were used by Joseph in the Book of Mormon. Remarkably, it is also Nephi’s father who experiences the same vision early in the Book of Mormon.

Joseph’s charisma and ability to expound upon elaborate impromptu imagery served him well throughout his life. Parley P. Pratt, who became one of the Church’s most prominent figures, 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 every 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.” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 47)

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 humans see only darkness when burying their face deep into a top hat, Joseph saw light and astonishing Reformed Egyptian text. When presented with an ordinary Egyptian funerary scroll, Joseph declared it 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 forfeited property, Joseph invigorated his followers with the discovery of Zelph, the remains of a great white Lamanite leader. Ordinary Missouri boulders became the very altar that father Adam built, and when presented with fake bell shaped (Kinderhook) plates, Joseph proclaimed that they could be translated as the ancient writings of Ham.

At times, Smith’s stories followed a more disingenuous path. To the U.S. Congress, Joseph wrote, “My father, who stood several times in the battles of the American Revolution, till his companions in arms had been shot dead at his feet, was forced from his home…” His father was born in 1771, which would make him four years old when the Revolutionary War began (History of the Church, 6:92).


Religion was a theme which ran consistently through the Smith family for generations. Joseph Smith Sr., and his father Asael, “helped to found a Universalist society in Tunbridge, Vermont.” (Tunbridge Town Record, Early Mormon Documents 1:633-34, Vogel)

The official Church narrative cites that Joseph’s First Vision, his first communion with God and Jesus Christ, occurred in Spring of 1820. It would seem odd, however, for the family of the young prophet to affiliate with another religious sect if God had directly instructed Joseph to the contrary. But in June 1828, following the death of their first born son Alvin, Joseph’s Mother Lucy began taking her family to Methodist services, with exception to her husband who maintained his universalist ideology.

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 and into the family shop. “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 (Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith / Amboy Journal, p. 314, footnote 2, 11 June and 30 April, 1879).



Sandra Tanner provides a compelling overview of Joseph Smith in Character, Motivations and Death of Joseph Smith. She writes, “During Joseph’s fourteen years of ministry he was arrested, tried, accused of almost every crime known to man, was called names which are usually applied only to men of disreputable character, and at the time of his murder was being tried for treason” (Courier Journal).

Sarah Ann Whitney

One particularly interesting episode is preserved in Joseph’s own handwriting. 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 Emma’s (Smith’s wife) 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,” despite the parents having already been sealed 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.”

Three weeks after penning the letter, Joseph exercised his authority as sole Trustee of Church assets to grant young Sarah 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. The following month, as Sarah turned 18 and would be expected to pursue courtship and marriage, Smith arranged a sham wedding between Sarah and Joseph Kingsbury (Sarah’s brother-in-law) to avoid suspicion, by promising widower Kingsbury eternal sealing to his recently deceased wife Caroline (died Oct 1842).

By 1842, Joseph had already taken numerous wives, this being 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 (Rough Stone Rolling, 473 / The Whitney letter).


Joseph Smith tarred and feathered

Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde

In February of 1831, Smith revealed that members were to consecrate “all thy properties” to the church. (see Book of Commandments 44: 26) On March 1, 1832 Joseph Smith delivered additional revelation accelerating the consecration of property to the United Firm. (see D&C 78) Joseph’s original revelation declared the purpose to be building up the “mercantile and publishing establishments”. Years later, the revelation was altered to imply the motivation was to build up “the affairs of the storehouse for the poor.”

Empowered by God’s timely command, Joseph proceeded to aggressively solicit property and asset donations within the community. The Smiths were living in the John Johnson home at the time. Late in the evening of March 24, 1832, an angry mob led by Nancy’s older brother Eli dragged Joseph from the house before violently assaulting, then tarring and feathering him. It was later reported that a doctor was summoned to castrate Joseph.

Scholars have suggested that the abrupt violence stemmed not from Smith’s reported intimacy with young Nancy (also referred to as Marinda), but from his aggressive solicitation and mismanagement of donations. Both scenarios remain possibilities. 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 [Marinda’s brother who became LDS apostle] 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. The first revelations had been received in 1831, by historian Danel Bachman’s dating. Also, Joseph did tend to marry women who had stayed at his house or in whose house he had stayed” (In Sacred Loneliness, 231).

