A “year without summer” is what most New Englanders called 1816. Frost occurred every month of the year. It was the third crop failure for the Joseph Smith Sr. family of Vermont. They and thousands of others moved to available lands in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. The Smiths settled in Palmyra, New York, a promising village of about 600 people in western New York.
Two years after moving to Palmyra, the Smiths built and moved into a log house alongside Stafford Road, two miles south of the village. The home was adjacent to a heavily wooded 100 acres they purchased for a farm. In the woodlands of that farm, in their log home and apple orchard, and in a brick building on Palmyra’s Main Street occurred events that culminated in the publishing of the long-promised ancient scriptural record known as the Book of Mormon.
Anciently God covenanted with Father Abraham that through his seed and the priesthood they would bear, all the families of the earth would be blessed with the gospel (see Abr. 2:11). Later the prophet Isaiah foretold how Abraham’s covenant would unfold in the world: Israel would be scattered among all nations (see Isa. 5); Jesus Christ would come to earth as a mortal and bring to pass the Atonement (see Isa. 53); then, in the latter days, a sacred book containing the fulness of Christ’s gospel would be revealed (see Isa. 29), which would initiate the latter-day gathering of Israel (see Isa. 43).
Nephi, the ancient American prophet, bears a second witness to Isaiah’s chronology (see 2 Ne. 25–32). His words are additional testimony that the book of which Isaiah prophesied would come forth in the latter days. That book, the Book of Mormon, was commenced by Nephi and concluded by his seed. It was to be joined with the Bible in bearing testimony to the world of the gospel of Jesus Christ (see 2 Ne. 29).
In the spring of 1820 these prophecies began to be fulfilled through Joseph Smith Jr.—son of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. This humble farm boy had seriously pondered God’s will for him from an early age.1 “On the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (JS—H 1:14), Joseph went prayerfully into a grove of trees on the family farm to ask God which church he should join. In the old and beautiful forest of immense trees he found seclusion and prayed. In answer to his prayer, God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared to young Joseph in a glorious vision. They instructed the youth that he was to join none of the churches and that the time was at hand for the gospel in its fulness to be restored.2 By their divine visit, God and his Son hallowed the land on which the Smiths lived. In time, family members were honored to help usher in God’s latter-day work of bringing forth the Book of Mormon.
As autumn came to western New York in 1823, the Smith family was busy at work cutting grain and storing it away before winter. More than three years had passed since Joseph Jr.’s extraordinary experience in the grove. He had pondered much about how and when God’s promise of the restoration of the gospel would occur. He was then almost 18 years old. He had matured spiritually and physically in the intervening period and was being readied for the divine work soon to be required of him.
The Smith family, consisting of parents and nine children, was adequately situated in its comfortable but small story-and-a-half log home along the rutted, ungraded Stafford Road. Their house stood in a small clearing among the trees just a few feet from the road it faced. The 28-feet-long by 17-feet-wide log house was divided into two rooms. The largest, at the south end, was the kitchen, or “keeping room,” and was the main living and work space for the family. The north room, separated from the kitchen by a vertical plank wall and doorway, was the parlor, or “best room.” In it the family generally visited with their guests. It doubled as a bedroom for family and visitors.
An ell, or bedroom wing, about 11 feet square at the rear of the log home could be entered only from the north room. Constructed of sawn slab boards, the ell was added to the home soon after the log portion was built.
The main feature of the home was a large brick fireplace that filled much of the kitchen’s south wall. Near it, under a trapdoor in the kitchen floor, was a root cellar. The rustic fireplace with its hand-forged iron crane, the log walls, the floors and ceilings of wide plank boards, the exposed hewn ceiling joists, and the home’s well-used furnishings gave a homespun appearance to the dwelling.
At the right of the fireplace, a steep stairway gave access to the half-story two-room garret above. That space served as bedrooms for the older children and storage for provisions.3
On the evening of 21 September, the Smith family sat up well beyond the normal time for bed conversing about religion. Lucy noticed the quiet and contemplative demeanor of her son Joseph that night.4 At a late hour the family retired; the older children, including Joseph, climbed the stairs to their garret rooms.
