The translation and publication of the Book of Mormon, although looked upon as a sacred responsibility by Joseph Smith and those who helped him, was by no means the most important task that awaited the young prophet. From the very hour of his first vision he had continued to receive what he looked upon as divine direction. There had been several years of confusion and strife in the religious world. There was a definite move to abolish creeds and return to the old paths. Joseph Smith as a youth said an angel had told him the creeds of men were an abomination1; the reformers had said that and more. The angel had said a marvelous work was about to come forth in the world, the reformers had predicted that for a generation or more. All through the United States reformers were slowly formulating compromises with departures from their mother churches. An unlettered farm boy comes forward to say that not reform but restoration was the thing needed; that the gospel was once again to be restored in its completeness from God himself, the author of the plan of salvation. Reformers were struggling over who had the power to ordain, to baptize, to preach the gospel; this daring country lad told them the authority to minister in the things of God must be restored from heaven itself by those who held the keys of divine authority; that no one must take this honor upon himself, unless he was called of God as was Aaron.
The translation of the Book of Mormon he said was but a manifestation of the power of God to communicate his mind and will to the sons of men as he had done in ancient times. Even in the days at Harmony when two young men, mere boys in point of years, were struggling against odds with a gigantic task, they were not lacking in assurance, for to Joseph Smith his projects were crystal clear. In the midst of confusion, he spoke authoritatively.
Oliver Cowdery was no less eager. He said:
No men in their sober senses could translate and write the directions given to the Nephites, from the mouth of the Saviour, of the precise manner in which men should build up his church. . . . without desiring a privilege of showing a willingness of the heart by being buried in the liquid grave, to answer "a good conscience by the resurrection of Jesus Christ."... We only waited for a commandment to be given, "arise and be baptized."2
There in the woods on the Susquehanna River that was their temple, these two young men visioned a great organization that would be nothing less than a restoration of the original Christian church. They had no money; they had no education, or very little at most; they had not even the humblest country church in which to tell their story, but they had faith in their mission, and the moral and physical courage to carry out what they believed their divinely appointed duty. There was no timidity, no vacillation. They were ready to speak out regardless of scoffers, of false witnesses, of difficulties, or depression. There was nothing that could turn them aside from what they saw as a divinely appointed objective. What better preparation could a man have for a pioneer of any movement?
Joseph Smith tells the story:
We still continued the work of translation, when in the ensuing month [May, eighteen hundred and twenty-nine] we on a certain day went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, as we found mentioned in the translation of the plates. 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 unto us, "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." He said this Aaronic priesthood had not the power of laying on of hands, for the gift of the Holy Ghost, but that this should be conferred on us hereafter; and he commanded us to go and be baptized, and gave us directions that I should baptize Oliver Cowdery, and, afterwards that he should baptize me.
Accordingly we went and were baptized. I baptized him first, and afterwards he baptized me, after which I laid my hands upon his head and ordained him to the Aaronic priesthood, and afterwards he laid his hands on me, and ordained me to the same priesthood, for so we were commanded.
The messenger who visited us on this occasion, and conferred this priesthood upon us, said that his name was John, the same that is called John the Baptist, in the New Testament, and that he acted under the direction of Peter, James, and John, who held the keys of the priesthood of Melchisedec, which priesthood he said should in due time be conferred on us--and that I should be called the first elder, and he the second. It was on the fifteenth day of May, eighteen hundred and twenty-nine, that we were baptized, and ordained under the hand of the messenger.
Immediately upon our coming up out of the water, after we had been baptized, we experienced great and glorious blessings from our heavenly Father. No sooner had I baptized Oliver Cowdery than the Holy Ghost fell upon him and he stood up and prophesied many things which should shortly come to pass. And again, so soon as I had been baptized by him, I also had the spirit of prophecy, when, standing up, I prophesied concerning the rise of the church, and many other things connected with the church, and this generation of the children of men. We were filled with the Holy Ghost, and rejoiced in the God of our salvation.
Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the Scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us, in a manner which we never could attain to previously, nor ever before had thought of.3
Oliver Cowdery's ecstatic account shows the effect of a positive declaration upon a mind that had tasted of the uncertainties of the religious controversies of the time--a positive declaration that to Oliver was a revelation from the very courts of glory itself.
