Back Previous chapter Table of Contents Table of Contents Next chapter Next chapter

THE GOLDEN PLATES

Although the great revival was a significant result of the reaction that swept over America in the early part of the nineteenth century (and it was noteworthy that in the contemporary literature of the first forty years of this century, no subject so engrossed the interest of the Christian public as did these revivals,")1 its "most brilliant decade, between 1830 and 1840"2 was marked by several remarkable events; for this re-awakening, as had been the case in no previous intellectual revival, spread into practical, utilitarian, and commercial channels. This decade saw the establishment of the railroad, the electric telegraph, and the ocean steamship.

On the 6th day of April, in the first year of this "most brilliant" decade of American history (1830) the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was organized at Fayette, New York, just seven months before the first American railroad train, the diminutive and experimental forerunner of modern methods of transpiration, made a trial trip from Schenectady to Albany in the state of New York, a distance of seventeen miles (November 2, 1830).

The organization of the church was the result of a series of most unusual happenings in western New York, then a pioneer state. The revivals started in the South had spread northward through the trans-Allegheny region, and had reached their peak in New York in the early twenties. In and near the post-township of Palmyra, in what was then Ontario (later Wayne) County, a series of revivals had been held by the Presbyterian, Baptist, and Methodist Churches uniting, as was then the custom, in a non-proselyting attack upon the emotions of the community, a part of the general movement of that period, for "it spread from town to town, from county to county, and from state to state."3

Says William Smith, "The people in our neighborhood were very much stirred up with regard to religious matters by the preaching of a Mr. Lane,4 an elder of the Methodist Church and celebrated throughout the country as a great 'revivalist preacher.'"5

Attending these revivals with most of his father's family was a country lad of about fourteen years by the name of Joseph Smith. The family had but one year before, after a few years' residence in the village of Palmyra, taken up some "new land on Stafford Street near the line of Palmyra."6 "During the time of great excitement," he later wrote, "my feelings were deep," but after the height of the revival began to subside "notwithstanding the great love which the converts for these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody 'converted' as they pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet, when the converts began to file off, some to one party, and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real, for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; priest contending against priest, and convert against convert, so that all the good feelings, one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words, and a contest about opinions."7

This young man's mother, his sister, and two of his brothers were soon won by the Presbyterian faith, and joined that church, but he himself "became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,"8 and, "felt some desire to be united with them,"9 and yet "found the confusion and strife among the different denominations" so great that "it was impossible for a person young as I was and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. My mind at different times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult was so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all their powers of 'either reason, or sophistry to prove their errors, or at least to make the people think they were in error; on the other hand the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous to establish their own tenets and disprove all others."10

"Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church, it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed. Believing the word of God, I had confidence in the declaration of James: '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,'11 I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord; while fervently engaged in supplication, my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noonday. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them were acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to 'go not after them,' at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me."12

Several days after, the boy was talking with one of the ministers who had been active during the revival, and told him all about the wonderful vision he had seen. To his surprise, the man, to whom he had looked as a spiritual adviser treated his communication not only lightly, but with contempt. For then, as now, "Pretensions to miraculous powers.... excited not only in persons of intelligence but in most men of sober thought, indignation or contempt."13 The story spread among his friends, and the boy was subjected to all kinds of ridicule, and the cruelest kind of torment.

"Until after the angel appeared ... it was never said that my father's family were lazy, shiftless, or poor,"14 said his brother many years later. "The hand of fellowship was extended to us upon all sides,"15 his mother tells us, and a contemporary of his grudgingly admits, "Joseph had a little ambition and some very laudable aspirations, and his mother's intellect occasionally shone out in him . . . especially when he used to help us solve some portentous question of moral and political ethics, in our juvenile debating club, which we moved down to the old red schoolhouse on Durfee Street, to get rid of the annoyance of critics who used to drop in upon us in the village; and subsequently after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting down in the woods on the Vienna Road, he was a very passable exhorter in evening meetings."16

