When asked how many people attended the first meeting of the Church, held at the Peter Whitmer, Sr., farmhouse in Fayette, New York, David Whitmer replied that “2 rooms were filled with members—about 20 from Colesville, 15 from Manchester Church and about 20 from around about Father Whitmers. About 50 members & the 6 Elders were present.”1
While the April 6 organization of the Church was to meet “the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God” (D&C 20:1), it did not mark the beginning of proselyting. A limited but very effective missionary force had been preaching from portions of the Book of Mormon for a year, beginning as early as April 1829.
Soon after arriving at Joseph Smith’s homestead in Harmony, Pennsylvania, on 5 April 1829, Oliver Cowdery wrote a letter to David Whitmer stating that he was convinced that Joseph Smith had the Nephite records. The Prophet had told Oliver that he should, according to the “will of heaven,” serve as scribe in the translation process. In a second letter to David Whitmer, Oliver wrote a “few lines of what they had translated” from the plates. David said later, “I showed these letters to my parents, and brothers and sisters.”2 Thus, at a very early date, a small segment of the Book of Mormon had reached the Whitmer household.
As the work of translation progressed, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery sought answers to their questions regarding baptism, which they had read about in translating the record. Responding to their supplication, the Lord directed John the Baptist to visit the men, instruct them concerning baptism, and confer upon them the keys of the priesthood of Aaron. This happened on 15 May 1829. At first, the two kept the circumstances of the visit secret because of persecution in their area. A local mob had already threatened them.
Soon, however, the two men felt that the urgency of their message overrode the possibility of opposition. Thereafter they began to “reason out of the scriptures” with friends and acquaintances. Among the first to hear them was Samuel H. Smith, the Prophet’s brother. The pair taught him from the Bible and “also showed him that part of the work which [they] had translated, and labored to persuade him concerning the Gospel of Jesus Christ which was now about to be revealed in its fulness.” After fervent prayer, Samuel accepted their message and was baptized by Oliver Cowdery on May 25. He returned home, “greatly glorifying and praising God, being filled with the Holy Spirit.”3
Immediately after Samuel’s baptism, Hyrum Smith came to Harmony to inquire about the Book of Mormon and ask what the Lord would have him do. Through his brother Joseph, Hyrum received a revelation encouraging him to preach and to assist in the translation. He was urged to study the Lord’s word, including what was being translated, in order to have the Spirit. (See D&C 11:15–22.) He and his wife Jerusha were baptized in Seneca Lake in June.4
Lucy Mack Smith wrote that, during this period, “evil-designing people were seeking to take away [Joseph Smith’s] life, in order to prevent the work of God from going forth to the world.”5 For this reason, David Whitmer moved the translators to his parents’ home in Fayette township. David affirmed that “the translation at my father’s occupied about one month, that is from June 1, to July 1, 1829.”6 David also said that Joseph and Oliver worked from morning until night, even though the weather was very warm and the days were long.7
While laboring on the translation, the two men were besieged by a host of people who wanted to hear about the plates and the doctrines contained on them. Joseph Smith described this situation:
“We found the people of Seneca county … disposed to enquire into the truth of these strange matters which now began to be noised abroad. Many opened their houses to us, in order that we might have an opportunity of meeting with our friends for the purpose of instruction and explanation. … From this time forth many became believers, and some were baptized whilst we continued to instruct and persuade as many as applied for information.”8
Those engaged in proselyting received some direction from the translators through letters. On 14 June 1829, Oliver Cowdery wrote Hyrum Smith, saying, “I write unto you feeling anxious for your steadfastness in the great cause which you have been called to advocate. … Stir up the minds of our friends against the time we come unto you that they may be willing to take upon them the name of Christ.”9 These brethren obviously all had a “cause to advocate” and were actively teaching the doctrines found in the Bible and Book of Mormon. Many accepted the message—estimates of those who were baptized between 15 May 1829 and 6 April 1830 run from thirty to seventy-six persons.10
