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What Have Scholars Learned about Joseph Smith?

See what historians have to say about Joseph Smith, the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Joseph Smith Jr. has been a topic of conversation since his First Vision in 1820. Today, the discourse continues. Whether discussing the possibility of a Joseph Smith photograph or his relationship with Brigham Young, historians continue to learn new things about the first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Cornerstone content. This article is frequently updated.


There might be a photo of the Prophet

One of Joseph Smith’s descendants, Dan Larsen, was going through family heirlooms during the COVID-19 pandemic and made a startling discovery. What he thought was a watch was actually a watch locket—with a picture inside of it.

Long story short, two historians believe that the daguerreotype is the only known photograph of Joseph Smith. While the academic community remains largely unconvinced, Lachlan Mackay sees the picture in the locket as a turning point in Latter-day Saint history:

It has the potential to replace the myth with the man, and in the process humanize not just Joseph Smith, but his story.

Has a Joseph Smith Photograph Finally Been Found?

Emma was the “right one”

The Angel Moroni told Joseph that he needed to bring the “right one” with him to the Hill Cumorah each year. “Emma was the ‘right one’ Joseph was instructed to bring to actually obtain the plates,” said Jenny Reeder, a biographer of Emma Hale Smith.


He was influenced by Freemasonry

Joseph was a product of his time who was influenced by the things and people around him, such as Freemasonry. Scholars have suggested that there are strong Masonic ties to Joseph Smith, including the temple ceremony:

Divine revelation and Joseph Smith’s participation in Freemasonry are complementary explanations for the origins of temple ordinances.

Jeffrey Bradshaw, Freemasonry and the Latter-day Saint Temple Endowment

Richard Bushman is writing a book about the gold plates

Speaking of Joseph’s biographers, Rough Stone Rolling author Richard Bushman is working on a book about the gold plates. The Oxford manuscript submitted in September 2022 could potentially be one of the last major works on the Prophet’s life by the 91-year-old historian.

It’s tentatively titled, Joseph Smith’s Gold Plates: A Cultural History.


Joseph’s family may have known more than we realize

Historian Kyle Walker has found evidence suggesting that Smith family memories about the First Vision may stem from yet-to-be-discovered stories shared by Joseph.

He appears to have shared more than just telling his mother that he had learned for himself that Presbyterianism is not of God.

Kyle R. Walker, Smith Family Accounts of the First Vision

The Prophet ran for President

Joseph ran for president in 1844—the same year he was killed (he was the first presidential candidate to be assassinated.) Many people wonder whether he stood a chance at winning. As it turns out, the answer is: “probably not.”

“Smith was serious about his campaign,” said Spencer McBride, author of a book about Joseph Smith’s presidential campaign. “But he was not a serious contender.”


He used seer stones

Many people from Joseph’s time used seer stones (he also called them urim and thummim). However, he’s the only one who used them to recover ancient scripture. For example, seer stones were integral to the translation of the Book of Mormon.

Fun fact: We don’t know if the Prophet used seer stones for the Book of Abraham.

He had flaws and preferences and feelings like the rest of us.


Joseph may have given Emma a Relief Society blessing

The Lord told Emma Smith that she was to be “ordained” by her husband when the Nauvoo Relief Society was organized. The meaning of “ordain” has evolved over time, and hasn’t always been used consistently by church leaders. Historian Lisa Olsen Tait thinks that Joseph likely gave his wife a priesthood blessing in association with her “ordination”:

While we have no record of it, this statement suggests that Emma did receive a formal blessing of some kind in 1830, probably under the hands of Joseph.

Women and the Priesthood

There are many First Vision accounts

There are four primary accounts of the First Vision and five secondary accounts—making a total of nine versions of what happened in the Sacred Grove. But that doesn’t mean there may not be more waiting to be discovered.

“No one knows how many accounts of the First Vision Joseph Smith gave,” said historian Steven C. Harper.


Truman Madsen studied about the Prophet everyday

Truman Madsen deserves a good deal of credit for introducing generations to the deeper aspects of Joseph’s life. While history has come a long way in the decade since the BYU philosopher passed away, his love for the Prophet still resonates. And it turns out he gained his knowledge one day at a time:

He once told a student that he spent at least 10 minutes a day studying the Prophet’s life and teachings. It became a daily habit of ‘line upon line.’ He kept at it.

Barnard Madsen, The Biography of Truman G. Madsen

Joseph was a “quick study”

As the first prophet of this dispensation, Joseph didn’t have anyone he could look to as an example of how to be a prophet. Instead, he learned through the refiner’s fire of raw experience—alongside other pioneer leaders:

He had to rely on inexperienced associates. They struggled and learned together, and Joseph was extremely rapid in his acquisition of knowledge and maturity. He unquestionably had unique gifts. As we would say today, he was “a quick study.”

