The Prophet Joseph Smith had known of the reality of God from his early youth. But there were no other witnesses of the Prophet’s First Vision or the ensuing visitations of Moroni. When Joseph Smith recounted his experiences, the majority of his contemporaries did not believe his account. One minister “treated [his] communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil.” (JS—H 1:21.)
Others were more receptive. Joseph’s own family were among those who accepted the reality of his “instructions from the Lord,” and they believed that God would give them “a more perfect knowledge of the plan of salvation and the redemption of the human family.”1 But though the Smiths believed that Joseph had seen visions, they did not share his understanding of the truth. “Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amazing recitals that could be imagined,” wrote his mother, Lucy Mack Smith.2 He was still basically alone as a personal witness of the divine manifestations he had received.
It was not until David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery, and Martin Harris were shown the plates and other sacred artifacts in June 1829 by divine manifestation that additional witnesses were needed to testify of the Book of Mormon “by the power of God.” (D&C 17:3.)
Lucy Mack Smith recorded that, following this divine witness, Joseph told her and his father, “You do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.”3
From June 1829 until his death in June 1844, Joseph Smith knew and associated with many who shared his testimony of truth, but who were also persecuted because of that testimony. Some shared directly in the divine manifestations he experienced. Sidney Rigdon, for example, shared Joseph’s vision of the three degrees of glory. (See D&C 76:22–23.)
Sidney was also in Hiram, Ohio, on 24 March 1832, when a mob dragged Joseph from the Johnson farmhouse. Sidney had already been attacked, tarred and feathered, and then mercilessly dragged by his heels. His head was badly lacerated, and he was unconscious from loss of blood when Joseph saw him lying on the frozen ground. The next day, Sidney was delirious. But despite such persecution, his testimony remained intact for twelve years after that.4
Others shared Joseph’s ministry and his pain in persecution. “I could pray in my heart that all my brethren were like unto my beloved brother Hyrum, who possesses the mildness of a lamb, and the integrity of a Job, and in short, the meekness and humility of Christ,”5 wrote Joseph of his faithful brother.
Like Sidney and Hyrum, many other men and women shared with the Prophet the joys of personal manifestations of truth as well as burdens “almost too heavy for [him] to bear.”6 Unfortunately, far too often only the names of the most prominent are remembered. However, the testimonies of many other Saints who knew and loved Joseph loudly proclaim them as powerful witnesses of his divine calling.
Daniel Wells was among the early Saints who experienced the religious excitement prevalent in western New York in the 1820s. He wrote, “The days of my youth were days of religious excitement—the days of revivals, which so pervaded that section of country at that time—and I can well apprehend the effect these things must have had on the mind of Joseph. … I know how those revivals affected young minds in the neighborhood in which I lived.”7
As Joseph was being prepared to receive a heavenly manifestation, others were also being prepared to receive divine truth. Zerah Pulsipher wrote, “After the death of my wife … I had some anxiety about her state and condition, consequently in answer to my desires in a few weeks she came to me in vision and appearing natural looked pleasant as she ever did and sat by my side and assisted me in singing a hymn. … This hymn which she introduced and sang with me applied to the great work of the Last Dispensation of the Fullness of Times.”8
As Joseph translated the Book of Mormon, he learned of the need for “three witnesses … besides him to whom the book shall be delivered; and they shall testify to the truth of the book and the things therein.” (2 Ne. 27:12.) Others besides the Three Witnesses testified of the Book of Mormon’s divine origin. Mary Musselman Whitmer told her son David of an experience she had one day on her way to milk the cows. She was met by a messenger, who, David recalled, said, “You have been very faithful and diligent in your labors, but you are tired because of the increase of your toil; it is proper therefore that you should receive a witness that your faith may be strengthened.”9 The messenger then showed her the plates.