The early missionaries characteristically used every means at their disposal to share their newly found precepts. Joseph Smith, Sr., wrote his father Asael Smith as early as 1828 to inform him “of some of the visions the youthful Prophet had received.”11 Asael Smith was also apprised that his grandson “had discovered, by the revelations of the Almighty, some gold plates, and that these gold plates contained a record of great worth.” Following their father’s letter, Hyrum Smith and the Prophet himself also wrote to their grandfather.12
Such a deluge of miraculous accounts stirred a terse response from Asael’s son Jesse Smith, uncle of the Prophet. Writing for his father on 17 June 1829, he unloaded his pent-up emotions on his nephew Hyrum Smith, denouncing the Book of Mormon record. His attack, however, reveals that not everyone in the household shared Jesse’s irate disposition toward the story of restoration.13 (Thirteen months later, Joseph Smith, Sr., and his son Don Carlos delivered a copy of the Book of Mormon to the aged patriarch Asael Smith and other family members in St. Lawrence County. All the brothers and sisters of Joseph Smith, Sr., eventually came into the Church except for Jesse and Susan.14)
June 1829 was filled with activities related to the Book of Mormon: The primary work of translation had been completed; the copyright application was filed; Moroni showed the plates to the three witnesses; the eight witnesses handled and hefted the gold plates; and many were taught from the scriptures as they inquired about the “strange matters.”
Egbert B. Grandin finally contracted to publish the Book of Mormon. John H. Gilbert, principal compositor for Mr. Grandin, told James Cobb that, “as quick as Mr. Grandin got his type and got things all ready to commence the work, Hyrum Smith brought to the office 24 pages of manuscript on foolscap paper, closely written and legible, but not a punctuation mark from beginning to end. This was about the middle of August 1829.”15
David Whitmer remembered that the early Saints actively proselyted throughout the entire time that the Book of Mormon was being printed and bound: “In August, 1829, we began to preach the gospel of Christ. … We preached … from August 1829, until April 6th, 1830, being eight months in which time we had proceeded rightly.”16 The Prophet Joseph Smith declared, “Whilst the Book of Mormon was in the hands of the printer, we still continued to bear testimony and give information, as far as we had opportunity.”17
In addition to the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon and the printer’s copy, the disciples often used handwritten excerpts from the record to teach the doctrines in the still-unpublished volume. David Whitmer said, “The Book of Mormon was still in the hands of the printer, but my brother, Christian Whitmer, had copied from the manuscript the teachings and the doctrine of Christ, being the things which we were commanded to preach.”18
David Whitmer describes the growing body of Saints during this period and the blessings they enjoyed: “The heavens were opened to some, and all signs which Christ promised should follow the believers were with us abundantly. We were an humble happy people, and loved each other as brethren should love.”19
When the first pages of the Book of Mormon were struck on the Grandin press in the fall of 1829, still another phase of missionary work began. Many did not wait for the printing and binding to be completed, but instead drew off proof sheets and used them in proselyting. Illustrative of this is the experience of Thomas B. Marsh.
Thomas Marsh was staying with a family in Lyonstown [Lyons], New York. One day the lady of the house inquired whether Thomas had heard of the “golden book” found by a youth named Joseph Smith. He stated that he knew nothing of it but was eager to learn more. The woman directed him to Martin Harris in Palmyra. Thomas Marsh relates what happened:
“I returned back westward and found Martin Harris at the printing office, in Palmyra, where the first sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon had just been struck off, the proof sheet of which I obtained from the printer and took with me. As soon as Martin Harris found out my intentions he took me to the house of Joseph Smith, sen., where Joseph Smith, jun., resided who could give me any information I might wish. Here I found Oliver Cowdery, who gave me all the information concerning the book I desired. After staying there two days I started for Charleston, Mass., highly pleased with the information I had obtained concerning the new found book.”20
Brother Marsh showed his wife, Elizabeth, the sixteen pages, and she believed the words found in them to be the work of God. Others, however, were not as receptive. After receiving a letter dated 25 October 1829 from the new believer, Oliver Cowdery wrote the Prophet, reporting that Brother Marsh had “talked considerable to some respecting our work with freedom but [to] others [he] could not because they have no ears.”21 Thomas Marsh, who would become in time senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve, was baptized on 3 September 1830.
