Religious Seekers and the Advent of Mormonism
by Dan Vogel
From Seeker to Finder
[p.25]The crucial difference within the primitive gospel movement becomes apparent in the lives of Joseph Smith’s parents. Like other Primitivists, Lucy and Joseph Smith, Sr., were to conclude after years of wandering from church to church that no denomination conformed to primitive Christianity. However, both found themselves at opposite ends of the Primitivist spectrum. While Joseph became more settled in his Seekerism, Lucy searched for a church where she could find spiritual stability. The simmering differences in their religious philosophies came to full boil when Lucy and three of her children were drawn to the Presbyterians during a revival at Palmyra, New York, in 1824. Until then her son’s visions had contained typical Seeker pronouncements about the state of Christianity and had not yet made mention of a restoration.
Young Joseph found the revival disturbing. It not only disrupted the community but divided his family—he and his father on one side, and his mother, brothers Hyrum and Samuel, and sister Sophronia on the other. However, young Joseph’s visions would culminate in a church that would reunite his family, satisfying both his father’s Seeker expectations and his mother’s desire for religious community and stability.
Lucy Mack Smith’s own parents had been religiously at odds. During most of his life, Lucy’s father, Solomon, believed in universal salvation as taught by the Universalists. The major tenet of the Universalists, according to their convention in New Hampshire in 1803, was belief in “one God, whose nature is Love, revealed in one Lord Jesus Christ, by one Holy Spirit of Grace, who will finally restore the whole family of mankind to holiness and happiness.”1 Because of this, Solomon said he “set at naught [God’s] councils and words.” Lucy’s mother, Lydia, on the other [p.26]hand, was a staunch Congregationalist and taught her children the Puritan ethic. Only later did Solomon abandon his belief in Universalism and convert to the orthodox faith, a conversion he described in a chapbook he published, probably in 1811.2
The unsettled situation at home must have caused Lucy some spiritual confusion. When she was about nineteen years old she strongly desired a “change of heart” but anguished over which church to join. Her own expression of her dilemma revealed acquaintance with Primitivistic doctrines and insight into the social consequences of particular beliefs:
If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world; and if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error. No church will admit that I am right, except the one with which I am associated. This makes them witness against each other; and how can I decide in such a case as this, seeing they are all unlike the Church of Christ, as it existed in former days!3
In 1796 Lucy married a man similarly perplexed about religion, although his Primitivism stemmed from independence more than from uncertainty. Joseph Smith, Sr., was more liberal, apparently agreeing with Lucy’s father about universal salvation.4 Joseph Smith, Sr., had been raised by a father whose curious blend of theological views was legendary in his community of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Joseph’s father, Asael, was a rationalist whose beliefs included Universalism and Seekerism.5 He refused to join any of the churches “because he could not reconcile their teachings with the scriptures and his reason.”6 In a letter written in 1799 with instructions not to be read until after his death, Asael explained to his wife and children:
And as to religion I would not wish to point out aney perticuler forme to you, but first I would wish you to Sarch the Sciptures, and consult sound [reas]on and See if they . . . are not Sufficant to Evince to you, that religion is a Necessary theam. [T]hen I would wish you to Studdy the Nature of religion, and See whether it consists in outward formalities; or in the hidden man of the heart.7
In an earlier letter Asael expressed similar Seeker hopes. Asael saw God’s hand in establishing the United States government and believed in the imminent fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy about the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. On 14 January 1796 he wrote to his friend Jacob Perkins Towne: “I Believe [p.27]that the Stone is now cut out of the mountain, without hands, Spoke of by Daniel, and has smitten the image upon his feet, By which the iron, the Clay, the Brass, the Silver, & the gold (viz, all mon[a]rc[h]ial and Ecliesaistical Terony) will be Broken to peaces and Becom as the Chaff of the Summer Thrashing flore, the wind Shall carry them all away that there Shall be no place found for them.”8 According to Smith family tradition, Asael, although unbaptized, nevertheless converted to Mormonism shortly before his death on 1 November 1830. Asael’s son John recorded that his father believed Mormonism fulfilled his Seeker expectations, for his “father received with gladness, that which Joseph [Sr.] communicated; and remarked, that he had always expected that something would appear to make known the true Gospel.”9
In 1802, soon after she and her husband had moved to Randolph, Vermont, Lucy fell deathly ill and made a covenant to serve God if she recovered. When her health returned, she began attending various churches “for the purpose of getting information, and finding, if it were possible, some congenial spirit who could enter into my feelings, and thus be able to strengthen and assist me in carrying out my resolutions.” Her conservative Primitivism is evident in that she continued her search for religious affiliation even though she had already decided no church followed the New Testament pattern. But after some investigation, she was again forced to conclude that “there was not then upon earth the religion which I sought. I therefore determined to examine my Bible, and, taking Jesus and his disciples for my guide, to endeavour to obtain from God that which man could neither give nor take away.”10 One could conclude that Lucy was a committed “Seeker.”11 However, she submitted to baptism by a local minister, saying, “I considered it my duty to be baptized, and, finding a minister who was willing to baptize me, and leave me free in regard to joining any religious denomination, I stepped forward and yielded obedience to this ordinance.”12 Lucy’s primitive gospel leaning was basically conservative, an insecurity about which church to join rather than a belief that ministers lacked authority to baptize.
