The Spirituality of Joseph Smith


Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

Recognizing a living prophet has always been difficult for some people. “We know that this man is a sinner, … gluttonous and a winebibber,” asserted ancient Jews who observed Jesus. “We know that God spake unto Moses; as for this fellow, we know not from whence he is,” they proclaimed. 1

To people of Joseph Smith’s day, the test was equally real. One problem was the difficulty of adjusting preconceived ideas of what a prophet was like to the personality that walked, talked, and lived among them. Prior to meeting Joseph Smith in 1843, a Boston newspaper correspondent wrote that he had formed some very definite opinions about prophets:

“I supposed … that there was something about them different from other men, by which they might be distinguished at sight. … I thought they must have had gray hair for a covering to make them appear very dignified, and beards … for if they shaved, it would show that they were men; and could I have had the privilege of looking at one, I should have expected to have seen him clad in sheep, goat, bear or wolf skin, wandering about on the mountains like the beasts he had robbed of their garment, lodging in the caves and dens of the earth, and subsisting on the fruits and nuts of the forest,—a being too holy, too sanctified, too exalted by his high calling, to appear in the habitations or among the society of men, unless he had some important message to communicate direct from heaven … and then he would just come forth and cry out, like the beasts in the wilderness, with so much sacred sanctity, that everybody would know he was a prophet.”

But after meeting Joseph Smith, the writer observed that the Mormon leader was far different from what he had expected. “I could not help noticing that he dressed, talked and acted like other men, and in every respect appeared exactly the opposite of what I had conjured up in my imagination a prophet [to be].” 2

One thing that seemed to contradict some people’s preconceptions was Joseph Smith’s friendly disposition. Even members of the Church who met him for the first time were pleasantly surprised to find him to be such an agreeable, cheerful person. One Latter-day Saint, whose initial act upon arriving in Kirtland, Ohio, was to visit Joseph, wrote: “I thought he was a quear man for [a] Prophet. … He didn’t appear exactly as I expected to see a Prophet of God. However, I was not stumbled at all. I found him to be a friendly, cheerful, pleasent, agreable man. I could not help likeing him.” 3 And a convert remarked to a friend in England that Joseph Smith was “no saintish long-faced fellow, but quite the reverse. Indeed some stumble because he is such a straight forward, plain spoken, cheerful man, but that makes me love him the more.” 4

At times Joseph’s cheerfulness went beyond the friendly smile and cordial handshake to playful tests of physical strength. One man who had lived in Nauvoo as a youth recalled that Joseph “frequently used to come out of the mansion and Play ball with us Boys. … Joseph would alwais Conform to the ruls. He would kitch till it Came his turn to take the Club. Then, being a verry stout man he would nock the Ball so far that we used to hollow to the Boy that was going for the Ball to take his dinner. This used to make the Proffet Laugh. Joseph was always good natured and full of funn. I have seen him set down on the Carpet in his Office in the Mansion and pull sticks with the Nauvoo Polleace. … The Prophet would … pull the Stoutes man up with one Hand.” 5

To some people, though, Joseph Smith’s congeniality was a stumbling block. George A. Smith reported that one family left the Church because “they had actually seen Joseph the Prophet come down out of the translating room and go to play with his children.” 6 Ezra Booth, a former Mormon whose published letters in Ohio newspapers stirred opposition against the Church, argued against the prophetic character of Joseph Smith on the grounds of his “habitual proneness to jesting and joking.” 7 And Thomas Ford, the non-Mormon governor of Illinois during the last years of Joseph’s life, wrote in his History: “It must not be supposed that the … Prophet … was a dark and gloomy person, with a long beard, a grave and severe aspect, and a reserved and saintly carriage of his person; on the contrary, he was full of levity, even to boyish romping.” 8

Addressing the saints in Nauvoo on one occasion Joseph acknowledged his “playful and cheerful” nature; 9 and, in the pages of his history he wrote that he had been “guilty of levity and sometimes associated with jovial company,” which, he said, “would not seem very strange to anyone acquainted with my native cheery temperament.” 10

While some individuals rejected Joseph Smith because he didn’t seem to fit their conception of a prophet’s personality, others turned away because they failed to see the hand of God in what he did. He told a group of newly arrived immigrants at Nauvoo in 1842 that the spirit of disaffection came in consequence of “disregarding … counsel” and that many when they arrived among the saints were dissatisfied and murmured “because everything was not done perfectly right.” With respect to his own actions Joseph told them that he was but a man, and they must not expect him to be perfect. 11 Enlarging on this theme he said, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charged with doing; the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault.” 12

If people who associated with Joseph Smith during his lifetime failed to recognize him as a prophet, the question of his divine calling was not simplified for those who sought to know him after he was gone. And yet, although the documents of the past may not permit the vivid contact of personal association, they do give intimate insights that are not often available during a person’s lifetime. In studying the sources that pertain to Joseph Smith, for example, one is struck by the extraordinary sensitivity of the man—the depth of his religious experience and spirituality—a trait that extends far back into his family heritage and forms a continuous theme throughout his life.

