Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
A Family Divided
[p. 53]When Alvin entered the family cabin one morning, 15 November 1823, and complained of a stomach ache, Lucy could not have known that her family would be plunged into a spiritual, emotional, and financial crisis. According to Lucy, her twenty-five-year-old son was in “great distress” and asked his father to go for a physician. Reportedly, Alvin had become ill after eating green turnips.1 The family physician, Dr. Alexander McIntyre, was unavailable, so Joseph Sr. went to the next village, probably to Macedon.2 When the physician came, he diagnosed Alvin’s ailment as bilious colic and, over Alvin’s objection, administered a “heavy dose of Calomel,” which is a mixture of mercury powder and chlorine that was used in the nineteenth century as a laxative. In Alvin’s case, the compound lodged in his upper bowels.
On the third day of Alvin’s illness, McIntyre arrived with three other physicians; despite their efforts, the calomel would not dislodge. Alvin knew that this blockage would eventually kill him and that his sick bed had become his death bed. In words normally expected from a departing father, he called to Hyrum, the next oldest child, and said: “Hyrum, I must die. Now I want to say a few things, which I wish to have you remember. I have done all I could do to make our dear parents comfortable. I want you to go on and finish the house, and take care of them in their old age, and do not any more let them work hard, as they are now in old age.” He then addressed his oldest sister: “Sophronia, you must be a good girl, and do all you can for father and mother—never forsake them; they have worked hard, and they are now getting old. Be kind to them and remember what they have done for us.”3
Late on the evening of 19 November, Alvin, sensing his time was short, summoned the entire family so he could again exhort his siblings to take care of their parents. To Joseph Jr., he specifically said: “I am now going to die, the distress which I [p. 54]suffer, and the feelings that I have, tell me my time is very short. I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you.” Of all the Smith family, Alvin took the greatest interest in Joseph’s seeric claims, perhaps because of their shared passion for treasure seeking. His last words to Joseph were: “Your brother Alvin must leave you; but remember the example which he has set for you; and set the same example for the children that are younger than yourself, and always be kind to father and mother.”4 He passed to Hyrum the role of taking care of the family’s physical needs, but to Joseph he gave the spiritual burden.
Alvin asked for Lucy, his sleeping two-year-old sister, to be brought to him. He was extremely fond of her, and she affectionately called him “Amby.” When her mother gently woke her and informed her that Alvin wanted her, she screamed: “Oh! Amby, Amby.” As she approached her brother’s bed, she sprang from her mother’s arms, embraced Alvin around the neck, and repeatedly kissed him while she continued to cry “Oh! my Amby.” “Lucy,” Alvin said, “you must be the best girl in the world, and take care of mother; you can’t have your Amby any more. Amby is going away; he must leave little Lucy.” He then kissed her, saying, “Take her away, I think my breath offends her”—evidence that the gangrene was consuming his stomach and upper bowels. But the little girl clung to Alvin and refused to let go. Only with great difficulty was mother Smith able to separate the two.5 As they turned away, Alvin said: “Father, mother, brothers, sisters, farewell! I can now breathe out my life as calmly as a clock.”6 He closed his eyes for the last time.
A numbing pain washed over the small group huddled around Alvin’s bed. Little Lucy continued to cry and squirm in her mother’s arms, while the rest of the family remained grief-stricken. In an attempt to console the family, someone—Lucy does not say who—remarked that “Alvin is gone; an angel has taken his spirit to heaven.”7 Reflecting on his brother’s death, Joseph Jr. commented in 1842, without attributing the information, that “the angel of the Lord visited him in his last moments.”8 When little Lucy heard the announcement of Alvin’s departure, she broke free and grabbed the corpse, sobbing and kissing the lifeless face.
The next day, Dr. McIntyre arrived to perform the autopsy, accompanied by his uncle, Dr. Gain Robinson. The two men discovered the calomel lodged in the upper bowels surrounded by gangrene. Lucy remembered that Dr. Robinson lectured the younger physician “upon the danger of administering powerful medicines without a thorough knowledge of the practice of physic. ‘Here,’ said he, ‘is one of the loveliest youths that ever trod the streets of Palmyra destroyed, murdered as it were by the hand of him at whose hand relief was expected, cut off from the face of the earth by a careless quack who even dared to trifle with the life of a fellow mortal.’”9
[p. 55]The funeral service was held in Palmyra in the Western Presbyterian Church. Alvin was well-liked, and his funeral attracted a “vast concourse of people” from the “surrounding country.” Lucy remembered that those who attended were eager to give the family the “most affectionate manifestations of their sympathy.”10 The Reverend Benjamin Stockton, however, was less sensitive to the family’s feelings. In delivering the funeral sermon, he could not resist preaching to the unconverted who were visiting his church for the first time. William Smith reported that Stockton “intimated very strongly that [Alvin] had gone to hell, for [he] was not a church member.” Stockton’s indiscretion incensed Joseph Sr.11 Following the service, Alvin’s body was carried to the John Swift Memorial Cemetery situated atop a small knoll directly across the street from the church. On the grave was placed a headstone decorated with the then standard “weeping willow” tree over the following engraving:
In memory of
Alvin, Son of Joseph
& Lucy Smith, who
died Nov. 19, 1823,
in the 25, year of
Alvin’s death had a profound effect on Smith family members. “Thus was our happiness blasted in a moment when we least expected the blow,” Lucy concluded. “The poisoned shaft entered our very heart’s core and diffused its deadly effect throughout our veins. We were for a time almost swallowed up in grief so much so that it seemed impossible for us to interest ourselves at all about the concerns of life. The feeling of every heart was to make speedy preparation to follow him who had been too much the idol of our hearts and then if it pleased God to take us.”12
Along with other family members, Joseph Jr. was deeply affected by Alvin’s death. Recalling the shock, he said in 1842: “I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart, when he died.”13 In the fall of 1826, Joseph would tell his parents that “he had felt so lonely ever since Alvin’s death that he had come to the conclusion of getting married.”14 He had lost a brother and primary ally. Lucy said that Alvin “manifested a greater zeal and anxiety … than any of the rest [of the family] with regard to the record. … He always showed the most intense interest concerning the matter.” But mention of the gold plates was painful in the wake of Alvin’s death. Lucy recalled that whenever Joseph spoke of the plates, “it would immediately bring Alvin to our minds with all his kindness, his affection, his zeal and piety. And when we looked to his place and realized that he was gone from it to return no more in this life we all wept with one accord [for] our irretrievable [p. 56]loss and we could not be comforted because he was not.” Consequently, Lucy said, “we could not bear to hear anything said upon the subject.”15 Thus, Joseph had lost his central place in the family’s evening conversations.