Another person who could not wait for the binding of the Book of Mormon was Solomon Chamberlain, a cooper (barrel maker) from Lyons, New York. In the fall of 1829, by his account, he was traveling westward on the Erie Canal on his way to Upper Canada when he felt constrained by the Spirit to get off the boat at Palmyra. Walking three miles south of the community, he lodged at a farmhouse for the night.
In the morning, occupants of the house asked whether he had ever heard of the “Gold Bible.” The mere mention of the book stirred him to the core. He said, “There was a power like electricity went from the top of my head to the end of my toes.” In 1816, an angelic visitor had informed him that “there would be a book come forth, like unto the Bible and the people would be guided by it, as well as the Bible.” Solomon Chamberlain had since maintained a constant vigil for that book. The angel, furthermore, had instructed him that the gospel of Jesus Christ had been taken from the earth and that the true church would soon be fully restored.
Mr. Chamberlain learned that he was just one half mile from the Smith home, where the “Gold Bible” was located. He eagerly made his way “across lots” to the Smiths’, where he met Joseph Smith, Sr., Hyrum Smith, and Christian Whitmer. Unfortunately, the Prophet was away at the time. For two days, he was instructed directly from the manuscript of the Book of Mormon and quickly recognized that the book was the work he had been searching for.
Hyrum Smith and others accompanied him to the E. B. Grandin Printing Office, where they gave him sixty-four printed pages of the Book of Mormon. Unordained, but with the blessings of Oliver Cowdery and Hyrum Smith, Solomon Chamberlain left for Upper Canada, where he preached the Book of Mormon and what he knew of the principles of the restored gospel to whoever would listen. He observed:
“I took [the pages] with their leave and pursued my journey to Canada, and I preached all that I knew concerning Mormonism, to all both high and low, rich and poor. … I did not see any one in traveling for 800 miles, that had ever heard of the Gold Bible (so called) I exhorted all people to prepare for the great work of God that was now about to come forth, and it would never be brought down nor confounded.”22
Oliver Cowdery also gave loose sheets of the Book of Mormon to his brother Warren A. Cowdery as they came from the press. Warren Cowdery then showed them to others in the town of Freedom, Cattaraugus County, New York. William Hyde, an early proselyte, reported:
“In the year 1830 or 31, we began to hear something concerning the Book of Mormon, and the setting up of the Kingdom of God on earth in the last days. The little information that we gained upon this subject, until the Elders came preaching, was through Warren A. Cowdery, whose farm joined with ours. Warren A. obtained from his brother Oliver, at an early date, some of the proof sheets to the book of Mormon some of which we had the privilege of perusing, and we did not peruse any faster than we believed.”23
William Hyde, his father and mother, and other family members were baptized at Freedom, New York, in 1834.
Apparently, the Prophet Joseph Smith also used proof sheets to spread the work in Harmony. Pomeroy Tucker recorded such an instance, remarking, “The first and second books of ‘Nephi,’ and some other portions of the forthcoming revelation were printed in sheets;—and armed with a copy of these, Smith commenced other preparations for a mission to Pennsylvania, where he had some relatives residing.”24
The Prophet may also have wanted to demonstrate the reality of the forthcoming volume by displaying the pages. In his 22 October 1829 letter to Oliver Cowdery, Joseph Smith explained that the actuality of the book being printed was creating quite a stir locally. He reported, “There begins to be a great call for our books in this country. The minds of the people are very much excited when they find that there is a copyright obtained and that there is really a book about to be produced.”25
Just eleven days following the first public sale of the Book of Mormon on 26 March 1830, the restored church of Jesus Christ was officially organized at the Peter Whitmer, Sr., home. For those in attendance, that great milestone opened the joyful prospect of their becoming members of the church and kingdom of God on earth with all its attendant blessings—not the least of which was a new volume of holy writ, the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus Christ.