Meanwhile, Lucy attended some Methodist meetings, and for a time her husband accompanied her. But Asael’s criticism caused Joseph Sr. to stop attending. “I retired to a grove not far distant,” Lucy recalled, “where I prayed to the Lord in behalf of my husband—that the true Gospel might be presented to him, and that his heart might be softened so as to receive it, or, that he [p.28]might become more religiously inclined.”13 Here, Lucy implied that she and her husband disagreed about religion. Lucy had a dream which encouraged her that one day Joseph would hear and receive the true gospel.14
While living in Royalton, Vermont, in 1811, according to Lucy, Joseph Sr.’s “mind became much excited upon the subject of religion; yet he would not subscribe to any particular system of faith, but contended for the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and his Apostles.”15 Joseph Sr. had a visionary dream which confirmed his Seeker beliefs. He dreamed that he was in the middle of an “open, barren field,” where a “death-like silence prevailed,” and all around he saw “nothing save dead fallen timber.” As he wondered about the meaning of this, an “attendant spirit” explained: “this field is the world, which now lieth inanimate and dumb, in regard to the true religion, or plan of salvation.” The spirit then told him that on one side of the road just ahead he would find a certain box, “the contents of which, if you eat thereof, will make you wise, and give unto you wisdom and understanding.” (Eleven years later, Joseph Jr. would open a similar box, the contents of which would give him wisdom regarding the true religion.) As a result of his experience, the senior Smith became “more confirmed than ever, in the opinion that there was no order or class of religionists that knew any more concerning the Kingdom of God, than those of the world.”16
Soon afterwards the Smiths relocated to Lebanon, New Hampshire, where Joseph Sr. had another memorable dream. Again he found himself in a “desolate field,” but this time he saw a delicious fruit-bearing tree which represented the “pure love of God.” As he shared the fruit with his family, he noticed nearby a “spacious building” filled with “finely dressed” people who “pointed the finger of scorn” at them for eating the fruit. But he was told that the building must fall, for it was spiritual “Babylon,” a reference to sectarian churches.17
Joseph Sr.’s Seekerism was not new to Lucy. Her oldest brother, Jason, was a Seeker from age sixteen. He believed that “by prayer and faith the gifts of the Gospel, which were enjoyed by the ancient disciples of Christ, might be attained. . . . He was also of the opinion that God would, at some subsequent period, manifest his power as he had anciently done—in signs and wonders.” Jason was an itinerant preacher and faith healer who became the leader of a communal experiment in the Canadian [p.29]province of New Brunswick. Shortly after his visit to the Smiths’ small Tunbridge farm, sometime before 1804, Jason “gathered together some thirty families, on a tract of land which he had purchased for the purpose of assisting poor persons to the means of sustaining themselves.”18
Evidently Joseph Jr. was deeply impressed by the Primitivism of his parents, especially his father’s Seekerism. In an 1832 autobiography, Smith described his reactions to the various denominations:
At about the age of twelve years my mind become seriously imprest with regard to the all importent concerns for the wellfare of my immortal Soul which led me to searching the scriptures believeing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God. Thus applying myself to them and my intimate acquaintance with those of different denominations led me to marvel excedingly for I discovered that they did not . . . adorn their profession by a holy walk and Godly conversation agreeable to what I found contained in that sacred depository. This was a grief to my Soul. Thus from the age of twelve years to fifteen I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind, the contentions and divi[si]ons, the wicke[d]ness and abominations, and the darkness which pervaded the minds of mankind. My mind become excedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins and by searching the scriptures I found that . . . mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatised from the true and living faith. There was no society or denomination that built upon the gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament.19
Joseph’s description of the apostate condition of the churches is strictly Seeker and emphasizes religious hypocrisy and spiritual poverty rather than corrupt doctrine—they had departed from the “true and living faith.” It was inward apostasy that mattered most to young Joseph. However, from this brief description of his early beliefs, it is difficult to determine how much of the Seeker philosophy Joseph accepted during this early stage of his development.
Despite his conclusion about the state of the churches, Joseph, like his parents, attended and sometimes participated in meetings. Pomeroy Tucker, a resident of Palmyra, reported that Smith “joined the probationary class of the Methodist church in Palmyra, and made some active demonstrations of engagedness, though his assumed convictions were insufficiently grounded or abiding [p.30]to carry him along to the saving point of conversion, and he soon withdrew from the class.”20 Orsamus Turner, a Palmyra resident until the summer of 1822 and acquaintance of the Smiths, claimed young Joseph’s interest in Methodism was more than casual. “After catching a spark of Methodism in the camp meeting, away down in the woods on the Vienna road,” Turner remembered, Smith became “a very passable exhorter in evening meetings.”21 Smith later admitted that his “mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them,” though uncertainty prevented his actual membership.22
What is known today as Joseph Smith’s “First Vision” did not turn him into a Finder. This personal experience, which he said occurred in 1820 or 1821,23 served only to confirm that the churches were in a state of spiritual apostasy. In the earliest account of the vision, Smith wrote:
I cried unto the Lord for mercy . . . [and] the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord … a piller of . . . light above the brightness of the sun at noon day came down from above and rested upon me. I was filled with the spirit of God and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. He spake unto me saying, “Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold I am the Lord of Glory. I was crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life. Behold the world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned asside from the gospel and keep not my commandments. They draw near to me with their lips while their hearts are far from me and mine anger is kindling against the inhabitants of the earth to visit them acording to th[e]ir ungodliness and to bring to pass that which hath been spoken by the mouth of the prophets and Ap[o]stles. Behold and lo, I come quickly as it [is] written of me, in the cloud clothed in the glory of my Father.” My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.24
Although Smith’s vision confirmed his father’s early dream that the world was spiritually dead—”none doeth good no not one they have turned asside from the gospel”—it conveyed no information about a box to be opened or any promise of restoration. Certainly the vision’s account of the apostate condition of the world was Seeker in tone, focusing specifically on spiritual apostasy, but the absence of a restoration concept may indicate [p.31]that Smith did not yet appreciate fully this tenet. In fact, only as the Mormon restoration gradually unfolded did Joseph Smith clearly define the concepts of apostasy, restoration, and authority.
At the time of this first vision, Joseph Smith received neither a call to found a new religion nor a commandment to remain separate from the churches. What mattered was that he had been forgiven of his sins. After the vision, Smith’s life continued as usual—until Smith again felt the need for repentance.25 Meanwhile, he must have been comforted by the idea that church affiliation was not essential to salvation, since he was told that “all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life.” During such complete apostasy, as God confirmed in this vision, only membership in the invisible church could be important.
The event which put Joseph Smith on the road to restoration happened on the night of 21-22 September 182326 when Smith’s second major prayer of repentance was again answered with another heavenly visitation. This time “an angel of the Lord,” whom Smith later identified as Moroni, appeared and declared to him the Lord’s errand. In his 1832 account, Smith said that in addition to instructions concerning the Book of Mormon plates, the angel “revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments and revelations.”27 In his 1838 account, Smith reported that the angel quoted Bible passages concerning the destruction of the wicked.28 Smith was called to translate the Book of Mormon, but again nothing was said about the restoration of a true church or of authority, nor did he receive any commandment regarding the existing churches.29
Joseph Smith did not gain possession of the plates at this time. Instead, he met with the angel at the same time each year until the plates were finally delivered to him on 22 September 1827. Only gradually did Smith learn the religious significance of his angelic encounters. Meanwhile, important events would heighten the Smith family’s awareness of religious issues of interest to Seekers.
On 19 November 1823, Joseph’s oldest brother, Alvin, died. The family was devastated. Twenty years later Lucy used the term “shock” to describe the family’s feelings. Adding to the trauma, the minister who delivered the funeral sermon “intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell” because he was not a member of a denomination.30 Joseph Sr. was incensed by the minister’s [p.32]remarks and ultimately, as Lucy recorded, “refused going any more, either for my gratification, or any other person’s.”31
Alvin’s death thus pushed the senior Smith deeper into Seekerism and increased Lucy’s insecurity. About this time (1824- 25) a revival began in Palmyra, which would prompt Lucy and some of her children to join the Presbyterian church (in which they apparently kept active membership until about September 1828).32 Joseph Jr. followed his father’s example by refusing to attend but told his mother and other family members that “it would do us no injury to join them, that if we did, we should not continue with them long, for we were mistaken in them, and did not know the wickedness of their hearts.”33 Joseph also prophesied against Henry Jessup, a deacon in the Presbyterian church whom Lucy and the others admired.
“You look at Deacon Jessup,” said he, “and you hear him talk very piously. Well, you think he is a very good man. Now suppose that one of his poor neighbours should owe him the value of a cow, and that this poor man had eight little children; moreover, that he should be taken sick and die, leaving his wife with one cow, but destitute of every other means of supporting herself and family—now I tell you, that Deacon Jessup, religious as he is, would not scruple, to take the last cow from the poor widow and orphans, in order to secure the debt, notwithstanding he himself has an abundance of every thing.”
“At the time [Joseph’s prediction] seemed impossible to us,” Lucy confessed, “yet one year had scarcely expired when we saw Joseph’s supposition literally fulfilled.”34 Apparently Lucy and the others had not yet come to appreciate Joseph’s gifts.
The revival which seems to have had the greatest impact on young Joseph and his family was the revival occurring in Palmyra in 1824-25. If the Palmyra revival of 1816-17 influenced Smith’s early interest in religion, he failed to mention it in his 1832 history. Smith also neglected to mention in his 1832 history the revivals in 1819-20 which would have preceded his first vision. When he finally mentioned a revival, in an 1834 history prepared by Oliver Cowdery and later in his 1838 history, the details, including the name of the preacher, were drawn from the 1824-25 Palmyra revival which was so important to Smith’s overall religious development.35
Prior to his visionary experiences, Joseph Jr. had earned a reputation as a seer who could, by looking into a special stone, [p.33]find lost articles, foretell the future, and locate buried treasure. In late 1825 he belonged to a treasure-seeking company which traveled the countryside in search of Spanish and Indian treasure in Palmyra, Manchester, Colesville, South Bainbridge, Harmony, and other places in New York and Pennsylvania. Martin Harris, a prominent member of the community and later financial backer of the Book of Mormon, remembered that the Palmyra-Manchester treasure seekers “were digging for money supposed to have been hidden by the ancients” and that “it was reported by these money diggers, that they had found boxes, but before they could secure them, they would sink into the earth.”36
In early 1827 Smith married Emma Hale, of Harmony, Pennsylvania. That September, Josiah Stowell, Smith’s financial backer in previous digging expeditions, came to visit the Smiths in Manchester, on the outskirts of Palmyra, and to dig for money.37 Joseph Knight, Sr., Alvah Beaman, an expert in the use of divining rods, and Samuel Lawrence, another “seer,” were also there.38 During this reunion of the treasure seekers, Smith came into possession of the gold plates.
Martin Harris later remembered that “the money diggers claimed that they had as much right to the plates as Joseph had, as they were in company together. They claimed that Joseph had been a traitor, and had appropriated to himself that which belonged to them.”39 Smith severed his relationship with his friends and, according to Harris, “said the angel told him he must quit the company of the money-diggers. That there were wicked men among them. He must have no more to do with them. He must not lie, nor swear, nor steal.”40
Matters quickly worsened for Joseph Jr. as the money diggers tried to take the plates from him by force. Necessity finally forced him to move to Harmony, Pennsylvania, near the home of his father-in-law, Isaac Hale, where he was able to work on the translation of the Book of Mormon without much interference.
During a pause in the translation (14 June 1828 to 7 April 1829), Smith received a revelation (February 1829) for his father, which told him that “a marvelous work is about to come forth among the children of men. . . . Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God ye are called to the work; for behold the field is white already to harvest” (D&C 4:1, 3-4). The marvelous work was the Book of Mormon and the call was to be a missionary. The first mention of a restoration of the primitive church was made in March 1829, when God told Smith:
[p.34]If the people of this generation harden not their hearts, I will work a reformation among them, and I will put down all lyings, and deceivings, and priestcrafts, and envyings, and strifes, and idolatries, and sorceries, and all manner of iniquities, and I will establish my church, like unto the church which was taught by my disciples in the days of old.41
This revelation was the first hint that God would establish a church according to the apostolic pattern. However, the revelation was unclear as to the manner in which the church would be restored. It could easily have been interpreted that the establishment of a primitive church would result from a “reformation” in the already existing churches. When Smith edited his revelations for publication six years later in 1835, he deleted this passage and replaced it with one of more definite Seeker leanings. Thus, the Book of Mormon became “the beginning of the rising up and the coming forth of my church out of the wilderness—clear as the moon, and fair as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners” (D&C 5:14). The original revelation had seemed to limit Smith’s role in the restoration to the translation of the plates, as well. “He [Smith] has a gift to translate the book [of Mormon],” God said in the original revelation, “and I have commanded him that he shall pretend to no other gift, for I will grant him no other gift” (BofC 4:2). Later, after Smith’s calling had expanded to include his leadership of the restored church, he altered this passage to read: “You have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you: and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this: for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4). In 1835 Joseph also added two references to a future ordination (5:6, 17) to conform to the concept of restoration as it had later developed. Several events subsequent to the original March 1829 revelation would help Smith define more clearly the concept of restoration and his role in it.
Smith and a new scribe, Oliver Cowdery, resumed translating on 7 April 1829 after a break of almost ten months. During this period, Smith’s first scribe, Martin Harris, had lost the first 116 pages of translation.42 It was decided to continue translating where Smith and Harris had left off. A smaller section of gold plates repeated the period of time that had been covered in the lost translation. What became the first portion of the Book of Mormon was therefore translated last, during the month of June [p.35]1829. The order of translation is important for understanding both the content and structure of the Book of Mormon.43
Although Smith mentioned “the reception of the Holy Priesthood by the ministring of Angels” in his 1832 history, his narrative ended at the translation crisis. Thus no details about the reception of the priesthood were written at the time. However, in October 1834 Smith collaborated with scribe Oliver Cowdery in drafting an account of their receipt of “the holy priesthood” under the hand of an unnamed “angel of God.” According to Cowdery, this took place “after writing the account of the Savior’s ministry to the remnant of the seed of Jacob, upon this continent” (i.e., 3 Ne. 11-28), when it became clear that “none had authority from God to administer the ordinances of the gospel.”44 Smith added details of this event in his 1838 history. On 15 May 1829, he explained, he and Cowdery “went into the woods to pray and inquire of the Lord respecting baptism for the remission of sins, that we found mentioned in the translation of the plates.” While they were praying, “a messenger from heaven,” who identified himself as John the Baptist, “descended in a cloud of light, and having laid his hands upon us, he ordained us.” According to Smith, the words which the angel spoke were:
Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the Gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins; and this shall never be taken again from the earth, until the sons of Levi do offer again an offering unto the Lord in righteousness.45
This heavenly messenger instructed Smith and Cowdery to baptize one another and to ordain one another to the “Aaronic Priesthood”—a dramatic fulfillment of Seeker expectations. Shortly after the visitation of John the Baptist, according to the 1838 history, Peter, James, and John appeared and ordained Smith and Cowdery to the “Priesthood of Melchizedek.”46 However, Smith only gradually understood the exact nature of this restored authority (see chap. 5).
About 1 June 1829 David Whitmer came to Harmony, taking Smith and Cowdery to his father’s residence in Fayette, New York, to finish the Book of Mormon translation. Whitmer later reported that “the translation at my father’s occupied about one month, that is from June 1 to July 1, 1829.”47 When the Book of Mormon finally rolled off the press of Egbert B. Grandin of [p.36]Palmyra in late March 1830, Abner Cole, editor of the Palmyra Reflector, understood that it “corresponded precisely with revelations made to, and predictions made by the elder Smith, a number of years before.”48 Meanwhile Smith was busy organizing the Church of Christ.
According to Cowdery, one of the final and most important instructions in the Book of Mormon included “the directions given to the Nephites, from the mouth of the Savior, of the precise manner in which men should build up his church.”49 In June 1829, Smith dictated a revelation instructing him and others to build up the church by following the pattern in the Book of Mormon (D&C 18:3-5, 30). When the “Church of Christ” was organized on 6 April 1830, it followed this pattern. Smith and Cowdery were first ordained apostles (D&C 21:1, 10-11; 20:2-3, 38), then they organized the church and ordained officers to minister to the members. This was also the pattern of church government for which the Seekers had waited (chap. 6).
In 1966, Catholic scholar Mario S. De Pillis argued that early Mormonism’s success in gathering converts could best be explained by its unique authority claims. According to De Pillis, “the origin and whole doctrinal development of Mormonism under the Prophet may be characterized as a pragmatically successful quest for religious authority, a quest that he shared with many other anxious rural Americans of his time, class, and place.” He concluded that “historians who do not take this quest seriously enough to examine it do not take Mormonism seriously enough for rigorous historical inquiry.”50
Early Mormon missionaries claimed to have exclusive authority from God. For instance, the Painesville Telegraph reported on 16 November 1830 that Oliver Cowdery “holds forth that the ordinances of the gospel have not been regularly administered since the days of the apostles till the said Smith and himself commenced the work.” This declaration proved attractive, especially to Seekers in the Ohio Reserve.
In the fall of 1830, remembered early Mormon convert John Corrill, Mormon missionaries from New York came to his neighborhood in Ashtabula, Ohio, and “professed to be special messengers of the Living God, sent to preach the Gospel in its purity, as it was anciently preached by the Apostles.” They also said “they had with them a new revelation . . . translated from certain golden plates that had been deposited in a hill.”51 The missionaries soon moved to Mentor and vicinity to preach to a group of [p.37]former Campbellites headed by Sidney Rigdon. Here the missionaries found a “prepared people” in what would become Mormonism’s Sedbergh and eventually its Swarthmore Hall.
Rigdon52 had separated from Alexander Campbell over what Campbell described as Rigdon’s belief that “supernatural gifts and miracles ought to be restored” along with the primitive gospel.53 Rigdon believed the restoration of the “ancient order of things” should include such spiritual gifts as tongues, prophecy, visions, dreams, and discernment of spirits. Campbell, on the other hand, declared that such gifts were “confined to the apostolic age, and to only a portion of the saints who lived in that age.”54 Campbell also opposed Rigdon’s plan to establish a communal society in Kirtland. Campbell remained uncommitted on the subject of the Millennium, but Rigdon was a strict millenarian who propounded his literalist views throughout the Western Reserve.55 Because of these and other issues, Rigdon had withdrawn his Mentor congregation from Campbellite fellowship in the spring of 1830, only months before the Mormon missionaries arrived.
After careful thought, Rigdon finally announced to his congregation his belief that Mormonism was the restored gospel they were seeking. His congregation converted almost en masse to Mormonism. Soon, Rigdon traveled to Fayette, New York, to meet the Mormon prophet. In December 1830, Smith received a revelation for Rigdon. It touched on several points which had prompted Rigdon’s separation from Campbellism:
Listen to the voice of the Lord your God . . . whose course is one eternal round, the same today as yesterday, and forever. . . . Behold, verily, verily, I say unto my servant Sidney, I have looked upon thee and thy works. I have heard thy prayers, and prepared thee for a greater work. Thou art blessed, for thou shalt do great things. Behold thou wast sent forth, even as John, to prepare the way before me, and before Elijah which should come, and thou knewest it not. Thou didst baptize by water unto repentance, but they received not the Holy Ghost. But now I give unto thee a commandment, that thou shalt baptize by water, and they shall receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, even as the apostles of old. . . . I will show miracles, signs, and wonders, unto all those who believe on my name. . . . The poor and the meek shall have the gospel preached unto them, and they shall be looking forth for the time of my coming, for it is nigh at hand (D&C 35:1, 3-6, 8, 15).
[p.38]Like Rigdon, other Campbell followers had sought a radical restoration which would include spiritual gifts. Lydia Partridge, a member of Rigdon’s congregation, believed in spiritual gifts and converted to Mormonism because, she said, “I saw the gospel in its plainness as it was taught in the New Testament, and I also knew that none of the sects of the day taught those things.”56 Lydia’s husband, Edward Partridge, shared her beliefs and had already concluded before the missionaries arrived that there was no true church on earth and that all “were without authority from God.” He had further decided that it was “absolutely necessary” for God to “reveal himself to man and confer authority upon some one, or more, before his church could be built up in the last days, or any time after the apostacy.”57
John Murdock, a Campbellite minister living near Warrensville, Ohio, also concluded prior to the appearance of the Mormon elders that a divine restoration of authority was needed. “If they are out of the way as we believe,” he said, “they have lost all authority.” There was only one way God’s authority could be restored: “The Lord must either send an angel to baptise the first man, or he must give a special command to some one man to baptise another.”58 Murdock was not unlike other Seekers who believed in the restoration of authority but were uncertain about how it would be done. His Seekerism led him to await an outward spiritual manifestation that the Mormon missionaries indeed possessed apostolic authority:
I said, if it be so, their walk will agree with their profession, and the Holy Ghost will attend their ministration of the ordinances, and the Book of Mormon will contain the same plan of salvation as the Bible. . . . I did not ask a sign of them by working a miracle . . . For I did not believe that the spirit would attend their ministration if the Book of Mormon was not true, neither if they were not sent forth of God.
When he questioned some of their converts, he found that the “manifestation of the spirit attended the ministration of the ordinance of laying on hands.” After reading the Book of Mormon, Murdock recalled, “the spirit of the Lord rested on me, witnessing to me the truth of the work.” On 5 November 1830, Murdock was baptized by Parley P. Pratt in the Chagrin River:
And the spirit of the Lord sensibly attended the ministration, and I came out of the water rejoicing and singing praises to God and the Lamb. An impression sensibly rested on my [p.39]mind that cannot by me be forgotten. . . . This was the third time that I had been immersed, but I never before felt the authority of the ordinance. But I felt it this time and felt as though my sins were forgiven.59
As a child, Parley P. Pratt, one of Rigdon’s converts, had been taught by his father “to venerate our Father in Heaven, Jesus Christ, His prophets and Apostles, as well as the Scriptures written by them.” However, Pratt reported that his father “belonged to no religious sect, and was careful to preserve his children free from all prejudice in favor of or against any particular denomination, into which the so-called Christian world was then unhappily divided.” At age eighteen Pratt joined the Baptists but felt uneasy about their denial of spiritual gifts. Later, in about 1827, he converted to Campbellism after hearing “the ancient gospel in due form” preached by Rigdon. Although Pratt believed Rigdon preached the true gospel in “form,” he was concerned about the lack of spirit and authority:
But still one great link was wanting to complete the chain of the ancient order of things; and that was, the authority to minister in holy things—the apostleship, the power which should accompany the form. This thought occurred to me as soon as I heard Mr. Rigdon make proclamation of the gospel. . . . These Reformers [Campbell and Rigdon] claimed no new commission by revelation, or vision from the Lord, while they had not the least shadow of claim by succession.
“As none could claim the power, and authority, and gifts of the Holy Ghost—at least so far as we knew,” Pratt joined the Campbellites, “thankful for even the forms of truth.”60 However, when he discovered in 1830 that the Mormon gospel fulfilled his expectations of the restored church, he was baptized. It was Pratt who directed the Mormon missionaries to Rigdon’s group in Ohio.
Given that Seeker seeds had been sown by one as influential as Rigdon, it is not surprising that the preaching of the Mormon missionaries quickly bore fruit. Their success in Ohio profoundly effected the newly organized church. As Mark McKiernan has observed, “Rigdon’s conversion and the missionary effort which followed transformed Mormonism from a New York-based sect with about a hundred members into one which was a major threat to Protestantism in the Western Reserve.”61
[p.40]Campbell was losing followers to the Mormon gospel, not because of the similarities but because of the differences. Mormonism attracted those who, as historian Jan Shipps notes, “followed Alexander Campbell into the Disciples of Christ [Campbellite] restoration and, shortly thereafter, found themselves to be the members of just one more Protestant denomination.”62 Campbell found his followers moving toward a more radical kind of restoration that mirrored Seekerism elsewhere.
The Mormon gospel also attracted others of a similar disposition. Martin Harris said that in 1818 “the Spirit told me to join None of the churches for none had Authority from the Lord. . . . The Spirit told me that I might just as well plunge myself into the Water as to [let] eny of the Sects Baptise me so I Remained until the church Was organised by Joseph Smith the Prophet.”63 At age fifteen, Joel Hills Johnson “read the Bible with much attention, and joy would spring up in my heart with a testimony that the time would come when I should come in possession of . . . the faith once delivered to the Saints.”64 Wilford Woodruff would not join any church until his conversion to Mormonism in 1833 “for the reason that I could not find any denomination whose doctrines, faith and practice agreed with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, or the ordinances and gifts which the Apostles taught.”65 William Huntington withdrew from the Presbyterians in 1832 because he believed “they had a form of Godliness but denied the power thereof.” He came to this conclusion after he had “searched the scriptures daily and found the faith once delivered to the Saints was not among men.”66 Solomon Chamberlain said that an angel told him “all Churches and Denominations on the earth had become corrupt; and no Church of God [was] on the earth but that he would shortly r[a]ise up a Church, that would never be confounded nor brought down and be like unto the Apostolic Church.”67
Mormon historian Marvin Hill identified many of those in the larger primitive gospel movement who were attracted to Mormonism’s radical authority claims. He justifiably argues that “there were too many of the important leaders of early Mormonism who expressed allegiance to primitive gospelism before joining the Saints for it to be a matter of chance, or of no consequence.”68 Indeed, Joseph Smith quickly discovered the truth of the declaration, which appeared repeatedly in his early revelations: “Behold the field is white already to harvest” (D&C 4:4, 11:3, 12:3, 14:3).
[p.41]Because of the similarity between Mormonism and some of the teachings of Alexander Campbell, some writers have suggested that Smith purloined his primitive gospel from the Campbellites via Sidney Rigdon.69 This assertion suffers on several counts. First, it fails to recognize the differences between Campbell’s and Rigdon’s views. Second, Joseph Smith was exposed to Primitivism and Seekerism early in life through his parents and others. And third, Gospel Primitivism and Seekerism appeared in the Book of Mormon long before Rigdon came in contact with Mormonism. Thus Hill counters that the similarity between Mormons and Campbellites is because both groups “shared a common background and a common experience within the burgeoning pluralistic society that emerged in early nineteenth century America.”70
However, Rigdon did influence Mormonism after his baptism in November 1830. The revelation given through Smith in December 1830 defined Rigdon’s role as follows: “Behold, it shall be given unto him [Smith] to prophesy; and thou shalt preach my gospel and call on the holy prophets [i.e., scriptures] to prove his words, as they shall be given him” (D&C 35:23).71 Smith was to receive revelation; Rigdon to interpret, defend, and elaborate on them. Moreover, the influx of Rigdon’s followers and other Seekers provided the context within which Smith’s definition of restoration would emerge (see chap. 5).
4. Orsamus Turner reported that “the elder Smith had been a Universalist, and subsequently a Methodist.” O. Turner, History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase (Rochester, 1851), 213. Tunbridge town records indicate that on 6 December 1797 Joseph Smith, along with his father, Asael, and brother Jesse, signed a declaration of membership in the local Universalist society. See Richard Lloyd Anderson, Joseph Smith’s New England Heritage: Influences of Grandfathers Solomon Mack and Asael Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1971), 106, 207n185, 211n205.
11. See Marvin S. Hill, “A Note on Joseph Smith’s First Vision and Its Import in the Shaping of Early Mormonism,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12 (Spring 1979): 92; and Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 38.