The significance of the death in understanding the Smith family cannot be overstated. Alvin’s industry and leadership held the family in balance, and his loss had an emotional, financial, and spiritual impact on them. Some of the family’s most cherished dreams died with Alvin, and the rippling effect would continue to disrupt their lives years afterwards. Little did they know at the time that Alvin’s death would effectively destroy any chance of paying off the farm, that it would be mentioned as a hindrance for Joseph Jr. being able to get the gold plates, or that it would push Lucy to seek consolation in community religion, resulting in the severest division the Smith family had yet known. When the plates were not obtained the following year as promised, Joseph’s hold on his family continued to deteriorate. Soon after, Lucy and other members of the family joined the Presbyterian church, and the simmering differences in Lucy’s and Joseph Sr.’s religious views would come to full boil.
As stated, it is unclear at what point Joseph told his family that Alvin’s presence was required to obtain the plates. Was Alvin, on his deathbed, aware that the angel had required his presence on the hill the following year? Did he know the possible implications of his instruction to Joseph to “do everything that lays in your power to obtain the records”? Or had Joseph held back the requirement for Alvin’s presence until 1824 when he explained to his family the reason for his second failure to obtain the plates? Regardless, it may not have been intended that Joseph would actually get the plates at this early date. He may have been satisfied for the time being with simply narrating his conversations with the messenger, which according to Lucy, he continued to receive “from time to time.”16 As he would later demonstrate, he could see the plates and the translation in his stone without the plates being present. Following his visit to the hill in September 1824, he once again returned to his family with disappointing news.
Within days of Joseph’s unsuccessful visit to the hill, Joseph Sr. exhumed Alvin’s body under the pretext of settling for himself a vicious rumor that “Alvin had been removed from the place of his interment and dissected.” In a notice “To the Public” that was printed in the Wayne Sentinel and dated 25 September 1824, Joseph Sr. announced that “for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I, with some of my neighbors, this morning repaired to the grave, and removing the earth, found the body which had not been disturbed.”17
The timing of this event suggests that the controversy over Alvin’s body was in some way connected to the messenger’s requirement. Were the rumors the result of neighborhood speculation about the extent to which the Smiths would go to get the [p. 57]gold plates, forcing Joseph Sr. to prove such was not the case? According to Lucy, Joseph Jr. had told the family to keep the circumstances of his discovery of the plates to themselves. However, Joseph Sr.’s explanation for disinterring Alvin’s body is questionable because one should have been able to determine if the grave had been disturbed without exhuming the body. It seems probable, therefore, that Joseph Sr. himself may have been the source of the rumor, that the story was a ruse to exhume Alvin’s body for its use in attempting to get the gold plates. Perhaps Joseph Sr.’s exuberance resurfaced as it had the previous year when he told his son, “I would have taken them if I had been in your place.” Was he refusing to give up? If so, the incident would demonstrate how thoroughly the father believed his son’s claims.
Both Lucy and Joseph Jr., in their narratives, skipped over the latter’s 1824 visit to the hill, but Willard Chase said that when Joseph appeared without Alvin, the messenger told him he could not have the plates until he should “come again, in just one year , and bring a man with him. On asking who might be the man, he was answered that he would know him when he saw him.”18 This vague instruction afforded Joseph some flexibility in searching for Alvin’s substitute, and three years passed before he finally named his wife, Emma, as the person who would accompany him to the hill.19 Nothing is known of his 1825 and 1826 visits to the hill outside of his later claim to have made them. This brings into question whether he actually made the annual visits despite his inability to fulfill the messenger’s requirement.20
Lucy’s account of her son’s final visit to the hill in 1827 makes it clear that neither the Smiths nor their closest friends regarded 22 September as significant even though Joseph had previously warned them that the time had arrived to obtain the record. Lucy explained that her family’s lack of anticipation was due to Joseph withholding information from them—that sometime in 1827 the messenger had instructed him to go to the hill on the next 22 September, “but at this time [Joseph] did not make this known to us.”21 If Joseph had been making annual visits to the hill every 22 September, his family would have anticipated his next visit. Instead, Joseph’s and Emma’s departure in the early morning hours was so sudden and surprising to Lucy that only then did she surmise what Joseph’s intentions had been when he had asked for a wooden box with a good lock. Later, Joseph Sr. was not suspicious when his son was not present at breakfast. In addition, visitors Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell were eager to leave Manchester, apparently not appreciating the day’s significance.22 In 1827, Lucy knew only of her son’s “first failure,” and because the details had been kept from her, she feared only the possibility of a “second disappointment.”23 Joseph’s claim to have made four annual visits to the hill on the same day each year seems to have created continuity where originally there had been none.24
During the two-year hiatus, Joseph probably made no further attempt to get the [p. 58]plates, putting the project on hold until the proper person could be found. Meanwhile, he and his family would go through an extremely tumultuous period beginning with the family’s split over religion during the Palmyra revival of 1824-25. Nothing in Joseph’s discussions about the plates indicate that he had foreseen Alvin’s death, let alone the family crisis that would follow.
