Joseph Smith - Background

(Chapter 4 from the excellent book, Answers to My Mormon Friends, ©2001 by Thomas F. Heinze)

Which was Joseph Smith...A Prophet of God? Or a Fraud?  Since the eternal destiny of Mormons rests upon the life and teachings of this one man, it is critical that the facts be presented so the question can be correctly answered.  This book provides those facts, examining Joseph Smith's personal life, the doctrines he created, plus much more. Which was Joseph Smith?  You will know after you read the facts.

Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes his early years: "He was a literate but unschooled lad from a large family, and his neighbors at Palmyra, N.Y. remembered him as a diviner who dug for buried treasure."1

Mormon writers have sometimes denied Smith's involvement in occult practices, but the original documents of a court case in which he was found guilty of using these powers to defraud have been found. 2 The following is from these documents:

"People of State of New York vs. Joseph Smith. Warrant issued upon oath of Peter G. Bridgman, who informed that one Joseph Smith of Bainbridge was a disorderly person and an impostor. Prisoner brought into court March 20 (1826). Prisoner examined. Says that he came from town of Palmyra, and had been at the house of Josiah Stowell in Bainbridge most of time since; had small part of time been employed in looking for mines, but the major part had been employed by said Stowell on his farm, and going to school; that he had a certain stone, which he had occasionally looked at to determine where hidden treasures in the bowels of the earth were; that he professed to tell in this manner where gold-mines were a distance under ground, and had looked for Mr. Stowell several times, and informed him where he could find those treasures, and Mr. Stowell had been engaged in digging for them; that at Palmyra he pretended to tell, by looking at this stone, where coined money was buried in Pennsylvania, and while at Palmyra he had frequently ascertained in that way where lost property was, of various kinds; that he has occasionally been in the habit of looking through this stone to find lost property for three years, but of late had pretty much given it up on account its injuring his health, especially his eyes - made them sore; that he did not solicit business of this kind, and had always rather declined having anything to do with this business… And thereupon the Court finds the defendant guilty." 3

Bills for the services of the Justice of the Peace Albert Neely, who tried the case, and the police officer who brought Smith in have also been found. 4

"BYU historian Marvin S. Hill has…observed: 'Now, most historians, Mormon or not, who work with the sources, accept as fact Joseph Smith's career as village magician.'" 5


Smith as a Translator

If Joseph Smith was engaged in witchcraft or other occult practices even before translating The Book of Mormon, did these practices have a part in his translation? Joseph tells us that when he started to translate the gold plates of The Book of Mormon, he was instructed to use two white stones mounted in silver bows for translating. He called them the Urim and Thummim. Witnesses state, however, that most of his translation was done in a different way, looking into the stone which he had used to search for gold.

I have selected a few of the most important quotes from the witnesses, and other original sources, accompanied by a few comments by the website authors. I have left their references in the text. Statements of other witnesses can be found on the website cited at the end of these quotes:

"Although Joseph Smith was supposed to have the Urim and Thummim, the evidence shows that he preferred to use the seer stone found in a well to translate The Book of Mormon. The Mormon historian B. H. Roberts acknowledged the use of one of Joseph Smith's seer stones. He made the following statement in History of the Church, Vol. 1, page 129: 'The Seer Stone referred to here was a chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped stone which the Prophet found while digging a well in the company of his brother Hyrum, for a Mr. Clark Chase, near Palmyra, N.Y. It possessed the qualities of Urim and Thummim, since by means of it - as described above - as well as by means of the Interpreters found with the Nephite record, Joseph was able to translate the characters engraven on the plates.'"

"David Whitmer, one of the three witnesses to The Book of Mormon, described how Joseph Smith placed the 'seer stone' into a hat to translate The Book of Mormon:

'I will now give you a description of the manner in which The Book of Mormon was translated. Joseph would put the seer stone into a hat, and put his face in the hat, drawing it closely around his face to exclude the light. A piece of something resembling parchment would appear, and on that appeared the writing.' (An Address to All Believers in Christ, by David Whitmer, 1887, p. 12)

"In a letter written March 27, 1876, Emma Smith acknowledged that the entire Book of Mormon that we have today was translated by the use of the seer stone.

James E. Lancaster wrote: 'How can the testimonies of Emma Smith and David Whitmer, describing the translation of The Book of Mormon with a seer stone, be reconciled with the traditional account of the church that The Book of Mormon was translated by the "interpreters" found in the stone box with the plates? It is the extreme good fortune of the church that we have testimony by Sister Emma Smith Bidamon (Joseph's wife Emma had remarried after his death) on this important issue… a woman… wrote to Emma Bidamon, requesting information as to the translation of The Book of Mormon. Emma Bidamon replied… March 27, 1876. Sister Bidamon's letter states in part: 'Now the first that my husband translated, was translated by the use of the Urim and Thummim, and that was the part that Martin Harris lost, after that he used a small stone, not exactly black, but was rather a dark color…'

"Sister Bidamon's letter indicated that at first The Book of Mormon was translated by the Urim and Thummim. She refers to the instrument found with the plates. However, this first method was used only for the portion written on the 116 pages of foolscap, which Martin Harris later lost. After that time the translation was done with the seer stone. (Saints' Herald, Nov. 15, 1962, page 15; Emma's letter is also reproduced in Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, p. 532)" 6


Smith's Later Years

After finishing The Book of Mormon and accumulating followers, Joseph led these early Mormons across the country, settling in one place after another. There was a great deal of violence both from others who lived in the places the Mormons attempted to settle and from the Mormons. Houses were burned and people killed on both sides. In the process Smith built up an army which eventually numbered around 3,000.

Smith wrote that God had given the neighborhood around the Mormon settlement to the Mormons. This, document got into non-Mormon hands causing them to fear that the Mormons would be taking over their lands.

"Antagonism toward the Mormon Prophet was further incited when it was correctly rumored that he had been ordained 'King over the Immediate House of Israel' by the Council of Fifty. This action was wrongly interpreted by non-Mormons to mean that he was going to attempt to overthrow the United States government by force… his kingly ordination only incensed the populace, and his untimely death became even more inevitable." 7

In 1844 Joseph Smith became a candidate for president of the United States, but was killed before the election. Marvin Cowan gives a very clear summary of this final chapter in the life of Joseph Smith:

"At the time of his death, Smith was living in Nauvoo Illinois, the second largest city in the state… Nauvoo was a Mormon town and Smith dominated its government as well as its religion. In Nauvoo, Smith began to privately teach Mormon leaders the doctrine of polygamy. When some Mormons heard what their leaders were doing, they vigorously opposed it. But, they did not get much attention until June 7, 1844 when they published the first and only edition of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper. In it, they exposed Smith's lifestyle and that made him angry. He, along with the Nauvoo City council, declared that the Nauvoo Expositor was a nuisance and had the marshal of the city destroy the press (History of the Church, Vol. 6, pp. 448-454). Those who opposed Smith filed a complaint with the courts in Hancock County, Illinois, saying that Smith had infringed on the freedom of the press. Smith was arrested for riot, but appealed for a writ of Habeas Corpus. He was tried in Nauvoo where he was quickly released. That upset the opposition, who claimed Smith had manipulated the law. The opposition grew until Smith was afraid Nauvoo would be attacked, so he declared martial law. Illinois had granted Nauvoo governmental power like a city-state. They had their own army, the Nauvoo Legion, and Smith was Lieutanant-General of that army. The opposition saw the declaration of martial law as an act of treason against the state of Illinois, so Smith was again arrested and taken to Carthage, Illinois, where he could not influence the court like he did in Nauvoo. It was while Smith was in jail at Carthage that he was killed by a mob." 8


The Proof of a Prophet

"Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).

God tells us here that demonic spirits and the prophets who are led by them in their proclamations are out there trying to deceive. God commands us not to be gullible and just blindly accept spirits which claim to be from Him and people who claim to be His prophets. We should obey God, and check them out. How can we find out if a prophet speaks the word of God or not?

"But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die. And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken? When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him (Deuteronomy 18:20-22).