Dallin H. Oaks, Joseph Smith in a Personal World

The Prophet introduced a paradigm-shifting theology

Joseph didn’t mess around when it came to theology. His vision of multiple degrees of glory found in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants rocked the Saints of His time. It was so counter to prevailing thought that some couldn’t embrace “The Vision.” The Lord’s revelations in Section 93 are equally grounded in deep theological bedrock.

Many Latter-day Saints likely see the King Follett Discourse as a source of many of the Prophet’s culminating teachings. And yet, while the speech was given shortly before Joseph died, not much of it was new.

“All but one of the doctrines taught in the sermon can be found elsewhere,” said Jim Faulconer, author of a special BYU Studies Quarterly article about “open questions.”


Some of his teachings about polygamy may have been misinterpreted

Joseph taught doctrine to Benjamin F. Johnson when discussing polygamy on 16 May 1843. William Clayton recorded the Prophet’s teachings in his diary, and they now comprise the first four verses of Section 131 of the Doctrine and Covenants. However, one phrase in particular has taken on a meaning that wasn’t original to Joseph’s time:

“In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees.”

Doctrine and Covenants 131:1, emphasis added.

The verse has come to mean that there are not merely three degrees of glory, but also an additional three spheres within the uppermost Celestial Kingdom. The late Shannon Flynn argues that this belief can be traced back to a misquoting of D&C 131:1, and that when Joseph said “celestial glory,” he was talking about the traditional breakdown of telestial, terrestrial, and celestial degrees of glory.


Joseph was like us

The Prophet had scores of visions and communed with messengers from the spirit world. And yet he also remained grounded in the reality of mortal life. Biographer Richard Bushman said that Joseph’s divine gifts didn’t come at the expense of his humanity:

He was not molded into a timeless model of perfection. . . . He had flaws and preferences and feelings like the rest of us. We could meet and know him like other personalities.

Richard Bushman, The Character of Joseph Smith

I think he would remain withdrawn as he listened to our debates and speculation.


His father’s poverty was a bigger trial than many realize

Joseph Smith Jr. was famously tempted to sell the gold plates as a consequence of his family’s poverty. It’s possible the prophet’s angst was passed down from his father, Joseph Smith Sr.

Historian Mark Staker has conducted archaeological research on Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith’s Tunbridge Farm. He discovered evidence that Joseph’s parents were financially well off before he was later born in New York:

This would have made Joseph Smith Sr.’s later financial struggles all the more difficult as it wasn’t just a life-as-usual setting. It was a social and financial decline setting that created significant angst.

Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith’s Tunbridge Farm

Planning for the Joseph Smith Memorial Building began in 1909

President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in 1993. But plans for the building started well before that.

“This elegant building was planned in 1909,” said President Hinckley. “It took a lot longer for us to make a decision regarding what to do with it . . . But it has happened, and I think it is a miracle.”


His love was infectious

The Prophet Joseph Smith inspired wholehearted loyalty. For example, Willard Richards offered to be hung in Joseph’s stead the night before his martyrdom. Latter-day Saint intellectual Terryl Givens believes that Joseph’s sincere love inspired those who associated with him:

How does one explain the depths of this love and loyalty? Joseph’s friends loved him because they knew the extent of his love for them. Nothing in Joseph’s life was more important than friendship.

Terryl L. Givens, “Lightning Out of Heaven”: Joseph Smith and the Forging of Community

Tourists visit the room where he was killed

Joseph Smith’s martyrdom is a heart-wrenching story. And yet while some outside observers saw his death as the end of the fledgling Latter-day Saint faith, it only grew with time. Today, much like religious sites in other heritages, tourists flock to the location of his death.

There is a desire to walk where Saints and prophets walked, to venerate at the tomb of their Prophet and Patriarch, Joseph and Hyrum Smith.

There is some inner longing to place a finger in the bullet hole in the door of the room where they died, to look out the window where Joseph Smith fell to his death, and to ponder on their lives.

Scott C. Esplin, Nauvoo and the Temple: A Social History

There’s more than one Joseph Smith movie

Chances are that someone talking about the Joseph Smith movie is thinking about Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. But there are scores of films about the religious founder, including:

“The Prophet of the Restoration” is the most recent feature-length film about the Prophet produced by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

John Turner is writing a Joseph Smith biography

Joseph’s most well-known biographer is probably Richard Bushman, the author of Rough Stone Rolling. Other biographers include Fawn Brodie and Frank J. Cannon (who ghost-wrote The Life of Joseph Smith by George Q. Cannon). The next big biography of the Prophet will be by John Turner, a biographer of Brigham Young.

“When I select a book subject, I immerse myself in the relevant sources for a few years,” said Turner. “That’s what I did for Brigham Young, and I will do the same for Joseph.”