When Alvin died, it toppled the balance the family had achieved following Joseph Jr.’s 1823 visit to the hill. It was not long after Alvin’s funeral when the peace and tranquility that had briefly pervaded the household began to give way to discord and division. Lucy, who was especially vulnerable, was aroused by the revival that invaded and fragmented Palmyra Village in the spring of 1824. Lucy said that soon after Alvin’s death, Palmyra experienced “a great revival in religion, and the whole neighborhood was very much aroused to the subject, and we among the rest flocked to the meeting house to see if there was a word of comfort for us that might relieve our overcharged feelings.”25
She eventually decided to join the Presbyterian church. Like any good convert, Lucy then became anxious for the salvation of her family. William remembered that his mother “prevailed on us to attend the meetings, and almost the whole family became interested in the matter, and seekers after truth.” Apparently, Lucy was persistent, as William further reported that she “continued her importunities and exertions to interest us in the importance of seeking for the salvation of our immortal souls, until almost all of the family became either converted or seriously inclined.”26 Eventually Lucy succeeded in converting her three oldest children—Hyrum, Samuel, and Sophronia—to the Presbyterian church. The two Josephs resisted her enthusiasm.
This was the greatest revival in Palmyra’s history, commencing with the Methodists who experienced moderate gains in membership beginning in the spring of 1824. In late September, due to the preaching of the Reverend George Lane who had recently received his commission to preside over the Ontario District, the revival, in his words, seemed to “break out afresh.”27 About this time, the Presbyterians and Baptists also began to enjoy large additions to their congregations. By the time Lane left the area in mid-December, the revival had “broken out from the village like a mighty flame, and was spreading in every direction.”28
Both Lucy and Joseph Jr. said the revival was at first a collaborative effort among ministers of the various sects who were seemingly happy to spread religious reformation. But the spirit of cooperation soon evaporated in the heat of sectarian strife and competition for converts. As Joseph saw it, “a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued; priest contending against priest, and convert against convert so that all their good feelings one for another (if they ever had any) were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.”29
[p. 59]Nevertheless, the nineteen-year-old was drawn to the revival and later admitted that his “mind at different times was greatly excited” by the preaching.30 During one of Lane’s sermons, according to Oliver Cowdery’s 1834-35 history, Joseph’s “mind became awakened.”31 Smith later confessed that his “mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect,” that he had even “felt some desire to be united with them.”32 From non-Mormon sources, one learns that Smith not only attended the meetings but also participated. Former Palmyra resident Orsamus Turner, who often visited the village between 1822 and 1828, said that Joseph—“after catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods, on the Vienna road”— became a “very passable exhorter in evening meetings.”33 Methodist exhorters were normally drawn from among the lay membership and were licensed to deliver the “exhortation” following the minister’s sermon. Its purpose was to reemphasize the sermon’s message and exhort the congregation to follow its teaching. It was perhaps the ecumenical spirit that pervaded the early phase of the revival that prompted Palmyra Methodists to make an exception in Joseph’s case and allow him to participate without being a baptized member. Or perhaps his exhortations were more spontaneous than regimented. In any case, this was valuable training for a future translator of ancient religious texts that would include sermons and exhortations like those heard in the revival meetings.34 Pomeroy Tucker, who enjoyed a long career as a publisher in Palmyra, remarked that Joseph Jr. “frequented” the various revival meetings, “sometimes professing to participate in their devotional exercises,” and that he eventually “joined the probationary class of the Methodist church in Palmyra, and made some active demonstrations of engagedness,” but soon after withdrew.35
Before his estrangement from the Methodists, Joseph evidently sought a legitimate conversion experience. He may have repented of his former treasure seeing activities, for about this time, according to Willard Chase, Joseph returned the stone to Chase at his request, leaving Smith without its use for about a year.36 Returning the stone might at first seem inconsequential, but his refusal to give it back in 1826 and his apparent change of attitude make it significant. Despite his efforts, Joseph did not achieve a true conversion experience. As he once explained, “he wanted to get religion too [and] wanted to feel and shout like the rest but [he] could feel nothing.”37 He had knocked on the door, but it would not open to him. His “mind” had been “awakened” but his heart remained untouched.
In later years, he described his religious plight only in terms of the sectarian strife he encountered at revival meetings, stating that this conflict caused him “serious reflection and great uneasiness,” or “extreme difficulties,” and that his feelings were “deep and often poignant.”38 But there was a more direct and potent source of Joseph’s distress—his own family. Although the teenager yearned for spiritual communion [p. 60]and expression, the emotional price was too high. If he joined the Presbyterian church with his mother and older siblings, he was bound to lose his father, who was his closest emotional ally in the family. Methodism offered no relief since neither Lucy nor his father would join him there. Little wonder that he felt alienated from his own religious feelings.