Why didn’t people recognize Joseph Smith for what he claimed to be? At least part of the answer seems to have stemmed from their own insensitivity to religious things. Speaking of those who sought to destroy his reputation, Joseph remarked that they were “too ignorant of the things of God that have been revealed to me to judge my actions, motives, or conduct in any correct manner whatever.” 13 He also stated that if he had sinned, he had sinned outwardly, and that “a disposition to commit [sin] was never in my nature.” (JS—H 1:28.) He added “Surely I have contemplated the things of God.” 14 Something of the nature of these “contemplations” is seen in the pages of his writings.

Joseph’s religious inclinations were deeply rooted in his family heritage. His home contributed significantly to the shaping of his spiritual nature. Both of his grandfathers had played a role in the founding events of the American nation, and both left writings of counsel and faith for their posterity. Joseph attributed his love for civil and religious liberty to teachings fused into his soul by his grandfathers, “while they dandled me on their knees.” 15

Both of Joseph Smith’s parents recorded penetrating religious experiences. Although his father had sought religion, he had not subscribed to a particular denomination but instead “contended for the ancient order” of Christianity. 16 During his lifetime he experienced several spectacular visions or dreams prophetically symbolizing the quality of his life and the need for his son’s mission. 17 He led his family in daily morning and evening prayer. According to one of the children, both parents “pourd out their souls to God, the donner of all Blessings, to … guard their children and keep them from sin and from all evil works.” 18

Toward the end of a hard life, in which he had lost much property, experienced cruel and perfidious acts at the hands of his fellow men, and witnessed the death of three of his children, Joseph Smith, Sr., recognized the justice of God in his life and had “no disposition to complain against the Lord.” 19

As a young woman, the Prophet’s mother, miraculously healed of consumption, had covenanted with God that if he would spare her life she would serve him to the best of her abilities. 20 Joseph described her as “one of the noblest and best of all women.” 21 His brother William wrote that she was “a very pious woman … much interested in the welfare of her children, both here and hereafter,” and had “made use of every means which her parental love could suggest, to get us engaged in seeking for our soul’s salvation.” The word of God was her guide in life. 22

The Prophet summarized his family heritage when he wrote that he was “born of goodly parents who spared no pains in instructing me in the Christian religion.” 23 All his life he remembered the “kind … parental words” that had been “written on the tablet of [his] heart.” 24

Though a cursory look at Joseph Smith’s life may suggest that his religious experiences were spontaneous, his personal writings show that he had paid a substantial price for them in advance. Reflecting upon the severity of the trials he had endured in his life (“the envy and wrath of man have been my common lot all the days of my life; … deep water is what I am wont to swim in”), 25 he stated: “If I had not actually got into this work and been called of God, I would back out. But I cannot back out: I have no doubt of the truth.” 26

The cost of this conviction had been heavy in terms of “time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thought.” 27 His mother recalled that as a youth Joseph “always seemed to reflect more deeply than common persons of his age upon everything of a religious nature,” and was “much … given to reflection and deep study.” 28 And in his patriarchal blessing, his father remarked, “Thou hast sought to know [the ways of the Lord] and from thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of his law.” 29

In an early account of his First Vision, Joseph elaborated upon the struggle that preceded the event—the searching, the solemn and serious impressions, the concern for mankind, the application to scripture and teachers, the years of pondering, the parental teachings, the sorrow for sin, the serious contemplations of the works of nature, and the yearning to God for mercy, because “there was none else to whom I could go.” He wrote the experience with his own pen:

“At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God. Thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of differant denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not … adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my Soul. Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind. … My mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the Scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and liveing faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament. And I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God. For I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth and also the moon rolling in their magesty through the heavens and also the stars shining in their courses and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who created them. And when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said it is a fool that saith in his heart there is no God. My heart exclaimed all, all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotent and omnipreasant power, a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity. And when I considered all these things and that that being seeketh such to worship him as worship him in spirit and in truth therefore I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy.” 30

