Joseph Smith Jr.—in His Own Words, Part 1


An important part of the legacy Joseph Smith left us is his papers—the diaries, letters, and other documents he produced during his lifetime. These writings, primarily housed in the archives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but with important materials located in several other depositories across the United States, are the main sources of our understanding of the Prophet.

The papers of Joseph Smith consist of a number of items: ten diaries or record books containing diary material, spanning the period from 1832–1844, but with extensive gaps; approximately four hundred letters and documents, essentially covering the last fifteen years of his life; a six-volume, 2300-page history written between 1838 and 1856; scattered manuscript reports of speeches and sermons, most of which stem from the last four years of his life; and—most familiar to Church members—a collection of sacred writings which include the Book of Mormon, the books of Moses and Abraham (found in the Pearl of Great Price), a revision of the Bible, and numerous revelations, most of which are published in the Doctrine and Covenants.

In order to understand the doctrines taught by the Prophet, it is important to study his words wherever they may be found. However, in order to understand the personality of Joseph Smith, it is necessary to determine the Prophet’s proximity to the documents he created. In many instances, for example, thoughts and ideas that other people had written at his request were recorded over his name. While these may well reflect the Prophet’s intent, message, and doctrine, some do not convey his manner or personality.

In other words, the accuracy with which we perceive Joseph Smith’s personality is dependent upon our ability to sort through the personalities who, as an unintentional by-product of the record-keeping process, have to some extent obscured our view of the Prophet as an individual.

Of the material that constitutes the writings of Joseph Smith, twenty-nine letters or documents and parts of two diaries survive as holographs—that is, they exist in Joseph Smith’s actual handwriting. Although Joseph Smith’s diaries were incorporated into his history, most members of the Church have not had access to his holograph letters and documents. Only four were reproduced in the Prophet’s History of the Church; fifteen are not in the Church’s possession, and many of the remaining items came to the Church archives in the years after the publication of Joseph’s history.

In accordance with standard historical practice, we have retained the Prophet’s original grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It should be noted that he lived in a time when spelling and punctuation were largely a matter of personal preference, and when a standard grammar had not yet been widely accepted. (See reason for spelling variations in Elinore Hughes Partridge, “Nineteenth-Century Spelling: The Rules and the Writers,” Ensign, Aug. 1975, pp. 74–80.)

Looking at his writings, as we do here, in an unedited state gives us even greater appreciation for the Prophet as a person. Although he came from a humble background with limited formal schooling, he was able to rise above his circumstances, become a prophet of God, and communicate powerfully and eloquently.

The value of the Prophet’s holographs and other material dictated by him is that we know for sure that these particular writings contain his own thoughts and feelings. They are not the product of secretaries or ghost writers, and have not been altered by well-meaning editors.

Joseph lived at a time when photography was not widely available, when shorthand skills were not sufficiently developed to allow verbatim reports of his speeches, and when editorial procedures did not require a separation of his thoughts from those of others who wrote for him. It is refreshing to remove as much as possible the barrier that separates us from what he referred to on one occasion as that “total darkness of paper pen and ink,” (Joseph Smith to W. W. Phelps, 11.27.1832, Ms., LDS Church Archives) and gaze full face at Joseph the way he was.

Our purpose here is to let the observer read some of Joseph Smith’s own thoughts as he wrote or dictated them, and see some of the places—as they look today—where the Prophet was when he wrote.

The Hill Cumorah

The Hill Cumorah, near Palmyra, where Joseph received the golden plates 22 September 1827. He had visited the site each year from 1823 to 1827 to receive instruction.

1. Joseph Smith’s First History

A revelation to the newly organized Church on 6 April 1830 (D&C 21:1) initiated record keeping as an essential responsibility for the Latter-day Saints. Almost immediately, Oliver Cowdery began work on a Church history, and minutes were kept of the first meetings. Many of the early Saints began keeping diaries “to comply with a requirement, oft repeated by the prophet Joseph Smith, ‘That every man should keep a daily journal.’” (Diary of Oliver Boardman Huntington, typescript, p. 25, LDS Church Archives.)

