Joseph Smith: The Making of a Prophet
by Dan Vogel
Sometime during the translation of the Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery sent a second letter to David Whitmer in Fayette, New York, complaining of persecution and economic woes in Pennsylvania. Whitmer later recalled that Cowdery’s letter included “a few lines of what they had translated, and he assured me that he knew of a certainty that [Smith] had a record of a people that inhabited this continent, and that the plates they were translating gave a complete history of these people … and told me that he had revealed knowledge concerning the truth of them.”1 Responding, Whitmer communicated his father’s offer of free room and board at the family cabin in Fayette. Near the end of May, Cowdery sent a third letter, at Smith’s direction, requesting that Whitmer immediately come to Harmony to assist them in moving. The latter remembered that this final letter was written by “a commandment from God,”2 which Lucy Smith said came through Joseph’s seer stone.3
Lucy stated that Joseph was fleeing from “evil designing people [who] were seeking to take away Joseph’s life in order to prevent the work of God from going forth among the world.”4 Whitmer said that the reason he transported Smith to Fayette was “on account of the persecutions and threats and the watchings that were going on in Harmony,—men trying to get possession of the plates.”5 In explaining his departure from Harmony, Smith implied in his history that his father-in-law, Isaac Hale, had withdrawn his protective influence. Undoubtedly, Hale had grown impatient with Smith, whom he believed had broken his promise to give up stone gazing. Smith had probably interpreted his promise differently as a commitment to give up treasure seeing rather than working with the seer stone altogether. Alva Hale was baffled when Smith said on one occasion that “‘peeping’ was all d—d nonsense” and on another that his “gift in seeing with a stone and hat, was a gift from God.”6 Undoubtedly, Alva and others in Harmony believed that Smith drew a distinction without a difference. Perhaps Smith relied on wordplay the way he had done with the toll collector in returning to Palmyra with Peter Ingersoll in 1827.7
Whitmer could not immediately leave Fayette because he was detained by farm work. He told Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith in 1878 that when Cowdery’s letter arrived, he had twenty acres left to plow. He concluded that he would need to finish before leaving Fayette. According to Whitmer, “On going to the field I found between 5 and 7 acres of my ground had been plowed during the night. I don’t know who did it, but it was done, just as I would have done it myself, and the plow was left standing in the furrow. This enabled me to start sooner.”8
Recalling in 1918 an interview with Whitmer, Joseph F. Smith said that some had doubted Whitmer’s story and had begun asking questions about it. One had said, “Well, who did it,—who plowed your field?” Whitmer replied, “I do not know.” Another asked, “How could it be plowed at night, and so much of it? There was only one plow and one team, who could do it?” Whitmer’s only response was: “I do not know, I cannot tell you, all I know is it was plowed. … It was a testimony to me that I did not have any business to put off going after Joseph. I hitched up my team … instead of going to work with the plow and started for Pennsylvania.”9
The key to solving this mystery is perhaps in Whitmer’s remark that the field had been plowed “just as I would have done it myself.” Possibly Whitmer had simply plowed more than he had thought on the previous day. Working hard and caught up in thoughts about the miraculous events associated with the gold plates, he may have worked until dark, weary and exhausted, leaving the plow in the field, unaware of how much he had actually plowed. Whatever occurred, it was a welcome surprise for Whitmer, who was obviously conflicted about running off to Pennsylvania and neglecting the necessities of daily life on the frontier.10
The Book of Moroni was probably written during the last days of May 1829 as Joseph and Oliver awaited the arrival of David Whitmer. It is the last section of the Book of Mormon and seems like an afterthought.11 Moroni opens by saying: “Now, I, Moroni, after having made an end of abridging the account of the people of Jared, I had supposed not to have written more, but I have not as yet perished. … Wherefore, I write a few more things, contrary to that which I had supposed; for I had supposed not to have written any more things” (Moro. 1:1, 4). Fearing that he would be detected by the Lamanites, Moroni has endured a solitary life in the wilderness (1:1, 3). However, more than twenty years since writing the final chapters of his father’s book (cf. 10:1//Morm. 8:6), Moroni has presumably returned to where the Nephites were destroyed to add to his father’s record. This situation, together with his previous complaint that the plates were full and he had no more ore to make new plates (Morm. 8:5), alerts one to pay particular attention to the book’s content as a clue to why Smith believed this new material would be important.
This addendum is a short compilation with items relating to church discipline and practice. It includes Jesus’ ordination of twelve Nephite disciples (chap. 2); the manner in which the twelve disciples ordained priests and teachers (chap. 3); the manner in which elders and priests administered the sacrament of bread and wine (chaps. 4 and 5); the conditions of baptism, the practice of excommunication, and manner of conducting meetings (chap. 6); a sermon by Mormon on faith, hope, and charity (chap. 7); Mormon’s epistle to Moroni about infant baptism (chap. 8); Mormon’s last admonition to Moroni (chap. 9); and finally, Moroni’s last exhortation and farewell to his readers (chap. 10). This additional material represents further reflections on church governance—matters that had not been addressed in 3 Nephi and needed to be resolved before Joseph Smith could ordain officers and organize church meetings if the atmosphere in Fayette proved to be more friendly, which Smith anticipated.