When Oliver Cowdery recorded Joseph Smith’s experience the night of 21 September 1823—culminating in the appearance of Moroni—he wrote that Joseph’s “heart was drawn out in fervent prayer,” and “his whole soul was so lost to every thing of a temporal nature that earth to him had lost its charms.” Joseph desired contact “with some kind messenger who could communicate … his acceptance with God.” To accomplish this Joseph had “settled upon a determined basis not to be decoyed or driven” from the purpose of his heart. 31

Oliver Cowdery also described the spiritual preparation that preceded the conferral of priesthood authority upon Joseph Smith and himself by John the Baptist in 1829:

“[Our] souls were drawn out in mighty prayer, to know how we might obtain the blessing of baptism and of the Holy Spirit according to the order of God; and we diligently sought for the … authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer in the same; for we desired to be followers of righteousness and the possessors of greater knowledge. … Therefore we repaired to the woods.” 32 Early in his life Joseph Smith found that “God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect.” 33 Some indication of the “heed and diligence” he had personally given is seen by the voluminous output of religious writings he produced during his lifetime. A reading of random entries in his diary reveals an attitude of constant searching:

“[I] returned home, being much fatigued [from] riding in the rain. Spent the remainder of the day in reading and meditation.” 34

“[In the] afternoon called to visit my father, who was very sick with a fever. … Spent the rest of the day in reading and meditation.” 35

“At home. Spent this [day] in indeavering to treasure up knowledge for the benifit of my Calling. The day pased of[f] very pleasantly for which I thank the Lord for His blessings to my soul, his great mercy over my Family in sparing our lives. O continue thy care over me and mine, for Christ[’s] sake.” 36

“Continued my studys. O may God give me learning, even Language; and indo [endue] me with qualifycations to magnify his name while I live.” 37

Joseph wrote these feelings to his wife in an 1832 letter from New York City, where he had gone with Newel K. Whitney to buy goods for the Whitney store in Kirtland. He had spent some time walking through the “most splended part” of the city:

“The buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing of every beholder and the language of my heart is like this: Can the great God of all the Earth, maker of all things magnificent and splendid, be displeased with man for all these great inventions sought out by them? My answer is no. It cannot be, seeing these works are calculated to make men comfortable, wise, and happy. Therefore not for the works can the Lord be displeased, only aganst man is the anger of the Lord kindled because they give him not the glory.”

Then he wrote:

“I returned to my room to meditate and calm my mind. And behold, the thaughts of home, of Emma and Julia rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them. My breast is filld with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a Husband. … Yet when I reflect upon this great city … my bowels is filled with compasion towards them and I am determined to lift up my voice … and leave the event with God.”

He concluded,

“I prefer reading and praying and holding communion with the Holy Spirit and writing to you than walking the streets and beholding the distraction of man.” 38

While Joseph and his traveling companion, Newel K. Whitney, were returning from Missouri to Ohio in a horse-drawn carriage in the summer of 1832, a run-away horse forced them to jump from their speeding vehicle. Joseph escaped unhurt, but Brother Whitney’s leg was broken badly, forcing them to remain in Greenville, Indiana, for several weeks. In a letter to friends, Joseph twice mentioned the “lonely places” where he “wandered alone … seeking consolation of him who is alone able to console me,” and where he “communed with him who is altogether lovely.” 39

After a severe case of poisoning, which nearly cost him his life, he elaborated upon his “lonely wanderings” to his wife:

“My Situation is a very unpleasent one although I will endeaver to be Contented, the Lord asisting me. I have visited a grove which is Just back of the town almost every day where I can be Secluded from the eyes of any mortal and there give vent to all the feelings of my heart in meaditation and prayr. I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to morn and Shed tears of sorrow for my folly in sufering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he has had in times past, but God is merciful and has forgiven my Sins and I rejoice that he Sendeth forth the Comferter unto as many as believe and humbleth themselves before him.” 40

Joseph Smith’s religious searchings were not directed exclusively to his own benefit and comfort. He frequently invoked the powers of heaven in behalf of others who suffered around him. In an early letter to his brother Hyrum, Joseph wrote:

“This morning after being called out of my bed in the night to go a small distance I went and had an awful struggle with satan, but being armed with the power of God he was cast out and the woman is clothed in hir right mind. The Lord worketh wonders in this land.” 41