While the rest of the family slept, Joseph prayed in bed beside his brothers.5 He prayed earnestly for understanding concerning the promise given in the woods that spring morning three years before. The room filled with light, and a heavenly personage appeared. His countenance was glorious, and his presence brought peace. He told Joseph that his name was Moroni, that he was “a messenger sent from the presence of God” to instruct him respecting God’s promise of the restoration of the fulness of the gospel (see JS—H 1:33).
The heavenly visitor informed Joseph that in a hill not far from the Smith farm an ancient record containing the fulness of the gospel lay buried. Joseph, if he proved faithful, was to assist in bringing it forth to the world.
In mortal life, Moroni was the last of a long line of noble prophets whose writings were contained in that ancient scriptural record. Further, he held the priesthood keys to its possession and understanding and was appointed by God to bring it to light in these latter days (see JS—H 1:34; see also Morm. 8:14–16).
Unknown to Joseph Smith, the angelic visitor’s appearance to Joseph fulfilled biblical prophecies that had long puzzled Christians. Moroni was the promised angel seen by John the Revelator, who was to come from heaven in the latter days, “having the everlasting gospel” for the blessing of the nations (see Rev. 14:6). His visit also fulfilled a like prophecy of Malachi, who had declared that in the last days God would send a “messenger, … even the messenger of the covenant,” to initiate the renewal of God’s covenant with Abraham, the fulness of the gospel in the earth; Moroni’s quoting of the Malachi prophecy to young Joseph was his angelic testimony regarding that very prophecy (see Mal. 3:1; see also JS—H 1:30–49).
So profound was the importance of the instruction that twice more that night in the log home’s garret room and again the next morning in the family’s apple orchard, the heavenly messenger appeared and cited verbatim the message of his first visit plus other additions.6 It was deeply impressed upon Joseph what glorious heavenly promises were then unfolding and that he was the mortal whom God had appointed to help commence the latter-day work (see Isa. 11; D&C 113).
Change soon came into the life of Joseph Smith Jr. On 19 November 1823, death took his oldest brother, Alvin. In the ensuing four years Joseph continued to be tutored by Moroni each 22nd of September. In the meantime, in the spring of 1825 his father’s family moved into a new frame home on their property. On 2 November 1826 Hyrum married Jerusha Barden and moved back to the small log home. On 18 January 1827 Joseph married Emma Hale, and they were living in the frame house when Joseph received the plates on 22 September 1827.
Joseph and Emma found it necessary to move in December 1827 to the farm of Emma’s parents in Harmony, Pennsylvania, to find peace from those who would steal the plates. Early in 1829 Joseph’s father’s family moved back to the small log house as a result of losing title to their farm and the new home they had built because they were unable to meet their last payment. There they resided with Joseph’s brother Hyrum and his young family. In June 1829 the Prophet traveled from Harmony to the Peter Whitmer Sr. home in Fayette, New York, where he completed the translation and began the process of securing a printer.
Palmyra village was also experiencing change. The Erie Canal, finally completed in 1825, sparked an economic boom for towns along its 363-mile route. Palmyra emerged as the most important business hub on the 100-mile span of the canal between Syracuse and Rochester in western New York. Palmyra quickly doubled its small East Main Street business district. A number of commercial structures were built along what became West Main and Canal Streets, and they beckoned to shopkeepers.
By 1829, Palmyra village boasted shops and stores having nearly every product and service that could be found in Albany or in the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Palmyra even had a printer who advertised he could produce books in as fine a quality as could be done in the largest commercial centers along the Atlantic seaboard.7 In fact, in late 1828, that printer, Egbert B. Grandin, rented space in a newly completed 85-feet-long, three-story brick building called “Thayer and Grandin’s Brick Row,” on the north side of Main Street. The building was a business mall capable of housing as many as two dozen merchants.
The “row” was a handsome building that echoed the design and finish of commercial buildings then being constructed in New York City, Albany, and Syracuse. Its federal-style brick facade with arched doorways and fan windows was painted with a nearly translucent Venetian red glaze and striped with a white lead paint to simulate brick laid in a Flemish bond pattern. Capped with a white balustrade across its full length, the crisp red structure exhibited a rather grand appearance.
