Come Follow Me Cornerstone Joseph Smith

Highlights From the Latest Joseph Smith Research

See what historians have to say about Joseph Smith.

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.

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Table of contents

Books to read

The last 20 years have resulted in an explosion of books about the Prophet Joseph Smith—and more are on the way. This list includes several works that have influenced historians over the last century, ranging from Fawn Brodie’s biography to Rough Stone Rolling to the Joseph Smith Papers.

Joseph Smith books
Accounts of Divine Manifestations by John W. Welch (Find Book)
Council of Fifty Minutes by Joseph Smith Papers (Find Book)
Early Mormon Documents by Dan Vogel (Find Book)
Foundational Texts of Mormonism by Mark Ashurst-McGee (Find Book)
Joseph Smith’s Polygamy by Brian C. Hales (Find Book)
Joseph Smith for President by Spencer McBride (Find Book)
Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling by Richard Bushman (Find Book)
Journals Vol. 1 by Joseph Smith Papers (Find Book)
Journals Vol. 2 by Joseph Smith Papers (Find Book)
Journals Vol. 3 by Joseph Smith Papers (Find Book)
Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda Newell and Valeen Avery (Find Book)
No Man Knows My History by Fawn Brodie (Find Book)
Opening the Heavens (Find Book)
Producing Ancient Scripture by Michael Hubbard MacKay (Find Book)
The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations by Mark Staker (Find Book)
The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Find Book)
The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith by Dean Jessee (Find Book)
The books in this table include Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Birth and childhood

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.”

Carthage Jail and Death

The origin of a quote

Joseph Smith was speaking to John Milton Bernhisel when he said, “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter.” Bernhisel was a friend and confidante of the Prophet Joseph, and even lived in his home for a time.

Joseph Smith knew he wouldn’t return when he left for Carthage Jail in 1844. “I am going like a lamb to the slaughter, but am calm as a summer’s morning,” he told John Milton Bernhisel.

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


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.

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

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

First Vision

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.

An illustration of Joseph Smith's first vision by Anthony Sweat.
An illustration of Joseph Smith’s first vision by Anthony Sweat.

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

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 three additional church history podcasts:

  1. The Priesthood Restored
  2. The Nauvoo Temple
  3. Kirtland, City of Revelation

Jesus Christ

He was a window to Christ

Truman Madsen viewed Joseph Smith as a “window” through which he could see Jesus Christ:

It is fascinating enough to study the window; I myself have not resisted the temptation. But that is not what I [want to dwell on]. I [want to dwell] on what one may see through the window.

Truman G. Madsen

Joseph Smith Papers

Nearly 30 volumes

The Joseph Smith Papers represents a gold standard in Joseph Smith research. The project’s final volume will be published sometime next year, resulting in 27 total publications crossing 6 different series, including:

  1. Administrative records
  2. Documents
  3. Journals
  4. Histories
  5. Legal and financial records (online only)
  6. Revelations and translations

6,700 citations

The Joseph Smith Papers Works Cited page references exactly 6,700 citations (we counted them). That includes scores of publications from renowned scholars such as:

  • Richard L. Bushman
  • Milton V. Backman
  • Alexander L. Baugh
  • Richard E. Bennett
  • Gary James Bergera
  • Susan Easton Black
  • Donald Q. Cannon
  • Lyndon W. Cook
  • Gerrit J. Dirkmaat
  • Andrew F. Ehat
  • Ronald K. Esplin
  • Terryl Givens
  • Steven C. Harper
  • Kent P. Jackson
  • Dean C. Jessee
  • Stanley B. Kimball
  • Glen M. Leonard
  • Carol Cornwall Madsen
  • Patrick Mason
  • Robert J. Matthews
  • Hugh Nibley
  • Dallin H. Oaks
  • Larry C. Porter
  • Michael D. Quinn
  • Andrea G. Radke Moss
  • Ronald E. Romig
  • Royal Skousen
  • Mark L. Staker
  • Jonathan A. Stapley
  • Richard E. Turley Jr.
  • Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
  • Bruce A. Van Orden
  • Richard S. Van Wagoner
  • Dan Vogel
  • Kyle R. Walker
  • Ronald W. Walker
  • Ronald G. Watt
  • Thomas A. Wayment
  • Kristine Wright

There’s a Joseph Smith Papers glossary

You can jump to specific topics in the Joseph Smith Papers using its online glossary. It includes numerous terms ranging from Aaronic priesthood and baptism to years of accountability and Zion’s Camp.