We aren’t sure about the purpose of the gold plates

Joseph’s translation of the Book of Mormon didn’t involve looking at the physical gold plates. That raises the question of why God delivered them to the Prophet in the first place.

Joseph Smith typically didn't look at the gold plates while translating the Book of Mormon.
“The Gift and Power of God” by Anthony Sweat shows the Prophet Joseph Smith translating the Book of Mormon by looking at a seer stone in a hat while the gold plates remain covered on a table.

Richard Bushman isn’t sure, but thinks that there’s something to be said for their role as a revelatory catalyst:

Could translation work like induction? If you move a magnet across a wire, the electrons start moving along the wire. That is how electrical generators work. Could something analogous work for translation? We don’t know enough about the technology of revelation to do more than speculate.

What Was the Purpose of the Gold Plates?

Emma believed in the Book of Mormon

Polygamy put a strain on Joseph and Emma’s marriage. But she would testify of his prophetic calling throughout her life. In particular, Emma’s belief in the Book of Mormon never waned:

At the end of her life, Emma told her sons, Joseph Smith III and Alexander, that she continued to believe in the Book of Mormon and the role of Joseph as a prophet.

Jenny Reeder, The Remarkable Legacy of Emma Smith

There are 11 Joseph Smith children

The Prophet and his wife had nearly a dozen children when you include the two that they adopted. Sadly, six of their children died as infants:

  1. Alvin Smith (died as infant)
  2. Louisa Smith (died as infant)
  3. Thaddeus Smith (died as infant)
  4. Joseph Smith Murdock (adopted, died as infant)
  5. Julia Murdock (adopted)
  6. Joseph Smith III
  7. Frederick Granger Williams Smith
  8. Alexander Hale Smith
  9. Don Carlos Smith (died at 14 months)
  10. “Boy” (unnamed, died at birth)
  11. David Hyrum Smith

He practiced plural marriage

It’s common knowledge that Brigham Young practiced plural marriage. However, more and more people are becoming aware that Joseph Smith also married other women.

Most scholars agree that Joseph Smith had between 30 and 40 wives. The youngest woman that Joseph married was fourteen-year-old Helen Mar Kimball and the eldest was fifty-eight-year-old Rhoda Richards.

Brittany Chapman Nash, Let’s Talk about Polygamy

Joseph loved the past

Joseph seemed to have a deep connection with history. Historian Richard Bushman has said that the Prophet’s mind would come alive when viewing relics from the past. Joseph also saw the authority of ancient figures like Moses and Elijah as central to his claims of restoration.

But, perhaps above anything else, he saw the past as a repository of divine powers. Recovering that authority has everything to do with what the past meant to the essential Joseph Smith.

John W. Welch, Joseph Smith and the Past

He charged visitors to look at mummies

The cache of Joseph Smith papyri which led to the Book of Abraham came with a set of ancient Egyptian mummies. Joseph and the early Saints spent a pretty penny to purchase the entire lot. To recoup some of their funds, the Prophet charged visitors at the Nauvoo Mansion House to see the collection.

Charles Francis Adams visited the Prophet in May 1844, and wasn’t very happy about forking over his money:

Charles never grasped the intricacies of Mormon belief, and he resented paying a quarter to see the cache.

Sara Georgini, The Religious Lives of the Adams Family

The Prophet Joseph Smith studied Hebrew

Joseph took revelation to a new level—but not always in the ways people think. In addition to receiving panoramic visions and divine visitations, the Prophet also threw himself into practical study.

For example, he started a Hebrew school and was among the students. Interestingly, Joseph’s use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham changed somewhat after he began studying the ancient language:

I personally do not think that the stakes on this matter are as high as they are sometimes made out to be for the legitimacy of Joseph Smith’s work as a prophetic translator. For example, I see no compelling reason why Joseph’s Abraham translation can’t still reflect an inspired process if it spanned several years and included his best academic efforts.

Matthew Grey, Joseph Smith’s Use of Hebrew in the Book of Abraham

Some Joseph Smith books are better than others

Not all books about the Prophet are created equal. Most scholars universally praise Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman. And despite its negative tilt, Fawn Brodie’s No Man Knows My History is considered important for its time. Then, there are the numerous volumes published by the Joseph Smith Papers Project.

While you’re more likely to come across academic articles than books, you can still find reputable scholars citing novel-length works. For example, these are a few of the books you can find cited in Know Brother Joseph by scholars such as Steven C. Harper, Robin Scott Jensen, and Mark Staker:


He worked to create Zion

Zion has many definitions in Latter-day Saint thought. It was a literal reality that Joseph tried to bring about, and the Lord spoke to him about the city of holiness:

One of our favorite definitions of Zion comes from a March 1831 revelation to Joseph Smith, which we have as D&C 45. In it, Zion, or the New Jerusalem, is defined as “a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints of the Most High God.”

