Natural Born Seer


Natural Born Seer: Joseph Smith, American Prophet, 1805-1830

A comprehensive biography of the early life of Joseph Smith, with an in-depth analysis of the historical context and environmental influences that shaped the world-view of Mormonism’s founder.

Smith-Pettit Foundation, September, 2016

SKU: 978-1-56085-263-6 Category: Tags: , , , Author: Richard S. Van WagonerProduct ID: 1539


Joseph Smith survives today as one of nineteenth-­century America’s most controversial religious figures. He claimed visions of angels, dictated a lost record of the ancient inhabitants of the New World, announced new revelations from heaven, and restored what he believed was an ancient yet more complete form of Christianity, over which he presided as prophet, seer, and revelator until his death in 1844.

A child of impoverished Yankees, raised in rural New England and New York, Smith grew up in a hardscrabble frontier culture that embraced a spectrum of competing folkways, religious fervor, and intellectual thought. He was both a product of his times and a syncretic innovator of a compelling vision for God’s people. Perhaps more importantly, he was the self-proclaimed herald of Christ’s imminent return, called by the Father to reveal the fullness of the Christian gospel for the last time.

As prize-winning historian Richard S. Van Wagoner narrates the first twenty-five years of Smith’s life, the young seer struggled with his family through a series of roller-­coaster hardships, eventually securing work as a scryer of lost treasure and money digger. In the wake of successive failures, including run-ins with the law, Smith’s glass-­looking activities gave way to more religiously oriented pursuits, especially after a heavenly messenger showed him the location of buried golden plates containing a pre-Columbian story of the Americas and charged him with the record’s decipherment and publication.

Smith also learned, following another extraordinary vision, that his sins had been remitted, that humanity was in a state of apostasy, and that Jesus would soon return to the earth. After eloping with Emma Hale, much to her skeptical father’s chagrin, the couple settled down to complete work on what would appear for sale in early 1830 as the Book of Mormon. By this time, Smith had begun to shoulder more fully the prophet’s mantle, issuing proclamations in God’s own voice, and on April 6, 1830, organized the Church of Christ, known today as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“I treat the early years of the Mormon prophet as I would approach an archaeological dig,” Van Wagoner explains. “The deepest levels, those deposited first and least contaminated by subsequent accumulates, are of primary interest in my pursuit of the historical Joseph. Mindful of the prophet’s controversial reputation, I try to remain sensitive to the impact that some of the more problematic elements of his behavior may have on believers. But truth is often best evidenced in the detail.”

Van Wagoner’s meticulously researched study offers more detail than any previously published biography of Smith, and provides what may be the most culturally nuanced analysis ever attempted of the early years of the American prophet.


Richard S. Van Wagoner was the author of Mormon Polygamy: A History (1985, 1989), Lehi: Portraits of a Utah Town (1990), Sidney Rigdon: A Portrait of Religious Excess (1994), Pioneering Lehi City: A 150-Year Pictorial History (2002), editor of The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, five volumes (2010), and coauthor of A Book of Mormons (1982). He published articles in BYU Studies, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Sunstone, Utah Historical Quarterly, and Utah Holiday. He received writing awards from the Dialogue Foundation, the John Whitmer Historical Association, the Mormon History Association, and the Utah State Historical Society. He earned an M.S. degree from Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) in 1970. Trained as a clinical audiologist, he owned and operated Mountain West Hearing Center in Salt Lake City. He was a lifelong resident of Lehi, Utah; a founding member of the Lehi Historical Preservation Commission; and served as Lehi City’s Historical Archivist. He was a co-founder, a member of the Board of Directors, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Committee of Signature Books (Salt Lake City).

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2 reviews for Natural Born Seer

  1. Andrew Hamilton, Association for Mormon Letters

    There were several things about Natural Born Seer that I absolutely loved. One of those things, as I have just hinted at, is the great detail that Van Wagoner includes in this book. Growing up, as I learned about Joseph Smith, he almost seemed to live in a vacuum. Rarely do I ever remember learning or reading about the conditions and context behind Joseph’s life, actions, and lived experiences. This book fills the vacuum. For “Natural Born Seer” Van Wagoner did his homework and we are all the beneficiaries of his prodigious research and well woven narrative in which he paints the milieu of Joseph Smith’s life in greater detail than I have before experienced. Let me share just a few examples where he does this. On pages 35-46, Van Wagoner tells the very familiar story of how at seven years of age Joseph became very sick and nearly lost his leg. But in “Natural Born Seer” the reader gets far more than the traditional narration of Joseph’s infected leg, the doctors wanting to amputate, Lucy convincing them to just remove a piece of the bone, and of Joseph’s bravery and refusal to be tied down or drink any alcohol to help as they performed the operation. As he fleshes the story and circumstances out, Van Wagoner explains all about typhus and typhoid fever and how doctors really couldn’t tell the difference until 1837. He explains symptoms of the two diseases and gives statistics relating to disease and survival rates as well as explaining the medical practices of the time when Joseph’s operation occurred. He writes of the experiences of the other family members with the disease and gives background information on the various physicians involved in treating the Smith family at the time. He also includes a full page on what it was like to experience a leg amputation in the early 1800’s. And all of this before spending four pages on the operation itself and its immediate aftermath/recovery period. Then in the following chapter he continues the story as he gives details of the longer term effects of the operation on young Joseph including the likely psychological impact of the operation and the potential mixed emotions that he would have experienced after having been sent away from his parents to recover in the home of an uncle. In “Natural Born Seer” I experienced and understood this story better than I’d ever understood it before.

  2. Dennis Clark, Association for Mormon Letters

    This book is a wonderful resource for studying the early life of Joseph Smith, Jr. It introduced me to many sources for the history of the Restoration, I cannot praise the book too highly.

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