Two parts of this passage are important to our discussion:

Is there any way we can tell if Joseph Smith only gave true prophecies which came to pass? He wrote out several of his prophecies in Doctrine and Covenants. The time limits which he set have now passed, and the prophecies are in a book that you can easily examine yourself. Here is a prophecy that Smith gave in 1832:

"Which city shall be built, beginning at the temple lot, which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and dedicated by the hand of Joseph Smith… Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation. For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord…"9

This seems to be a prophecy that the Mormons would build a city and a temple in Western Missouri before Joseph Smith's generation died. Have I understood it correctly? In 1870, while many in that generation were still alive, the Apostle Orson Pratt quoted this passage and said:

"God promised in the year 1832 that we should, before the generation then living had passed away, return and build up the temple of the Most High where we formerly laid the corner stone." 10 (See similar quotes from others of that generation: vol. 5, p. 134; Vol. 6, p. 956; Vol. 9, p. 71; Vol. 10, p. 344; Vol. 14; p. 275; Vol. 17; p. 111, cited in Tanner, Mormonism-Shadow or Reality? p. 189). Pratt, and the other Mormons of the time understood it just like I did.

All have now died. That generation of Mormons did not build the city and the temple in Missouri. The thing called for in this prophecy did not come to pass. Joseph Smith did not pass the test of a true prophet.

Some have tried to counter this with another prophecy by Smith given in the same year, 1832, about the Civil War. Read it in Doctrine and Covenants 87. This prophecy was accurate only in stating "the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States" and in the place where the war would start. Even in this it was right for the wrong reason. The war was generally expected to start right then in 1832 when South Carolina opposed a new tax law. It did not, but in 1861, it started in the same place where people had expected it to start thirty years earlier. Those who use this prophecy to defend Smith as a prophet have to ignore other details of this prophecy which did not come true. Here are a few of them:

Taken as a whole, this prophecy, which is used to brush the false prophecies under the rug, is another false prophecy.

In another of Smith's prophecies given in 1832, the bishop Newel K. Whitney was to warn the cities of New York, Albany, and Boston of judgment if they rejected his gospel:

"Nevertheless, let the bishop go unto the city of New York, also to the city of Albany, and also to the city of Boston, and warn the people of those cities with the sound of the gospel, with a loud voice, of the desolation and utter abolishment which await them if they do reject these things. For if they do reject these things, the hour of their judgment is nigh, and their house shall be left unto them desolate." 11

Many years have passed. All those people died much as had the generations before them and those after. Joseph's prophecy missed the mark.

There are many more. Check out Doctrine and Covenants 97:19, 111:2-4, Patton was dead before the date set; 124:56-60, a house where Smith's family would live forever and ever. They never lived there. See Marvin Cowan, Mormon Claims Answered, pp. 58-66 for details on these and many more unfulfilled prophecies.

Smith made many statements, about salvation and life after death which you can not check out till after you die, and not too many things that you can. That makes the prophecies in which he gave specified time limits very important. Had his statements been accurate, that fact would inspire our confidence in his more important teachings which we can not check out. The ones we can check were wrong. God commands us not to fear a prophet whose prophecies don't pan out. Obey God in this. Why would you want to bet your life that he is right in things you can't check out when he is wrong in things you can check?

A later president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Fielding Smith, said:

"Mormonism must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith. He was either a Prophet of God, divinely called, properly appointed and commissioned, or he was one of the biggest frauds this world has ever seen. There is no middle ground. If Joseph was a deceiver who willfully attempted to mislead people, then he should be exposed. His claims should be refuted, and his doctrines shown to be false…"12

We have examined the evidence:


The Next Step

Chick Publications has a great little tract (The Fool) which tells the story of a court jester, a professional fool, who could always make the king laugh with the crazy things he did and said. One day the king gave the jester a golden scepter, and told him, "My friend, when you find a bigger fool than yourself, you must give him this golden wand."

The jester, wand in hand, walked through all the villages of that country talking to the people, looking for the biggest fool.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, the king became very sick, and as he realized he was dying, he sent messengers to find the jester and bring him back. When the jester came in, the king greeted him in a sad voice and let him know he was dying by saying, "Hello, my little friend, I am going on a long, long journey… from which I shall never return!"

"Have you prepared for that journey, your highness?"

"No, I haven't."

"Then I must present this golden wand to you!"

How about you who are reading, have you prepared for that journey?



Perhaps you are saying, "Yes, I am prepared. I have been baptized." After we have accepted Christ, we should certainly be baptized, but the apostle Paul, perhaps the greatest missionary who has ever lived, said, "For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel." "For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 1:14, 17; 2:2).