In 1832, the year after his arrival in Kirtland, Ohio, the Prophet began his own personal record, a document that contains his reflections about his early experiences. Since he subsequently depended heavily upon secretaries to write for him or at his dictation, this 1832 record is the only account of his early religious experiences in his own handwriting. The original grammar, spelling, and punctuation have been maintained in this and all other manuscripts cited. It should be noted that the Prophet lived in a time when spelling, punctuation, and grammar were largely a matter of personal preference.

Kirtland, Ohio

[1832] “I was born in the town of Charon in the State of Vermont North America on the twenty third day of December AD 1805 of goodly Parents who spared no pains to instructing me in the christian religion at the age of about ten years my Father Joseph Smith Siegnior moved to Palmyra Ontario County in the State of New York and being in indigent circumstances were obliged to labour hard for the support of a large Family having nine chilldren and as it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family therefore we were deprived of the bennifit of an education suffice it to say I was mearly instructid in reading writing and the ground rules of Arithmatic which constuted my whole literary acquirements. At about the age of twelve years my mind become 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 different 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 the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the minds 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[s] 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 omnipotant 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 and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord in the 16th year of my age a piller of light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. go thy way walk in my statutes and keep my commandments behold I am the Lord of glory I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel and keep not my commandments they draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to vist them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles behold and lo I come quickly as it [is] written of me in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father and my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me but I could find none that would believe the hevnly vision nevertheless I pondered these things in my heart but after many days I fell into transgression and sinned in many things which brought a wound upon my soul and there were many things which transpired that cannot be writen and my Fathers family have suffered many persicutions and afflictions and it came to pass when I was seventeen years of age I called again upon the Lord and he shewed unto me a heavenly vision for behold an angel of the Lord came and stood before me and it was by night and he called me by name and he said the Lord had forgiven me my sins and he revealed unto me that in the Town of Manchester Ontario County N.Y. there was plates of gold upon which there was engravings which was engraven by Maroni & his fathers the servants of the living God in ancient days and deposited by the commandments of God and kept by the power thereof and that I should go and get them and he revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments & revelations. …” (Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1–6, Ms., handwriting of Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams, LDS Church Archives.)

2. Translation of the Book of Mormon

After finishing the translation of the Book of Mormon in Fayette, New York, in 1829, Joseph Smith contracted with Egbert Grandin, a publisher in Palmyra, New York, to print five thousand copies of the book. A short time later, after arranging with Oliver Cowdery to have the manuscript copied as insurance against loss, and leaving Oliver to supervise the publication of the book, the Prophet returned to his home in Harmony, Pennsylvania. On 22 October 1829, less than three weeks after his return to Pennsylvania, he wrote these lines to Oliver:

Harmony, Pennsylvania

Harmony, Pennsylvania, was Joseph and Emma’s home from 1827 to 1830. Here most of the Book of Mormon was translated and the Aaronic Priesthood received. Here also Joseph and Emma’s first child was born and died in 1828.

Harmony, Pennsylvania

1829 Oct 22. “I would in form you that I arrived at home on sunday morning the 4th after having a prosperous Journey, and found all well the people are all friendly to us except a few who are in opposition to evry thing unless it is some thing that is exactly like themselves and two of our most formadable persacutors are now under censure and are cited to a tryal in the church for crimes which if true are worse than all the Gold Book business. We do not rejoice in the affliction of our enimies but we shall be glad to have truth prevail there begins to be a great call for our books in this country the minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copy right obtained and that there is really [a] book, about to be printed. … Mr Stowell has a prospect of getting five or six hundred dollars he does not know certain that he can get it but he is a going to try and if he can get the money he wants to pay it in immediately for books. … give our best respects to Father & Mother and all our brothers and Sisters, to Mr. Harris and all the company concerned tell them that our prayers are put up daily for them that they may be prospered in every, good word and work and that they may be preserved from sin here and from the consequence of sin hereafter and now dear brother be faithful in the discharge of evry duty looking for the reward of the righteous and now may God of his infinite mercy keep and preserve us spotless untill his coming and receive us all to rest with him in eternal repose through the attonement of Christ our Lord, Amen.” (Joseph Smith to Oliver Cowdery, 10.22.1829, Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, p. 9, Ms., retained copy in the handwriting of Frederick G. Williams, LDS Church Archives.)