Patrick Mason and David Pulsipher, Latter-day Saint Scholars ‘Proclaim Peace’

M. Russell Ballard is a descendant of Joseph’s brother

Hyrum Smith’s descendants include two Latter-day Saint prophets: Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Fielding Smith. However, another Latter-day Saint leader without the “Smith” name also claims Hyrum as an ancestor.

“President Ballard’s heritage includes prophets and apostles,” said Susan Eason Black, referring to the fact that Hyrum Smith is the great-grandfather of M. Russell Ballard.


He would probably approve of the Joseph Smith Papers

The Joseph Smith Papers Project aims to publish all known documents closely associated with the Prophet’s life. And they would probably meet with his approval:

I think Joseph would want people to be familiar with the Joseph Smith Papers because they give insights into his heart, his motivations, his history, his witness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Matt Grow, Q&A with the Editors of ‘Know Brother Joseph’

But that doesn’t mean he’d be free with his thoughts

The Prophet Joseph Smith might approve of the papers project named after him. However, historian Richard Bushman thinks that Joseph would probably look upon our fascinating with his translation efforts with reticence:

I think he would remain withdrawn as he listened to our debates and speculation. He refused to say much about it when he was alive.

I don’t think he would be much more forthcoming today. He only said they were translated by the gift and power of God. He may not have known any more about it himself. He focused and the words came. That may have been enough.

Richard Bushman, What Was the Purpose of the Gold Plates?

There’s a podcast devoted to the First Vision

The Joseph Smith Papers Project does more than publish books or take up space at the Church History Library. It also produces podcasts that view important issues through their historical contexts. Host Spencer McBride takes listeners on a six-episode virtual tour of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision:

It takes a story with which Latter-day Saints are very familiar and expands it for them, giving them new things to think about.

Spencer McBride, The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast

Fun fact: The Joseph Smith Papers Project has two additional church history podcasts:

  1. The Priesthood Restored
  2. The Nauvoo Temple

The Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial obelisk is 38.5 feet tall

Joseph died when he was 38 ½ years old. His birthplace monument near Sharon, Vermont is 38.5 feet tall—with each foot representing one year in his life. Interestingly, the monument holds another unique record.

A 2011 news release by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states, “At the time, it was reported to be the largest spire in America to be cut from a single piece of granite.”



Joseph didn’t have children with any of his polygamous wives

Despite being the husband in dozens of marriages—some of which involved sexual relations—there is no evidence that Joseph had children with anyone but Emma.

“It is significant to note that DNA tests show that Joseph did not have children with any of his plural wives, and that Emma was pregnant with Joseph’s baby when he died,” said Jenny Reeder.


He experimented with a new constitution

Early Latter-day Saints had a tenuous relationship with the United States government. Following the persecutions in Missouri, things became so dire that Joseph tasked the Council of Fifty with drafting a new constitution. However, the committee consisting of John Taylor, Willard Richards, William W. Phelps, and Parley P. Pratt ultimately fell short of their goal:

They produced a draft but expressed doubts that they had fully captured the mind and will of God.

Nathan B. Oman, The Council of Fifty: A Constitution for the Kingdom of God

Zion’s Camp helped establish his leadership style

Joseph Smith put together an expedition in 1834 called Zion’s Camp (or the Camp of Israel). The initial idea was to reclaim stolen lands in Jackson County, Missouri. However, the endeavor proved more effective in refining the Prophet’s leadership abilities:

Remember that when the expedition occurred, Joseph was only 28 years old and would continue as the leader of the church for another ten years. So this was at the relative beginning of his leadership.

I think he very much enjoyed associating with the members of Zion’s Camp, some of whom he did not really know before the expedition, and I think it gave him a good sense of who he could trust. It also gave him experience with dealing with individuals, such as Sylvester Smith, who were recalcitrant, and I think that helped him later in his life.

Matt Godfrey, Was Zion’s Camp a Failure?

Joseph Smith translated the Bible

He produced a translation of the Old Testament and New Testament that has come to be known as the Joseph Smith Translation. While it wasn’t a translation in the academic sense, the word itself is full of meaning that sheds light on what Joseph was doing:

“The Prophet and his associates called it a “translation,” so we shouldn’t be shy about using that term,” said Kent Jackson. “But . . . we are justified in asking what the word translation means in the JST’s context.”


The Joseph Smith Translation (JST) was almost called the “NT”

Kent P. Jackson says that Church leaders in the 1970s wanted to call it the “New Translation,” but ruled it out since “NT” was already used as an abbreviation for the New Testament.


There’s a Lego Joseph Smith

The Latter-day Saint prophet shows up in the most unique places—including the Nintendo game, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean. Shout-out to “Ashton” who discovered the avatar way back in 2013.


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Related articles

Other people interested in early Latter-day Saint history read these articles:

Recommended Joseph Smith research

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

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