Joe was about fifteen when religious revival broke out in his hometown of Palmyra, New York. Lots of people were making professions of faith and joining this church or that. Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists vied with each other for members, and each claimed to be the “true” Christianity described in Scripture. The giddy emotions of the revival died out as all talk of Christian love was “lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions,” wrote Joe. Joe’s mother and three of his siblings joined the Presbyterian church, but Joe kept himself aloof from all the local churches. He sampled their meetings, but wouldn’t commit himself to any one body.
Joe’s situation wasn’t unique. In the early 19th Century religious revivals broke out on both the East Coast and on the Western frontier. Thousands flocked to revival meetings where itinerant evangelists appealed to will and emotions. Religious enthusiasm ran high. These revivals often bypassed the churches with their formal worship and confessions. And so, when the religious fervor passed, many of the new converts found themselves discontent with traditional Christianity and the ordinary Christian life. They turned from the churches and grew cold toward Christian orthodoxy. They wanted something new and different, something exciting. Upstate New York was particularly riddled with such prejudices and passions, and consequently it gave birth to a number of cults and quasi-religious movements.
What follows is the story of a young man named Joe, based on his own recollections as he recorded them later in his life.1 You may already know some of it. You will certainly have to judge its veracity, for it contains some amazing claims.
As Joe perused the Bible one day, he happened upon James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Joe knew he needed this sort of wisdom, “for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.” Joe wanted something clearer than holy Scripture. Or so he says.
So Joe went out into the woods. He writes, “It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of 1820. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.”
Joe knelt down to pray. At once he fell under the deep influence of some dark power: he found himself unable to speak. Thick darkness engulfed him, and he thought himself on the verge of destruction. But as he exerted all his powers to call upon God for deliverance, a pillar of light, brighter than the sun, appeared above his head and gradually descended upon him. Immediately he felt deliverance. And then he saw “two Personages” standing above him in the air and radiating indescribable glory. One of them called him by name and, pointing at the other, said, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!”
In spite of his amazement, Joe held firm to his purpose. As soon as he was able to speak, he asked the Personages which of the sects was right and which he should join. Joe was told that he must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed him said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight. The churches were all apostate.
When Joe came to himself, he found himself lying on his back, looking up into heaven. After he had recovered in some measure, he got up and went home. Immediately he encountered opposition from his family and the local clergy. A Methodist preacher, for example, bluntly told him his visions came from the devil. But Joe was very free in sharing his vision and soon faced rejection on every hand, from every denomination. “[A]ll united to persecute me,” he writes.
Joe continued to pursue his ordinary work. “[L]eft to all kinds of temptations” and “mingling with all kinds of society,” Joe fell into “many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature.” Joe afterwards spoke specifically of levity and keeping “jovial company,” things he believed inconsistent with the character that ought to mark a prophet of God. But it was, he admits, consistent with his youth and his “native cheery temperament.”
Finally, feeling condemned for his “weakness and imperfections,” Joe took to prayer late one September evening in 1823. He sought forgiveness and asked for another revelation, like the first. He fully expected to be heard. Before long, a light appeared in his room. It grew in intensity until it was brighter than noonday. Within the light and beside his bedside was an angel. His robe was white and brilliant, and his countenance was like lightning.
The angel called himself Moroni; he said that God had a work for Joe to do.
In a secluded place, there was a book, written upon gold plates, which gave an account of the former inhabitants of the American continent and the source from whence they sprang. The angel said that the book contained the fullness of the everlasting Gospel, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants. (Yes, Christ had visited the Americas in times long past!) With the book were two stones in silver bows. These were the Urim and Thummim mentioned in the Old Testament. These stones made men seers in ancient times; and God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.2
While the angel talked with Joe, his mind was opened to see the place where the plates were de-posited—so clearly that he knew he would recognize it when he reached it. Then the light congealed around the angel, and a conduit opened to heaven. The angel ascended and vanished from Joe’s sight.
While Joe lay musing on the oddness and greatness of the vision, the light came again. Moroni returned. He repeated his message without variation; and then he informed Joe of great judgments that were coming upon the earth—”great desolations by famine, sword, and pestilence.” And then he vanished as he had before—only to reappear after a short time and repeat the same message again. But this time he added that Satan would try to tempt him to use the plates to make money. This the angel forbade. He told Joe he must have no other goal in mind but the glory of God. After this third visit, the angel ascended into heaven once more. Immediately, the cock crowed, and dawn came.
When Joe began his morning work with his father, he found himself exhausted. His father told him to go home. Joe started for the house, but as he tried to cross the fence out of the field, he collapsed to the ground and fell unconscious. And then it all began again. He looked up and saw the angel standing over his head, surrounded by light as before. The angel repeated his message one more time and ordered Joe to go to his father and tell him the vision. Joe did. His father told him it was clearly from God and that Joe ought to do what the angel had commanded.