Kirtland

A branch of the Church was established in Kirtland late in 1830 by missionaries en route to Missouri. A revelation in 1831 directed the Saints to gather here.

3. Arrival in Ohio

Less than a year after the organization of the Church at Fayette, New York, a revelation (D&C 37) directed the Saints to gather to Ohio. At Kirtland a branch of the Church had been established late in 1830 by missionaries en route to Missouri. Joseph and Emma Smith arrived at Kirtland about the first of February 1831. A month later the Prophet wrote to his brother Hyrum, who was presiding over the Saints back in Colesville, New York:

A printing press was dedicated in this building in Kirtland

On 18 December 1833, a printing press was dedicated in this building in Kirtland. Issues of the Evening and Morning Star and copies of The Book of the Doctrine and Covenants were some of the materials printed here.

Kirtland, Ohio

1831 Mar 3. “We arived here safe and are all well I hav[e] been engageed in regulating the Churches here as the deciples are numerous and the devil has made many attempts to over throw them it has been a serious Job but the Lord is with us and we have overcome and have all things regular the work is brakeing forth on the right hand and on the left and there is a great Call for Elders in this place. … I have had much Concirn about you but I always remember you in my prayers Calling upon god to keep you Safe in spite of men or devils I think you had better Come into this Country immediately for the Lord has Commanded us that we should Call the Elders of this Chursh to gether unto this plase as soon as possable

“March forth [4th] this morning after being Colled out of my bed in the night to go a small distance I went and had an awful strugle 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

I want to see you all may the grace of God be and abide with you all even so Amen.” (Joseph to Hyrum Smith, 3.3.1831, LDS Church Archives.)

4. Incident in Indiana

While returning to Kirtland from Jackson County, Missouri, in the spring of 1832 (where they had met with the membership of the Church at the recently designated “place for the city of Zion”) Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and Newel K. Whitney were involved in a serious accident. The mishap, in which Newel Whitney broke his leg, occurred on the road between Vincennes and New Albany, Indiana, near Greenville. While Sidney Rigdon continued on to Kirtland alone, the Prophet and Newel remained some time at the Porter Tavern in Greenville, until the leg was healed sufficiently and they could continue their journey. During their stay in Greenville, Joseph wrote to his wife, Emma, on June 6:

Greenville, Indiana

When returning to Kirtland from Jackson County, Missouri, in the spring of 1832, Newel K. Whitney’s leg was broken in a serious accident. He and Joseph Smith stayed in Greenville, Indiana, until Brother Whitney was well enough to resume the journey.

Indiana: Greenville, Floyd County

1832 Jun 6. “I would inform you that Brother Martin has arrived here and braught the pleasing news that our Familys were well when he left there which Greately Cheared our hearts and revived our Spirits we thank our hevenly Father for his Goodness unto us and all of you. … we are all in good health Brother Whitneys leg is gaining and he thinks he Shall be able to perform his Journy so as to get home about the 20th 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 fo[r]given my Sins and I r[e]joice that he Sendeth forth the Comferter unto as many as believe and humbleeth themselves before him. … I will try to be contented with my lot knowing that God is my friend in him I shall find comfort I have given my life into his hands I am prepared to go at his Call I desire to be with Christ I Count not my life dear to me only to do his will. … I hope you will excuse … my inability in convaying my ideas in writing I am happy to find that you are still in the faith of Christ and at Father Smiths I hope you will Comfort Father and Mother in their trials and Hiram and Jerusha and the rest of the Family tell Sophronia I remember her and Kalvin in my prayrs my respects to the rest I Should Like [to] See little Julia and once more take her on my knee and converse with you on all the subjects which concerns us. … I subscribe myself your Husband the Lord bless you peace be with [you] so Farewell untill I return.” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 6.6.1832, Chicago Historical Society.)

