Among all the various figures in 19th century America who left controversial legacies, it is hard to find one as influential as Joseph Smith (1805-1844), the founder of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormonism, and the Latter-Day Saint movement. Revered as a prophet on the level of Moses by some, reviled as a perpetrator of large-scale fraud by others, what everyone can agree on is that Joseph Smith founded a religious movement that played a crucial role in the settlement of the West, especially in Utah.
Locating Joseph Smith in history is to look for the "mess" of early America and find him standing in the middle, trying to make sense of the "native pandemonium" that gripped the nation in its formative years. All the things that Mormons recoil at - the mention of his treasure seeking days of youth, the use of the seer stones and looking into the hat to read "reformed Egyptian" - help explain the youthful creativeness of a young United States trying to organize itself. There is a humor in his story, and especially those first years of creating the church that speak directly anyone who has felt the exhilaration of creativity. Inspired by the Second Great Awakening and evidence of Native American cultures that surrounded him during his early years in western New York, Smith claimed that he had visions as a young adult that helped him produce the Book of Mormon, and he was able to create a society of like-minded followers who intended to strike west and found Zion.