The first item Moroni mentions is a clarification of the power Jesus gave to the twelve Nephite disciples and the manner in which he conveyed it to them. In 3 Nephi, Jesus merely “touched” each of the disciples to grant them “power to give the Holy Ghost” (3 Ne. 18:36-37). Moroni reveals that Jesus “laid his hands” on the twelve to bestow “power … to … give the Holy Ghost” by the same manner (Moro. 2:1, 2). Moroni says that Jesus instructed the disciples about the laying on of hands during his “first appearing,” but that “the multitude heard it not, but the disciples heard it” (2:3; cf. 3 Ne. 18:36-37). Nevertheless, it was not recorded by Nephi or included in Mormon’s abridgement. Also missing from 3 and 4 Nephi is Moroni’s claim that “on as many as they laid their [the disciples’] hands, fell the Holy Ghost” (2:3; cf. Acts 8:17-19; 19:6). Instead, 3 Nephi 26:17 mentions only that “as many as were baptized in the name of Jesus were filled with the Holy Ghost.” Smith recounted similarly that when he and Cowdery baptized each other, they were filled with the Holy Ghost “immediately on our coming up out of the water.”12 Apparently, he had yet to think through the formalities of church discipline.
The next item Moroni mentions is the manner in which “the disciples, who were called the elders of the church, ordained priests and teachers” (3:1). Actually, Moroni reveals not only the “manner” but the fact that there were such ordinations, for Jesus gave no instructions in 3 Nephi for calling and ordaining priests and teachers. Thus, we learn for the first time from Moroni that in the Nephite church established by Jesus, much like the church founded by Mosiah more than 150 years earlier, there were priests and teachers in addition to elders. Moroni elevates the office of elder by associating it with the apostles (disciples), evidently wanting it to supersede the office of high priest. Subsequently, in establishing the Church of Christ, Smith will associate the apostleship with the office of elder and assign them the responsibility for ordaining priests and teachers (Doctrine and Covenants 18:32; 20:38; hereafter D&C).
An important aspect of these ordinations is that the authority is derived from the Holy Ghost, charismatically, not from the office itself. Similar to the bestowal of the Holy Ghost, Moroni reveals that the disciples ordained others by the laying on of hands and that “they ordained them by the power of the Holy Ghost, which was in them” (3:4). The elders are the charismatic leaders of the church in the Book of Mormon, as they will be in Smith’s church (D&C 20:60).
The third item on Moroni’s agenda deals with the “manner of their elders and priests administering the flesh and blood of Christ unto the church” (4:1). When instituted by Jesus, the Lord instructed the Nephites that “there shall one be ordained among you [among the twelve disciples], and unto him will I give power that he shall break bread and bless it and give it unto the people of my church” (3 Ne. 18:5). Moroni’s disclosure that elders and priests administer the eucharist contradicts this earlier instruction, expanding it beyond the purview of the one chosen elder to any elder and, beyond that, to all priests.
Moroni states that when reciting the sacramental prayer, one should “kneel down with the church” (4:2), whereas Jesus instructed the multitude to stand (3 Ne. 20:1-4). The confusion is understandable, for whether the church should stand in respect or kneel in reverence was a matter of debate in the early nineteenth century.13 Revival preacher Charles G. Finney remarked: “This has made a great disturbance in many parts of the country. The time has been in the Congregational churches in New England, when a man or woman would be ashamed to be seen kneeling at a prayer meeting, for fear of being taken for a Methodist.”14 In contrast to the liturgical prayers of the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Episcopal churches, the Book of Mormon’s prayers are brief, direct, and simple, as the prayer for the bread illustrates:
O God, the Eternal Father, we ask thee in the name of thy Son, Jesus Christ, to bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it; that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son, and witness unto thee, O God, the Eternal Father, that they are willing to take upon them the name of thy Son, and always remember him, and keep his commandments which he hath given them, that they may always have his Spirit to be with them. Amen.
In light of the way the Book of Mormon mocks the formalized prayers of the Zoramites (Alma 31), it is interesting that Moroni should now resort to set prayers, first providing the exact wording for a baptismal prayer in 3 Nephi 11:25, then an ordination prayer for priests and teachers in Moroni 3:3, and then the eucharistic prayers for the bread and wine in Moroni 4:3 and 5:2. Nevertheless, the eucharist prayer seems to draw on elements from competing traditions and exhibits serious reflection. Rejecting the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the Book of Mormon instructs participants to partake “in remembrance” of the body and blood of Christ. At the same time, the prayer does not completely depart from the mystical tradition as the officiator also asks God to “bless and sanctify” the elements of the eucharist. In Smith’s day, the debate centered on the phrase in Matthew 26:26, “Jesus took bread and blessed it” (cf. 3 Ne. 18:3, 5; 20:3). Methodist commentator Adam Clarke explained that the “it” referred to God, not to the sacramental elements, and branded the practice of blessing the bread and wine as “Popish ceremonies, unauthorized either by Scripture or the practice of the pure Church of God.”15 Because the Book of Mormon mediates between the Catholic and Protestant versions of the eucharist, Mark Thomas concluded that “the Book of Mormon contains a post-Reformation, British or American liturgical form of the Lord’s Supper.”16
The fourth item of Moroni’s discussion deals with baptism, church membership, excommunication, and worship services. Despite the emphasis on charisma, Smith proceeds to take a conservative approach to church governance, especially apparent in this section. Anthropologist Rex Eugene Cooper has noted that the church Smith will organize, especially during the early years, “had close affinity to Congregationalist concepts of church government.”17
The Puritan approach was to gather God’s elect into a congregation—those who had a predestined membership in the heavenly church. Consequently, the Puritans adopted strict church discipline, including “fencing the table,” or permitting only those in good standing to take communion (the Lesser Ban) and outright expulsion of the unworthy (the Greater Ban). Puritans in New England developed a test of faith for anyone who desired membership in the Congregational church. This involved an examination for “saving faith” before the elders and the congregation. If the candidate could show evidence of grace in his life, he could become a member, a “visible saint,” by covenant.18 When an individual sinned or transgressed, he violated not only God’s law but broke the solemn covenant he had made with God before his church. Moroni’s discussion of church governance centers on these same issues.
In discussing baptism, Moroni is not concerned with the authority to perform the ordinance or the manner in which it is performed. These were discussed in 3 Nephi. He is concerned that care be taken to baptize only the truly repentant. Church officers are not to “receive any unto baptism save they came forth with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, and witnessed unto the church that they truly repented of all their sins” (6:2). This practice would be followed in Smith’s church (D&C 20:37), echoing the Puritan test of candidates for evidence of “saving faith.”
Jesus gave the Nephites instructions regarding a closed communion (3 Ne. 18:28-29) but neglected to speak about excommunication, even though Alma discussed it over a century before Jesus appeared (Mosiah 26). Moroni describes how the Nephite disciples strove to keep the church pure: “They were strict to observe that there should be no iniquity among them; and whoso was found to commit iniquity, and three witnesses of the church did condemn them before the elders, and if they repented not, and confessed not, their names were blotted out, and they were not numbered among the people of Christ” (Moro. 6:7-8). Excommunication would become an aspect of Smith’s church (D&C 20:80).
Concerning worship in the Nephite church, Moroni writes: “And the church did meet together oft, to fast and to pray, and to speak one with another concerning the welfare of their souls. And they did meet together oft to partake of bread and wine, in remembrance of the Lord Jesus” (6:5-6). The reason for keeping the church pure is clear when Moroni describes the manner in which meetings were held: “And their meetings were conducted by the church after the manner of the workings of the Spirit, and by the power of the Holy Ghost; for as the power of the Holy Ghost led them whether to preach, or to exhort, or to pray, or to supplicate, or to sing, even so it was done” (v. 9). Ecstatic spiritual experiences are the promise of a pure church, and to insure the continuing manifestations of the Spirit, strict discipline is maintained; excommunication is exacted on those who are believed to be impure.
Moroni’s fifth item is his father Mormon’s sermon on faith, hope, and charity, which Moroni says his father delivered sometime before his death (7:1). Evidently, Smith had more to say on the topic beyond what Moroni previously reported (Ether 12). As with Moroni’s earlier presentation, Mormon’s sermon serves as an apologetic for the Book of Mormon. Indeed, Mormon’s words have particular meaning for latter-day readers, answering the question of how they can know if the Book of Mormon is truly from God.
Mormon previously described his day as a time of apostasy in which “there were no gifts from the Lord, and the Holy Ghost did not come upon any” (Morm. 1:14), a time when he was eventually “forbidden to preach unto them, because of the hardness of their hearts” (Morm. 1:16-17). The circumstances described by Moroni are different and puzzling because his father addresses “the peaceable followers of Christ” who had “obtained a sufficient hope by which ye can enter into the rest of the Lord, from this time henceforth until ye shall rest with him in heaven” (Moro. 7:3; see also v. 39). Despite the historically anomalous setting, Mormon’s words are better suited for latter-day readers than for his presumed ancient audience.
The opening of the sermon is a question: How can one know the wicked from the righteous? Because the ensuing discussion and the apparently defensive tone go far beyond the circumstances that are presented, they must be the result of the environment in which Smith found himself, which at the time he was preparing to leave. Mormon reminds his listeners of Jesus’ teaching that “by their works ye shall know them; for if their works are good, then they are good also” (7:5; cf. 3 Ne. 14:15-20//Matt. 7:15-20). Drawing on James 3:11-12, Mormon reasons:
For behold, God hath said a man being evil cannot do that which is good; for if he offereth a gift, or prayeth unto God, except he shall do it with real intent it profiteth him nothing. … Wherefore, a man being evil cannot do that which is good; neither will he give a good gift. For behold, a bitter fountain cannot bring forth good water; neither can a good fountain bring forth bitter water; wherefore, a man being a servant of the devil cannot follow Christ; and if he follow Christ he cannot be a servant of the devil. (7:6, 10-11)
In other words, as just one obvious interpretation of the message, if the Book of Mormon is good, then Smith is good by association. But how could one know what is of God? Mormon explains:
Wherefore, all things which are good cometh of God; and that which is evil cometh of the devil; for the devil is an enemy unto God, and fighteth against him continually, and inviteth and enticeth to sin, and to do that which is evil continually. But behold, that which is of God inviteth and enticeth to do good continually; wherefore, everything which inviteth and enticeth to do good, and to love God, and to serve him, is inspired of God. (7:12-13)
In other words, whatever defends God and invites people to do good—the Book of Mormon, for instance—is inspired. In this light, the Book of Mormon’s status as scripture would not be dependant on its historicity. This expands what was stated in the Book of Ether, where the apologetic purpose of the argument is explicitly stated (Ether 4:11-12; see also Alma 5:40). Continuing, Mormon reiterates what he has just said in a slightly different manner:
For behold, the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil; wherefore, I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God. But whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him. (7:16-17)
Smith appeals to a common ground—his enemies’ convictions—and asks that they follow their conscience, the “Spirit of Christ.” To those who might accuse Smith of being evil, he would reason that an evil man, or one under the influence of the devil, would not defend Christ and God’s commandments. Through Mormon, Smith seems to issue a warning to his enemies: “See that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged” (7:18; cf. 3 Ne. 14:2//Matt. 7:2). Mormon continues: “If ye will lay hold upon every good thing [the Book of Mormon], and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ” (v. 19).