5. Business Trip with Newel K. Whitney

In the fall of 1832, although his leg was not completely healed, Newel K. Whitney was designated by revelation (D&C 84:112–114) to visit and warn certain eastern cities “with the sound of the gospel.” Joseph Smith accompanied Bishop Whitney on this trip, and while in New York City they engaged in business pertaining to the Kirtland mercantile firm that bore Brother Whitney’s name. On October 13, while boarding at the Pearl Street House at 88 Pearl Street, on Manhattan Island, the Prophet wrote Emma, who at the time was expecting their fourth child.

The Whitney store

The Whitney store supplied goods to many of the Saints in Kirtland. The Prophet and his family lived in rooms on the second floor of the building from about September 1832 to February 1834.

New York: New York City

1832 Oct 13. “This day I have been walking through the most splended part of the City of New Y— the buildings are truly great and wonderful to the astonishing of eve[r]y beholder and the language of my heart is like this can the great God of all the Earth maker of all thing[s] magnificent and splendid be displeased with man for all these great inventions saught out by them my answer is no it can not be seeing these works are calculated to mak[e] 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 therefore their iniquities shall be visited upon their heads and their works shall be burned up with unquenchable fire the inequity of the people is printed in every countinance and nothing but the dress of the people makes them look fair and butiful all is deformity their is something in every countinance that is disagreable with few exceptions Oh how long Oh Lord Shall this order of things exist and darkness cover the Earth and gross darkness cover the people after beholding all that I had any desire to behold 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 and could I be with you I would tell you many things yet when I reflect upon this great city like Nineveh not desearning their right hand from their left yea more then two hundred thousand souls my bowels is filled with compasion towards them and I am determined to lift up my voice in this City and leave the Event with God who holdeth all things in his hands and will not suffer an hair of our heads unnoticed to fall to the ground there is but few Cases of the cholra in this City now and if you should see the people you would not know that they had ever heard of the cholra I hope you will excuse me for writting this letter so soon after w[r]iting for I feel as if I wanted to say something to you to comfort you in your beculier triel and presant affliction I hope God will give you strength that you may not faint I pray God to soften the hearts of those arou[n]d you to be kind to you and take the burdon of[f] your shoulders as much as posable and not afflict you I feel for you for I know you[r] state and that others do not but you must cumfort yourself knowing that God is your friend in heaven and that you hav[e] one true and living friend on Earth your Husband. …

“while Brother Whitney [is] Selecting goods I have nothing to [do] but to sit in my room and pray for him that he may have strength to indure his labours for truly it is [a] tedious Job to stand on the feet all day to select goods. … I prefer reading and praying and holding comuneion with the holy spirit and writing to you then walking the streets and beholding the distraction of man I have had some conversation with few which gave satisfaction and one very butiful young gentleman from Jersy whose countinance was very sollam he came and set by my side and began to converce with me about the Cholra and I learned he had been seased with it and came very near die[i]ng with it he said the Lord had spared him for some wise pu[r]pose I took advantage of this and opened a long discours with him he received my teaching appearan[t]ly with much pleasure and becam very strongly attacth to me we talkd till late at night and concluded to omit conversation till the next day but having some business to do he was detained untill the boat was ready to go out and must leave he came to me and bid me Farewell and we parted with much reluctance. … there is about one hundred boarders and sometimes more in this house every day from one to two from all parts of the world I think you would hav laughed right harty if you could [have] been whe[r]e you could see the waiters to day noon [as they] waited on the table both Black and white and molato runing bowing and maneuvering but I must conclude I remain your affectionate Husband until Death” (Joseph to Emma Smith, 10.13.1832, RLDS Church Archives.)

