Smith Founds the Mormon Church

One of many American religious leaders who sprang up during the Second Great Awakening, Joseph Smith offered something unique: another testament of Christ in an ancient history written on golden plates that he claimed to find and translate. His Book of Mormon became the basis of what is generally regarded as the first entirely new religion founded in the United States.

Summary of Event

The Erie canal, begun in 1817, opened western New York to more settlement. Seeking a better life, people moved to the frontier faster than organized churches could follow, although many would have welcomed the comfort, assurance, and constancy promised by religion. To meet this need, preachers traveled the frontier holding revivals and camp meetings with such a great effect that the period from the 1790’s to the 1830’s became known as the Second Great Awakening Great Awakening, Second;and Mormon Church[Mormon Church] . In western New York the flames of religious excitement swept the region from the Adirondacks to Lake Erie so many times that the region became known as the Burned-Over District. Smith, Joseph
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;founding of
New York State;Mormon Church
[kw]Smith Founds the Mormon Church (Apr. 6, 1830)
[kw]Founds the Mormon Church, Smith (Apr. 6, 1830)
[kw]Mormon Church, Smith Founds the (Apr. 6, 1830)
[kw]Church, Smith Founds the Mormon (Apr. 6, 1830)
Smith, Joseph
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;founding of
New York State;Mormon Church
[g]United States;Apr. 6, 1830: Smith Founds the Mormon Church[1560]
[c]Religion and theology;Apr. 6, 1830: Smith Founds the Mormon Church[1560]
[c]Organizations and institutions;Apr. 6, 1830: Smith Founds the Mormon Church[1560]
Cowdery, Oliver
Rigdon, Sidney
Smith, Hyrum
Young, Brigham

Dissatisfied with most of the organized religions, “seekers” sought a return to what they regarded as the Primitive Gospel that had been taught in the New Testament. The young New Yorker Joseph Smith, both his grandfathers, and both his parents were seekers. Smith later claimed that when he had been a teenager, he saw a vision in which God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ
[p]Jesus Christ;and Joseph Smith[Smith] Jesus Christ, appeared before him. Many people in New York’s Burned-Over District claimed to have had similar visions, but Smith went further. He also claimed that God told him that all earthly churches had gone astray, but that if he were faithful, he would be instrumental in restoring the true church.

Smith also claimed that in preparation for that great task, an angel visited him and showed him where gold plates were buried in a nearby hill. Supposedly these plates contained the history of an ancient Middle Eastern people who had come to the Western Hemisphere, along with the fullness of Christ’s gospel. Through the “gift and power of God,” Smith translated the plates and published them as the Book of Mormon Book of Mormon;creation of , after the name of the ancient prophet who wrote most of the history. Smith’s followers regard the Book of Mormon as a second witness for Christ, alongside the Bible Bible;and Book of Mormon[Book of Mormon] .

The laws of the state of New York required a minimum of six people to begin a church. On April 6, 1830, about fifty-five people met in the home of Peter Whitmer, Sr., in Fayette, New York. The six who were the first official members were Joseph Smith Jr.; Oliver Cowdery Cowdery, Oliver , who had transcribed Smith’s dictation of the Book of Mormon; Joseph’s brother Hyrum Smith Smith, Hyrum ; Peter Whitmer, Jr.; Samuel H. Smith; and David Whitmer. Smith and Cowdery then ordained each other as the first and second elders of the new church. The church was called Church of Christ until 1838, when its name was lengthened to Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. From that time, the church’s members called themselves Saints, although they would become better known to outsiders as “Mormons.”

Biographer Robert V. Remini describes Smith as “a man of compelling charisma, charm, and persuasiveness, a man absolutely convinced that his religious authority came directly from God.” Many of his relatives, friends, and neighbors joined his new church. He also sent out missionaries Missionaries;Mormon to preach in surrounding areas. One of Smith’s most important converts was Sidney Rigdon, Rigdon, Sidney a fiery and prominent Campbellite preacher who had congregations in Kirtland and Mentor, Ohio. Rigdon and many of his parishioners joined the new church, and Rigdon eventually became a close counselor to Smith. Within its first year, the new church had about five hundred members in and around Fayette, New York, and another one hundred members around Kirtland, Ohio Ohio;Mormon Church .

In New York, some of Smith’s neighbors took him to court, attempting to prove that he was a fraud who had deceived the Latter-day Saints. After that effort failed, Smith’s enemies began to harass his church’s members, interrupting their meetings and threatening Smith and others with bodily harm. In the spring of 1831, Smith led his family and hundreds of his followers to Kirtland, Ohio, where he hoped they would be safer.

Contemporary depiction of Joseph Smith’s assassination by an angry Illinois mob, which took him and his brother Hyrum from the Carthage jail in which they were held after Smith destroyed the press of a Nauvoo newspaper whose critical reporting he would not tolerate.

