GETTING TO KNOW JO. SMITH: My Discovery

Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait_owned_by_Joseph_Smith_III Joseph Smith, Junior  

Some years ago, for a writing project, I tried to find an interesting person or event from Hannibal, Missouri, in the 1830s.  I discovered that much more interesting things were happening in my own home town of Quincy, Illinois, about 20 miles up the Mississippi from Hannibal, than any fence painting Sam Clemens might have been planning down there.  In the fall and winter of 1838, Quincy was a crossroads of American history! The first week of October, the U.S. Army drove the Kickapoo and Potawatomi Indians through Quincy on their way to Kansas. Dr. David Nelson’s Mission Institute was training future missionaries from Yale and assisting escaped slaves, and the Underground Railroad was moving its valuable human “cargo.” Then the Mormons came!

On October 27, Missouri Governor Wilburn Boggs issued what was called the “Extermination Proclamation,” forcing all Mormons out of the state before spring, on penalty of death. More than 5000 Mormons left their homes and towns in northwest Missouri and headed east to Quincy, in Adams County, Illinois.  The town had a few hundred inhabitants, and the county fewer than 2000. The Mormons’ leaders were in jail in Western Missouri; their homes, farms, and businesses were being burned; and they straggled across the state in whatever conveyance they could manage, all winter, over ice and through sleet, snow, and cold.  When they could make their way across the Mississippi River on the ice, or float between the floes in boats or on rafts, the Illinoisans took them in, fed, clothed, housed, and employed them until their leader, Jo. Smith, Junior, arrived in the spring and led them one county north to establish their town of Nauvoo.

But who were those people?  Before they came to Quincy, why were they in Missouri?  Why were they so hated there?  Why did thousands of people follow a poorly educated young man from New York with a questionable reputation and no formal credentials, anywhere he led, even at the risk of death? Why did people who considered themselves good Christians believe his “revelations” that sometimes contradicted the Bible and were often specifically self-serving, and his prophesies that often didn’t come true?

I began exploring the historical sources about those people–the Mormons, and soon I was “hooked,” but only in the literary sense.  I began a quest for information, read thousands of pages of web sites, numerous books, visited historical sites, and conducted exhaustive research–and began writing.  I’ve finished writing two books and begun a third.  They are historical fiction. They are set in the places and the years in which Jo. Smith, Junior, went from being a troubled teenager who claimed to have had numerous celestial visitors, to a man who had tens of thousands of followers and had announced his candidacy for the Presidency of the United States in the election of 1844, then died before the election, at the age of 39.

In the old records, before he gained fame as “The Prophet,” I don’t know what the newspaper writers actually penned with their quills, but the men who set the print for the articles about him usually shortened his name to Jo. Smith, Junior, and in other places, he was simply called Joe or Jo. When his surname was included, it was only rarely without “Junior.”  So in the title of this set of blog posts, I’m using the way he was often written about in his early years:  Jo.  I think that I’ve gotten acquainted with him quite well, and I usually think of him as Jo.

Like any controversial figure and faith, Joseph Smith, Junior, and Mormonism have dedicated supporters and equally dedicated detractors; and many people of good will may read the conflicting information about him and have to say they just don’t know what to believe.  I am not attempting to convert anyone to an opinion:  I intend to share legitimate historical information that I have found to be authentic and fascinating.  I will document my sources, and allow the readers to decide about the veracity of the information and the sources for themselves.  In a time in which Mormonism has come before the public through television, popular musicians, and politics in ways never seen before, I hope to provide a better understanding of its founder, book, and beliefs, and perhaps share some surprises about their role in American history.

For further information related to this post, please consult:

http://dev.mormonhistoricsites.org/publications/studies_spring2002/MHS3.1Spring2002Garr.pdf

http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/book-of-mormon-1830#!/paperSummary/book-of-mormon-1830&p=7

https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/02/joseph-smith-campaign-for-president-of-the-united-states?lang=eng

Joseph Smith and the Origins of The Book of Mormon, 2d ed.  By David Persuitte

The portrait: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Smith#/media/File:Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait _owned_by_Joseph_Smith_III.jpg