Never at any previous time did the subject of which church to join strike Joseph with such force. Indeed, it was the revival of 1824-25, his family’s conversion, and his mother’s pressure that caused him so much pain and suffering rather than the revival of 1817 or the one he “remembered” for 1820. According to his 1832 history, his 1820/21 vision was precipitated by a concern for his spiritual welfare. In 1834-35, Cowdery mentioned the Palmyra revival and noted that it began with the preaching of George Lane but incorrectly dated it to 1823.39 However, in 1838 Smith relocated the revival to 1820 immediately preceding his vision; at this same time, his personal vision of Jesus was transformed into the appearance of two personages, the Father and the Son, who declared that all the existing churches were false.40 He added parenthetically that “at this time it had never entered into my heart that all [churches] were wrong,” although in 1832 he said that as early as 1818 he had already concluded that all the churches had “apostatized” and that “there was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ.”41 Despite the chronological revisionism, Joseph had not been concerned about which church was true in 1818, 1820, or 1823—at least not to the extent that he would be in 1824-25. True, he may have decided at an early age that the religious world was corrupt, but at that time, his conclusion would have conformed to the religious views of both parents. With the conversion of Lucy and the others, the situation changed so that he was now forced to choose sides. In this context, the subject of which church was true became extremely important.
The fact that Joseph twice lifted the revival out of its historical context, pushing it back to 1823, then to 1820, indicates that he considered the revival of 1824-25 important to his genesis as a prophet. It seems evident that his quest for the true church began in 1824-25, not in 1820. The emotions and feelings he describes in his 1838 account are probably genuine, even though they are out of context and assigned to an earlier period: “In the midst of this war of words, and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself, what is to be done? Who of all these parties are right? Or are they all wrong together? And if any one of them be right which is it? And how shall I know it?”42
Lucy recalled that her husband attended one meeting with her and refused to return, while young Joseph “refused from the first to attend the meeting with us.”43 Her comment may reflect her son’s feelings about Presbyterianism rather than religion in general. Like his father, he may have been angered by the Reverend Stockton’s comments [p. 61]about Alvin. Lucy remembered Joseph saying, “I do not wish to prevent you from going to meeting or joining any church you like or any of the family who desire the like, only do not ask me to do so for I do not wish to go.” While Joseph did not oppose their choice to join the Presbyterian church, he nevertheless tried to dissuade them from their course. “It will do you no hurt to join them,” Joseph said, “but you will not stay with them long for you are mistaken in them; you do not know the wickedness of their hearts.”44 Lucy detected this cynicism and her son’s withdrawal from organized religion, remembering that Joseph said: “I will take my Bible and go out into the woods and learn more in two hours than you could if you were to go to meeting two years.”45
One day Joseph announced to his family, “I will … give you an example and you may set it down as prophecy.” He mentioned Henry Jessup, a Presbyterian elder who went by the title of deacon. “Now you look at deacon Jessup,” he said, “and you hear him talk very piously. Well you think he is a very good man but suppose that one of his poor neighbors owed him the value of one cow. This man has eight small children. Suppose the poor man should be taken sick and die leaving his wife with one cow but destitute of every means of support for herself and family. Now I tell you that deacon Jessup, religious as he is, would not hesitate to take the last cow from the widow and orphans rather than lose the debt although he has an abundance of everything.” At the time, Joseph’s prediction seemed “impossible” to Lucy, who had observed Jessup’s apparent kindness toward the needy as Palmyra’s “Overseer of the Poor.”46 Nevertheless, Lucy reported that “it was not one year from the time in which it was spoken when we saw the very thing that was told transpire before our eyes.”47
Lucy’s remark that “we saw” Joseph’s prediction fulfilled “before our eyes” suggests immediacy that could imply their neighbor and friend, Abigail Saunders, whose husband, Enoch, died on 10 October 1825.48 It is unknown how many children Abigail had, but the 1820 census lists seven.49 According to the testimony of Enoch’s sons, Lorenzo, Benjamin, and Orlando, the Smiths were in constant attendance during their father’s illness.50 The Saunderses may have been Presbyterian. Lorenzo said that “the first time I ever went to Sabbath school I went with young Joe Smith at the old Presbyterian church.”51 Joseph’s prediction was perhaps made while Enoch was on his deathbed and he simply deduced how Jessup would handle the outstanding debt.52
Despite the image he projected as a public official and church leader, Jessup was no doubt miserly where his own economic welfare was at stake. Hypocrisy was among Joseph’s favorite subjects. At age twelve, he had concluded that members of the various sects “did not adorn their profession by a holy walk and godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository.”53 Joseph seemed [p. 62]to feel keenly the violation of “pure religion” where the poor were treated badly.54 Of course, this was the idealized assessment of youth and probably tempered over time.55 Indeed, Jessup’s behavior is less extraordinary than Joseph’s assumption that creditors forgive the debts of the deceased. Disillusionment can only follow such unrealistic expectations.
It is possible that Joseph’s statement about Jessup was not originally intended to be a “prophecy” and was simply an offhand remark. When Lucy noticed that Jessup was displaying what she considered bad behavior, she was surprised but did not immediately count it as fulfilled prophecy either. It was not until much later, after she had more fully accepted her son’s spiritual gifts and gained an understanding of the nature of his mission, that she described it as an inspired utterance. In such instances, it is not uncommon for people to later ascribe more specificity to a prediction than was originally involved. The overarching term for this is “retrospective falsification,” where a story about some extraordinary event is embellished in the retelling to emphasize favorable points and diminish unfavorable ones.56 It does not take twenty years, as in Lucy’s case, to see the facts start to blur; it can happen at the time of, or immediately following, an event. If Smith stated his prediction about Jessup in ambiguous terms, he took advantage of the fact that the Palmyra merchant had many people in his debt and therefore innumerable opportunities for his stinginess to appear.