But now these days were over. No one could forget that young Joseph claimed to have seen a vision. "But strange or not, so it was, and was often cause of great sorrow to myself. However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had had a vision. I have thought since that I felt much like Paul when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he 'saw a light and heard a voice.' . . . He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew and would know unto his latest breath, that he had both seen a light, and heard a voice speaking to him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise. So it was with me, I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two personages, and they did in reality speak unto me, or one of them did."17

He could not forget it. The things he had heard while alone that day in the woods would not down. Though he no longer mingled with the religious activities of the community, he pondered in his own heart over what had happened. It was, he said, a great sorrow" to him, and yet he dare not disobey. Moments of temptation and rebellion were followed by hours of contrition, and at length on the evening of September 21, 1823, upon retiring to bed, he prayed for forgiveness for his rebellion and folly and also asked for a further manifestation of his standing before the Lord. He tells us that he had full confidence that he would receive an answer to his petitions, and he was not disappointed. His prayers were answered while he was still on his knees. Years after in answer to a letter of inquiry from John Wentworth of the Chicago Democrat he retold the story:

"On the evening of the 21st of September, A. D., 1823, while I was praying unto God, and endeavoring to exercise faith in the precious promises of Scripture on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance, and brightness burst into the room, indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire; the appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body; in a moment a personage stood before me surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded. This messenger proclaimed himself to be an angel of God sent to bring the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel in all its fullness to be preached in power unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.

"I was informed that I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of his purposes in this glorious dispensation.

"I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there were deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgment of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent. The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things."18

The next morning in the field Joseph told his father what he had seen. His father believed him, as did the rest of the family, and he was advised to follow the directions of the angel and find the plates. Accordingly he left the field and says he went immediately to the place pointed out in the vision. "Convenient to the village of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, stands a hill of considerable size, and the most elevated of any in the neighborhood; on the west side of this hill not far from the top, under a stone of considerable size, lay the plates deposited in a stone box: this stone was thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges, so that the middle part of it was visible above the ground, but the edge all around was covered with earth. Having removed the earth," he says, "and having obtained a lever which I got fixed under the edge of the stone and with a little exertion raised it up, I looked in and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim and the Breastplate, as stated by the messenger. The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement; in the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them."19 He tells us he made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden to touch them, We are elsewhere told that he had already laid some of the plates by his side upon the ground, when the idea, natural to a lad of less than eighteen, came to him that there might be treasure buried with them. He stooped to look in the box when the plates were returned to the box, and he was forbidden to take them again. The plates could not be had for the purpose of making money.

"I remember how the family wept when they found Joseph could not get the plates at that time,"20 said his brother, William as an old man. "The circumstances that occurred and the impressions made upon my mind at that time I can remember better than that which occurred two years ago. We were all looking forward for the time to come, father, mother, brothers, and sisters."21 William was twelve years old at the time.

Joseph was no longer in doubt as to his mission, nor unsatisfied with what he considered his destiny. Annually on the anniversary of this event he visited the spot on the hill, and reported to the assembled family all that had occurred. Never during the next four years, he told them, had the angel failed to meet and instruct him there.

Work on the homestead continued from day to day, much as it did with many of their neighbors. "After my father's family moved to New York State, in about five years they cleared sixty acres of land and fenced it. The timber on the land was very heavy. Some of the elms were so large that we had to 'nigger' them off. They were too large to be cut with a crosscut saw." The three elder boys of the family, Alvin, Hyrum, and Joseph, bore the burden of the work. When there was extra expense or the family income was low, one of the younger boys "worked out" as most farm boys of their time did to help with the common expenses.