The Lord, who is rich in mercy, and ever willing to answer the consistent prayer of the humble, after we had called upon him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, condescended to manifest to us his will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us, while the vail was parted, and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the gospel of repentance! What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world was racked and distracted--while millions were groping as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld--our ears heard. As in the "blaze of day"; yes, more--above the glitter of the May sunbeam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature! Then his voice, though mild, pierced to the center, and his words, "I am thy fellow servant," dispelled every fear. We listened--we gazed--we admired! 'Twas the voice of the angel from glory--'twas a message from the Most High! And as we heard we rejoiced, while his love enkindled upon our souls, and we were rapt in the vision of the Almighty! Where was room for doubt? Nowhere; uncertainty had fled, doubt had sunk, no more to rise, while fiction and deception had fled forever!
But, dear brother, think, further think for a moment, what joy filled our hearts and with what surprise we must have bowed (for who would not have bowed the knee for such a blessing?) when we received under his hand the holy priesthood as he said, "Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this priesthood, and this authority, which shall remain upon earth, that the sons of Levi may yet offer an offering unto the Lord in righteousness."
I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow man, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have the power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Saviour, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance and blots it forever from the mind! The assurance that we were in the presence of an angel; the certainty that we heard the voice of Jesus, and the truth unsullied as it flowed from a pure personage, dictated by the will of God, is to me, past description, and I shall ever look upon this expression of the Saviour's goodness with wonder and thanksgiving while I am permitted to tarry, and in those mansions where perfection dwells and sin never comes, I hope to adore in that day which shall never cease!4
After a few days they began "to reason out of the Scriptures" and inform their friends "what the Lord was about to do for the children of men." Some were baptized, among them Samuel Harrison Smith, a younger brother of Joseph, who visited them in Harmony.
Joseph Smith, now removed to Fayette, New York, wrote:
Meanwhile, we continued to translate at intervals, when not necessitated to attend to the numerous enquirers, that had now begun to visit us; some for the sake of finding the truth, others for the purpose of putting hard questions, and trying to confound us. Among the latter class were several learned priests who generally came for the purpose of disputation: however, the Lord continued to pour out his Holy Spirit, and as often as we had need, he gave us that moment what to say; so that unlearned and inexperienced in religious controversies, yet were we able to confound those learned rabbis of the day, whilst at the same time, we were able to convince the honest in heart, that we had obtained (through the mercy of God) to the true and everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ, so that almost daily we administered the ordinance of baptism for the remission of sins, to such as believed. We now became anxious to have that promise realized to us, which the angel that conferred upon us the Aaronic priesthood had given us; viz., that provided we continued faithful we should also have the Melchisedec priesthood, which holds the authority of the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost. We had for some time made this matter a subject of humble prayer, and at length we got together in the chamber of Mr. Whitmer's house in order more particularly to seek of the Lord what we now so earnestly desired; and here to our unspeakable satisfaction did we realize the truth of the Saviour's promise; "Ask, and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you"; for we had not long been engaged in solemn and fervent prayer, when the word of the Lord came unto us in the chamber, commanding us that I should ordain Oliver Cowdery to be an elder in the Church of Jesus Christ, and that he also should ordain me to the same office, and then to ordain others as it should be made known unto us, from time to time. We were, however, commanded to defer our ordination until such times as it should be practicable to have our brethren, who had been and who should be baptized, assembled together, when we must have their sanction to our thus proceeding to ordain each other, and have them decide by vote whether they were willing to accept us as their spiritual teachers, or not, when also we were commanded to bless bread and break it with them, and to take wine, bless it and drink with them, afterward proceed to ordain each other according to commandment, then call out such men as the Spirit should dictate, and ordain them, and then attend to the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost upon all those whom we had previously baptized; doing all things in the name of the Lord.5
Oliver Cowdery later says, "I was also present with Joseph when the higher or Melchisedec priesthood was conferred by the holy angel from on high. This priesthood was then conferred on each other, by the will and commandment of God."6 In one of the revelations received by Joseph Smith occurs the statement, "Peter, James, and John, whom I have sent unto you, by whom I have ordained you and confirmed you to be apostles and especial witnesses of my name,"7 and in a letter to the church written September 6, 1842, Joseph Smith refers to the "voice of Peter, James, and John in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broome County, on the Susquehanna River, declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fullness of time."8 But by some chance, details of this experience have not been left to us.
In this manner did the Lord continue to give us instructions from time to time concerning the duties which now devolved upon us, and among many other things of the kind, we obtained of him the following, by the Spirit of prophecy and revelation; which not only gave us much information, but also pointed out to us the precise day upon which, according to his will and commandment, we should proceed to organize his church once again upon the earth. (See Doctrine and Covenants 17, and Church History, Volume 1, page 67.)
All through the winter of 1829-30, the preparations for organization continued. "Whilst the Book of Mormon was in the hands of the printer, we still continued to bear testimony and give information, as far as we had opportunity; and also made known to our brethren that we had received a commandment to organize the church and accordingly we met together for that purpose at the house9 of the above-mentioned Mr. Whitmer (being six in number) on Tuesday, the sixth day of April, A. D., one thousand eight hundred and thirty"--
Having opened the meeting by solemn prayer to our heavenly Father, we proceeded (according to previous commandment) to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers, in the things of the kingdom of God and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a church according to said commandment which we had received. To these they consented by a unanimous vote. I then laid my hands upon Oliver Cowdery and ordained him an elder of the "Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints," after which he ordained me also to the office of an elder of said church. We then took bread, blessed it and brake it with them, also wine, blessed it and drank it with them. We then laid our hands on each individual Member of the church present that they might receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; and be confirmed members of the Church of Christ. The Holy Ghost was poured out upon us to a very great degree. Some prophesied, whilst we all praised the Lord and rejoiced exceedingly.10
The newly ordained ministers began from that time forth to spread the gospel throughout the neighborhood where they lived. Many believed.
"In 1830," says E. Douglas Branch, "the Book of Mormon was published. Its philosophy of history exacted no more credulity than the cosmogony of Genesis; its faith was the old-time religion brought up-to-date without being modernized."11
Preaching services were held around Manchester and Palmyra, at Fayette12 and at Colesville in Broome County, where the entire family of Joseph Knight and others had very early aligned themselves definitely with the new movement. Knight was the genial miller, so often a guest in the Smith home in Palmyra, as he traveled through the neighborhood contracting wheat for his mill. He had already given the young prophet substantial pecuniary aid while he was working on the translation.
The first conference convened at Fayette on the first of June with thirty members of the church and many others present. A glorious time was reported by all, although the services partook too much of the ecstatic scenes that had marked the great revival. The "meeting" was in the Whitmer home, and as was common in pioneer times, in order to accommodate a large family, beds were a part of every living room's furniture, and "some were so overcome that we had to lay them on beds, or other convenient places."13 To the participants in meetings like these one hundred years ago, such manifestationsl4 were neither strange nor unexpected but something which accompanied all religious gatherings of any pretension to spirituality. In the new church they were generally discouraged, and eventually disappeared altogether.
Members soon began to be added to their number in what seemed almost miraculous ways. After translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph, Oliver, his father, and brother, Hyrum, were preaching near Auburn, New York, when they were pleased to see the face of an old-time friend, Ezra Thayre, who had been a bridge, dam, and mill builder in and around Palmyra, and had many times employed Father Smith and his sons, including Joseph. It was Sunday.
He said that on reaching the double log house where the meeting was held, he pressed his way through the congregation and took his seat immediately in front of these new preachers, listened to the broken remarks by the three others, and then Joseph taking the Book of Mormon in his hand, proceeded in his unlearned manner, to tell the history of its coming forth, and explained how he had received the golden plates at the hands of the angel, and how he had translated the book by the gift of God, with other marvelous matters connected with its coming forth, and Thayre said that immediately upon Joseph beginning these statements a new and heavenly power fell upon him filling his entire being with unspeakable assurance of the truth of the statements, melting him to tears. When Joseph concluded his recital, he said he eagerly stretched forth his hand and said, "Let me have that book." it was handed to him and Brother Thayre kept it, esteeming it a heavenly treasure indeed.15
Sometime in the month of August a young man of twenty-three sold all his earthly possessions (though they happened to be few) to get enough money to go back to his home place and preach the gospel, upon which he believed he had found new light.
