Joseph Smith (1805–1844) was the charismatic founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often called the Mormon Church. During his leadership in the early years of Mormonism, Smith and his church suffered and also perpetrated First Amendment violations.
Smith translated the message of the angel Moroni to start the Mormon Church
Smith was born in Vermont but moved as a boy to Palmyra, New York. When he was seventeen, he claimed to have had private meetings with God and other heavenly beings, including the angel Moroni, who led him to golden plates with the history of early North Americans and two magic stones that could be used to translate the plates. Smith’s translations of the plates became the Book of Mormon. In 1830 near Fayette, New York, he founded his church.
Smith and his followers were driven westward
As Smith and his followers began moving westward, converts joined him, but detractors also ridiculed his beliefs and interfered with his religious services. In 1832, in Kirtland, Ohio, he was dragged from his bed in the middle of the night, stripped naked, and tarred and feathered. Smith’s followers deplored the violent religious intolerance of the attackers, though others claimed the attack was punishment for the Mormons’ participation in fraudulent land transfers, unethical lending practices, and extramarital indiscretions committed with the intention of plural marriages.
In the late 1830s, when Smith decreed that an area in western Missouri was the new Zion, mobs seized farms and businesses of Smith’s followers. Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs issued a notorious Extermination Order, declaring that Smith’s church was in “open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made war upon the people of this State” and that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State.” Smith looked to Washington, D.C., for protection of his constitutional rights. He met with President Martin Van Buren, who said there was nothing he could do.
Smith destroyed a newspaper that criticized him
Smith’s final move was to Illinois, where he established the city of Nauvoo. Smith became mayor, and his followers dominated the local government. When a newspaper accused him of being a false prophet and practicing plural marriage, Smith and the Nauvoo government destroyed the newspaper and its presses. Critics said he had violated the First Amendment and also charged him with treason. In June 1844 a mob stormed the jail in which Smith was being held and killed him and his brother Hyrum.
Smith’s church continued after his death, with the largest branch under Brigham Young. The tortured early years of Mormonism illustrate the fragile nature of First Amendment rights in periods of religious intensity and zealotry.
This article was originally published in 2009. David Ray Papke is a professor of law at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a long-time teacher and scholar of American legal history.