21. Turner, Phelps and Gorham’s Purchase, 214. Turner’s mention of the meeting “on the Vienna road” may indicate a date sometime after 7 July 1821 since the Methodists did not acquire this property until then (Deeds of Ontario Co., Bk G, 345).
22. Joseph Smith, Jr., et al., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev., 7 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1964), 1:3, hereafter HC; cf. Dean C. Jessee, ed. and comp., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1984), 198.
23. In his 1832 history, Smith said his first vision happened “in the 16th year of my age” (Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 5). But in his 1838 history, he said it was “in my fifteenth year . . . early in the spring of Eighteen hundred and twenty” (Jessee, Personal Writings, 198, 199).
25. I have followed Marvin Hill in giving priority to the 1832 version. See “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 15 (Summer 1982): 31-46. My interpretation is similar to that of D. Michael Quinn, “From Sacred Grove to Sacral Power Structure,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 17 (Summer 1984), that “the Sacred Grove of Joseph Smith’s experience did not [p.43]contain nor imply a church, a community, and certainly not an ecclesiastical hierarchy” (p. 10; also n3). That the first vision during the early years of the church was not considered a foundational experience to Mormonism, but rather a personal experience to Smith, is discussed in James B. Allen, “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s `First Vision’ in Mormon Thought,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 1 (Autumn 1966): 29-45; James B. Allen, “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 43-61; Neal E. Lambert and Richard H. Cracroft, “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Journal of Mormon History 7 (1980): 31-42; and Donna Hill, Joseph Smith: The First Mormon (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1977), 105.
26. In his 1832 history, Smith said his first Moroni visit occurred when he was “seventeen years of age . . . on the 22d day of Sept[ember] AD 1822” (Faulring, American Prophet’s Record, 6). However, the date is incorrect and should read 1823, since Smith was only sixteen in September 1822. The 1838 history has the date as September 1823 (Jessee, Personal Writings, 202).
29. In the 1838 account Moroni is said to have quoted from Malachi 4:5 with a change that seems to foreshadow the restoration of the priesthood: “Behold I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet: before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” See HC 1:12. Like other additions to the early revelations referring to the priesthood, the above is an expansion and was evidently added to predict the appearance of Elijah in the Kirtland temple in 1836 (see D&C 110:13-16). If Moroni quoted this passage differently, one would expect Joseph to have included the change in his Inspired Version of the Bible. This was not the case, however, nor was the change included when Jesus quoted Malachi to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon (see 3 Ne. 25:5).
32. The records of the Palmyra Presbyterian church which would have given the exact date that the Smith family joined are missing. However, it is probable they joined sometime in 1824 or early 1825. Joseph Smith placed the conversion of his mother and the others during the Palmyra revival (HC 1:3). While there has been some debate about the dating of the Palmyra revival, the evidence clearly supports an 1824-25 dating. Resistance to this date comes from scholars wishing to preserve the historical accuracy of the 1838 history. I have given priority to the 1832 history, which is more contemporary and less institutionally developed, and which has no account of revivals. For this debate, see Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins from the Palmyra Revival,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 4 (Spring 1969): 60-81, Richard L. Bushman’s response in the same issue (“The First Vision Story Revived,” 82-93), Walters’s rejoinder (“A Reply to Dr. Bushman,” 94-100); and Marvin S. Hill, “The First Vision Controversy,” 31-46. Fortunately, the records for the termination of the Smiths’ membership are extant and report that officials from the Palmyra Presbyterian church [p.44]visited the Smith home on 10 March 1830 to investigate their absence. The Smiths “acknowledged that they had entirely neglected the ordinances of the church for the last eighteen months and that they did not wish to unite with us anymore.” See Stanley B. Kimball, “A Footnote to the Problem of Dating the First Vision,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 5 (Winter 1970): 121-23; and Milton V. Backman, Jr., and James B. Allen, “Membership of Certain of Joseph Smith’s Family in the Western Presbyterian Church of Palmyra,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Summer 1970): 482-84.
34. Ibid. Others in Palmyra evidently shared Smith’s opinion about the religious hypocrisy of the Presbyterians. About the same time a letter from an unnamed resident of Palmyra appeared in Buffalo’s Gospel Advocate which expressed the same sentiment (see 9 Sept. 1825, 275). An accompanying editorial stated that “the Presbyterians in the state of New York have carried matters with such a high hand, and urged their claims with so much assurance, that a strong tide of feeling is beginning to set against them” (ibid.).
35. The Palmyra revival of 1816-17 is discussed in Wesley P. Walters, “New Light on Mormon Origins,” 67. The revivals of 1819-20 are described in Milton V. Backman, Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2nd ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 79-89. That Joseph Smith placed elements from the 1824 Palmyra revival in an 1820 setting was first suggested by Dale Morgan (Dale Morgan on Early Mormonism: Correspondence and a New History, ed. John Phillip Walker [Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1986], 247-61) and by Wesley P. Walters (“New Light,” 60-81). While not accepting all of Walters’s conclusions, Marvin S. Hill recently conceded that elements of the 1824-25 revival, such as Lucy Smith and other family members joining the Presbyterian church, were placed by Joseph Smith in an 1820 setting. See “The First Vision Controversy,” 31-46.