Parley P. Pratt, third son of Jared and Charity Pratt, was born April 12, 1807, in Burlington, Otsego County, N. Y. He worked at farming in various places, until 1826, when at the ripe age of nineteen, he came to the conclusion "to bid farewell to the civilized world--where I had met with little else but disappointment, sorrow, and unrewarded toil . . . and spend the remainder of my days in the solitudes of the great west." The spot chosen was thirty miles west of Cleveland, Ohio, where he had built a cabin in the woods and made one trip back "to the civilized world" for a boyhood sweetheart, Thankful Halsey. He had never heard of Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon, but in this western home had come in contact "with a kind of reformed Baptist"16 by the name of Sidney Rigdon. He was astonished to find Rigdon preached "repentance toward God, and baptism for remission of sins, with the promise of the gift of the Holy Ghost to all who would come forward, with all their hearts and obey this doctrine!"17 Parley P. Pratt felt "swallowed up in these things . . . constrained to devote his time to enlightening his fellow men on these important truths, and warning them to prepare for the coming of the Lord." He was on his way back to Columbia County, New York, with his young wife, Thankful, and all the money his earthly possessions would bring.
The young missionary made his way to Cleveland, thirty miles, then took a schooner for Buffalo, and the captain being short of hands permitted him to work his way, which proved to be a very good thing, for when he attempted to engage passage on the new Erie Canal to Albany, he found it took not only their money, but some of their clothing as well to pay their way. Fortunately that included board. The packets furnishing board, however, were large and fine and could cover one hundred and fifty miles in a week!
There was a tiny cabin in front with five or six bunks for the crew. Next a small room used by women for washing and for dressing, then the women's cabin where ladies could retire and where all women slept at night. In the center was a large, general compartment which might be forty-five feet long, which was used as a general assembly room. Bunks were suspended on iron brackets, the ends of which on one side were pushed into the wall and the other ends hung by ropes from the ceiling. Such shelves were six by three and a half feet, arranged in tiers three feet apart. When all bunks were filled, surplus men slept on the floor. A small mattress and filthy blankets completed the equipment. These bedclothes were rolled in a corner of the room during the day and seldom washed. During the day all the passengers read, talked, sewed, played games, and dozed in this room. Some parcels were stored here, large ones on the deck. Meals were served on planks supported by wooden trestles. Back of this room were the kitchen and the inevitable bar. The cook was also the bartender and worked both day and night. The rest of the crew consisted of a captain, two steersman and two drivers, who alternated each other in six-hour shifts. Sometimes the men would exercise by walking along the tow path with the driver.
No wonder the tedious routine of the boat became irksome to young Pratt, and he finally announced to his young wife that he would like to leave the boat, though his passage was paid, and preach a while to some friends in Wayne County. He had two uncles in that county, where he had visited some years before and made friends. Leaving his wife to get the benefit of the luxurious passage on the canal packet, he left the boat at Newark about daybreak one morning and walked ten miles to the home of a friend by the name of Wells. As was the custom of itinerant preachers then, he lost no time, but proposed a meeting that night.
He and Wells set out to collect a crowd, or at least announce their meeting, and church services of any kind were largely attended in those days. Among others they visited an old Baptist deacon by the name of Hamlin. After hearing of the appointment for the evening, he told his visitors of a "book, a strange book, a very strange book" in his possession, which had just been published. After listening to the circumstances of its translation and publication, young Pratt had a curiosity to obtain one, and was told by the old man that although he would not like to part with his copy, he would be pleased to permit Pratt to read it at his house, if he could call there. Early the next morning after filling his appointment the night before, Pratt went to Hamlin's and read the entire day, but failed to finish the book. His mind was now made up to visit Palmyra and see for himself. For as he read, "the Spirit of the Lord was upon me, and I knew and comprehended that the book was true, as plainly and manifestly as a man comprehends and knows that he exists."18
He walked the thirty miles to Palmyra, inquired for Joseph Smith, and was told that he lived two or three miles from the village. As he approached the neighborhood of the place near the close of the day, he overtook a young man a few years older than himself driving some cows, and asked him about Joseph Smith. He was informed that Joseph now lived in Pennsylvania, but pointed out the home of his father, and introduced himself as Joseph's brother, Hyrum. Pratt informed him of his new-found interest in the Book of Mormon and was invited to Hyrum's home, where they spent most of the night in conversation. Early in the morning Pratt felt he must hasten back to fill another appointment that evening. As he was leaving, Hyrum presented him with a copy of the Book of Mormon.