Featured topics

You can also find links to some of the topics most often searched for on the Joseph Smith Papers website:

The First Vision

  • First Vision Accounts (link)
  • Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity (link)

Guide to the Papers

  • Calendar of Documents (link)
  • Corresponding Dates in Versions of the Manuscript History (link)
  • Documents in Joseph Smith’s handwriting (link)
  • Histories (link)
  • Joseph Smith’s Correspondence (link)
  • Priesthood Licenses Signed by Joseph Smith or the First Presidency (link)

Sermons and teachings

  • Accounts of the “King Follett Sermon” (link)
  • Religious Freedom (link)
  • Sources for Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (link)


  • The Council of Fifty in Nauvoo (link)
  • Joseph Smith and the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo (link)
  • Priesthood Restoration (link)

Revelations and translations

  • Book of Abraham and Egyptian Material (link)
  • Sources behind the Doctrine and Covenants (link)
  • Corresponding Chapters in Editions of the Book of Mormon (link)
  • Corresponding Section Numbers in Editions of the Doctrine and Covenants (link)
  • The Gold Plates and the Translation of the Book of Mormon (link)
  • The Pearl of Great Price (link)
  • Publishing Joseph Smith’s Revelations (link)

It’s not just for scholars

The Joseph Smith Papers states that its target audience comprises “historians, religious studies specialists, teachers and writers of American history and religion, and other scholars and serious students of Joseph Smith.” That said, the research is also of particular interest to Latter-day Saints.

You don’t have to read through the original documents though. For example, Deseret Book has published Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith’s Life and Character. Each chapter is written for regular readers, and none of them exceed 1,500 words.


The Prophet inspired Eliza Snow

The Eliza R. Snow discourses show that she echoed Joseph Smith’s teachings throughout her life. In particular, she often spoke about the Prophet’s statements regarding spiritual gifts and the importance of the Relief Society.

He met Emmeline Wells just before he died

Emmeline B. Wells boasted of personally knowing every prophet from Joseph Smith to Heber J. Grant. In the case of Joseph, she nearly missed her chance, arriving in Nauvoo in May of 1844—roughly one month before the martyrdom:

She told stories of the emotion among townspeople when he was martyred and testified to his wonderful personality.

Cherry Silver, The Emmeline B. Wells Diaries

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.”

Joseph passed on a legacy of fighting poverty

The Prophet never accomplished his goals of creating economic parity among the Latter-day Saints. “For various reasons, the attempts had failed,” said Jeffrey Paul Thompson. However, his successor took up the mantle. Brigham Young founded Zion’s Cooperative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) in 1869, with an eye on eliminating poverty about the Utah pioneers.

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.

President M. Russell Ballard describes the legacy of faithfulness left by Joseph and Hyrum Smith in his April 2020 general conference talk.


Joseph Smith probably didn’t write Lectures on Faith

The Lectures on Faith have held a prominent place in Latter-day Saint culture and theology for decades. The seven-part series was included in the Doctrine and Covenants until 1921, and Bruce R. McConkie wanted to have it canonized in the Pearl of Great Price. Additionally, while the lectures include ideas that Church leaders felt contradicted Joseph’s other teachings, they also present powerful thoughts about the nature of faith and sacrifice.

But the Prophet Joseph probably didn’t write the Lectures on Faith. There’s very little historical evidence pointing to authorship of any kind, but what records we do have strongly suggest that they were written by Sidney Rigdon.

The same goes for the poetic version of D&C 76

A popular myth recounts that Joseph Smith engaged in a war of poetry with W. W. Phelps. The result of the back-and-forth was a poetic version of Section 76, including several new doctrinal insights. The text was even attributed to Joseph when first published in Times and Seasons.

But… he likely wasn’t the author. Or, at least not the sole author. For example, Bruce Van Orden says that scholars today “generally” accept William W. Phelps as the author. Similarly, the Joseph Smith Papers Introduction to the poem identifies Phelps as the most likely author, while also leaving room for the influence of Eliza R. Snow or Parley P. Pratt.

Myths aren’t the only danger

Accepting Joseph Smith myths aren’t the only way to warp the reality of who he was. For example, Richard Bushman has stated that facts without context provide only a shallow understanding of the Prophet.

