The Spirituality of Joseph Smith

By Dean C. Jessee

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    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.

    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 queer man for a Prophet. … He didn’t appear exactly as I expected to see a Prophet of God. However, I was not stumbled [did not waver] at all. I found him to be a friendly, cheerful, pleasant, agreeable man. I could not help liking him.”2 And a convert remarked to a friend in England that Joseph Smith was “no saintish long-faced fellow, but quite the reverse. Indeed some [had second thoughts] because he is such a straight forward, plain spoken, cheerful man, but that makes me love him the more.”3

    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 [house] and play ball with us boys. … Joseph would always conform to the rules. He would catch the ball till it came his turn to take the bat. Then, being a very strong man he would knock the ball so far that we used to shout to the boy that was going for the ball to take his dinner [with him to eat on the way]. This used to make the prophet laugh. Joseph was always good natured and full of fun. I have seen him sit down on the carpet in his office and pull sticks [a game of strength] with the Nauvoo police.”4

    To some people, though, Joseph Smith’s congeniality was a stumbling block to their faith. 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.”5 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.”6 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.”7

    Addressing the saints in Nauvoo on one occasion Joseph acknowledged his “playful and cheerful” nature, 8 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.”9

    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.10 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.”11

    Joseph’s religious inclinations were deeply rooted in his family heritage. His home contributed significantly to the shaping of his spiritual nature. 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.”12 All his life he remembered the “kind … parental words” that had been “written on the tablet of [his] heart.”13

    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”),14 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.”15

    The cost of this conviction had been heavy in terms of “time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thought.”16 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.”17

    And in his patriarchal blessing, his father remarked, “Thou has sought to know [the ways of the Lord] and from thy childhood thou hast meditated much upon the great things of his law.”18

    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 teaching, 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:

    “My mind became exceedingly distressed for I became convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living 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, today 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 majesty 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 majesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intelligence in governing the things which are so exceeding great and marvelous 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 omnipresent power, a being who maketh laws and decreeth 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.”19

    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.” 20

    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.”21

    “[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.”22

    “At home. Spent this [day] in endeavoring to treasure up knowledge for the benefit of my calling. The day passed off 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.”23

    “Continued my studies. O may God give me learning, even language; and imbue me with qualifications to magnify his name while I live.”24

    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, Ohio. He had spent some time walking through the “most splendid 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 against 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 thoughts of home, of Emma [his wife] and Julia [his daughter] rushes upon my mind like a flood and I could wish for a moment to be with them. My breast is filled with all the feelings and tenderness of a parent and a husband. … Yet when I reflect upon this great city … my bowels are filled with compassion 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.”25

    While on this journey with Brother Whitney, Joseph suffered a severe case of food poisoning that almost cost him his life. He wrote to his wife:

    “My situation is a very unpleasant one although I will endeavor to be contented, the Lord assisting 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 meditation and prayer. I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to mourn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly in suffering 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 Comforter unto as many as believe and humbleth themselves before him.”26

    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 [to administer to a sister] 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 her right mind. The Lord worketh wonders in this land.”27

    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 sending 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 [the doctor] shall come and shall have wisdom given him to deal prudently, and my handmaiden shall be delivered 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.”28

    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 Brother 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, “Brother Joseph will you go and administer to my wife?” The hasty answer was, “I cannot!” But, with tears in his eyes, Charles pleaded, “Brother 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 face and answered. ‘I will be there presently.’ My heart leaped for joy: I hurried home. … I had not much more than got there before Brother Joseph came. … He asked me. ‘How long has she been so sick?’ He then walked back and forth for some minutes: I began to fear that he considered her past recovery; but he finally went to the fire, warmed his hands, threw 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.29

    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 something of his feelings during his sickness. He said when he [was] too weak to pray himself the enemy strove against him. The struggle sometimes became so great that he had to call upon his wife or some friend to pray that the good spirit might conquer. He was blessed at times with such glorious visions as made him quite forget that his body was afflicted. On the Sunday night before mentioned when to all appearance he seemed to be so near his end, good Brother Carter … and some others met together in the House of the Lord where they fasted and prayed for him nearly all night. Brother Carter saw in a vision a grave open to receive him [the Prophet] … 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 three or four days after was able to be out in the air. Those who love him of course 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.”30

    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.”31 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 terminate that sensitive channel of spiritual communication.

    Show References


    1. 1.

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

    2. 2.

      Jonathan Crosby, “A Biographical Sketch of the Life of Jonathan Crosby Written by Himself,” Church Archives, Salt Lake City.

    3. 3.

      John Needham to Thomas Ward, 7 July 1843.

    4. 4.

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

    5. 5.

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

    6. 6.

      Ezra Booth, “Letter No. VII,” Ohio Star, 24 November 1831.

    7. 7.

      Thomas Ford, A History of Illinois, edited by Milo M. Quaife, Chicago, 1946.

    8. 8.

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

    9. 9.

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

    10. 10.

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

    11. 11.

      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.

    12. 12.

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

    13. 13.

      History of the Church, 5:126.

    14. 14.

      D&C 128:2.

    15. 15.

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

    16. 16.

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

    17. 17.

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

    18. 18.

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

    19. 19.

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

    20. 20.

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

    21. 21.

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

    22. 22.

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

    23. 23.

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

    24. 24.

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

    25. 25.

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

    26. 26.

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

    27. 27.

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

    28. 28.

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

    29. 29.

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

    30. 30.

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

    31. 31.

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

    • Dean C. Jesse is a research historian with the Church’s Joseph Fielding Smith Institute of Church History, Brigham Young University.