When the young minister had traveled long enough to require a rest, he sat down by the roadside, found the place where he had left off reading at Hamlin's, and was soon absorbed in the account of the personal ministry of Christ upon this continent. He continued on his journey when he had finished that part of the book, and kept his appointment to preach that night and the next. The people begged him to continue, but he no longer felt satisfied with his authority to preach. The next morning found him walking back the thirty miles to the home of Hyrum Smith to demand baptism. For some reason Hyrum did not comply, but after one night's rest, they both started to walk to Fayette, a distance of twenty-five miles. During the long walk, Pratt heard anew of the strange happenings attending the "angel message."
It was evening when they arrived at Whitmer's which had now assumed something of the properties of a hospitable inn. He was made welcome and on the next day (the first day of the second conference of the church) was baptized by the hand of Oliver Cowdery in beautiful Lake Seneca. That night at the evening meeting he was confirmed and ordained an elder, and continued on his way to his people in Columbia County.
Such conversions were so frequent that the recital of all that have been preserved in history would be impossible. Pratt says that at the time of his baptism there were three branches, Manchester, Fayette, and Colesville, and about fifty members. By the month of October he had returned to Manchester and, was preaching with Joseph Smith in the Smith home, to two large rooms full of the Smith neighbors. This was his first meeting with Joseph, who apprised him of the news that he was one of the men chosen to undertake the first long mission of the church.
1 Perhaps no other statement of Joseph Smith's has received more bitter
criticism than this. Students of religious thought of that day have no difficulty in
understanding it. Creeds and confessions of faith, were they to be retained or was the
religious world to go back to the Bible for inspiration? That was the burning religious
question of his time. That was undoubtedly one of the questions upon which Joseph Smith
sought divine answer.
2 Letter of Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, dated Norton, Medina County, Ohio, Sabbath evening, September 7, 1834, published in Saints' Messenger and Advocate, October, 1834. (Volume 1, pages 15, 16.)
3 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, pages 865, 866; Church History, Volume 1, page 34.
4 Messenger and Advocate, Volume 1, pages 15, 16. See Church History, Volume 1, pages 37-39.
5 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 915.
6 Myth of Manuscript Found, by George Reynolds, page 80.
7 Doctrine and Covenants 26:3.
8 Times and Seasons, Volume 3, page 936, Church History, Volume 1, page 64.
9 This house is no longer standing. See Latter-day Saints Biographical Encyclopedia--Vol. I, page 282, Salt Lake City: "There [in Fayette Township] he [Peter Whitmer, Sr.) built a story and a half log house, the one in which the church was organized April 6, 1830, and where Joseph Smith received a number of important revelations. The house was torn down many years ago, but when Elder Andrew Jensen visited the place in 1888, he found several of the logs which once constituted a part of the building lying in a ditch near by."
10 Church History, Volume 1, pages 76-77.
11 Westward, by E. Douglas Branch, page 411.
12 Preaching Services were held in 1830 and 1831 in (1) Peter Whitmer's house, (2) at "Whitmer School" in District No. 17, Fayette (northeast from Whitmer's, near Martin Miller's and the Junction Military lots 3, 4, and 13). This school district was annulled in 1841, and the schoolhouse moved. (3) Schoolhouse in District No. 15 (now No. 7) in locality known as the beach. History Sketch of Fayette, by Diedrich Villers page 48.
13 Times and Seasons, Volume 4, page 23.
14 (While often objectionable, such a state has its counterpart in Biblical history, as in the case of the trance of Peter, Acts 10: 10; 11: 5; of Paul, Ibid., 22: 7, and of Paul's conversion and of other cases in the Bible.)
15 Memoirs of William W. Blair, pages 39, 40.
16 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, Chicago, 1888, page 31.
18 Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, page 38.