What remains undisputed are the elaborate steps Joseph would engage in years later to obtain Marinda Nancy Johnson Hyde as his polygamous wife. Briefly, the prophet dispatched her husband on an overseas mission to Jerusalem, then provided Nancy revelation instructing her to listen to anything which Joseph may teach her. Joseph first moved Nancy into small quarters with Ebenezer Robinson, then Apostle Willard Richards, though his wife and family were living in Massachusetts. Essentially, he fully controlled her living accommodations and economic support before making her his 10th plural wife in April 1842, without her husband’s knowledge. Within weeks, Marinda would further serve as Joseph’s liaison to entice teenager Nancy Rigdon to marry him.


On January 18, 1827 Joseph Smith married Emma Hale. On January 17, 1842 (15 years later) Joseph Smith married Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner while she was about 6 months pregnant with her third child. Emma was also 7 months pregnant at the time. The Lightner wedding took place in the upper room of the Red Brick Store, with Brigham Young officiating. At that time, Joseph counseled Mary to stay with her husband and children in Farmington, IL. Later that night Joseph and Willard Richards went to Agnes Coolbirth Smith’s home (wife of Smith’s deceased brother) for dinner. Joseph had secretly married Agnes about 5 days earlier. Willard fell asleep after dinner while Smith spent time with Agnes. Joseph later awoke Willard and they returned to the Smith home. On January 18th, 1843 there was a grand celebration of their 16th wedding anniversary at the Smith home. (In Sacred Loneliness, Todd Compton / EnsignMy Great-Great Grandmother Emma Hale Smith, Aug 1992).

Joseph married Sylvia Porter Sessions on Feb 8, 1842, just two days after his wife gave birth to their stillborn son. The following month Joseph married Sylvia’s mother, Patty Sessions, with her daughter Sylvia present.

In another episode, Smith threatened Sarah Pratt with ruin when she rebuffed his proposal. She promptly told her husband Orson, who confronted Joseph, only to have him deny the encounter (Minutes of Quorum of 12, Jan 20, 1843).


Joseph was arrested dozens of times for crimes ranging from bank fraud, conspiracy to commit murder, polygamy, perjury, inciting a riot, disturbing the peace, treason in 2 different states, etc. Joseph fled creditors and arrest on multiple occasions. The Church’s narrative of “trumped up charges…a lamb to the slaughter” ignores a multitude of historical evidence. Joseph was the focus of largely justifiable run-ins with local, state and Federal law enforcement.


    • 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)
    • 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.

Joseph Smith in Nauvoo Legion military dress


Historian Fawn Brodie used the tools of psychoanalysis and cultural contextualization to better understand her subjects. Brodie helped pioneer the psychoanalysis and was criticized for implementing it in her Thomas Jefferson biography. Her conclusions were later vindicated when DNA evidence confirmed that Jefferson did indeed father children with his slave, as she had suggested. Her profile of Joseph is one of a megalomaniacal drive, narcissism, and low self-esteem, among other motivations consistently displayed through his actions.

A simple evaluation of Joseph’s life confirms Brodie’s analysis. Joseph Smith announced his candidacy for President of the United States in January 1844. Emissaries were soon dispatched around country to promote the effort. The Church owned a newspaper, Times & Seasons, regularly led issues with a promotion of “General Joseph Smith’s bid for President of U.S.” although Joseph had no military training (see May 15, 1844 issue).

While speaking at Conference in Dresden, Tenn, as opposition to Joseph grew in Nauvoo, he boasted that “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” (Joseph Smith, May 26, 1844, History of the Church, vol 6 ch 19).



Joseph’s pre-Church of Christ resumé consists of sporadic day labor before focusing primarily on treasure digging, while the family’s intermittent farming on rented or borrowed land often ended in failure or forced relocation. Smith routinely aligned himself with a series of sponsors who funded his expeditions; first for treasure digging, then for the printing of The Book of Mormon.

Joseph attempted to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada, asserting that revelation prompted the failed effort. Joseph’s history, prior to shifting his extended family’s lifestyle needs onto the Church, is a well-documented trail of favors, borrowed money, and reliance upon friends and family.