"Yes, sir: I knew all of the Smith family, well," said an old neighbor, Orlando Saunders, "there were six boys, Alvin, Hyrum, Joseph, Harrison, William, and Carlos, and there were two girls; the old man was a cooper, they have all worked for me many a day; they were very good people. Young Joe (as we called him then) has worked for me, and he was a good worker; they all were. I did not consider them good managers about business, but they were poor people, the old man had a large family." So far as young Joseph was concerned, Saunders went on to insist he knew him "just as well as one could very well; he has worked for me many a time, and been about my place a great deal. He stopped with me many a time, when through here, after they went west to Kirtland; he was always a gentleman when about my place."22

In the summer of 1823,23 the boys with Alvin in charge began to replace the family log cabin with a "frame dwelling house," that badge of prosperity of the pioneer. It was a proud moment for them all. But Alvin died before the new house was finished, a never-forgotten sorrow to the entire family. His last request to his brothers was that they finish the new home for their mother. This they did but much of the joy of moving into it had vanished.

Pioneer life, except for the promise of the "golden plates," continued much the same after Alvin was gone. The Smiths dispensed hospitality in the new house as they had in the log cabin.24 One of the regular visitors was a prosperous miller, Joseph Knight, from Colesville, Broome County, where he owned a gristmill on the Susquehanna River. Although blessed with three sons of his own and four daughters, there were times that farm and millwork required an extra hand, and Knight had several times hired young Joseph Smith. The young people in the Knight home were pleasant, and he enjoyed going there. They liked him, too. Mrs. Knight treated him as her own son. Mr. Knight was not a church member though he favored the "Universalist doctrine."25 "Faithful and true, evenhanded and exemplary, virtuous and kind, never deviating to the right hand or the left,"26 the erstwhile young millhand characterized him in later years. And the Knight boys with whom he wrestled and played in his young days, were his tried and trusty companions down the tempestuous years to the end of his life. "I record their names," he once said, when he was tortured and hunted far from those peaceful Susquehanna hills, "with unspeakable delight, for they are my friends."27

Once a year it was the custom of Joseph Knight to visit the farmers in neighboring counties and contract for wheat to be delivered at his mill in the fall. Upon some of these visits he was accompanied by an old friend, Josiah Stoal, from Bainbridge, New York. The old gentleman had conceived the idea of searching for an ancient silver mine, supposed by neighborhood tradition to have been opened by the Spaniards somewhere in the hills, near Harmony,28 in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. Spanish treasure was in those days the popular myth with all classes of society. Upon recommendation of his friend Knight, Stoal secured the services of young Smith, and took him to Pennsylvania and put him to board with other "hands" at the prosperous farm home of Isaac Hale in Harmony.

The Spanish treasure never materialized, and the disappointed treasure seeker was finally persuaded to abandon the quest, but not before young Joseph Smith had found time during moonlit nights on the Susquehanna to embark on a more successful treasure hunt of his own. Emma, dark-eyed daughter of the Hales, found it easy to like the young stranger from New York, but the story of Joseph's visions had followed him, and canny old Isaac Hale was doubtful of the sort of farmer that could be made from a young man who saw and heard such unusual sights and sounds. Having once determined what he wanted, it was never easy for Joseph Smith to give up because of obstacles, and he records in this case he was "under the necessity of taking her elsewhere, so we went and were married at the house of Squire Tarbell in South Bainbridge [now Afton], Chenango County, New York." The marriage occurred on January 18, 1827, and the young couple went immediately to Manchester where they lived with the elder Smiths for a year.

Later in the year on the historical date of September 22, when Joseph Smith made his annual visit to the hill of promise, he took his wife, and borrowed a horse and carriage from a miller from Colesville, Joseph Knight, who happened to be there that evening. The trip was taken secretly, but Joseph knew he was welcome to the horse and traveling equipage of this old friend. Joseph and Emma left sometime after midnight, and that morning29 he brought back the cherished plates.

But the longed-for adventure had only begun. The story of the golden plates spread abroad in the neighborhood; they must be protected from theft and danger. There was a book to be translated and published, and Joseph was uneducated and poor.