Other contemporaries of the Prophet Joseph Smith were prepared for the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In 1816, in response to a prayer much like Joseph’s, an angelic visitor informed Solomon Chamberlain that “faith was gone from the earth, excepting a few and that all Churches were corrupt.” The angel told Solomon that the Lord “would soon raise up a Church, that would be after the Apostolic Order, that there would be in it the same powers, and gifts that were in the days of Christ, and that [he] should live to see the day, and 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.” In 1829, while on the Erie Canal, he felt prompted by the Spirit to stop in Palmyra. He walked three miles south of the community, then lodged at a farmhouse for the night. In the morning the house’s occupants asked if he had ever heard of the “Gold Bible.” Solomon later recalled that, at the mere mention of it, “There was a power like electricity [that] went from the top of my head to the end of my toes.”10
He made his way to the Smith’s home, where he told the family of his vision. They, in turn, told him of the Book of Mormon. They spent two days teaching him the doctrines of the book, and he then took some of the newly printed pages of the book with him to Canada, where, he recalled, “I preached all I knew concerning Mormonism.”11
Like Solomon, many others rallied around Joseph and joyfully accepted the truth. They joined the Church in New York, but left their homes to follow him when the Lord directed him to go to Ohio. (See D&C 37:1.) Among those who were prepared to receive the gospel in Ohio were Newel and Elizabeth Whitney. One evening at about midnight, the Whitneys were praying, asking God how they could obtain the gift of the Holy Ghost. Elizabeth recorded their experience:
“The spirit rested upon us and a cloud overshadowed the house. It was as though we were out of doors. The house passed away from our vision. … A solemn awe pervaded us. We saw the cloud and we felt the spirit of the Lord.
“Then we heard a voice out of the cloud saying:
“‘Prepare to receive the word of the Lord, for it is coming!’
“At this we marveled greatly; but from that moment we knew that the word of the Lord was coming to Kirtland.”12
Mary Elizabeth Rollins was also prepared for the truth the Prophet Joseph brought forth. She recalled that, when she saw a copy of the Book of Mormon at the home of Isaac Morley, “I felt such a desire to read it, that I could not refrain from asking him to let me take it home and read it, while he attended meeting.” She asked so earnestly that Isaac gave her the book on the condition that she bring it back before breakfast the next morning.
Mary Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle stayed up very late reading the Book of Mormon, and Mary rose at daybreak so she could continue reading. True to her promise, she returned the book before Isaac Morley had had breakfast. When he told her, “I guess you did not read much in it,” she showed him how far she had read, recited the first verse, and outlined the story of Nephi. Surprised, he said, “Child, take this book home and finish it, I can wait.”13 Mary was one of the first to receive the witness of the Spirit promised in Moroni 10:4. Joseph had still another fellow witness! [Moro. 10:4]
The divine manifestations continued. Forty-six sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were received during Joseph’s years in Kirtland. And it was there that Joseph was visited by Moses, Elias, Elijah, and the Lord Jesus Christ. (See D&C 110.)
Other Saints in Kirtland also witnessed visits of heavenly beings. Zebedee Coltrin, who had attended the School of the Prophets in Kirtland, later recalled that on 23 January 1833, during one of their meetings, those in attendance experienced a similar manifestation:
“A personage walked through the room from east to west, and Joseph asked if we saw him. I saw him and suppose the others did, and Joseph answered, ‘That is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother!’ Afterwards Joseph told us to resume our former position in prayer; which we did. Another person came through; He was surrounded as with a flame of fire. [We] experienced a sensation that it might destroy the tabernacle as it was a consuming fire of great brightness. The Prophet Joseph said this was the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I saw Him.”14
Prescinda Huntington was also among those in Kirtland who saw manifestations of the power of God. She wrote, “On one occasion I saw angels clothed in white walking upon the [Kirtland] temple. It was during one of our monthly fast meetings, when the saints were in the temple worshipping. A little girl came to my door and in wonder called me out, exclaiming, ‘The meeting is on the top of the meeting house!’ I went to the door, and there I saw on the temple angels clothed in white covering the roof from end to end. They seemed to be walking to and fro; they appeared and disappeared. The third time they appeared and disappeared before I realized that they were not mortal men. Each time in a moment they vanished, and their reappearance was the same. This was in broad daylight, in the afternoon. A number of the children in Kirtland saw the same.”15
Yet, even as Joseph and the Saints were being visited by heavenly messengers, they also experienced persecution. In Missouri, Joseph was condemned to death by a military tribunal. The persecution became so intense that, while he was in Liberty Jail, he exclaimed in agony, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1.) Part of the Lord’s comforting response was, “Thy people shall never be turned against thee.” (D&C 122:3.)
Indeed, Joseph did not suffer alone. Many Saints endured great persecution with him. And the Lord answered their prayers for help; he told them, “Fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever.” (D&C 122:9.)