Joseph Smith’s “variety store” stood on this site in Kirtland

Joseph Smith’s “variety store” stood on this site in Kirtland. It went out of business because the Prophet could not keep it solvent while trying to help the needy Saints.

6. Ohio Respite

After returning from his trip east with Bishop Whitney, Joseph Smith enjoyed some time in the area of Kirtland with his family and friends. Entries in his diary reveal some of his thoughts, feelings, and activities during the fall and winter of 1832.

Ohio: Chardon, Geauga County

1832 Nov 29. “this day road from Kirtland to Chardon to see my Sister Sop[h]ronia and also cal[led] to see my Sister Catherine [and fou]nd them [well] this Evening Brother Frederic Prophecyed that next spring I should go to the city of PittsBurg to establish a Bishopwrick and within one year I should go to the City of New York the Lord spare the life of thy servent Amen”

Ohio: Kirtland, Geauga County

1832 Nov 30. “this day retu[r]ned home to Kirtland found all well to the Joy and satisfaction of my soul on my return home stopped at Mr Kings bore testmony to him and Family &c—

1832 Dec 1. “bore testimony to Mr Gilmore wrote and corrected revelations &c—

1832 Dec 2. “the sabath went to meeting &c

1832 Dec 4. “this day I been unwell done but litle been at home all day regulated some things this Evening feel better in my mind then I have for a few days back Oh Lord deliver thy servent out of temtations and fill his heart with wisdom and understanding

1832 Dec 5. “this day copying letters and translating and in evening held a council to advise with Brother Solomon Humphry it was ordered by the council that he should be a companion with Brother Noah packard in the work of the ministry—

1832 Dec 6. “translating and received a revelation explaining the Parable of the wheat and the tears &c—” (Joseph Smith Diary, Ms., LDS Church Archives.)

[illustration] Painting by Dale Kilbourn

[illustration] “The Angel Moroni Appears to Joseph Smith,” by Tom Lovell. September 21, 1823. While Joseph was praying for forgiveness of his sins, Moroni appeared to tell him of his future mission.

[illustration] “The First Vision,” by Ken Riley. Early in the spring of 1820, confused by the varying doctrines of different religions, Joseph retired to the woods near his home in Palmyra to ask the Lord which church was true.

[photos] Photography by Eldon Linschoten and Jed A. Clark

[photo] A letter written by Joseph Smith to his brother Hyrum.

[illustration] Joseph Smith and his family were severely persecuted during the time he spent translating the writings on the gold plates. (Painting by Dale Kilbourn.)

[photo] The E. B. Grandin Building in Palmyra. In the fall of 1829, Joseph Smith contracted with publisher E. B. Grandin to print 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon.

[illustration] Sidney Rigdon was a popular minister before his baptism in November of 1830. He followed no special creed but held the Bible as his rule of faith, teaching repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.

[photo] Joseph Smith accompanied Newell K. Whitney to New York City in the fall of 1832. Bishop Whitney had been sent to preach the gospel in several eastern cities.

[illustration] Newell K. Whitney, a close friend to Joseph Smith, joined the Church in November 1830. He and his wife had been praying to know how they might obtain the gift of the Holy Ghost.

[illustration] Emma Smith, wife of the Prophet, served as the first president of the Relief Society. She suffered through many trials and much persecution with her husband.

[photo] Chardon, Geauga County, Ohio. This township, located about six miles from Kirtland, was the home of Joseph Smith’s sisters Catherine and Sophronia.

Dean C. Jessee is a research historian for the Smith Institute at Brigham Young University. He is the father of eight children and currently serves as a counselor in the high priest group of his Salt Lake City ward.