Joseph Smith, America’s preeminent visionary and prophet, rose from a modest background to found the largest indigenous Christian church in American history. Without the benefit of wealth, education, or social position, he published the 584-page Book of Mormon when he was twenty-three; organized a church when he was twenty-four; and founded cities, built temples, and attracted thousands of followers before his violent death at age thirty-eight. Rather than perishing with him, Mormonism migrated to the Rocky Mountains, flourished there, and now claims millions of followers worldwide.
Smith was a builder of cities. He sought to form egalitarian, just, and open communities under God and laid out a plan for ideal cities, which he hoped would fill the world. Adopted as the model for hundreds of Mormon settlements in the West, Smith’s urban vision may have left a more lasting imprint on the landscape than that of any other American. He was controversial from his earliest years. His followers honored him as a man who spoke for God and restored biblical religion. His enemies maligned him as a dangerous religious fanatic, an American Mohammad, and drove the Mormons from every place in which they settled. Smith’s ultimate assassination by an armed mob raises the question of whether American democracy can tolerate visionaries.
To discuss this fascinating character within Jacksonian American history is Richard Lyman Bushman.
Richard Lyman Bushman is an American historian and Gouverneur Morris Professor of History emeritus at Columbia University. Dr. Bushman received his AM, AB, and Ph.D. in the history of American civilization from Harvard University. Through the years he has taught at Harvard University, Brigham Young University, Boston University, University of Delaware, and at Columbia University. He is the author of From Puritan to Yankee, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, King and People in Provincial Massachusetts, The Refinement of America, and Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling.