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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction


On 6 April 1830, Joseph Smith organized a handful of followers into the Church of Christ, later named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But that was only the first of Smith’s complex religious projects. Less than six months after the church’s organization, he sent out missionaries to locate a site for a city that the revelations called the “City of Zion” or “New Jerusalem,” evoking powerful imagery from the Revelation of John. The city was to be a gathering place for his followers, a refuge from the calamities of the last days, and the place for a temple. Here Christ was to come when he returned to the earth. In summer 1831, Smith traveled to Missouri, on the western edge of American settlement, where a revelation designated the little village of Independence, Jackson County, as the site for the city.

Sometime in that year, Joseph Smith realized it was his mission, at whatever cost, to lay “the foundation” of the city of Zion.25 In the years to come, he tried in Independence, Missouri, and when defeated, went on to Far West, Missouri, and Nauvoo, Illinois. He pursued the building of the city of Zion to the exclusion of more conventional programs like the construction of chapels for church members in the towns where they already lived. Distributed in smaller numbers, his followers would have been less threatening to their neighbors and probably less subject to persecution. But Smith never constructed a typical meetinghouse for ordinary worship. He gave himself entirely to cities and temples. This vision drove him until the end of his life; and after his death the same vision inspired Mormon settlement in the Great Basin.

Building cities was a strange mission for a person reared in the rural villages of New England and New York. When Smith drafted a plat for the city of Zion in 1833, it called for fifteen to twenty thousand residents—a major city in those days, considering that St. Louis had fewer than seven thousand residents and Cincinnati, the largest city in the West, fewer than thirty thousand. He envisioned missionaries shepherding converts to Zion, where each family would receive an inheritance of land and have access to the temple for spiritual instruction. His answer to the failings of American society was to gather believers out of the world and organize them into a community where the poor were cared for and everyone stood on an equal material plane. When one city filled up, others were to be laid out until, as he said, the world was filled with cities of Zion.26

The Zion project imparted a material, practical side to Joseph Smith’s Mormonism that has persisted to the present. The plat drawing specified the width of the streets and the size of the lots for a city that in biblical literature was an ethereal creation of the heavens, descending from the sky at the last day. Smith’s faith in scripture was literal in wanting to embody visions that most Christians thought were purely ideals. He had a sense of making heaven on earth. Later in life he said, “That same sociality. which exists amongt us here. will exist among us there only it will be coupled with eternal glory.”27 In that spirit, one revelation specified a dietary code forbidding the use of tobacco and liquor and recommending grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables, coupling these prescriptions with a high promise, in part echoing Isaiah:

And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel, and marrow to their bones and shall find wisdom, and great treasures of knowledge, even hidden treasures; and shall run and not be weary, and shall walk and not faint.28

His was a religion of the body as well as the spirit.

All of this makes it difficult to situate Joseph Smith’s restored gospel among the religions of its time. The gathering to Zion seems to place Joseph Smith among the communitarian reformers. At the same time, he was certainly a millenarian. Because Smith adhered to New Testament organizational patterns, such as appointing twelve apostles, his Church of Christ has been classed with the “restorationist” churches, such as Alexander Campbell’s Disciples of Christ, which aimed to strip away every historical accumulation until only a perfectly reformed New Testament church remained. Although all are applicable in part, no single category is completely satisfactory. While paralleling other restorations in emphasizing faith, repentance, baptism, and the Holy Ghost as fundamentals of salvation, Smith went beyond them in dispensing scripture like Peter or Paul. The claim to revelation appalled Campbell, who sought only to restore the forms and teachings of early Christianity, not the revelatory powers of the first apostles.

Other restorationists were baffled by Joseph Smith’s return to Old Testament principles such as priesthood and the gathering of Israel. Most Protestants thought that Old Testament priesthood had ended with Christ, the great high priest of salvation. More immediately, Protestants associated priesthood with Roman Catholicism and the oppressive old regimes of Europe. Heedless of the negative associations, Smith’s revelations included ordinations to Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods. Male converts to Mormonism could not only be appointed to the office of elder, a New Testament title, but could also be made high priests, a title right out of the Old Testament. Moreover, beginning in 1836, these priesthood holders underwent “washings” and “anointings” in the Kirtland temple, echoing the prescriptions for ordaining priests in Exodus. The revelations spoke of the “restoration of all things,” which was interpreted to include not only the New Testament church as Christ established it but the temple and all its associated ordinances. In Nauvoo, the earlier temple rituals evolved into an elaborate course of instruction called the endowment, which led men and women through the course of life from the Creation and Fall to the return to God. All this gave a ritualistic, ceremonial quality to Joseph Smith’s restoration quite out of keeping with the radical Protestant background of many converts.