In October 1835 he was called to the bedside of his sister-in-law, Mary Bailey Smith, who was confined in childbirth “in a very dangerous situation.” After dispatching his brother, Don Carlos, for the doctor, Joseph “went out into the field and bowed before the Lord and called upon him in mighty prayer in her behalf.” Whereupon, “the word of the Lord came unto me saying, ‘my servant Frederick shall come and shall have wisdom given him to deal prudently, and my handmaiden shall be delievered of a living child and be spared.’” The doctor did arrive and within a short time the child was safely delivered. “And thus what God had manifested to me was fulfilled every whit.” 42

Nor is the religious theme of Joseph Smith’s life confined to his own writings; it continues in the writings of those who knew him. Charles Dana wrote that his wife became so ill in Nauvoo that he despaired of her life. In desperation, he “mustered courage to go for Bro. Joseph.”

He found the Prophet very busy and concerned over an important document that had been lost. As Joseph left the house with several others to go in search of the missing item, Dana took the opportunity, “as he was passing out of the gate,” to say, “Bro. Joseph will you go and administer to my wife?” The hasty answer was, “I cannot!” But, with tears in his eyes, Charles pleaded, “Bro. Joseph she is sick nigh unto death; and I do not want to part with her.”

Charles’s description continues:

“He turned his head, saw my contenance and answered. ‘I will be there presently.’ My heart leaped for joy: I hurried home. … I had not much more than got there before Bro. Joseph came bounding over the bottom like a chased Roe. He asked me. ‘How long has she been so sick?’ He then walked the house for some minutes: I began to fear that he considered her past recovery; but he finally went to the fire, warmed his hands, throwed his cloak off, went to the bed, laid his hands on her, and while in the midst of his administering to her he seemed to be baffled; the disease, or evil spirit rested upon him; but he overpowered it and pronounced great blessings upon her.” 43

Mary Fielding, who later married Joseph’s brother Hyrum, visited the Prophet after a severe illness in the summer of 1837 had nearly taken his life. At that time antagonism against him had reached almost overwhelming proportions. She records:

“He feels himself to be but a poor Creature and can do nothing but what God enables him to do. He seems very happy. He told us somthing of his feelings during his sickness. He said when he [was] too weak to pray himself the enemy strove against him. The strugle sometimes became so great that he had to call uppon his wife or some friend to pray that the good spirit might conquor. He was blesst at times with such glorious visions as made him quite forget that his body was afflicted. On the Sunday night before mentiond when to all appearance he seemd to be so near his end that good Brother Carter … and some others met together in the House of the Lord where they fasted and prayd for him nearly all night. Bro. Carter saw in a vision a grave open to receive him … but saw the Earth fall in of its own accord and fill up the grave with no person in. From this [time] he began rapidly to recover and in 3 or 4 days after was able to be out in the air. Those who love him of cours rejoice abundantly. He says he shall yet stand in his place and accomplish the work God has given him to do however much many seek his removal.” 44

A dominant theme throughout these sources that record portions of Joseph Smith’s life is his deep and continuous religious experience. Shortly before his death, he commented that he felt “in closer communion and better standing with God than ever before in his life.” 45 Indeed, his spirituality appears to have been a dominant quality of his life. While he admitted that he had “frailties of human nature” and that he did not live without fault, his weaknesses did not sever that sensitive channel of spiritual communication.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Preston Heiselt

[illustrations] Top: Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. Adapted from an engraving by D. Rogers, Nauvoo, 1842. Bottom: Pages from the Prophet’s diary, November 1833, where he recorded that his “heart was somewhat sorrowful but [he felt] to trust in the Lord the god of Jacob.”

[illustration] Joseph often secluded himself from the “distraction of man,” to commune “with him who is altogether lovely.”

Dean C. Jessee, a research historian in the Church Historical Department and the father of eight children, serves as a home teacher in the Thirteenth Ward, Salt Lake South Cottonwood Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Matt. 11:19; John 9:24, 29.

  2.   2.

    History of the Church, 5:406–408.

  3.   3.

    Jonathan Crosby, “A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Jonathan Crosby Written by Himself,” Archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, p. 13.

  4.   4.

    John Needham to Thomas Ward, 7 July 1843, Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star 4 (Oct. 1843): 89.

  5.   5.

    Aroet Hale, “First Book or Journal of the Life and Travels of Aroet L. Hale,” Church Archives, p. 24.

  6.   6.