“How is it possible that ye can lay hold upon every good thing?” (7:20), Mormon asks, then sermonizes on faith, hope, and charity. What follows must be seen as an extension of the preceding discussion. Mormon teaches that “faith in Christ” is the key whereby humankind may “lay hold upon every good thing” (7:21, 25). When Mormon links his discussion of faith with “the ministering of angels,” he does so in a way that is more meaningful to Smith’s readers than to Mormon’s ancient audience. He asks: “Wherefore, my beloved brethren, have miracles ceased because Christ hath ascended into heaven, and hath sat down on the right hand of God?” He answers: “Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither have angels ceased to minister unto the children of men” (vv. 27, 29; cf. Morm. 9:7-30).
Eventually, Mormon appears to speak directly to his latter-day readers: “If this be the case that these things are true which I have spoken unto you, and God will show unto you, with power and great glory at the last day, that they are true, and if they are true has the day of miracles ceased? Or have angels ceased to appear unto the children of men? … Behold I say unto you, Nay” (7:35-36, 37). Those in Smith’s day who believed that miracles had ceased would feel castigated by this reasoning: “If these things have ceased wo be unto the children of men, for it is because of unbelief, and all is vain. For no man can be saved, according to the words of Christ, save they shall have faith in his name” (7:37-38).
Perhaps alluding to Smith’s persecutors, Mormon declares that one “cannot have faith and hope, save he shall be meek, and lowly of heart; … and if a man be meek and lowly in heart, and confess by the power of the Holy Ghost that Jesus is the Christ, he must needs have charity; for if he have not charity he is nothing” (7:43, 44; cf. 1 Cor. 13:2). This last phrase introduces a borrowing from Paul’s writings on faith, hope, and charity:
And charity suffereth long, and is kind, and envieth not,
and is not puffed up, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,
thinketh no evil, and rejoiceth not in iniquity but rejoiceth in the truth, beareth all things,
believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (Moro. 7:45)
Charity suffereth long, and is kind;
charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not
itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked,thinketh no evil.
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth
in the truth; Beareth all things,
believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (1 Cor. 13:4-7)
Wherefore, my beloved brethren, if ye have not charity, ye are nothing, for charity never faileth. (Moro. 7:46)
Wherefore, cleave unto charity, which is the greatest of all, for all things
must fail. (Moro. 7:46)
… though I have all faith, … and have not charity, I am nothing. … Charity never faileth. … (1 Cor. 13:2, 8)
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, … but the greatest of these is charity (1 Cor. 13:13). … but whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. (1 Cor. 13:8)
Again Mormon’s sermon seems appropriate for modern readers preparing for Jesus’ second advent, especially where Mormon says that “charity is the pure love of Christ … and whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him” (7:47), not for the ancient audience Moroni tells us his father is addressing. In closing the sermon, Mormon exhorts his audience to pray for Christ’s love that they may become “sons of God” and that “when he shall appear we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is; that we may have this hope; that we may be purified even as he is pure” (7:48; cf. 1 John 3:2-3). This concern for institutional as well as personal purity might signal Smith’s thinking that a church should be established that would be pure, whose members would be worthy to receive Jesus when he returns.
Moroni returns to his list of ecclesiastical issues, the sixth and seventh of which are presented as pastoral epistles from his father on two topics: infant baptism and the final destruction of the Nephites. As with Mormon’s sermon, the timing of these epistles is problematic. Moroni writes that he received the first epistle “soon after my calling to the ministry” (8:1), but when would Moroni have had an opportunity to enter the ministry? Moroni was young when his father was forbidden to preach because of the pervasive wickedness of his people. These conditions never improved (Morm. 1:15-17). Moreover, Mormon writes to Moroni at a time when Mormon is preparing to battle the Lamanites (Moro. 8:27). This would rule out the seventeen-year period after Mormon resigned from the military, as well as the ten-year period of peace during which Mormon would attempt in vain to preach. The last four years of Mormon’s life are ruled out by the fact that Moroni evidently joined his father as a Nephite commander in the last struggle (Morm. 6:12). Yet, Mormon’s second epistle, apparently written shortly after the first, implies that it was composed during the last years of Mormon’s life when he was about to give the records to Moroni (Moro. 9:24).
Smith apparently had in mind the period just after Mormon retrieved the plates from the hill Shim (Morm. 4:23) and before he resumed command of the Nephite armies (Morm. 5:1), which is between about A.D. 374 and 379 and during the Nephite retreat to the land of Cumorah (Morm. 6:2). The Lamanite atrocities alluded to (Moro. 9:7-8) reflect the situation described in Mormon’s narrative (Morm. 4:14, 21; 5:8-9), but one has to wonder if this was the appropriate time for Mormon to be worrying about infant baptism?