Why did Christ send him to preach the Gospel rather than to baptize? Paul was not opposed to baptism. It is obvious from his writings that he wanted those who were saved to be baptized, but Christ wanted him to do that which was most important, and baptism does not save. Christ the Savior is the one who saves. How does He save? It was prophesied of Christ seven hundred years earlier:

"All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isaiah 53:6).

In the Old Testament God had set up a sacrificial system in which sheep and cows were offered on the altar to cover the sins of the people until the next sacrifice. It was a temporary system that God put in place until the time was right for Christ to come and offer the final and lasting sacrifice:

"And every priest standeth daily ministering and offering oftentimes the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins: But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God" (Hebrews 10:11-12).

The Old Testament sacrifices all looked forward to Jesus Christ who gave Himself as the final and complete sacrifice for our sins. We can trust Christ the Savior to save us, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree" (1 Peter 2:24).

After Christ has saved us we should be baptized, but we should be baptized because Christ has saved us, not because we think baptism will do it.


Good Works

Others think they might be prepared for their long trip because they have done good works, and performed ceremonies. If that is what you are thinking, you can never be sure you have done enough, can you? The Bible says:

"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree" (Galatians 3:10-13).


You have every reason to doubt whether your works will be judged good enough. This passage says, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." It says, "all things," not that it will be okay if you have done some good works too, to counterbalance your sins. God knows every bad thing you have ever done, and he is a just judge. Sin like yours (and mine) has to be paid for. Christ has paid for our sin. He offers His righteousness and complete salvation as a free gift. When we accept Christ and the gift that He offers, our life changes.

I remember trying to clean up my life when I thought the way to be saved was to quit sinning and only do good works. I tried as hard as I could, but I was not only unable to quit the sins that gave me pleasure, I was too weak to cut back on the sins that brought me no satisfaction at all, but only humiliation.

It was after I realized that I couldn't do it myself that I asked Christ to save me. Then the Holy Spirit began to guide my life and what a change! I was still capable of falling into sin on occasion, but the direction of my life was changed. When I was serving God I was not sinning. When I did fall into sin I confessed it and got up again. I was baptized very soon; not to be saved, but because I had been saved and wanted to please God.

The greatest help in my Christian life was reading the Bible. I immediately got into the habit of reading it a bit every day. It brought me into communion with God and He impressed things on my heart that He wanted me to learn or do.

If I had not started reading the Bible daily, I would soon have been going in my own way again, and thinking it was God's way. The life He gives to those who have believed in him is everlasting:

"God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

We are "kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time" (1 Peter 1:5).

Jesus Christ is an exclusive Savior. He does not add a little bit to our salvation by adding to other things that sort of save. He said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14:6). If you are trusting Christ, along with baptism and works and temple ceremonies to save you, you are probably not really trusting that Christ can save you. You are thinking that Christ could not completely save you. You need to shift your faith from all those other things you were trusting, and trust the Savior to save you. Wake up to the fact that you need a Savior because you have sinned. Your works don't save, they condemn.

Trust Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Lord! Confess your sins to Him and accept the gift of eternal life that He offers you. He will save you completely. He will not leave you in some level of damnation if you are not married in the temple.

Trust Him also to direct your life every day. Read the Bible daily and it will tell you everything else you need to know to follow Him. You will be ready both for this life, and for your own long trip.


1Encyclopedia Britannica CD 98, Joseph Smith.
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2Copies available from Utah Lighthouse ministry (
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Return to text Also see copies in Walter Martin's, The Maze of Mormonism, 1978, p. 37.
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5Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd edition, 1998, p.59.
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7Brigham Young University Studies, Winter 1968, pp. 212-213 cited by:
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8Cowan, Mormon Claims Answered, 1997 edition, p. 10.
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9Doctrine and Covenants, 84:3-4.
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10Journal of Discourses, Vol. 13, p. 362, cited in Cowan, Mormon Claims Answered, p. 58.
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11Doctrine and Covenants, 84:114-115.
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12Doctrines of Salvation, 1:188-89, cited in The Berean Call, March 2001, p. 8.
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13Doctrine and Covenants, 132:4. See also 132:1, 6, 21, 62.
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Joseph Smith and the Occult

Joseph Smith and the Kabbalah

Kaballah Exposed!

Kabbalah Refuted