    George A. Smith, “History of George A. Smith,” 24 May 1833, Church Archives.

  7.   7.

    Ezra Booth, “Letter No. VII,” Ohio Star (Ravenna) 24 Nov. 1831.

  8.   8.

    Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois, ed. Milo M. Quaife, Chicago, 1946, 2:213–214.

  9.   9.

    Joseph Smith remarks reported by Wilford Woodruff in his diary, 27 May 1843, History of the Church, 5:411.

  10.   10.

    Joseph Smith History, vol. A-1, Church Archives, p. 133. Also in History of the Church, 1:9–10.

  11.   11.

    History of the Church, 5:181. The original source of this reference has not been found.

  12.   12.

    Joseph Smith address as reported by Eliza R. Snow, “A Record of the Organization and Proceedings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” 31 August 1842, Church Archives. Also, Joseph Smith, History of the Church, 5:140.

  13.   13.

    History of the Church, 5:516.

  14.   14.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 27 Aug. 1843, Church Archives. Also, History of the Church. 5:554. The manuscript contains secretly for surely.

  15.   15.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 9 July 1843, Church Archives. Also, History of the Church, 5:498. On Joseph Smith’s family heritage the following writings of Richard L. Anderson are significant: “The Trustworthiness of Young Joseph Smith,” Improvement Era, Oct. 1970, p. 82–89; “The Smiths Who Handled the Plates,” Improvement Era, Aug. 1969, p. 28–34; “Joseph Smith’s Home Environment,” Ensign,July 1971, p. 57–59; “Of Goodly Parents,” New Era,Dec. 1973, p. 34–39; and Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971.

  16.   16.

    Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Liverpool, 1953, pp. 56–57.

  17.   17.

    Lucy Smith, pp. 54–59, 70–74.

  18.   18.

    William Smith, Notes on Chambers’s Life of Joseph Smith, Church Archives, p. 29.

  19.   19.

    Joseph Smith, Sr., Patriarchal Blessing Book no. 1, p. 1.

  20.   20.

    Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, pp. 46–47.

  21.   21.

    History of the Church, 5: 126.

  22.   22.

    William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa, 1883, pp. 6–7; Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches, p. 48.

  23.   23.

    Joseph Smith, “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” Church Archives, p. 1.

  24.   24.

    History of the Church, 5:126.

  25.   25.

    D&C 128:2.

  26.   26.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 6 Apr. 1843, Church Archives. Also, History of the Church, 5:336.

  27.   27.

    Joseph Smith and others to the Church at Quincy, Illinois, 25 Mar. 1839, Church Archives. Also, History of the Church, 3:295.

  28.   28.

    Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith, preliminary manuscript, Church Archives, pp. 40, 43.

  29.   29.

    Joseph Smith, Sr., Patriarchal Blessing Book no. 1, p. 3.

  30.   30.

    Joseph Smith, “A History of the Life of Joseph Smith, Jr.,” pp. 1–3.

  31.   31.

    Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV. to W. W. Phelps, Esq.,” Messenger and Advocate 1 (Feb. 1835): 78–79.

  32.   32.

    Oliver Cowdery, Patriarchal Blessing Book no. 1, Church Archives, pp. 8–9.

  33.   33.

    The Elders of the Church in Kirtland to their Brethren Abroad,” The Evening and the Morning Star II (Kirtland, Ohio, Feb. 1834): 135.

  34.   34.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 5 Oct. 1835, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 2:287.

  35.   35.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 6 Oct. 1835, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 2:288.

  36.   36.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 21 Dec. 1835, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 2:344.

  37.   37.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 22 Dec. 1835, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 2:344.

  38.   38.

    Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 13 Oct. 1832, Library-Archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.

  39.   39.

    Joseph Smith to William W. Phelps, 31 July 1832, Church Archives.

  40.   40.

    Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, 6 June 1832, Church Archives.

  41.   41.

    Joseph Smith to Hyrum Smith, 3 Mar. 1831, Church Archives.

  42.   42.

    Joseph Smith Diary, 27 Oct. 1835, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 2:292–93.

  43.   43.

    Charles R. Dana, “An Abridged Account of the Life: Travels Etc. of Elder Charles R. Dana Written by Himself,” Church Archives, pp. 28–29.

  44.   44.

    Mary Fielding to Mercy Thompson, July 1837, Church Archives.

  45.   45.

    William Clayton report of Joseph Smith address, 6 Apr. 1844, Church Archives. Also in History of the Church, 6:288.