Despite these contextual difficulties, infant baptism was an issue for Smith as he began to turn his own thoughts toward ecclesiastical matters. Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Methodists practiced infant baptism, as did the German Reformed Church of which some of the Whitmers were members. Seekers, Anabaptists, Baptists, and Alexander Campbell’s Reformed Baptists rejected infant baptism.19 However, the view of these latter groups—all part of the primitive gospel movement—is best seen in the context of the general revolt against Calvinism. Under the Puritan system, children were included in their parents’ covenant (“born in the covenant”). When Puritan infants were baptized, it was not for a remission of sins even though reference was made to “original sin,” which led opponents to think otherwise.20 Rather, Puritans baptized infants as a “seal” of the covenant of grace into which they were born by virtue of their parents’ faith. “The faith of the parent,” John Cotton explained, “doth bring the children and household of a Christian, even now in the days of the New Testament, under a covenant of salvation, as well as the faith of Abraham brought his household of old under the same covenant.”21 It was argued that the baptism of infants was justified on grounds that it replaced the circumcision of infants under the old law.22
Children were regarded as members of the Congregational Church but were not permitted to partake of communion or assume the duties and privileges of covenant members until they could demonstrate a “saving faith” in their lives. Because the second generation’s spirituality lagged behind that of their parents, the Half-Way Covenant developed in 1662 allowed unconverted children to retain their incomplete membership after becoming adults. Thus, the “unregenerated” children of covenant members could have their own children baptized if they publicly declared to “own the covenant” into which they had been born and which had been sealed upon them by baptism.
By June 1828, Campbell’s Christian Baptist acknowledged that infant baptism was “now generally discussed all over the land.”23 The Campbellites held that infant baptism, no matter the reason, was a “corruption” of the papacy.24 Campbell, a former Presbyterian, declared on 5 May 1828: “If baptism be connected with the remission of sins, infants require it not; for they have no sins to be remitted—at least the Calvinists and Arminians teach this doctrine; for they say that ‘original sin’ is all that is chargeable upon infants.”25 In 1824, Campbell also wrote: “Can the rite of sprinkling an infant with consecrated water, O! Calvinist! alter the decree of heaven? … Can the neglect of a parent to bring to you their infant offspring, seal the destruction of that infant? Who gave you the right of thus consigning to endless woe unsprinkled infants, and of opening heaven by a few drops of water to those impaled in your fold?”26 Thus, Campbell believed that “all infants dying shall be saved.”27
The Book of Mormon does not explain how or why infant baptism was introduced among the Nephites. Responding to information learned from Moroni, Mormon writes that he is grieved because “there have been disputations among you concerning the baptism of your little children” and instructs Moroni to “labor diligently, that this gross error should be removed from among you” (Moro. 8:5, 6). Because the matter was not contemplated previously, Mormon resorts to direct revelation and receives an answer from God that accommodates nineteenth-century discussions of the matter:
Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance [cf. Matt. 9:13]; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me. (Moro. 8:8)
It was likely this comment about circumcision that led Campbell to conclude that the Book of Mormon’s discussion of “infant baptism” seemed modern.28 Mormon instructs Moroni to baptize only those who are “accountable and capable of committing sin” (8:10), declaring—as King Benjamin did—that “little children are alive in Christ, even from the foundation of the world” (v. 12; cf. Mosiah 3:16). Like Benjamin, Mormon expands God’s mercy to include “all they that are without the law,” arguing: “For the power of redemption cometh on all them that have no law; wherefore, he that is not condemned, or he that is under no condemnation, cannot repent; and unto such baptism availeth nothing” (v. 22; cf. Mosiah 3:11; see also Rom. 4:15). However, Smith seemingly contradicts this principle by introducing baptism for the dead in Nauvoo, a practice for which Mormon’s concluding remark about infant baptism would be equally applicable: “It is mockery before God, denying the mercies of Christ, and the power of his Holy Spirit, and putting trust in dead works” (v. 23).
Mormon has harsh words for those who baptize the innocent: “He that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity, for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell. … Wo be unto them that shall pervert the ways of the Lord after this manner, for they shall perish except they repent” (vv. 14, 16). Such comments could not have been pleasing to Smith’s father-in-law, Isaac Hale, or to Nathaniel Lewis and the other Methodists in Harmony, and the intensity of the language indicates that it was likely retaliatory on Smith’s part. His mother had lost two infants and his wife had lost an infant son the previous year. When Smith predicted that his unborn son would translate ancient records or see the gold plates, he set himself up for criticism from his opponents in Harmony.29 Allowing that he was taunted over the fate of his unbaptized infant, one may discover the source of Smith’s animosity toward pedobaptists.
While a rejection of infant baptism had been implied from the beginning of the dictation (Mosiah 3:16), and Smith’s preference for baptism by immersion was expressed early on (Mosiah 18:14), his and Cowdery’s recent baptisms would have brought these views to the attention of the public. Smith recounted that, shortly after his and Cowdery’s baptisms, they “commenced to reason, out of the Scriptures, with our acquaintances and friends, as we happened to meet with them.”30 These discussions undoubtedly included the subject of baptism, particularly infant baptism versus the baptism of adults by immersion. If Mormon’s condemnation of infant baptism reflects the tone of Smith’s discussions with his “acquaintances and friends” in Harmony, one can understand why he would have been resented and might have needed to vacate his home.
Notice the increasingly defiant tone with which Mormon attacks the pedobaptists and the accompanying anxiety about potential persecution: “Behold, I speak with boldness, having authority from God; and I fear not what man can do; for perfect love casteth out all fear” (8:16). The comment describes Smith’s feelings in Pennsylvania. Mormon, on the other hand, is said to have communicated to his son privately and would have had little to fear from potential enemies.
Mormon’s second letter, written shortly after a tremendous battle with the Lamanites, describes various war atrocities and outlines why the Nephites will soon be destroyed. The scenes are horrific and illustrate the depravity of Lamanites and Nephites alike. They resemble the atrocities ascribed to Indians in Smith’s day, as well as the violence that Anglos committed against Indians. On a deeper level, Mormon’s words show how intense Smith’s emotions over his own family situation were (Morm. 6-7). One is justified in seeking psychological meaning in Mormon’s words, for they are laden with intense feeling and narrate the culmination of family strife that began with Nephi and his brothers. More poignantly, Mormon may point to the feared breakup of Smith’s family, which Smith desperately wants to avert. The language can be seen as a symbolic, unconscious window to the soul.