Religious discussion in the Smith household undoubtedly reached unprecedented intensity after Lucy, Hyrum, Samuel, and Sophronia joined the Palmyra Presbyterian church. Lucy’s pressure would have been especially irritating to Joseph Sr. because of his ill feelings toward the Reverend Stockton. Moreover, Lucy’s concession that Joseph Sr. had not forbidden her from becoming Presbyterian should not be mistaken as approval. Her husband would not have been happy seeing his wife and children joining the very church that was headed by a minister he despised.
Family conversation during this period no doubt centered on two volatile issues. First, the fate of Alvin; perhaps unspoken but present as an underlying theme would have been whether Alvin had in fact gone to hell as Stockton implied. Did the subsequent membership of Lucy and the others in the Presbyterian church show agreement with the minister concerning Alvin’s eternal destination? Had his words about Alvin contributed to their own conversions? Or were they perhaps conflicted about the matter? Regardless, Alvin’s fate would have raised the stakes in the debate over religion in the Smith household and would have served to highlight differences between Joseph Sr.’s Universalism and Lucy’s Calvinism.
Second, the authority of Joseph Sr.’s dreams and Joseph Jr.’s visions which, while not specifically stating that all churches were false, indicated that the entire religious [p. 63]world was spiritually moribund and under condemnation. When Lucy joined the Presbyterian church, she ignored the import of these revelations. Her point that neither Joseph nor her husband forbade her from joining the church obscures the fact that there was conflict over the matter. It tells us only that the two Josephs were not overbearing. It does not tell what Lucy’s disposition was toward the views of her husband and son. However, we get an indirect glimpse into Lucy’s attitude when she quotes young Joseph saying, “You will not stay with them long for you are mistaken in them; you do not know the wickedness of their hearts.”57 This implies not only conflict but a steely resolve on Lucy’s part. The fulfillment of Joseph’s prediction about Jessup failed to convince her. Indeed, she and the others continued their regular attendance at church until about September 1828.
Joseph Jr. had not anticipated the shifting sands on which he would have to contend for his family’s devotion. None of his visions had prohibited Lucy and the others from joining a church, contrary to his later claim. He had criticized “professors of religion” for being uninspired hypocrites, but he had not said anything about the churches or religious systems themselves. Thus, not only were Lucy and the others at liberty to join the Presbyterian church, Joseph himself was free to explore Methodism. His discussion with his mother was not about whether Presbyterianism was a false religion. His contention was about the sincerity of its leaders, something she obviously disagreed with.
No matter how anachronistic Smith’s later story of the revival and his quest for the true church, the sequencing of events remained constant. There was a revival, followed by his family’s conversion to Presbyterianism, followed by confusion over which church was right, then a determination to join none of them. This was Joseph’s emotional chronology which, when placed in the historical setting of the 1824-25 revival, enables one to look not to 1820 or 1823 but to 1825 and beyond for the decisive moments when his claims became prohibitive of other sects and he assumed the task of founding the only true church.
His ideas about the churches evolved as his own understanding of his mission developed. For some time, Joseph saw his mission in terms of a spiritual “reformation” among the existing churches.58 In the process of translating the Book of Mormon, he determined instead to establish a “new and everlasting covenant” that would supersede all others.59 Yet, it was not until he began to claim unique authority in the early to mid-1830s that the exclusivity of his message became clear.60 Upon reflection, he may have decided that the answer had been there all the time and he had simply misunderstood it. In telling the story years later, he made explicit what had been implied. Regardless, his own behavior at the time—specifically his flirtation with Methodism—suggests that he had not yet resolved the issue of which church was right.
[p. 64]His eventual estrangement from Methodism may have been a decision arrived at mutually. According to Joseph’s 1838 narrative, he had occasion to share his first vision with “one of the Methodist preachers who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement.”61 If the minister referred to by Smith was not George Lane, whose preaching had instigated the revival, it may have been Willard Chase, whom Lucy described as a “Methodist class leader.”62 Nonetheless, Joseph said he was not prepared for the minister’s reaction: “I was greatly surprised at his behavior, he treated my communication not only lightly but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there was no such thing as visions or revelations in these days, that all such things had ceased with the apostles and that there never would be any more of them.”63
It is surprising that he would not anticipate this reaction. According to his own later account, he said that Jesus had declared to him that all the churches were false, that their professors were hypocrites, and that the wicked would soon be destroyed. Little wonder that a minister would disagree with this. But in fact, these details were certainly introduced retrospectively. It would have been unusual for a minister to promote spiritual manifestations in a revival and then denounce them to a potential convert—and not only denounce Joseph’s own vision but all “visions and revelations” since the apostolic dispensation.
Generally, nothing in the earliest recital of Smith’s first vision, written in 1832, would have evoked this kind of reaction or the kind of persecution from the community that Smith described. Indeed, his claim to have seen Jesus was an expectation of revivalists. Even the premillennialist claim that the entire world was under sin and about to be destroyed was not unique.64 However, placing Smith’s conversation with the minister in the context of the 1824-25 revival and the possibility that Smith actually related his 1823 and 1824 encounters with the heavenly messenger on the hill, the minister’s reaction begins to make sense. While the preacher would have found little to condemn in Jesus forgiving a teenager of his sins, he certainly would have objected to an encounter with a treasure guardian and the promise of new canon to supplant the primacy of the Bible.