(Library of Congress)

Hundreds of Smith’s followers were willing to give up their homes and follow him for many reasons, including their conviction that to do so was God’s will, for they believed Smith to be God’s prophet. They also believed they were separating themselves from the wicked in preparation for Christ’s return and millennial reign. Indeed, Latter-day Saints regarded the persecution that they suffered as a sign that they were correct in their beliefs, for they believed that persecution was the heritage of the faithful. Many of Smith’s followers were of hardy pioneer stock and had the skills, industry, and temperament that enabled them to leave their old homes, trek through the wilderness, and establish new communities.

At first, the new church prospered in Kirtland, where its members built their first temple. After a few years, however, internal strife split the church, and Smith again moved, this time leading his followers to a region near Independence, Missouri, Missouri;Mormon Church where Smith hoped to establish the permanent headquarters of the church. Other church members had been developing a community there since the early 1830’s, but the growing influx of Mormons worried their neighbors, who feared that Mormons would soon control local political offices, stir up the Indians against them, and interfere with their slaves. After seeing their crops and homes burned, some Mormons retaliated in kind, giving Missouri’s governor an excuse to have the militia drive the Mormons from the state.

Citizens of Illinois Illinois;Mormons in regarded the mistreatment of Mormons in Missouri as barbaric and welcomed them to their own state, hoping that they would help develop their economy. In 1839, thousands of Mormons fled to Illinois, where they founded the city of Nauvoo along the Mississippi River. There they built farms, houses, shops, brick-making kilns, public buildings, and a beautiful temple on a hill overlooking the river. Meanwhile, the church sent missionaries Missionaries;Mormon to England, where they made thousands of converts, most of whom emigrated to the United States to join their fellow church members. By 1842, Nauvoo was the tenth largest city in the United States. Illinois’s legislature granted Nauvoo a generous charter that incorporated the city and established a municipal court system, a university, and a militia called the Nauvoo Legion.


As the power of Mormons grew, their non-Mormon neighbors increasingly worried that they would lose their own political power. They regarded Mormons as different and therefore a people to be feared—a concern that grew along with rumors that Mormon men practiced polygamy. Marriage;plural
Polygamy, Mormon
Mormons;and polygamy[Polygamy] Displeased with the candidates for president of the United States in 1844, Smith decided to run for the presidency himself and to put the Mormon persecutions before the nation. Some enemies feared that Smith might win by some fluke, and they decided that Smith and the Mormons had to be stopped while that was still possible.

On June 27, 1844, fourteen years after Smith organized his church, he and his brother Hyrum Smith, Hyrum were murdered by an Illinois mob. By that time, the church claimed more than 35,000 members. With the death of Smith, the church’s enemies thought the church would fall apart. Instead, most of the Mormons followed their new leader, Brigham Young Young, Brigham , west to the territory that would became Utah. Unmolested by its enemies, the church thrived in Utah and maintained one of the most aggressive missionary Missionaries;Mormon programs of any church. By the early twenty-first century, the church claimed more than twelve million members throughout the world. Although the church’s success testifies to the work and perseverance of the Mormons themselves, it also demonstrates the growing acceptance of religious and cultural diversity in the United States.

Further Reading

  • Arrington, Leonard J., and Davis Bitton. The Mormon Experience. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992. Scholarly account of the church from its founding to the late twentieth century by two nationally recognized Mormon historians.
  • Bringhurst, Newell G., ed. Reconsidering No Man Knows My History: Fawn M. Brodie and Joseph Smith in Retrospect. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1996. Collection of essays by both Mormons and non-Mormons who draw on new research to evaluate Brodie’s biography of Smith.
  • Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1946. Controversial study of Smith by a distinguished biographer who was a former Mormon herself. Although highly regarded by scholars, the biography rankles Mormons because of Brodie’s dismissal of Smith as a fraud who wrote the Book of Mormon in the hope of profiting from it and became a church leader almost by accident. Brodie’s 1971 revision of this book adds a psychoanalytic interpretation of Smith’s actions that suggests he may not have been an impostor who used fantasy to resolve his own identity conflict.
  • Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: A. A. Knopf, 2005. Sympathetic biography of Smith by a prominent Mormon historian who credits the church’s survival to the strong organizational structure that Smith gave to it.
  • Dunn, Scott C. “Spirit Writing, Another Look at the Book of Mormon.” Sunstone 10, no. 5 (June, 1985): 16-26. Dunn examines some similarities between the dictation of the Book of Mormon and “spirit” or “automatic” writing.
  • Remini, Robert V. Joseph Smith. New York: Viking/Penguin, 2002. Brief, well-written, and well-researched account of Smith’s life by a nationally acclaimed historian of the Jacksonian era.

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Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints;founding of
New York State;Mormon Church