Joseph Smith Jr.
Our history begins with a young man who prayed in a grove of trees, and God answered. Called to be a prophet, Joseph Smith Jr. gave us a vision of Zion. We hold fast to these two core elements from our history: God continues to speak, and we are called to build Zion prophetically.
For Joseph Smith Jr., unable to connect with the Christian denominations of his day, he was looking for the church to be restored to him. Many responded as well. They were enthusiastic about having the heavens opened, and Zion within reach. They also understood their special calling as exclusive, that they were the one true church restored to the earth.
To enter into the Church of Christ, as it was then called, everyone had to be baptized—even if they had been baptized previously in another church. They felt that the Church of Christ was the only church with authority. Of their mindset, a recent revelation declares:
Instruction given previously about baptism was proper to ensure the rise and cohesiveness of the church during its early development and in following years. However, as a growing number have come to understand, the redemptive action of God in Christ—while uniquely and authoritatively expressed through the church—is not confined solely to the church. -D&C 164:2a
Due to a variety of factors, to include their own arrogance, the early Latter Day Saints had incredible difficulties with their neighbors, first in Missouri and later in Nauvoo. To avoid a repeat of Missouri and protect the Saints in Nauvoo, Smith and others started a massive militia, but it appeared threatening to their neighbors and ironically created tension. He also introduced controversial practices which upset many church members including key leaders. All of this culminated in the death of Joseph Smith Junior in 1844 by an armed mob.
In the aftermath, many options were weighed as to who should lead the church. A large percentage followed Brigham Young, and another large percentage followed James Strang. Upset by polygamy in both groups, many members and branches simply stayed where they were at, awaiting direction from God.
Joseph Smith III
The founding figures of Community of Christ—including Emma Smith, the wife of the killed Prophet—did not feel that God's plan for them involved polygamy. Much like Joseph Smith Jr. praying in the grove of trees as a young man over which church was true, they humbly sought God's direction. Over time, several scattered branches of the church felt inspired that Joseph Smith III, the son of the Prophet, was to be the next president of the church. Joseph III at first refused, wanting nothing to do with Mormonism. Over time, however, he received revelation from God that he was to be the prophet and president of the church.
Joseph Smith III was ordained prophet and president at the April 1860 conference of the church in Amboy, Illinois. To the conference, he declared, "I have come in obedience to a power not my own, and I shall be dictated by the power that sent me."
Like his father, Joseph III sought the building of Zion. But he intentionally distanced the church from insular ideology that had caused so much distrust and violence in Missouri and Illinois. Instead, the Saints were to cooperate with their "gentile" neighbors in establishing Zion. In time, by building relationships of trust with the Missourians, Joseph III reestablished the church in Independence, Missouri.
Joseph III charted a course that embraced the theology and experiences of Kirtland, while firmly centered on the teachings of Jesus from the Bible. The successors of Joseph Smith III continued this course, further exploring what the message of Christianity and message of the Restoration means in each unique culture and time, as we seek to be a people of Zion who share Christ's peace.
A message from Lachlan Mackay, of the Council of Twelve and Historic Sites Director, about the connections between our Church History and our Mission Initiatives: