The Prophet Joseph Smith and President Abraham Lincoln came from humble beginnings. Both knew a life of frontier hardship and physical toil. Both were seekers of truth. Both were leaders who saved lives, either by keeping people from physical slavery, or by freeing their eternal souls. And both men died as martyrs to their cause, leaving behind wives and children to cope with the devastating loss.
Contemporaries by birth, Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln were men born of destiny to a nation ready for growth and change during a time of spiritual and political reawakening. The similarities in their lives are uncanny.
Born into poor farming families whose ancestors had arrived in America during the 1600s, both boys knew the difficult life of living on the frontier with land to clear, homesteads to build, and crops to cultivate and harvest. Both Joseph and Abraham experienced the loss of an older sibling, affecting them deeply.
Lincoln did not have much of a formal education beyond a short time in what was known as “blab school,” where the teacher spoke the lessons and the students repeated it back in unison. Lincoln sought out books on his own, and reading introduced him to a world of knowledge. When opportunity came to advance his station in life, he was ready.
Joseph Smith also had little formal education, but he had the advantage of a father who taught school when it was not farming season, and a mother who considered the education of her children a life calling. Lessons were learned at evening firesides, and as fields were cleared and plowed. Joseph was not much of a reader; however, he learned the value of scripture.
The young Lincoln had little interest in spiritual matters, even though he often went to church with his parents. His mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln, told her children Bible stories she had learned, and both she and Abraham’s father were members of the Little Mount Baptist Church. Joseph’s parents did not regularly attend church, and neither did their young son, but he was concerned with spiritual matters. Lucy Mack Smith, Joseph’s mother, taught her children from the Bible and listened to Methodist revival meetings in her search for truth.
As a boy, Lincoln would often stand on a stump after church, repeating the sermon word for word and mimicking the mannerisms of the preacher. Joseph, too, would entertain an audience with his rendition of a frontier preacher, mixing in humor, long before he experienced the First Vision and had a full understanding of its message. Lincoln joined no church and gave no endorsement of a specific faith or doctrine, yet believed that all people may eventually be saved. Despite the religious fervor going on around him during his youth, Joseph Smith also refused to follow any form of organized religion, claiming their preaching to be the word of man rather than the word of God. Joseph remained unaffiliated with any religious body until he was directed by God and angels in restoring Christ’s Church.
Between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-five, Lincoln worked his way from surveyor, to storekeeper, postmaster, lawyer, and state politician. He wrote a document outlining his religious beliefs, a work he showed to William Mentor Graham, his teacher at New Salem. The teacher read Lincoln’s document, then promptly threw it into the fire, saying, “I’m doing you a favor.” Graham feared such a document would hurt the future president politically.
In the same three-year period of his life, Joseph took his religious declaration one step farther than Lincoln. More successful in his religious proclamations, Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, restored Christ’s Church, and sent missionaries to spread the gospel message, making his name known “for either good or evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (Joseph Smith—History, 33). His ascent from farm boy to prophet of the Lord was miraculous to some people and unbelievable to others, in both Joseph’s lifetime and since.
No definitive proof exists that Joseph and Abraham ever met, although some anecdotal records indicate they did. It is fact that they both lived in Illinois from 1839 to 1844. They were in Springfield at the same time, perhaps attending the same party, and were even on the same city block on New Year’s Day in 1843. Records also indicate that Mary Todd Lincoln attended one of Joseph’s trials in that city, finding herself seated close to him as he took the stand to plead his innocence.
Both Joseph and Abraham married women against the preferences of their new wife’s family, both had children who died, and both ran for the office of president of the United States. Neither man was well educated as a youth, yet each grew up to be a great leader who would change the lives of millions—one as the head of a church, and the other a nation. And in the end, both men died as the result of assassin’s bullets, a martyr for their cause.
“It is no coincidence that the world of Abraham Lincoln was also the world of Joseph Smith,” said Bryon C. Andreasen, a Lincoln expert. “The same historical conditions that had prevented past generations of common folks like Abraham Lincoln from becoming the leaders of their people . . . had also made it difficult, if not impossible, to restore the full gospel to the earth” (Church News, May 26, 2009). Those were the very leadership positions that Joseph and Abraham were born to fill.
This text has been organized thematically, rather than chronologically, to provide a side-by-side comparison of the lives of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Abraham Lincoln. This comparison reveals what these two men had in common, and why we continue to revere them both today.
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