Mormon recounts his inability to reach his people. “I am laboring with them continually,” he writes. “And when I speak the word of God with sharpness they tremble and anger against me; and when I use no sharpness they harden their hearts against it; wherefore, I fear lest the Spirit of the Lord hath ceased striving with them” (9:4). Nephi will use similar words to describe his experience with his brothers (1 Ne. 17:48; 2 Ne. 1:26). It is not improbable that Smith experienced similar frustration with his family, particularly when he told his mother that Presbyterianism was untrue and that its ministers were wicked. Such bluntness would fail to work its way into his mother’s heart, for Lucy and the others were not dissuaded from attending the local church. Perhaps, to some extent, Smith identified with Mormon’s statement that his people “have lost their love, one towards another” (9:5).
There may be a personal wish in Mormon’s advice to his son: “Notwithstanding their hardness, let us labor diligently; for if we should cease to labor, we should be brought under condemnation; for we have a labor to perform whilst in this tabernacle of clay, that we may conquer the enemy of all righteousness, and rest our souls in the kingdom of God” (9:6). Here one sees a desire to bring friends and family out of a false tradition into the true Church of Christ, thus uniting them while at the same time saving oneself.
In giving an account of the recent battles, Mormon describes how the Lamanites treated their Nephite prisoners, “which they took from the tower of Sherrizah” (9:7). After executing the men, they force the women and children to eat the flesh of their “husbands” and “fathers” and restrict the prisoners’ consumption of water (v. 8). Psychiatrist Robert Anderson sees in this the expression of Smith’s “oral rage”at his father “mixed with the fever, thirst, and torture of childhood surgery.”31 Regarding this same passage, William Morain remarks: “Joseph’s fantasies, played out in his writings, reveal a great deal about the objects of his repressed anger. It is the father who is the most loathed; brothers do slightly better.”32 Joseph Sr. is a likely object of his son’s rage because the father was blamed for the family’s near starvation in Norwich and marginal subsistence at other times. Regardless, the theme of this passage is the displacement of the patriarchs and humiliation of the women.33
Mormon also describes the barbarity of the Nephites, stating that they raped “the daughters of the Lamanites,” tortured them to death, and ate their flesh as a “token of bravery” (9:9-10).34 In describing the sexual assaults on the women, Mormon writes that their Nephite captors took from them “that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue” (v. 9). Given their subsequent murder and cannibalization, Mormon’s emphasis on the sexual assaults seems misplaced. Moreover, his stress on the loss of “chastity and virtue,” despite the forceful manner in which they were taken, reflects the sexual mores of Smith’s frontier culture. On the surface, there may be a condemnation of the American treatment of Indians, but there may also be an exaggerated criticism of how Joseph’s father treated his mother, who may have been pregnant at the time of their marriage.35
Mormon reports that only “widows and their daughters” remained in Sherrizah, but without men, they are “left to wander withersoever they can for food; and many old women do faint by the way and die” (9:16). This describes the state of Lucy and her children when Joseph Sr. moved to Palmyra and likely points to a lingering fear about what would happen to Joseph’s mother if his father abandoned her. Mormon states that his army is weak and unable to reach the women with food because there is a more powerful Lamanite army “betwixt Sherrizah and me” (v. 17). This may represent Smith Jr.’s early feeling of helplessness in remedying his family’s situation, either materially or spiritually.
After declaring that the Nephites are “without principle, and past feeling; and their wickedness doth exceed that of the Lamanites” (9:20), Mormon predicts that Moroni will live to see either their repentance or “utter destruction” (v. 22). In Smith’s view, this was where America had now arrived—his family along with the rest.
Mormon asks that his words not grieve Moroni or “weigh thee down unto death” (9:25). Did the conditions in the world weigh on Joseph to that degree? Mormon encourages his son to let “Christ lift thee up, … and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever” (v. 25). Smith’s faith and his mission were what he held as his salvation. In this respect, his purpose was not only to save others but also to save himself.
Mormon instructs Moroni to “write somewhat a few things, if thou art spared,” and requests that he come soon, “for I have sacred records that I would deliver up unto thee” (9:24). In giving his closing exhortation and farewell, Moroni urges latter-day readers, particularly the Indians, to seek a spiritual, charismatic experience with the Book of Mormon: “And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (10:4).
Smith believed that God’s spirit would ratify his work. As long as he dictated words of truth on theological matters (D&C 9), words that encouraged people to do good and believe in Christ, the spirit of Christ would testify to the spiritual value of the book. Smith was no doubt encouraged that Cowdery received a spiritual confirmation of the Book of Mormon’s inspired dictation (D&C 18:2).
Before closing, Moroni defends miracles and gifts of the spirit, for it is by these gifts that the Book of Mormon would come forth in the last days. His exhortation on gifts borrows from the teachings of Paul:
And there are different ways
that these gifts
are administered; but
it is the same God who worketh all in
all: and they are given by the manifesta-
tions of the Spirit of God unto men,
to profit them.
For behold, to one is given
by the Spirit of God, that he may teach
the word of wisdom;
And to another, that he may teach
the word of knowledge
by the same Spirit;
And to another, exceeding great
faith; and to another, the gifts of
healing by the same Spirit;
And again, to another, that he may
work mighty miracles;
And again, to another, that he may
prophesy concerning all things;
And again, to another, the beholding
of angels and ministering spirits;
And again, to another, all kinds of
And again, to another,
the interpretation of languages and
divers kinds of tongues.
