33 He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.
The first installment of the Mormons in the Mist articles can be found here. This is part one of a subseries on the history of the Church. This article covers Joseph’s life through the translation of the Book of Mormon.
You cannot discuss The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints without dealing with Joseph Smith, Jr.
People who know nothing else about the Church know two things: Polygamy and Joe Smith’s Golden Bible. There have been many biographies written about him, from every angle. The best of these of which I am aware is Richard L. Bushman’s 2005 Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling. Dr. Bushman acknowledges Joseph’s shortcomings without sliding into a warts-only version and describes his life without becoming hagiographic.
So, who was Joseph Smith, Jr? To the believing members of the Church, he is the Prophet of the Restoration. A seer and revelator who restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth, founded the Church under the direction of God, and was martyred for his beliefs. His critics say he was a con man and a fake.
Joseph Smith, Jr. started life as a farm boy. He was born 23 December 1805 in Sharon, Vermont to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. He was the 5th of 11 children (of whom 9 lived to adulthood). When Joseph was 9, the family moved to Palmyra, New York and, four years later, to the nearby town of Manchester.[ii] This positioned the family perfectly for the Second Great Awakening. When he was 14 the wave of religious revivalism swept over the area and the Smith family was caught up in it. Confused by the contention, he followed the advice of James[iii] and prayed for wisdom.
Joseph reported the results of this prayer:
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 […] When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
In this vision of the Father and the Son, known as the First Vision, Joseph was instructed not to join any church at that time. A few days later, he mentioned the visitation to a local minister who contemptuously dismissed it as being of the devil and said, “that all such things had ended with the apostles.” Telling the story also “excited a great deal of prejudice against me among the professors of religion[.]”[iv]
The Golden Plates
Three years later, he had another visitation[v]. This time the messenger identified himself as Moroni and told the seventeen-year-old prophet about a book of gold plates containing the history of past inhabitants of the Americas. Moroni instructed Joseph through the night, and the next morning Joseph made his way to where the plates were hidden. In a stone box with the plates were a breastplate and two stones connected in the fashion of old fashioned spectacles. The stones were called a Urim and Thummim and were referred to as “interpreters”. He made an unsuccessful attempt to retrieve the contents of the box and was told to return every year for the next four years to receive more instruction.
Over the course of the next four years, Joseph returned for instruction each year. Among other jobs, he hired on for a month in 1825 to assist a man who was looking for old Spanish silver mines in the area. While engaged in this, he boarded with the family of Isaac Hale, where he met his future wife Emma (Isaac’s daughter). They were married (against the wishes of her family) in January 1827.
On 22 September 1827, Joseph went to receive his yearly instruction, and Moroni gave him the plates. Behind the relatively bland tale in the canonical version, there is a bit more which Dr. Bushman relates. ‘The angel had commanded Joseph to come to the hill on September 22. To be precise in his compliance and still throw off meddlers who knew of the date, Joseph chose to go to Cumorah in the dead of night, almost the minute September 22 arrived. Around twelve o’clock Joseph came into the room to ask if his mother had a chest with a lock and key. Knowing at once why he wanted it, Lucy was upset when she was unable to provide one. “Never mind,” Joseph assured her. “I can do very well for the present without it – be calm – all is right.” Minutes later Emma passed through the room in her bonnet and riding dress, and Lucy heard the two of them drive off in Joseph Knight’s wagon.’[vi]
Joseph, Emma, and the plates did not make it home before breakfast. Lucy (Joseph’s mother), covered for them until they returned. Joseph did not bring the plates home at all that day. He hid them in a birch log which he had hollowed out.[vii] In order to make money to pay a cabinet maker to make a box in which to keep the plates safe, Joseph left the next day for Macedon where he was hired to dig a well.
Along with the plates came a warning that he was “responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off[.]”[viii] Why such elaborate measures, and such a strict charge? The day after Joseph left for Macedon, his family learned of a plot to find and steal the plates: “[Joseph’s father] learned that ten or twelve men working with Willard Chase were conspiring to find the plates, and had sent for a conjuror sixty miles away whom they believed could discover the hiding place.”[ix] Emma went for Joseph, who left the well and returned quickly to the Smith farm. He then left to retrieve the plates from their hiding place. On the way back from the hiding place, he wrapped the plates in a frock he had been wearing while digging and carried them under his arm. He carried the plates (estimated to weigh between 40 and 50 pounds) that way the three miles back to the farm. Joseph was assaulted three times on the way home but made it back intact except for a dislocated thumb. Over the next several weeks, several groups of people searched for the plates but never found them.[x]
In order to escape the attacks, Joseph and Emma left Manchester in late fall 1827 and went to Harmony, Pennsylvania to live on her father’s land. There, Joseph settled down to the work of learning how to translate the plates – at the same time providing for his pregnant wife. As part of the process, he copied some characters from the plates and translated them using the Urim and Thummim.