For example, Bushman says that the Wikipedia article on Joseph Smith rivals the accuracy of Encyclopedia Britannica, but also lacks scope:

It just picks its way along from one little fact to another little fact. . . . It . . . isn’t inaccurate, but it sort of lacks depth. It ends up being shallow.

Richard Bushman, as quoted in How to Dispel Latter-Day Myths.

Odds and Ends

There might be a Joseph Smith photo

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?
Lachlan Mackay argues that the Smith-Larsen daguerreotype is a photograph of Joseph Smith
The Smith/Larsen daguerreotype courtesy of Daniel M. Larsen purports to be a photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This image has been cropped and the resolution has been reduced. ©2022 Dan Larsen.

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

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’

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
Latter-day Saint intellectual Truman G. Madsen studied the life of the Prophet for at least 10 minutes each day. It enabled him to write books and give talks such as this 2005 Sperry Symposium address about Joseph Smith’s “Last Charge.”

Joseph was tutored by the angel Moroni

The angel Moroni visited Joseph Smith on at least 22 occasions. The resurrected being taught the Prophet prophecies from the book of Malachi and tutored him over the course of several years. Historical records (with varying degrees of accuracy) also claim that the angel visited more than a dozen other people.

Fun fact. A clerk by the name of James Mulholland inadvertently recorded that the angel who visited Joseph was Nephi rather than Moroni:

Brigham Young would later identify the misnomer as a clerical error, and a Church History Topics essay states that “no evidence indicates Joseph Smith ever called the angel ‘Nephi.’”

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Angel Moroni

Joseph may have given Emma a Relief Society blessing

Historian Lisa Olsen Tait thinks that Joseph likely gave his wife a priesthood blessing in association with her “ordination” when the Lord revealed Section 25 of the Doctrine and Covenants:

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
Emma Smith was the wife of the Prophet Joseph Smith
The Prophet Joseph Smith may have given his wife, Emma Smith, a priesthood blessing as part of her “ordination” when he received the revelation known as D&C 25.

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:

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.”

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:

Personality and character

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

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

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

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

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?


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 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

Revelations and translations

There are Book of Abraham mysteries

Scholars are increasingly learning new things about Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham. However, there are still many questions without answers. For example, Kerry Muhlstein says that the connection between the Joseph Smith Papyri and the Book of Abraham isn’t known:

One of the biggest questions about the Book of Abraham is whether its text was on the papyrus used by Joseph Smith. There is some evidence that it was—and some that it wasn’t. In the end, we just don’t know exactly what the relationship is between the papyri and the text.

Let’s Talk About the Book of Abraham with Kerry Muhlestein

He didn’t talk much about his process

Joseph Smith didn’t talk much about the process of translating the Book of Mormon to pioneer Latter-day Saints—and probably wouldn’t today. Historian Richard Bushman thinks that Joseph would respond with reticence to our fascinating with his translation effort:

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?

He once called the Book of Abraham translation a “revelation”

Joseph typically referred to the translation of the Book of Abraham as a “translation.” However, there’s at least one instance in which he called it a revelation. In particular, the September 1, 1842 edition of Times & Seasons under his editorial supervision made note of it:

But if we believe in present revelation, as published in the Times and Seasons last spring, Abraham, the prophet of the Lord, was laid upon the iron bedstead for slaughter.

Times & Seasons, September 1, 1842

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

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.

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.

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?

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

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.

The JST doesn’t say who wrote the Gospel of John

Latter-day Saint scholar Eric Huntsman says that the Joseph Smith Translation famously changed the title of “The Gospel according to John” to “The Testimony of John.” However, the Prophet appears not to questioned who wrote the book:

Joseph Smith does not seem to have questioned the traditional attribution of most biblical books, certainly not the Gospels. But we need to remember that his inspired revisions and additions generally had to do with content—and not attributions.

Reading the Gospel of John with Eric Huntsman


His teaching are in the Relief Society Minute Book

“The Prophetess” Eliza R. Snow brought the original Relief Society Minute Book across the plains as a pioneer. It contains teachings of the Prophet Joseph about the role of women and the Relief Society in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints:

Eliza R. Snow brought it to Utah. She used it as a link to Joseph Smith and Nauvoo and as a pattern for restoring the Relief Society in the 1860s in Utah. She passed it on to her successor, Zina D. H. Young, who passed it on to her successor, Bathsheba Smith. Smith’s daughter gave it to the Church archives after her mother’s death.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and ‘A House Full of Females’

The Prophet introduced new theology

Joseph introduced radical theological innovations. 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.”