And these gifts come by
the Spirit of Christ; and they come unto
every man severally, according as he
will. (Moro. 10:8-17; emphasis added)
Now there are diversities
of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there
are differences of administrations, … but
it is the same God which worketh all in
all. But the manifesta-
tions of the Spirit is given to every man
to profit withal.
For to one is given
by the Spirit
the word of wisdom;
the word of knowledge
by the same Spirit;
faith; … to another the gifts of
healing by the same Spirit;
the working of miracles;
discerning of spirits;
to another the divers kinds of
the interpretation of
But all these worketh that one and
the selfsame Spirit, dividing to
every man severally as he
will. (1 Cor. 12:4-11; emphasis added)
Note that Smith changes Paul’s reference to the “discerning of spirits” to “beholding of angels and ministering spirits” to better reflect his own circumstance. Note also that Paul’s words about the gift of tongues (glossolalia) and “the interpretation of tongues” are changed to read “the interpretation of languages and divers kinds of tongues.” Smith was thereby legitimizing his translation by means of a seer stone. To those who rejected Smith’s gift—in other words, “if the day cometh that the power and gifts of God shall be done away among you,” Moroni explains, “it shall be because of unbelief. … For if there be one among you that doeth good, he shall work by the power and gifts of God. And wo unto them who shall do these things away [do away with these things] and die, for they die in their sins, and they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God” (10:24, 25-26).
As a final farewell, Moroni calls the Israelite Indians to repent, to embrace the gospel of Christ, and to claim America for their inheritance. Using imagery from Isaiah, Moroni exhorts the latter-day Indians: “Awake, and arise from he dust, O Jerusalem; yea, and put on thy beautiful garments, O daughter of Zion; and strengthen thy stakes and enlarge thy borders forever, that thou mayest no more be confounded, that the covenants of the Eternal Father which he hath made unto thee, O house of Israel, may be fulfilled” (10:31; cf. Isa. 52:1; 54:2). And finally: “I soon go to rest in the paradise of God, until my spirit and body shall again reunite, and I am brought forth triumphant through the air, to meet you before the pleasing bar of the great Jehovah, the Eternal Judge of both quick and dead. Amen” (10:34; cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17; 1 Pet. 4:5).
All the while, David Whitmer was wending his way through New York in a two-horse wagon, traveling on the Old River Road past Colesville and Windsor and then Great Bend, Pennsylvania, on his way toward Harmony. He recalled in 1878 that upon arriving in early June 1829, he was surprised to see Smith and Cowdery coming toward him “some little distance from the house.”36 After greeting his friend, Cowdery introduced him to Smith and explained that the seer had seen Whitmer in his seer stone, which is why they had known he was approaching. In fact, “Joseph had told him [Oliver] when I [David] started from home, where I had stopped the first night, how I read the sign at the tavern, where I stopped the next night and that I would be there that day before dinner, and this was why they had come out to meet me, all of which was exactly as Joseph had told Oliver, at which I was greatly astonished.”37
Added to what Whitmer thought was divine help in Fayette with his plowing, he became immediately convinced that Smith had seen him in his seer stone. Aside from Whitmer’s interpretation of the events, what else might be at play? It should be remembered that where there is a cold reading, if that is what it was, one should not expect accurate details from the beguiled, for the illusion occurs largely in the mind of the deceived who, by the very nature of the experience, exaggerates the details. This phenomenon was observed as early as 1887 by investigator S. J. Davey, who conducted fake seances and then had each person write down what she or he had observed. “The findings were striking and very disturbing to believers,” wrote skeptic Ray Hyman. “Sitters consistently omitted crucial details, added others, changed the order of events, and otherwise supplied reports that would make it impossible for any reader to account for what was described by normal means.”38
Despite Whitmer’s amazement, the situation presented Smith with a favorable opportunity to demonstrate his seeric gift. The route that Whitmer had traveled was not unknown to the seer, who had taken it many times between 1825 and 1829. Moreover, it was common in that day for travelers to keep detailed notes of their journeys, and the names and locations of every inn and tavern in New York were published each year in almanacs, including the names of the proprietors of these establishments. Evidence that Smith had such information is offered by Lucy Smith, who reported that in 1825 Hyrum sent letters to every tavern along the route to Harmony in an effort to contact his father.39
On the other hand, Whitmer, like Cowdery, had traveled this route only once before and was probably oblivious to the fact that there were limited opportunities for watering horses and storing a wagon. Smith perhaps surmised the place Whitmer had lodged the previous night by calculating wagon speed and time of arrival. With this information, he might have been able to calculate where Whitmer would have stayed the first night as well as the approximate time of his departure from Fayette. It is also possible that Smith ran into someone who had seen Whitmer along this major thoroughfare through northern Pennsylvania, which came within feet of Smith’s front door. In a slow-moving wagon, Whitmer would have been passed several times by travelers on horseback on their way to Harmony or beyond.
It may be important to note that Smith volunteered the details of Whitmer’s trip. This information wasn’t requested of him. Undoubtedly, Smith would have been prepared for the possibility of inaccuracies in his reading, just as he had been prepared for the absence of treasures that he had tried to locate. By offering proof of his seeric ability before Whitmer inevitably inquired about it, Smith avoided what could have become an awkward, less favorable situation. Whatever the nature of this demonstration, it was useful to Smith and to his future mission because Whitmer clearly fell under the charm of his charisma.