1 The Frontier Spirit in American Christianity, by Peter G. Mode, Macmillan, 923.
2 The Brie Canal Proceedings of New York State History Society for 1926, by Noble Whitford, A.B., page 214.
3 From a sermon by William Smith at Deloit, Iowa, June 8, 1884, Saints' Herald, Volume 31, page 643.
4 Reverend George Lane, who since 1808 had been in charge of a circuit embracing all of the State of New York west of the Genesee River. Mr. Lane did the first Methodist preaching in the counties comprising the "Holland purchase." The courage, faith, zeal, and capacity for self-denial of these old-time circuitriders can hardly be overestimated. For incidents in Reverend Lane's ministry, see Gregg's history of Methodism as within the bounds of the Erie Annual Conference as quoted in History of Chautauqua County, New York. Andrew W. Young, Buffalo, New York, Matthews and Warren, 1875, page 107.
5 From William Smith on Mormonism, pages 6, 7, by William Smith, Herald Press, Lamoni, 1883.
6 History of the Pioneer Settlements of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, etc., by O. Turner, Rochester, 1851.
7 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 727.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 727.
11 James 1:5.
12 Letter of Joseph Smith to John Wentworth, Times and Seasons, Volume 3, pages 706, 707.
13 Theology Explained and Defended, by Theodore Dwight, President of Yale College, page 153.
14 William Smith in sermon preached at Deloit, Iowa, June 8, 1884, Saints' Herald, Volume 31, pages 643, 644.
15 Joseph Smith and His Progenitors, by Lucy Smith, page 73.
16 History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, etc., by O. Turner, Rochester, 1851.
17 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 749.
18 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 707. See Volume 3, pages 727, 728, 748, 749.
19 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 771.
20 Sermon of William Smith at Deloit, Iowa, June 8, 1884, Saints' Herald, Volume 31, pages 643, 644.
21 Ibid.
22 From a series of interviews made by Wm. H. and Edmund L. Kelley with old settlers in and around Palmyra, N. Y. For all this interesting series, see Saints' Herald for 1881; or From Palmyra to Independence, pages 341 to 378. The quotation from Saunders appears on pages 360, 361. Saunders was not a Latter Day Saint, had seen the Book of Mormon but never read it; "cared nothing about it."
23 Earlier editions of this book gave the date 1824. This date was used since it agreed with the date of Alvin's death (November 19, 1824) as recorded in Joseph Smith Jr.'s autobiography in Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 772, and with Lucy Smith's Joseph Smith and His Progenitors. Recent research, however, indicates this is in error. The Wayne County Sentinel of Palmyra, New York, on September 25, 1824. carried a notice signed by Joseph Smith, Sr., to the effect that there being a rumor that Alvin's body had been disinterred, he, with friends, had opened the grave and found the body undisturbed. This proves conclusively that Alvin died prior to that date. On the tombstone at Alvin's grave in the old cemetery across from the Catholic Church in Palmyra is an inscription showing date of death as November 19, 1823.
24 Since the entire Smith family agrees that the frame house was not finished at the time of Alvin Smith's death, and that almost the last words he uttered admonished his younger brothers to finish the new house for which the logs were hauled, we must conclude that any spiritual manifestations given before November 19, 1823, to Joseph Smith must have been received in the old log house. This includes the vision of September 21, 1823.
25 Millennial Star, Volume 19, page 756.
26 Ibid.
27 Millennial Star, Volume 19, page 756.
28 Now called Oakland. This is not the Harmony where the Rappite colony existed, as is popularly supposed. There were two Harmonys in Pennsylvania. The other famed for the Rappite community was in Butler County, across the State from Susquehanna County.
29 Letter to the Saints' Herald from Catherine Salisbury, sister to Joseph Smith. She wrote from Fountain Green, Illinois, March 10, 1886. Saints' Herald, Lamoni, Volume 33, page 260. Catherine says, "He was commanded to go on the 22d day of September, 1827, at 2 o'clock." See also Joseph Smith and His Progenitors by Lucy Smith, Chapter XXIII, and Andrew Jensen's Biographical Encyclopedia, Volume II, pages 772-73.

Back Previous chapter Table of Contents Table of Contents Next chapter Next chapter