Working on his history in 1838, Smith made much of his early persecutions as he encouraged his besieged followers in Missouri. “And though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision,” he declared, “yet it was true and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart, why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision, ‘and who am I that I can withstand God’ or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen”?65 Unlike the minister who believed that Smith had been deceived by Satan, this group of “persecutors” goes further in accusing Smith of lying. In describing this kind of persecution, Smith may have been alluding to his legal troubles in South Bainbridge, New York, in March 1826, where his machinations with a seer stone were condemned as fraudulent.66 His statement that he “felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa” (cf. Acts 26) hints that he drew on a courtroom drama.
He undoubtedly exaggerated the extent and severity of his early persecution when he declared: “Though I was an obscure boy … of no consequence in the world [it was remarkable that] men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me and create a hot persecution, and this was common among all the sects: all united to persecute me.”67 This more accurately described Joseph’s post-1827 experiences after he announced his religious intentions. Prior to 1827, his “persecutions” were a result of his activities as a treasure seer. Upon further reflection, he added another statement to his history that greatly expanded his early experiences: “It seemed as though the adversary was aware at a very early period of my life that I was destined to prove a disturber and annoyer of his kingdom, or else why should the powers of darkness combine against me, why the oppression and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?”68 He seems to allude to the hardships and misfortunes his family endured in Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. Of course, many families in early America were similarly situated and experienced the same kinds of difficulties, but they did not produce a prophet and had no reason to interpret their afflictions as satanic opposition. As descendants of Puritans, most New Englanders would have more likely interpreted adversity as a sign of God’s disapproval. Smith’s 1838 reflection was designed to inspire his followers to endure persecution rather than to give a precise history of his life.
Whether or not Smith experienced significant religious persecution during any early period of his life is open to question, but certainly he emerged from his revival experience with a bitterness toward the professional clergy, whom he likely blamed for his family’s division, as well as with a hatred of sectarian polarization. Prior to the 1824-25 revival, his task seemed simple: convince his father to forsake Universalism. Now, with the conversion of his mother and other family members, this would be more difficult. It was clear that his father would neither join the Presbyterian church nor deny his own dreams, so Joseph Jr. needed to rescue his mother and siblings from sectarianism. More than anything, the revival made Joseph aware that he did not have a place in that world. It may be that he temporarily gave up in despair, abandoning both organized religion and any hope of reuniting his family. Regardless, he soon retreated to what had given him a sense of power and control: treasure-seeing. He re-embraced it with a vengeance.
In the fall of 1825, he sent Hyrum to borrow back the stone from Willard Chase. [p. 66]Chase said that Hyrum came to him claiming that Joseph needed it to “accomplish some business of importance, which could not very well be done without the aid of the stone.” Perhaps Hyrum was sent because, as previously suggested, Joseph had had a falling out with Chase over the visions Joseph had had which blurred the boundary between Christianity and the occult. Chase was apprehensive about Hyrum’s request, but Hyrum persisted and promised to return the stone. Chase knew that Hyrum had recently made a “profession of religion,” so he handed the stone to him. He would never see the stone again.69
As September 1825 neared, Joseph seemed to entertain the idea that fellow treasure seer Samuel T. Lawrence might be a good candidate for Alvin’s substitute.70 At least, his close friendship with Lawrence led Willard Chase to arrive at such a conclusion. Smith seemed to trust Lawrence with information he otherwise withheld from treasure seekers, even showing him the location of the gold plates. However, Smith quickly learned that Lawrence was a shrewd competitor.
When he showed Lawrence the location of the plates, the latter apparently had brought his own seer stone, for Chase said that Lawrence asked Smith “if he had ever discovered anything with the plates of gold.” Smith said, “no.” Lawrence then asked him to “look in his stone, to see if there was anything with them.” Joseph looked but said he could not see anything. Lawrence told him to “look again, and see if there was not a large pair of specks with the plates.” Smith “looked and soon saw a pair of spectacles, the same with which Joseph says he translated the Book of Mormon.” This became an added element that would subsequently play a brief role in Smith’s translation of the gold plates. “Not long after this,” according to Chase, “Joseph altered his mind, and said L[awrence]. was not the right man, nor had he [Joseph] told him the right place.”71
Of course, Joseph had no intention of making Lawrence—his rival—a substitute for Alvin. More likely, Joseph hoped that he could induce his fellow seer to see the plates and thereby verify Joseph’s gift and diffuse the accusation that his visions were of the devil. If he could not get the plates, he would at least get testimony of their existence. If this was his intent, he would not have anticipated Lawrence’s response. His friend not only confirmed the existence of the plates but sought to establish his own seeric abilities above and beyond Smith’s. Joseph would not get what he wanted from Lawrence without a price. He had no choice but to confirm, albeit reluctantly, the existence of the spectacles Lawrence said he saw. Thus, Joseph received his first witness to the existence of the plates and Lawrence secured from Joseph a testimony of his own exceptional gift. Joseph had much to learn from the older, more experienced seers.72
Lawrence evidently understood that the plates were religious in nature and advised [p. 67]Joseph to delay bringing them forth until the revival fires had cooled. During their 1825 visit to the hill, Chase said, “Lawrence told [Smith] it would not be prudent to let these plates be seen for about two years, as it would make a great disturbance in the neighborhood.”73 Perhaps Lawrence knew that a religious book found through divination and necromancy would disturb the local religious equilibrium. Joseph’s conversation with a minister had already proven the accuracy of Lawrence’s supposition. Unable to comply with the messenger’s requirement, Smith likely made no effort in 1825 or 1826 to get the plates.