36. See, for example, testimonies in E. D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed (Painesville, OH: E. D. Howe, 1834), 232-69; Arthur B. Deming, Naked Truths about Mormonism, Jan. 1888, 21; Emily Blackman, History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1873), 577-82; W. D. Purple, “Joseph Smith, the Originator of Mormonism,” Chenango (New York) Union, 2 May 1877; History of Seneca Co. New York (Philadelphia: Everts, Ensign & Everts, 1876), 129. Smith’s involvement with treasure digging and folk magic is most fully described in D. Michael Quinn, Early Mormonism and the Magic World View (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1987). See also Wesley P. Walters, “Joseph Smith’s Bainbridge, N.Y., Court Trials,” Westminster Theological Journal 36 (Winter 1974): 123-55, and “From Occult to Cult with Joseph Smith, Jr.,” Journal of Pastoral Practice 1 (1977): 125; Marvin S. Hill, “Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties,” Brigham Young University Studies 12 (Winter 1972): 223-33.
42. Harris had begged Joseph to let him take part of the manuscript to Palmyra to show to his unbelieving wife, Lucy, and a few others. At first Joseph refused, but Martin persisted (HC 1:20-21). When Smith visited Palmyra several weeks later, he learned that Harris had lost the manuscript. Some time in July 1828 the solution to this crisis came in the form of revelation—Joseph’s first—which assured him that “the works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated, neither can they come to naught” (D&C 3:1). Another revelation followed (now D&C 10), which provided the badly needed solution: Joseph would translate another set of plates which covered the same period of ancient American history.
43. There may have been a “few more pages” dictated in about March 1829 (see D&C 5:30), but Smith did not start dictating again in earnest until the arrival of Cowdery in April 1829. That the first portion of the Book of Mormon was translated last is held by nearly every serious student of the book. See Hyrum L. Andrus, God, Man, and the Universe (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 90; Stanley R. Larson, “A Study of Some Textual Variations in the Book of Mormon Comparing the Original and the Printer’s Manuscripts and the 1830, the 1837, and the 1840 Editions,” Brigham Young University, M.A. thesis, 1974, 19-20; Dean C. Jessee, “The Original Book of Mormon Manuscript,” Brigham Young University Studies 10 (Spring 1970): 278.
45. HC 1:39. Smith’s version of the angel’s words was first published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons 3 (11 Aug. 1842: 865-66). This was added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876, after Smith’s death (see D&C 13).
46. HC 1:40. The visitation of Peter, James, and John and the restoration of the higher priesthood have received some attention, especially by those who have questioned its occurrence. See, for example, Jerald and Sandra Tanner, Mormonism: Shadow or Reality?, 5th ed., rev. and enl. (Salt Lake City: Utah Lighthouse Ministry, 1987), 179-81. The traditional view is defended by Richard Lloyd Anderson in his “The Second Witness of Priesthood Restoration,” Improvement Era (Sept. 1968), 15-16, 18, 20-22, 24. See also Larry C. Porter, “Dating the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood,” Ensign 9 (June 1979): 5-10.
47. Kansas City Daily Journal, 5 June 1881. See also David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 30; and Millennial Star 43:421, where Whitmer reports that the translation was completed in June 1829.
51. John Corrill, Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints, (Commonly Called Mormons;) Including an Account of Their Doctrine [p.46]and Discipline; With the Reasons of the Author for Leaving the Church (St. Louis, 1839), 7.
53. Alexander Campbell, Memoirs of Alexander Campbell Embracing A View of the Origin, Progress and Principles of the Religious Reformation Which He Advocated, Robert Richardson ed., 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1868), 2:346.
54. In Joseph W. White, “The Influence of Sidney Rigdon upon the Theology of Mormonism,” M.A. thesis, University of Southern California, 1947, 127. See also Royal Humbert, ed., A Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology (St. Louis, MO: Bethany Press, 1961), 67-70.
55. White, “Influence of Sidney Rigdon,” 129; Amos S. Hayden, Early History of the Disciples in the Western Reserve, Ohio: With Biographical Sketches of the Principal Agents in Their Religious Movement (Cincinnati, 1876), 186.
56. Extracts from Lydia Partridge’s Writings, Family History of Edward Partridge, Jr., 5, in Richard Lloyd Anderson, “The Impact of the First Preaching in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 11 (Summer 1971): 490.
57. Edward Partridge Papers, 26 May 1839, LDS church archives, in Milton V. Backman, Jr., “The Quest for a Restoration: The Birth of Mormonism in Ohio,” Brigham Young University Studies 12 (Summer 1972): 362-63.
63. Testimony of Martin Harris, 4 Sept. 1870, LDS church archives. See also Ronald W. Walker, “Martin Harris: Mormonism’s Early Convert,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19 (Winter 1986): 33-34.
67. Solomon Chamberlain, “A Short Sketch of the Life of Solomon Chamberlain,” Beaver City [Utah], 11 July 1858, in Larry C. Porter, “Solomon Chamberlain—Early Missionary,” Brigham Young University Studies 12 (Spring 1972): 314-18.
[p.47]68. Marvin S. Hill, “The Role of Christian Primitivism in the Origin and Development of the Mormon Kingdom, 1830-1844,” Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1968, 59-60. Evidence for the primitivistic leanings of some of the early Mormon converts is provided on pages 56-59.
69. See, for example, William Alexander Linn, The Story of the Mormons: From the Date of the Origin to the Year 1901 (New York and London: MacMillan Co., 1923), 64-65, and George B. Arbaugh, Revelation in Mormonism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1932), 9, 12.
71. David Whitmer believed that Sidney Rigdon was responsible for the introduction of the legal-lineal concept of priesthood authority. See An Address to All Believers in Christ (Richmond, MO, 1887), 64. Whitmer also reported that Cowdery claimed to have been led into error by Rigdon in making changes in the revelations. See letter of 9 Dec. 1886 in Saints’ Herald 34:93; cf. Saints’ Herald, 54:230; and Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844, eds. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 29.