The subject of the Prophet Joseph Smith is important to me and I claim no spiritual, academic, or special authority on his life or teachings. But I do love him and I know he is a prophet.
I am sometimes asked by members of my stake and family and friends what books I would recommend to learn more about his life. That is an interesting question because it ought to be easy enough and yet as I have thought about it I have realized it is quite a complex answer. I suppose it all depends. It depends on the kind of study or learning you want to do. I should state from the outset that if you are looking for someone who is critical of Joseph I won't be able to recommend anything for you. I am not scared off by anything negative about him. In fact, I have read everything I can get my hands on. However, when recommending books to others I am suggesting they build a foundation of faith and testimony first. Get to know him from the perspective of his family, his friends, his followers, and himself. That has been my path. Now when I read the critical or "warts and all" histories, or the anti- publications (those two things are not the same thing), or anything else a faithful member of the LDS Church may find challenging, I can process them through my filter: Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son, he translated the Book of Mormon, he was a prophet of God. So please know that as you read on, that is the bias from which I approach Joseph Smith.
Stories and biographies have taught me a great deal about moments in the life of Joseph Smith. However, it is in reading his revelations and teachings that have done more to help me learn about the Prophet Joseph. In other words I feel I actually know Joseph Smith and literally consider him a friend because I am familiar with his teachings and revelations. It is because of my familiarity with his mind that I feel I can recognize his motivations in his actions. And so when I hear strange things told about him or attributed to him, because I feel like I know his mind and heart, I feel like I can get to the bottom of it. Sometimes I don't fully understand the situation but because my foundation is solid I don't get rocked.
For books about his life, I would recommend Truman Madsen’s talks and his book based on his talks. They are excellent and engaging talks. Truman clearly has a passion for Joseph and it excites my own.
I also really like the Joseph Smith Papers Project books. Particularly the Journals. (Volume one and two are already out, volume three will be released later this year or early next year.) The Histories volumes are good, too. These are great because they have a very raw and real feeling to them. You can begin to get a sense of the man and the prophet in them.
Another excellent book is Joseph Smith the Choice Seer by Joseph Fielding McConkie and Robert L. Millet. The book is sadly out of print but if you can find it, get it. The book is a kind of spiritual biography--thought it doesn't claim to be. They are looking at the doctrines and understandings and teachings Joseph Smith restored.
Also, a book called, Remembering Joseph, edited and compiled by Mark McConkie is very good. It contains thousands (seriously) of recollections, organized by topic, by friends, followers, and even enemies of Joseph Smith. A very fascinating book.
There are several biographies of his contemporaries that also provide a wonderful insight into the life of the Prophet. At the top of my list is the standard, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. If you haven't read it you should, and if you've already read it you should read it again. There are some admittedly long and drawn out places (the Missouri conflict being one of them) but his confidence and affection for Joseph Smith is unmistakable. Also, Wilford Woodruff by Matthew Cowley is excellent. If you can get Wilford Woodruff's Journals they are a treasure trove of insights into the Prophet. The Life of John Taylor by Orson F. Whitney is another great book.
Like I mentioned above, more than anything else, reading his teachings and revelations have helped me understand and know him tremendously. So the Doctrine and Covenants is great, as is Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith edited and compiled by President Joseph Fielding Smith and Words of Joseph Smith edited by Lyndon Cook and Andrew Ehat.
I hope that is helpful for someone who may read this. The discerning reader will notice that I left off some books that perhaps you would expect to see in my list. I included the books that have helped me get to know Joseph Smith the best. I would be interested in hearing if you (the cyber-reader if there be any) have the same books or different.
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