Sidney Rigdon, one of Joseph’s first committed followers, previously affiliated with Alexander Campbell’s congregation and had experience with communal living consecration. Rigdon appears to have been looking for a way to regain his status as a prominent minister following a schism with his Baptist congregation.

LDS scripture comes to life when viewed from a practical perspective. In D&C 37, we learn that the Spirit had not, before the arrival of Rigdon, told Smith anything about the promised land, or his impending relocation to Ohio. The spirit of Rigdon held sway, for a revelation was soon had from Joseph. Joseph. Eber D. Howe observed in 1834, “Thus from a state of almost beggary, the Smiths were immediately well furnished with the fat of the land by their fanatical Ohio followers, many of whom were wealthy.” Rigdon’s community embraced the principle of common property. “Many, however, found out their mistake after their arrival; and the revelation appeared to be only that the prophet and some of his relations should be supported by the church” (Mormonism Unvailed).

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” (Scrying for the Lord, 77).


An exploration of D&C 24, one of Joseph’s earliest revelations, within its historical context reveals writings that are entirely focused on enhancing his position. Scholars note that on multiple occasions Church members were chastised to support him under threat of God’s curse, in exchange for spiritual and temporal blessings. Smith was to expound all scripture…hear him under threat of God’s curse…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.


In prompt succession, D&C 25 instructs Emma not to murmur against Joseph. It was merely God’s will that she could not see the plates like other family members; her job was to comfort and console, be meek, do not fear for her livelihood as Joseph will support her “from the church” (this revelation was later altered to “in the church”). Emma was instructed to prepare a hymn book while delighting in Joseph.

Joseph also inserted a new disclaimer into Emma’s revelation, requiring her to remain faithful to ” preserve thy life.” This caveat is fascinating in the context of Emma’s opposition to her husband’s polygamy and polyandry. 

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.

Words added, words deleted, textual changes


Wherever he went, from Kirtland to Nauvoo, Joseph Smith promoted a doctrine of communal sacrifice while engaged in a consistent pattern of credit-driven speculation; the steady stream of immigrating saints the intended purchasers of his acquisitions.

Joseph Smith continued promoting the sale of Nauvoo bottomland to immigrant saints, despite a letter dated Aug 25, 1841 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” (Prophet to Horace R. Hotchkiss, History of the Church, 4:406, 5:357). Smith boasted of how he had bought 900 acres and all others had to purchased their land from him (The Liberator, Boston, MA, Jan 7, 1842).

Smith was well documented to have 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” (Joseph Smith and Legal Process, Dallin Oaks / Bentley, BYU Law Review 1976, issue 3).

Parcels of church owned property were granted to newly acquired wives, often with no evidence of payment. Emma was by far the largest recipient, as Joseph shifted significant church holdings into her personal name. 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 polygamy revelation to scribe William Clayton. Hyrum presents it to Emma, 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 City of Nauvoo, for a total sum of $10,000. The transaction is witnessed by Newell Whitney as Justice of the Peace.
  • 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.


The Kirtland Bank

Smith claimed divine mandate from God to open a bank on November 2, 1836 – The Kirtland Bank – in violation of a recently denied state charter. A few days later, they warned non-Mormon Justice of the Peace, Ariel Hanson, to “depart forthwith out of Kirtland.” With Sidney Rigdon as President, Smith as Cashier, they issued formal written declarations requesting member deposits.

Wilford Woodruff recorded “…he [Smith] had received that morning the word of the Lord upon the subject of the Kirtland Safety Society” in his journal under the date January 6, 1837 (BYU Studies, Oct 1972, p. 381) 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…” (Painesville Telegraph, Feb 9, 1837).

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 exactly what he did. The undercapitalized bank collapsed within months, resulting in accusations of falsified cash balances, a host of substantiated damages and fraud convictions. Joseph fled to Far West in Missouri and never paid the debts.

Regarding the Kirtland episode, Smith’s trusted scribe, Warren Parrish, 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, that they 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” (Warren Parrish Letter to Editor, Painesville Republican, Feb. 15, 1838).