With two individuals outside his family circle—Lawrence and the minister—Joseph had now gone public with his story. In one instance, his treasure seeking tale was greeted by condemnation. But this only enhanced his reputation as a visionary treasure seer and gave him the prestige he sought in a subculture he was more familiar with and that was accepting of his claims.
1. O[rsamus]. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, NY: William Alling, 1851), 213 (cf. Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 3:48; hereafter EMD). However, one wonders if turnips would have been green in November.
2. Lucy is probably mistaken in naming Dr. Greenwood as the attending physician. There are no Greenwoods listed in the 1820 or 1830 censuses for either Wayne or Ontario Counties. She may have confused the physician with John Greenwood who became the Smiths’ land agent the following year.
11. “W[illia]m. B. Smith’s last Statement,” [John W. Peterson to Editor], Zion’s Ensign (Independence, MO) 5 (13 Jan. 1894): 6 (EMD 1:513). William named Stockton, who did not receive his commission until February 1824. But Stockton evidently made frequent visits to Palmyra before his commission, speaking to the Youth Missionary Society in October 1822 and performing a wedding on 26 November 1823, only days after Alvin’s funeral, as well as conducting several other services in December 1823 and January 1824 (see Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 [Spring 1969]: 63; H. Michael Marquardt and Wesley P. Walters, Inventing Mormonism: Tradition and the Historical Record [San Francisco: Smith Research Associates, 1994], 20).
14. L. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 52 (EMD 1:312). The circumstances of Alvin’s death may have engendered a hostility in Joseph toward physicians that he evidently harbored through the remainder of his life. He may have had Alvin in mind when he stated in 1843: “A calomel doctor will give you calomel to cure a sliver in the big toe and does not stop to know whether the stomach is empty or not, [for] calomel on an empty stomach will kill the patient; and the lobelia doctors will do the same. Point me out a patient and I will tell you whether calomel or lobelia will kill him or not” (Joseph Smith, Journal , 132-33, entry of 13 Apr. 1843, LDS Church Archives; cf. Scott H. Faulring, ed., An American Prophet’s Record: The Diaries and Journals of Joseph Smith [Salt Lake City: Signature Books in association with Smith Research Associates, 1987], 363). Commenting on the malpractice of one herbal doctor, Smith also said in 1843: “Curse the doctors. If a doctor should do so by me, I would kill him if I could” (J. Smith, Journal [1842-43], 240, entry of 2 Mar. 1843; cf. Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 319).
17. Wayne Sentinel, 29 Sept. 1824 (EMD 2:217-18). This announcement appeared in six consecutive issues of the Sentinel as a paid advertisement: 29 Sept. 1824; 6, 13, 20, 27 Oct. 1824; and 3 Nov. 1824.
18. Willard Chase, ca. 11 Dec. 1833, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 243 (EMD 2:68). Joseph Knight’s version differs slightly, stating that Smith “looked in his glass and found it was Emma Hale, daughter of old Mr. [Isaac] Hale of Pennsylvania” (Joseph Knight, “Manuscript of the History of Joseph Smith,” 1, LDS Church Archives [EMD 4:13]). Because Joseph did not meet Emma until about November 1825, Knight’s account probably reflects a post-1827 understanding. Knight compounds his mistake when he claims that Emma was “a girl that [Joseph] had seen before, for he had been down there before with me.” Not until the end of 1825 was Smith introduced to the Knight family by their mutual acquaintance Josiah Stowell (see chapter 6 of this volume). For other sources that name Emma Hale as Alvin’s substitute, see Henry Harris, Statement, ca. 1833, Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 252 (EMD 2:76); Lorenzo Saunders, interviewed by E. L. Kelley, 12 Nov. 1884, 16, E. L. Kelley Papers, “Miscellany,” Community of Christ (formerly RLDS Church) Archives, Independence, MO (EMD 2:159).
20. In 1838 Smith asserted that the angel commanded him in 1823 to return to the hill “precisely in one year from that time, and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates. Accordingly as I had been commanded I went at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there and received instruction and intelligence from him” (Joseph Smith, Manuscript History, 1839, Book A-1, 7, LDS Church Archives [EMD 1:67]).
24. The idea that 22 September was of little significance to Lucy and the others in 1827 suggests the possibility that Joseph’s original visit to the hill in 1823 may not have been on 22 September, but only about that time, and that Alvin’s exhumation on 25 September 1824 may bear more directly on Smith’s visit to the hill than is at first apparent.
27. For Lane’s description of the Palmyra revival, see Methodist Magazine 8 (Apr. 1825): 159-60. On George Lane, see Larry C. Porter, “Reverend George Lane—Good ‘Gifts,’ Much ‘Grace,’ and Marked ‘Usefulness,’” Brigham Young University Studies 9 (Spring 1969): 321-40.
33. O[rsamus]. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, 214 (EMD 3:50). The Methodists did not acquire their property in the woods on the Vienna Road until July 1821 (see Wesley P. Walters, “A Reply to Dr. Bushman,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 [Spring 1969]: 99).
35. Pomeroy Tucker, Origin, Rise, and Progress of Mormonism (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1867), 18 (EMD 3:94). See also Lockwood R. Doty, History of the Genesee Country, 4 vols. (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1925), 1:56, which follows Tucker but assigns the date 1824-25 (EMD 3:399-401).