Bathsheba W. Smith was one of those who did not fear. Of her 1837 journey to Missouri, she wrote about the pleasant aspects of the journey rather than the privations:
“On our journey the young folks of our party had much enjoyment; it seemed so novel and romantic to travel in wagons over hill and dale, through dense forests and over extensive prairies, and occasionally passing through towns and cities, and camping in tents at night.” Later, in February 1839, she was among the thousands of Saints who left Missouri for Illinois. “On this journey I walked many a mile, to let some poor sick or weary soul ride,” she remembered. “At night we would meet around the camp-fire and take pleasure in singing the songs of Zion, trusting in the Lord that all would yet be well, and that Zion would eventually be redeemed.”16
Even small children endured trials, standing firm in faith and courage amid persecution. J. D. T. (John) McAllister was one of them. He was about nine years old and lived with his parents near Far West, Missouri, where the Saints were being driven from their homes. One morning, while his mother was chopping wood, a mob came to their home and demanded to know John’s father’s whereabouts. Sister McAllister refused to divulge the information, and members of the infuriated mob picked up John and told his mother that she would never see him again.
John never forgot the look in his mother’s eyes as she grabbed the ax and swung it at the men with all her might. Sufficiently intimidated, the mob quickly fled to their camp along the Crooked River.17
John’s mother was only one of many courageous Latter-day Saint women who withstood such persecution. Eliza R. Snow recalled a confrontation with a militia man after the “extermination order” had been given in Missouri:
“After assisting in the arrangements for the journey, and shivering with cold, in order to warm my aching feet, I walked until the teams overtook me. I met one of the so-called militia, who accosted me with ‘Well, I think this will cure you of your faith!’ Looking him steadily in the eye, I replied, ‘No, sir; it will take more than this to cure me of my faith.’ His countenance suddenly fell, and he responded, ‘I must confess, you are a better soldier than I am.’”18
Also among those in Missouri who faced great persecution was Truman Brace. He wrote: “One day as I was hauling a load of wood I saw a number of armed men on the prairies. When they saw me, two of them came up to me. They ordered me to stop or they would shoot me. One of them named Young asked me if I believed the Book of Mormon. I told them that I did. They said that I must leave the county. I told them I had neither teams nor means to take me and my family away. The said Young then said he would shoot me and immediately made ready to carry his threat into execution, but the other man persuaded him not to do so. I supposed I received about fifty strokes. He got a raw hide and commenced whipping me with it. While he was thus engaged, a man of the name of Jennings came behind me and struck me on the head with a rifle, which nearly knocked me down. At this time my wife and daughter seeing me thus situated came and entreated the mob to spare my life!”19
The persecution halted for a season as the Saints moved to a new place on the banks of the Mississippi River, where they drained the swamplands and founded the city of Nauvoo, to which new converts from many nations came to unite with their fellow Saints. Among them was a group of nine black Saints who entered the city late in 1843, led by a free black woman, Jane Elizabeth Manning. She and her friends had walked more than eight hundred miles. She later recalled, “We walked until our shoes were worn out, and our feet became sore and cracked open and bled until you could see the whole print of our feet with blood on the ground. We stopped and united in prayer to the Lord, we asked God the Eternal Father to heal our feet and our prayers were answered and our feet were healed forthwith.”20
Though Illinois was for a time a refuge of peace and safety for the Saints, that refuge was short-lived. The Prophet Joseph’s death on 27 June 1844 at Carthage brought more persecution and suffering to his followers. But despite hardship, many Saints—like Sidney Tanner—continued to endure faithfully. Sidney suffered the loss of his wife and three children within a two-year period, yet on 13 April 1845, when he wrote from Winter Quarters to his in-laws, James and Elsie Conlee (who were rather antagonistic toward the Saints) to tell them of his wife’s death, he said,
“[My wife, Louisa] requested me to write to you and tell you that she died in the full triumph of the faith of Jesus Christ and her most desire for living was for the benefit of her family and friends and [to] do what she was afraid they would not do for themselves, that they might arrive to a glorious salvation in the kingdom of God, where she expects to meet them and enjoy their society.”21
Joseph was joined in death, as in life, by many whose knowledge and testimony of the truth went far beyond mere intellectual assent. The persecution these faithful Saints endured was a baptism of fire, a witness of the Holy Ghost that sustained their lives and brought meaning to their deaths. Just as Joseph Smith was prepared to receive the truth, so were thousands of Saints who united with them in accepting the truth. They knew Joseph was a prophet, and they testified of the truths he had restored. Their combined testimonies are another witness that Joseph Smith was indeed chosen by the Lord to restore the gospel in the latter days. Like Joseph, they, too, could exclaim, “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation.” (JS—H 1:25.) The testimony they shared with the Prophet fulfilled his prophetic assertion: “I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world.”22 Indeed, he was not.