Born in Sharon, Vermont, on December 23, 1805, Smith received no formal education as a child. His family settled in Palmyra, New York, in 1816, and in 1820 he experienced the first of his "visions"; Smith claimed to have been selected by the voice of this vision to restore the church of Christ to mankind. Smith claimed also to have been instructed to recover golden plates on which was inscribed the history of the true church in America, as carried by ancient Indian descendants of lost Hebrew tribes. He translated the plates from an ancient Egyptian writing and published the work as Then Book of Mormon (1830).
On April 6, 1830, he organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and immediately won many converts. In the following year the church moved to Kirtland, Ohio; but a bank failure forced Smith to move his congregation to Jackson County, Missouri, in 1838. Friction with other settlers throughout that year forced the Mormons to wonder about western Missouri until they established themselves anew at Commerce, Illinois.
Here Smith and his followers enjoyed five years of peace and prosperity. The church was granted considerable autonomy by the state, even to the point of having its own courts and militia, and Smith basically became the virtual one-man ruler in the city.
However, non-Mormons began to oppose Smith because he encouraged the practice of polygamy and seemed to grow too powerful. Finally, after Mormons burned down a newspaper which had criticized Smith in 1844, he was arrested and imprisoned in Carthage, Illinois. On June 27, 1844 he was dragged from jail by a mob of non-Mormons and shot.