36. According to Chase, “After obtaining the stone, he began to publish abroad what wonders he could discover by looking in it, and made so much disturbance among the credulous part of [the] community, that I ordered the stone to be returned to me again. He had it in his possession about two years [1822-24]” (W. Chase, ca. 11 Dec. 1833, in Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 241 [EMD 2:66]).
39. Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Dec. 1834, “Letter III,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (Dec. 1834): 42 (EMD 2:424); and Oliver Cowdery to W. W. Phelps, Feb. 1835, “Letter IV,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 1 (Feb. 1835): 78 (EMD 2:427).
50. Orlando Saunders said that the Smiths “were the best family in the neighborhood in case of sickness; one was at my house nearly all the time when my father died” (William H. Kelley, “The Hill Cumorah, and the Book of Mormon,” Saints’ Herald 28 [1 June 1881]: 165 [EMD 2:103]). Lorenzo also remembered that the Smiths “were kind neighbors in sickness; and Hyrum Smith in particular when my father died he was at our house all the time” (Lorenzo Saunders, Interview, 12 Nov. 1884, 12, [EMD 2:156]). Benjamin Saunders said of Joseph Sr., “The old man stood by my Father when he breathed his last” (Benjamin Saunders, interviewed by William H. Kelley, ca. Sept. 1884, 30, “Miscellany,” Community of Christ Archives [EMD 2:139]).
52. That Smith understood the concept of turning deduction into prophecy, I think, is demonstrated by his December 1832 prediction that the United States would experience a civil war over the slavery issue (Doctrine and Covenants 87; hereafter D&C). This did not occur until 1860 but was nevertheless considered by many to be imminent following the November 1832 Nullification Crisis. On the historical context of Smith’s prophecy, see Richard P. Howard, “Christmas Day, 1832: Joseph Smith Responds to the Nullification Crisis,” Saints’ Herald 116 (May 1969): 54; and Lyndon W. Cook, The Revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith: A Historical and Biographical Commentary of the Doctrine and Covenants (Provo, UT: Seventy’s Mission Bookstore, 1981), 180.
54. See Acts 6:1; 1 Tim. 5:3, 16; James 1:27. The importance of caring for the poor is a repeated theme in the Book of Mormon. Moroni condemns latter-day churches because they “love money … more than … the poor and the needy” (Morm. 8:37; see 2 Ne. 9:30; 28:13; Alma 4:13; 5:55).
55. Describing Smith’s business affairs in Kirtland, Ohio, Brigham Young said patrons of Joseph’s store expected credit and were angered if refused. Moreover, Smith found it difficult to refuse credit or to ask debtors for payment lest they should apostatize (see Brigham Young et al., Journal of Discourses of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 26 vols. [Liverpool: [Albert Carrington, et al.], 1853-86], 1:215; 3:120-21).
56. See Donovan Hilton Rawcliffe, Illusions and Delusions of the Supernatural and the Occult: The Psychology of the Occult (New York: Dover Publications, 1959). For a brief discussion of retrospective falsification among late nineteenth-century Mormons, see Davis Bitton, “Joseph Smith in the Mormon Folk Memory,” in Maurice L. Draper and Clare D. Vlahos, eds., Restoration Studies I (Independence, MO: Herald Publishing House, 1980), 81-87. On the psychic’s use of vague language, sometimes referred to as the “multiple out” technique, see Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones, Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1989), 179-81.
62. L. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 63 (EMD 1:331). Lorenzo Saunders described Willard Chase as “a true Wesleyan preacher” (L. Saunders, 12 Nov. 1884, 8 [EMD 2:152]); and the 1860 census of Palmyra lists Willard as a “Meth[odist] Clergyman” (1860:791). His obituary said he was “formerly a Minister of the Wesleyan Methodist Church, and was an earnest and zealous worker for many years” (Palmyra Courier, 17 Mar. 1871).
64. See Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31-42. On spiritual manifestations in the revivals, generally, see Ann Taves, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999).
70. Chase implied that Smith took Lawrence to the hill in 1825 but did not specify 22 September as the day. This has created some uncertainty about whether the visit occurred at the appointed time or shortly before (D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, 2nd rev. ed. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998], 162). Lorenzo Saunders explicitly said that Lawrence “did not go” to the hill on 22 September 1825 despite having been chosen by Smith (Lorenzo Saunders, Interview, 17 Sept. 1884, 10 [EMD 2:132]).
71. W. Chase, ca. 11 Dec. 1833, in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed, 243 (EMD 2:68). Joseph Knight corroborates Chase’s account that Lawrence had visited the hill, stating that Lawrence was “a Seer and he had been to the hill and knew the things in the hill” (J. Knight, “Manuscript of the History of Joseph Smith,” 2 [EMD 4:14]).
72. Although Lawrence is listed as being in his forties in the 1830 Palmyra census, his whereabouts thereafter are unknown. When Philastus Hurlbut visited the Palmyra area in late 1833, Lawrence was evidently unavailable for interviewing. On 17 April 1833, a “Samuel T. Lawrence” was indicted for “fraudulently secreting property” and ordered to appear at court (Oyer and Terminer Minutes, 1824-45, 92, Wayne County Courthouse, Lyons, NY). It may be that in an effort to bolster his seeric claims, Lawrence resorted to hiding a neighbor’s property and then pretended to find it. That no subsequent record of the trial appears in the record indicates that Lawrence perhaps chose to leave the area rather than face the charges.