Joseph 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 (Rough Stone Rolling, 31, 430-431). Smith’s eventual indebtedness has been estimated to have ranged between $100,000 – $150,000 – a staggering sum considering the average family earned $400 annually (Hill, Rooker, Wimmer, BYU Studies 1977 / No Man Knows My History, 201). The Red Brick Store, constructed in Nauvoo in 1841, was a credit-fueled financial disaster which incurred debts of $73,000 ($2 million in 2018 dollars) attributed to the Church. A badly mismanaged riverboat venture in 1841, financed on 100% credit, lead to significant additional losses.

Joseph and his brothers Hyrum and Samuel filed for bankruptcy on April 18, 1842. Joseph and Emma Smith made several major transfers of property and deeds to their minor children, the last transfer occuring just two days before the bankruptcy filing. They “sold” the properties for $100 when in fact they were worth thousands of dollars (History of the Saints, 96-97).

Joseph Smith made little distinction between church and personal assets, regularly acquiring assets to enhance his personal financial situation. The court disallowed Joseph’s bankruptcy petition in October 1842 on the grounds of wrongful conveyances, 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. At the time, Smith resided in one of Nauvoo’s largest mansions, paid for entirely with church funds.


Joseph Smith’s Nauvoo mansion


D&C 124 provides conveniently timed and explicit revelation to build the famous Nauvoo mansion for the Smith family. The revelation not only details who may invest in the house, how much stock they are to receive in the for-profit business venture, but also that their sins would also be forgiven for their work.

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.
Verse76: …I will forgive all his sins, saith the Lord. Amen.

Joseph would later install a bar in the mansion, using his position as Mayor to pass a special law making his the only place in the entire town to purchase a drink of alcohol. Lavish parties were hosted using Church funds (History of the Church, vol 6, 111).


William Law was a successful man from Canada who invested in real estate, lumber, and construction. He was promptly appointed Second Counselor in Joseph’s Presidency, yet grew increasingly uncomfortable with the deceitful practice of polygamy and polyandry, Smith’s establishment of a secret theocratic political kingdom, and believed he played a role in the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs. 

Joseph Smith reportedly approached Jane Law to be his polygamous wife while William was away. There was also possible talk of arranging a substitute sexual partnership between William and Emma. See D&C 132:52 to explore Joseph’s rescinded offer to Emma, which is debated by historians. The personal journal of William Clayton, Joseph’s dedicated scribe, as well as other contemporary records, seem to validate this interpretation.

With other dissenters, Law obtained warrants for Smith’s arrest for perjury, treason, adultery, and counterfeiting. He helped fund the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper and published only one single issue, containing a list of claims and proposed reformations, before Smith ordered the press destroyed. William was not alone in accusing the prophet, as 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.

Although William Law is spoken of in Mormon circles as the Judas of the early Church, each of his “anti-Mormon lies” have been largely proven true. The Joseph Smith Papers Project further corroborates many of William’s first-hand assertions. The Church’s claim that “William Law was holding secret meetings with others on how to kill the Prophet…” remain unsubstantiated and discredited.

William lost everything because Joseph, as sole Church trustee and land agent, forbade all from buying dissenter’s 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 was naturally base, brutish and corrupt and cruel. He was one of the false prophets spoken of by Christ who would come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly be a ravelling [sic] wolf. His works proved it. One great aim seemed to be to demoralize the world, to give it over to Satan, his master; but God stopped him in his mad career & gave him to his destroyers. 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” (William Law’s Nauvoo diary entry, 28 June 1844. See Cook, ‘William Law,’ 60-61).

After separating from Mormonism, William moved to Wisconsin, sought no publicity, granting only a single interview in 1887 to The Salt Lake City Daily Tribune. In it, Law comes off as a supremely 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.

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.”

William shared, “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.” – William Law



Instruction to follow the prophets is not taken lightly in Mormon culture. “Safety lies in loving the Brethren”, members were encouraged in October 1987 General Conference. “To follow them is to build one’s house on a rock… Read the scriptures, especially the Book of Mormon…  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.”

The LDS Church has instructed that “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” (Ensign, July 1973).  D&C 135:3 still suggests that “Joseph Smith…has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.”

Thomas Monson asserted in a 2005 General Conference that “Joseph was arrested on trumped up charges”. (The Prophet Joseph Smith – Teacher by Example) In fact, he abused religious and governmental authority before destroying the independent press which rightfully printed truth.

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 his 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” (Conference Report October 1960, 73-78).

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.”