Even the least Saint may know

Elder Bruce R. McConkie often reinforced the Prophet’s teachings about how to spiritually progress. For example, in a BYU devotional about agency and inspiration, he echoed Joseph’s instructions about revelation:

Don’t shy away from getting revelation. Joseph Smith said, “God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 149). We’re entitled to the spirit of revelation.

Bruce R. McConkie Quotes

His Relief Society teachings were powerful

Although Emmeline Wells barely knew the Prophet Joseph, his teachings on the role of the Relief Society inspired her:

For Emmeline, the power thus bestowed by “turning the key” to the Relief Society was a bestowal of authority that gave the Relief Society not just a religious but a sacred, eternal role to play in the salvation of humanity.

Carol Cornwall Madsen, Who Was Emmeline B. Wells?

Speaking against untruth

Terryl Givens has said that the Prophet set an example for how Latter-day Saint should response to untruths. In an interview about his book, Let’s Talk About Faith and Intellect, Givens quotes Joseph as saying:

It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good and unpopular that which is unsound.

Joseph Smith

He ordained Black Latter-day Saints

Joseph Smith gave the priesthood to Black Latter-day Saints of his time, and used Acts 17:26 to teach the equality of “all nations of men.” According to Paul Reeves, the subsequent priesthood ban “violated the racial policies established under Joseph 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

God used Freemasonry to teach the Saints

Jennifer Lane is the author of Let’s Talk About Temples and Ritual. She also acknowledges that Freemasonry played a role in the development of the temple endowment, but suggests arguments over how ancient the practices are:

I don’t think that is really the issue. The Lord wanted to teach the early Saints how to come back to the presence of God and some of the symbols and ritual of the Masons were part of the symbolic and ritual language He used to communicate that gospel message.

Let’s Talk About Temples and Ritual

There was a gap between baptism for the dead and temple work

Joseph Smith restored the doctrine of the baptism for the dead, but there were many steps in between that initial restoration and contemporary temple worship:

We often tell the story of Joseph Smith restoring the doctrine of baptism for the dead and then jump to modern-day temple work as if it’s a short dot-to-dot in between. But this is one of the delights of history, for me—to better understand all the intervening dots and how they came to be connected.

Lisa Olsen Tait, Susa Young Gates and the Vision of the Redemption of the Dead

He never officiated in adoption sealings

Joseph Smith introduced the concept of adoption sealings, but never officiated in the ordinance, according to Jennifer Mackley of the Wilford Woodruff Papers Foundation:

Because the temple was not completed before Joseph Smith’s death, he did not officiate in any priesthood adoptions or any child-to-parent sealings. Proxy endowments were not administered in Nauvoo because in the six short weeks the temple was open, they were focused on endowments for the living.

Wilford Woodruff and the Development of Temple Doctrine


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 Smith had more than 30 wives

The Prophet married more than 30 women, in addition to Emma Smith. For example, polygamy scholar Todd Compton identifies 30 plural wives of Joseph Smith that the Prophet married over a 10 year period from 1833–1843:

