Joseph Smith, Jr. played a key role in the early-1800s religious restoration movement and U.S. westward migration. The official LDS historical narrative understandably promotes a devotional and sometimes simplified portrayal of the prophet, while the established chronology and emerging official documentation evidence a complex man. 

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 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. 


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 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 venture 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] 


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 section of this website. 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.” [3]

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.” [4]

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 a 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 borrowing money to repay the debt.

Joseph Smith received a revelation via his seer stone to sell the Book of Mormon copyright in Canada for over $200,000 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 to no effect. By January 1830, we learn of Joseph’s 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.”

Two of Joseph’s earliest revelations, both delivered in July 1830, focus on the material support his new church would provide. 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. Immediately following, D&C 25 instructs Emma not to “fear for livelihood” as Joseph will support her “from the church.” This revelation was later altered by the LDS Church to read “in the church,” which softens the original economic meaning.



Joseph’s mother described her son’s profound ability to entertain with fascinating stories during his teenage years: “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.” [5]

The extended Smith family openly engaged 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. 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. “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.” [6]

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 declares 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. Even when presented fake bell-shaped (Kinderhook) plates, Joseph proclaims the ancient writings of Ham.

Ample evidence supports the reality that Joseph ultimately narrated the Book of Mormon story in his own vernacular, rather than a word-for-word English rendition of ancient writings. The original Book of Mormon edition contained hundreds of passages which demonstrate “folksy” 1800s grammar:

    • Alma 10:7-8 – “As I was a journeying to see a very near kindred…, as I was a going thither…”
    • Mosiah 10:15 – “had arriven to the promised land”
    • Mosiah 2:12 – “have not sought gold nor silver, nor no manner of riches of you”
    • 1 Nephi 4:4 – “they was yet wroth”
    • 3 Nephi 3:5 – “I have wrote this epistle”
    • Alma 10:8 – “I was a going thither”
    • Helaman 7:8 and 13:37 – “in them days”
    • Ether 9:29 – “they done all these things”

The majority of nineteenth-century New England folk rhetoric in the Book of Mormon was revised in the 1837 edition.



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 an elaborate story whose content bears striking resemblance to numerous contemporary works and ideologies of his day. It is important to recognize that scholars are subtly pivoting away from Joseph’s translation narrative in favor of an inspired revelatory process which closely mirrors 1800s oral tradition. 

Today, Mormon scholars and leaders are more likely to hear words 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 characters from ancient plates, this represents a significant shift.


One of the most commonly asserted claims in support of the Book of Mormon is that Joseph 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 commonality of the themes exhibited throughout the book are chronicled in The Cultural Context Preceding the Book of Mormon section of this website. Joseph did not have to look far to find contemporary sources of inspiration which closely parallel the Book of Mormon thesis – that Native Americans were of Hebrew origin, and retained an evangelical concern for their salvation.

Richard Bushman observed in Rough Stone Rolling that Joseph “had a green thumb for growing ideas from tiny seeds.” (p. 449) 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:

    • Deseret Book provides an LDS approved biography of Joseph Smith via Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling.
    • 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.
    • 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.

[1] Natural Born Seer, p. xiii.
[2] History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps & Gorham’s Purchase, Turner, 214.
[3] Ensign, Plates of Gold, Steven E. Snow, LDS Church Historian, Sept. 2015.
[4] Sunstone: Treasure-seeking Then and Now, 1987, vol. 2, no. 5, 5.
[5] Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, 85.
[6] Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 47.