Site of Joseph Smith’s 1839 Philadelphia Sermon Identified

By John Shiffert

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    A faded line of quill pen ink in a 177-year-old ledger book of the Universalist Church has finally identified a significant site in the history of the Church in the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, area.

    It reads as follows:

    “1840
    January 14
    For use of the Church from Rev. J. Smith by G. H. McCully $13.63.”

    “Rev. J. Smith” was, of course, the Prophet Joseph Smith. The church was the First Independent Church of Christ, located at 412 Lombard Street in Philadelphia. And the occasion was one familiar to anyone who has read the Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt—the day in the last week of December 1839 when “a very large church was opened for [Joseph Smith] to preach in, and about three thousand people assembled to hear him.” (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1979, p. 298.)

    This landmark sermon in Philadelphia has, over the ensuing 153 years, become renowned for the power of the Prophet’s message and for the mystery surrounding the location. Elder Pratt recorded that the audience that day was “astounded” and “electrified” as the Prophet spoke. (See Ensign, Dec. 1992, p. 8.)

    Thanks to the drive of Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission president Richard H. Morley and the efforts of researchers in Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, the building has now been identified. An Orthodox Jewish congregation purchased the building from the Universalist Church in 1888, and it is still used for Jewish worship. Original pulpit, railings, pews, floor, and balcony are still in existence.

    On a cold Philadelphia winter day, approximately 153 years and one month after the Prophet “arose like a lion about to roar; and being full of the Holy Ghost, spoke in great power, bearing testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels which he had enjoyed; and how he had found the plates of the Book of Mormon, and translated them by the gift and power of God” (ibid.), President Morley stood on that same stage and said, “This is the place.”

    The story of the Prophet’s mission to Philadelphia, which included founding the Philadelphia Branch on his thirty-fourth birthday (23 December 1839) and presiding over the first Philadelphia conference (13 January 1840), began on 29 October 1839 when he left Nauvoo, Illinois, accompanied by Sidney Rigdon, Elias Higbee, and Orrin Porter Rockwell. They initially traveled by carriage to Washington, D.C., to lay before Congress the grievances of Mormons suffering in Missouri. (See History of the Church, 4:19.)

    The Prophet also visited Philadelphia to help orchestrate the preaching of the gospel in southeastern Pennsylvania and central New Jersey. Dr. Robert E. Foster eventually joined the Prophet’s group and helped care for Elder Rigdon, who was sick much of the time. (Ibid., 4:48.)

    The Prophet also assigned Dr. Foster the additional task of keeping an accurate record of his perceptions of the mission. When the mission ended on 4 March 1840, the Prophet wrote in disappointment, “I depended on Dr. Foster to keep my daily journal during this journey, but he has failed me.” (Ibid., 4:89.)

    As a result, the whereabouts of some significant Church history landmarks in Philadelphia were lost until James L. Kimball, Jr., senior librarian for the Church Historical Department, found the key that unlocked the door to Elder Pratt’s “lost” Philadelphia church.

    Brother Kimball, with the help of fellow senior librarian Mary Gifford, was following up on work done in Philadelphia by President Morley, Dan Rolph of the Jarrettown Ward, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake, and researcher Sidney Weitzman.

    The key proved to be in the Journal of History, a publication of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The July 1918 and January 1919 issues included a history of the Church in Philadelphia, written by Walter W. Smith.

    One hundred and fifty-three years to the day after the Universalists received payment for use of their hall, Brother Kimball found the entry that identified the site of the Prophet’s sermon.

    “Elder Joseph Smith, [Jr.], president of the whole church, arrived in Philadelphia on Saturday, December 21, and Elders Elias Higbee and Orrin P. Rockwell a few days later. President Smith addressed large audiences at the hall, corner of Seventh and Callowhill streets, at the Universalist Church, Fourth and Lombard streets, and at other places.” (Journal of History, vol. 11, no. 3, July 1918, LDS Church Archives.)

    Further evidence contained in the Journal of History allowed researchers to pinpoint the Universalist Church as the place where the sermon recorded by Elder Pratt actually took place. While several additional Church meeting sites are specifically noted in the history journal, they are all clearly identified as commercial buildings. The Universalist Church is the only religious hall mentioned and the only place that fits Elder Pratt’s record.

    Once that fact was known, the next step was to find the Universalist Church archives, and that one line of ink in the 1816–1896 treasurer’s book, stating that the Latter-day Saints had paid $13.63 for rental of the hall.

    Although the exact date of the Prophet’s sermon has not been identified, research is continuing as part of a joint effort of the Pennsylvania Philadelphia Mission and the Philadelphia stake public affairs council.

    The issues of Journal of History also contain more information about the Church’s early days in Philadelphia, including the site of the first meeting and the first conference—the aforementioned public meeting hall at Seventh and Callowhill streets. Unfortunately, this building and most of the other significant LDS Church sites mentioned in the Journal of History are no longer standing.

    This church, located at 412 Lombard Street in Philadelphia, has been identified as the site of a stirring sermon preached by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the winter of 1839–40. The building, currently owned by a Jewish congregation, was rented 153 years ago to the Prophet. (Photography by Sidney Weitzman.)

    Much of the interior of the Philadelphia church where Joseph Smith spoke a century and a half ago is original. The pulpit where the Prophet stood, the railings, pews, floor, and balcony are still in existence.

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    • John Shiffert is the public affairs specialist of the Jarrettown Ward, Philadelphia Pennsylvania Stake.