  1. Fanny Alger (Smith Custer) [early 1833]
  2. Lucinda Pendleton (Morgan Harris Smith) [1838]
  3. Louisa Beaman (Smith Young) [1841]
  4. Zina Diantha Huntington (Jacobs Smith Young) [1841]
  5. Presendia Lathrop Huntington (Buell Smith Kimball) [1841]
  6. Agnes Moulton Coolbrith (Smith Smith Smith Pickett) [1842]
  7. Sylvia Porter Sessions (Lyon Smith Kimball Clark) [1842]
  8. Mary Elizabeth Rollins (Lightner Smith Young) [1842]
  9. Patty Bartlett (Sessions Smith Parry) [1842]
  10. Marinda Nancy Johnson (Hyde Smith) [1842]
  11. Elizabeth Davis (Goldsmith Brackenbury Durfee Smith Lott) [1842]
  12. Sarah Kingsley (Howe Cleveland Smith Smith) [1842]
  13. Delcena Diadamia Johnson (Sherman Smith Babbitt) [1842]
  14. Eliza Roxcy Snow (Smith Young) [1842]
  15. Sarah Ann Whitney (Smith [Kingsbury] Kimball) [1842]
  16. Martha McBride (Knight Smith Kimball) [1842]
  17. Flora Ann Woodworth (Smith Gove) [1843]
  18. Emily Dow Partridge (Smith Young) [1843]
  19. Eliza Maria Partridge (Smith Lyman) [1843]
  20. Lucy Walker (Smith Kimball) [1843]
  21. Sarah Lawrence (Smith Kimball Mount) [1843]
  22. Maria Lawrence (Smith [Young] Babbitt) [1843]
  23. Helen Mar Kimball (Smith Whitney) [1843]
  24. Ruth Vose (Sayers Smith) [1843 or 1844]
  25. Hannah Ells (Smith) [1843]
  26. Almera Woodard Johnson (Smith Barton) [1843]
  27. Elvira Annie Cowles (Holmes Smith) [1843]
  28. Rhoda Richards (Smith Young) [1843]
  29. Desdemona Catlin Wadsworth Fullmer (Smith Benson McLane) [1843]
  30. Olive Grey Frost (Smith Young) [1843]
  31. Melissa Lott (Smith Bernhisel Willes) [1843]
  32. Nancy Maria Winchester (Smith Kimball Arnold) [1842 or 1843]
  33. Fanny Young (Carr Murray Smith) [1843]

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.

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.

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Joseph Smith FAQ

How many wives did Joseph Smith have when he died?

Joseph Smith’s wives numbered more than 30 when he died. Scholars debate the precise number, and it’s unknown how many he had sexual relations with.

What were Joseph Smith’s last words?

The Prophet’s last words uttered in Carthage Jail were, “O Lord my God.” A communication sent to Nauvoo at 8:05pm on July 27, 1844, stated:

Joseph and Hyrum are dead. Taylor wounded, not very badly. I am well.

Willard Richards

How old was Joseph Smith when he married a 14-year-old?

Joseph married 14-year-old Helen Mar Kimball when he was 37. “Marriages for eternity only likely did not include physical intimacy,” said historian Brittany Chapman Nash. “(Joseph’s marriage to Helen Mar Kimball is suggested to be among these).”

What happened to Emma Smith after Joseph died?

Emma Smith stayed in Nauvoo after Joseph died, potentially heeding the charge given to her in D&C 25. Her appearance in her last photograph has led some to believe she suffered a stroke, but there’s no historical record of such an ailment.

What happened to Joseph Smith’s wives after he died?

Roughly 25 of Joseph’s wives followed the Saints to Utah, and 10 died outside of Utah. A few went on to become leading pioneer women, while about seven died outside the faith.

Did Joseph Smith have kids with different wives?

There’s no DNA evidence that Joseph Smith ever had children with his polygamous wives.

How many biological children did Joseph Smith have?

Joseph Smith had nine biological children. He and Emma also adopted two children after their own twins passed away.

Who became the leader after Joseph Smith died?

Brigham Young became the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints following Joseph’s death. Known as the “Lion of the Lord” and the “American Moses,” Young served as the Latter-day Saint leader until his death in 1877.

Are there any pictures of Joseph Smith?

Possibly. The Smith/Larsen daguerreotype makes the strongest case to date for an authentic Joseph Smith photograph. However, most historians don’t believe the provenance is strong enough to say with certainty that it’s a picture of the Prophet.

Where is Joseph Smith actually buried?

Joseph is buried in the Smith Family Cemetery in Nauvoo, Illinois. His wife, Emma, and brother, Hyrum, are interred beside him.

Did Joseph Smith have a death mask?

Yes. George Cannon made a mold of Joseph’s face after the martyrdom, and it was then used to create several death masks. This includes the “Dibble masks” frequently displayed by the Church History Department.

How long did Joseph Smith live for?

Joseph lived until he was 38-years-old. As a fun fact, the obelisk at his birthplace is 38.5-feet tall—one foot for each year of his life.

Why did Joseph Smith look in his hat?

This question has reference to Joseph’s use of seer stones while translating the Book of Mormon. One theory suggests that he put the stones in a hat to block out light so as to see characters in the stones. However, historian Anthony Sweat adds a note of caution:

As church members become more collectively aware of the stone-in-a-hat method we need to be careful to avoid swinging the proverbial pendulum too far one way or the other, promoting that Joseph “always” used the spectacles with opened plates or he “always” used stones in a hat.

Further reading

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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