So Joe set out for the place where the plates were hidden—the hill of Cumorah, four miles south of Palmyra. As he expected, he recognized the hill at once. The plates lay buried under a huge stone on the west side of the hill. With them, Joe found the seer stones, the Old Testament Urim and Thummim. Joe tried to take them out, but Moroni stopped him. The time wasn’t yet, Moroni said. Four years had to pass first. Even so, Joe was to return to that place every year until the time came.
So at the end of each year Joe went back to the hill, and each time he found Moroni, full of information about what God was going to do and “how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.” Eschatology and prophecy were popular subjects in those days.
Joe’s family was poor, and in those days he and his father worked at whatever came to hand. In 1825, Joe hired on with one Josiah Stoal, who had been digging to discover a lost Spanish mine. Joe worked with him for nearly a month without any success. Eventually, Joe prevailed upon the old man to cease his digging. In connection with this, Joe writes, “Hence arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” (Joe’s neighbors re-membered matters differently, however, and went on record about it. It seems Joe was very fond of outlandish moneymaking schemes.3)
In 1827 Joe married Emma Hale, over her family’s objections. Joe took his new bride to his father’s house and farmed with him that season.
Finally the appointed time arrived. Joe returned to Cumorah on September 22, 1827, and Moroni gave him the plates and the seer stones together with a charge that he should guard them carefully. This proved harder than Joe expected. Treachery and persecution greeted him on every hand. But Joe kept the plates safe until his work was done. Only then did the angel reclaim them.
Rumor, falsehood, and persecution continued to hound Joe, and so he fled with his wife to Susquehanna County in Pennsylvania. There he set to the work of copying and translating the plates. Sometime in February, a financial supporter and secretary, Martin Harris, made a copy of the characters Joe had drawn up from the plates and took them to New York. This is what Harris wrote about his trip:
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.
According to Harris, Prof. Anthon took back the certificate and tore it in pieces, saying there was no longer such a thing as ministering angels. In fact, according to Anthon’s own account, he told Harris that he was being conned.4 But Harris returned to Joe with a report of his mission that apparently en-couraged them both. (That Joe could actually find any encouragement in Prof. Anthon’s complete denunciation of his work is something to ponder.5)
On the April 5, 1829, Oliver Cowdery joined Joe in his work. Cowdery became his new amanuensis. The product of their work was, of course, the Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ. It was published in 1830.
This is the beginning of the story as Joseph Smith told it in 1842. By that time he had told it in other forms that were much at odds with the 1842 version.6 But in each version the story of his early days is free from the polygamy, self-deification, and full-blown polytheism that we have come to associate with Mormonism. All that Smith said and wrote, however, is very much a piece with the religious sensationalism of the age. Scores of men and women during this era claimed to have had visions and revelations. A great many people saw God or talked with angels. At least, they claimed that they had. Smith himself would complain about similar visionaries who arose within his own movement.
Smith’s new religion was common enough in other respects as well. The fabricated history, the prophetic speculation, the gospel of works-righteousness, the de-gradation of Scripture, and the complete dismissal of the evangelical Church were common coin among the faddish religions, sects, and cults of the early 19th Century. And nearly as common was the geographic location in which Mormonism sprang up—the burned-out district of New York. Burned-out, that is, by the revivals that finished out the Second Awakening.
Probably no one was more surprised than Joseph Smith when a simple religious con turned into a major American religious movement, one that in the end, even Smith couldn’t ride to a successful conclusion. On June 27, 1844, an armed mob stormed the county jail where he was being held for treason against the State of Illinois. Smith died in a hail of bullets. But his creation lived on.
1 Most of this material comes from The Pearl of Great Price, a standard work of the LDS Church.
2 Joe was quite familiar with “seer stones”; he used his own versions for treasure hunting. See Walter Martin, Kingdom of the Cults, 151.
3 According to his biographer, Fawn Brodie, Joe as a young man was “a likeable ne’er-do-well who was notorious for tall tales and necromantic arts and who spent his leisure leading a band of idlers in digging for buried treasure” (No Man Knows My History, The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 16). Sixty-two residents of Palmyra signed a statement that said of the Smith family: “They were particularly famous for visionary projects, spent much of their time digging for money which they pretended was hid in the earth; and to this day, large excavations may be seen in the earth, not far from their residence, where they used to spend their time in digging for hidden treasures” (E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unveiled  261).
4 Prof. Anthon wrote that he first saw the whole thing as “a trick, perhaps a hoax.” But later he decided that it was part of “a scheme to cheat the farmer of his money, and [he writes] I communicated my suspicions to him, warning him to beware of rogues” [Martin, 160].
5 Anthon writes: “The whole story about my having pronounced the Mormonite inscription to be ‘Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics’ is perfectly false….” (Martin, 160). Why these “Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics” should contain Chaldean, Assyrian, and Arabic characters is another question.
6 Floyd C. McElveen, “Joseph Smith and the First Vision,” in The Mormon Illusion (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1979), 22-31.