The Translation of the Book of Mormon
In February 1828 Martin Harris, a Palmyra farmer who had helped the Smiths escape, paid a visit. He took the copied characters and the translations to Dr. Charles Anthon in New York. Harris related to Joseph what happened:
64 “I went to the city of New York, and presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters. He gave me a certificate, certifying to the people of Palmyra that they were true characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
65 “He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.”[xi]
Harris returned to his farm in Palmyra, but returned to Harmony in mid-April. He became Joseph’s scribe as the work of translation continued. Joseph would dictate the translation (obtained through the interpreters) to Martin, who sat on the far side of a curtain which kept him from seeing the plates. By mid-June, they had a manuscript of 116 pages hand-written on foolscap. At this point, Martin – hoping to have something tangible to show his wife – asked to be allowed to take the manuscript home and show it to her. [xii]
Joseph made the request to the Lord and was told no. Martin persisted, and was told no a second time. The third time, the Lord gave permission on the condition that only Martin’s wife, his brother, his parents, and his wife’s sister could see the manuscript.[xiii] Harris left for Palmyra, manuscript in hand.[xiv]
Two weeks passed with no word from Harris and Joseph began to wonder about the manuscript. Emma encouraged him to go check up on Martin, so Joseph went to his parents’ house in Manchester. When he arrived, a message was sent to Martin, who was expected for breakfast at eight. Martin did not arrive as expected. He finally appeared at twelve-thirty. Joseph’s mother Lucy reports: “[W]e saw him walking with a slow and measured tread towards the house, his eyes fixed thoughtfully upon the ground. On coming to the gate, he stopped instead of passing through and got upon the fence, and sat there some time with his hat drawn over his eyes.”[xv] Martin had not kept his word, and the manuscript was gone.
The Lord, as you might expect, was not pleased. Martin’s role in the translation of the plates ended. He also withdrew Joseph’s gift of translation until the following Spring. When He restored it, He informed the prophet that the pages were still out there in the hands of people who did not want Joseph to succeed and that to fulfill this goal they had altered the manuscript so that when the section was re-translated, they could publish the altered original and say that Joseph was a fraud.[xvi] To frustrate this, the Lord instructed Joseph not to re-translate the same section, but to begin at another point which covered the same events from another angle.[xvii]
On 5 April 1829 Oliver Cowdery came to visit the Smiths in Harmony. He had been teaching school in Manchester, and heard about Joseph and the plates while residing at Joseph Sr.’s house. Oliver became Joseph’s scribe, and the translation of the plates resumed.[xviii] In May, as the translation progressed, they came across a passage on baptism. Desiring more information from the Lord, they went to the woods to pray. Joseph relates what occurred:
“68 […] While we were thus employed, praying and calling upon the Lord, a messenger from heaven descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us, saying:
69 Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.”[xix]
This being told them that he was John the Baptist, and instructed them to baptize one another. He also told them that there was another priesthood, called the Melchizedek priesthood which would be conferred upon them later.[xx]
We do not have a date for the conferral of the Melchizedek priesthood. Since it has the authority to organize the Church, it is reasonable to assume it was restored between the visitation of John the Baptist and the organization of the Church in April of 1830. The first acknowledgement of the event is in a revelation dated August of 1830.[xxi]
Continuing persecution required them to relocate at the end of May 1829, this time to the farm of Peter Whitmer Sr. in Fayette, New York. Once there, Oliver and Joseph continued the work of translation and completed it about July 1st.[xxii]
During the entire time the translation was going on, Joseph was not allowed to display the plates to anyone.[xxiii] In a revelation dated March 1829, Martin Harris was told to repent and humble himself and be patient, and he would be one of the people allowed to see the plates.[xxiv] Once the translation was completed, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer (the son of the owner of the farm where the translation was completed) received a revelation where, in their own words “And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon[.]”[xxv] An additional eight witnesses (Smith and Whitmer family members) also saw and handled the plates, but did not see an angel.[xxvi]
Joseph Smith will always be a controversial figure. He founded a church in a log cabin which has grown to over 16 million members. These people believe that he is precisely what he claimed to be – a prophet, seer, and revelator. His critics will tell you that he was a fraud and a charlatan, and that those of us who believe what he said are deluded.
[vi] Bushman, Richard Lyman; Joseph Smith Rough Stone Rolling p 59 internal notes omitted
[vii] Ibid p 60
[ix] Bushman p. 60
[x] Ibid pp 60 – 62
[xii] Bushman p. 66
[xiv] Ibid pp 66 -67
[xv] Ibid p 67
Personal side note: Those pages are still out there – or were 40 years ago. My father was friends with a man who, at the time this occurred, was a professor of religious studies at BYU. At one point while I was a teenager, this man was in our area giving a talk. After the talk, my father took him out to dinner. In the course of the conversation, the subject of the missing manuscript pages came up, and this man told my father that someone he knew had information on the whereabouts of the manuscript pages. This person had not revealed to my father’s friend where they were or who had them, merely that he had this information.
[xxii] Bushman pp 76-78