1. “Mormonism. Authentic Account of the Origin of This Sect from One of the Patriarchs. …” Kansas City Daily Journal, 5 June 1881 (see Dan Vogel, ed., Early Mormon Documents, 5 vols. [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1996-2003], 5:75; hereafter EMD).
3. Lucy Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 98, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, UT (EMD 1:387). Concerning Joseph’s refuge in Fayette, Lucy adds features to increase the providential nature of the story. For instance, she explains that Joseph had never met David Whitmer but does not mention that Cowdery had, and she implies that the offer for shelter was unsolicited.
7. “On our journey to Pennsylvania, we could not make the exact change at the toll gate near Ithaca,” Ingersoll recalled. “Joseph told the gate tender, that he would ‘hand’ him the toll on his return, as he was coming back in a few days. On our return, Joseph tendered to him 25 cents, the toll being 12½. He did not recognize Smith, so he accordingly gave him back 12½ cents. After we had passed the gate, I asked him if he did not agree to pay double gatage on our return? No, said he, I agreed to ‘hand’ it to him, and I did, but he handed it back again” (Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed [Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834], 235 [EMD 2:43]).
8. Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 Sept. 1878, Joseph F. Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives (EMD 5:44). See also “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith,” Deseret News, 16 Nov. 1878 (EMD 5:51).
10. Lucy Smith’s 1845 manuscript includes the earliest written account of the story (L. Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, 98-99 [EMD 1:387-90]), which conflicts in several instances with Whitmer’s account.
11. It is usually assumed that Smith completed the Book of Moroni before leaving Harmony, but Brent Lee Metcalfe argues that it was completed in June 1829 in Fayette (see Metcalfe, “The Priority of Mosiah: A Prelude to Book of Mormon Exegesis,” in New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, ed. Brent Lee Metcalfe [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1993], 433, n. 49). This would explain Moroni as an unplanned addition, and the discussion of ecclesiastical affairs fits well with Smith’s initial activities in Fayette. Unfortunately, the original manuscript, which may contain clues as to when it was prepared, is missing. My discussion puts Moroni in a Harmony setting and treats the ecclesiastical material as anticipatory to the events in Fayette.
13. See Mark D. Thomas, “A Rhetorical Approach to the Book of Mormon: Rediscovering Nephite Sacramental Language,” in Metcalfe, ed., New Approaches to the Book of Mormon, 75. The debate about kneeling goes back to at least the seventeenth century; see, e.g., The Dissenters Guide, Resolving Their Doubts and Scruples, About Kneeling at Receiving Sacrament (London, 1683).
17. Rex Eugene Cooper, “The Promises Made to the Fathers: A Diachronic Analysis of Mormon Covenant Organization with Reference to Puritan Federal Theology,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1985, 1:121-22.
18. For a description of the development in New England of the test of faith in connection with church membership, see Edmund S. Morgan, Visible Saints: The History of a Puritan Idea (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), 64-112.
20. See, e.g., Jonathan Dickinson, Remarks upon Mr. Gales Reflections on Mr. Walls History of Infant Baptism ([New York], 1721), 41, 56; and Joseph Morgan, The Portsmouth disputation examined, being a brief answer to arguments used by the anti-Paedo-Baptists (New York, 1713), 10.
22. See, e.g., Dickinson, Remarks, 41, 43, 51-54, who defends infant baptism using arguments of original sin and circumcision, and Morgan, Portsmouth disputation, 10, 42, 47ff., who mentions that the anti-pedobaptists argued against original sin and against baptism replacing circumcision.
25. Christian Baptist 5 (5 May 1828): 231-32. On Campbell’s rejection of infant baptism, see William D. Carpe, “Baptismal Theology in the Disciples of Christ,” Lexington Theological Quarterly 14 (Oct. 1979): 65-78.
31. Robert D. Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph: Psychobiography and the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 214. “Oral rage,” Anderson notes, “is unrefined, global, all-encompassing anger of a primitive kind, frequently containing images of raw violence. If consciously suppressed or unconsciously repressed, it may reappear in a variety of forms in interactions with other people, from direct explosive violence to more subtle ongoing psychological attacks” (214, n. 1).
34. Richard VanDerBeets notes that cannibalism was “a practice rather more widespread among [North] American Indians than is commonly understood” (Held Captive by Indians: Selected Narratives, 1642-1836 [Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1973], 37, n. 35; see also 37, 290, 360).
35. As mentioned in chapter 1, Robert Anderson has suggested that Joseph Sr.’s 1834 expression of guilt over the death of his firstborn may have been due to his conception outside wedlock (see Anderson, Inside the Mind of Joseph Smith, 17).
36. Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 Sept. 1878 (EMD 5:44); see also “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith” (EMD 5:51). Smith mentions that Whitmer arrived “in the beginning of the month of June ” (J. Smith, Manuscript History, 21 [EMD 1:79]).
37. Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 Sept. 1878 (EMD 5:44). See also “Report of Elders Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith” (EMD 5:51). Whitmer previously told a Chicago Times reporter: “When I went to Harmony after him he told me the names of every hotel at which I had stopped on the road, read the signs, and described various scenes without having ever received any information from me” (Chicago Times, 7 Aug. 1875, 1 [EMD 5:21-22]).
38. Ray Hyman, “A Critical Historical Overview of Parapsychology,” in Paul Kurtz, ed., A Skeptics Handbook of Parapsychology (New York: Prometheus Books, 1985), 27. This phenomenon was also observed among this writer’s friends when performing magic tricks as a teenager. See also my discussion of cold reading and remote viewing in chapter 6.