Egbert Grandin occupied the west end of the four-bay building. On the ground floor he established his Palmyra bookstore, at the “sign of the Bible,” and his private office. On the second level, a floor shared with a law office, he and his partner in the bookbinding business, Luther Howard, located their bindery. On the third floor, Mr. Grandin placed his printing operation with its big, heavy presses, type frames, and equipment.
Mr. Grandin was a young, aspiring printer and newly married when Joseph Smith and Martin Harris first went to him in early July 1829 to discuss the possibility of printing the Book of Mormon manuscript. Nearly a year younger than the Prophet Joseph, Mr. Grandin had only recently purchased the newspaper and printing business. Only months before he had purchased a new printing press. It was an acorn-shaped “Smith Patented Improved Press” with a new mechanism that speeded up the printing process measurably. That press, with an assortment of new type and a new and enlarged place of business, made it possible for him to advertise he was capable of doing nearly any printing jobone could request.
Yet, initially, Mr. Grandin rejected the offer to print the surprisingly large order of 5,000 copies of the Book of Mormon, as he believed “this gold Bible business” to be a hoax and a gross imposition. In a brief time, however, he reconsidered, being assured that he would be linked to the printing of the book only in a business way. Before committing to a contract though, he asked his friend John H. Gilbert, an experienced printer who was “good at figures,” to help him determine what it would cost to produce the enormous number of books—an edition size rarely considered by large-city publishers let alone by country printers.8
In Mr. Grandin’s small office behind the bookstore, Joseph Smith and Martin Harris finalized arrangements for the printing of the remarkable book. No one beyond Joseph Smith and his closest associates comprehended what a significant work was about to be inaugurated.
Even so, from the very start, many residents of Palmyra openly opposed the book’s printing, regarding it as nearly blasphemous that one among them was claiming to be an inspired translator of a new book of gospel truths given to him by an angel. Yet, in reality, few had any idea of its message and almost none allowed themselves to consider it God’s work.
To print the Book of Mormon and carry on with his weekly newspaper and other work, Mr. Grandin increased his shop hands from about three or four to at least eight. He also ordered a new font of pica type and paper suitable for the printing.
On a sultry day in mid-August 1829, Joseph Smith Jr., Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, and Joseph Smith Sr. gathered around the press with Mr. Grandin and his workers. All were there to see a proof sheet of the title page of the Book of Mormon, the first printed impression ever to be made of the book in these latter days. The type was inked. Then the press tympan bearing a sheet of paper was placed face down on the type. With a hefty crank of the handle, the bed slid in under the platen, which, when the arm of the press was given a hearty pull, pressed the paper onto the type and created the proof. The bed was rolled out, the tympan and its frisket raised, and the sheet removed. The proof was passed around, and when it was examined by the 23-year-old prophet and pronounced “excellent,” they concluded the printing of the book could begin.9
Then began a daily interchange between the Smith log home down on Stafford Road and the brick printing shop in the village. Each morning, pages of the printer’s manuscript (a copy of the original made by Oliver Cowdery) were carried from the Smith log home to the printing office so that Gilbert, the compositor, would have copy from which to set type. In the evening about sundown the manuscript was retrieved and returned to the Smiths.
It is not clear why, but Oliver’s production of the printer’s copy did not always stay ahead of the printing. When this happened, original manuscript pages were taken to the shop and marked with punctuation so the printing could continue.10
Generally 12 hours a day, six days a week, workers in the printing shop were busy. The printing moved steadily ahead but not without interruption or often considerable inconvenience. For example, work on the Book of Mormon stopped when a group of citizens clamored that they would use their influence to boycott purchase of the books. This convinced Grandin that without sales Joseph Smith and Martin Harris would be unable to pay for the printing. Grandin was pacified and renewed the book’s printing when Martin Harris mortgaged part of his farm to cover the printing costs. Joseph was also forced to dissuade one person, Abner Cole, from pirating and printing chapters of the Book of Mormon in a news sheet Cole was producing in Grandin’s shop on evenings and Sundays—a news sheet that began shaping community members’ attitudes.11
Almost as soon as the first printed pages from the unfinished book came from the press, the book’s influence began to be felt. Among those who inquired after it was Thomas B. Marsh, a future Apostle in the Church. On hearing that an ancient gospel record had been brought to light, he was directed to the printing office, where he obtained a copy of the first 16 pages. He read them, believed they were of God, and took them home to Massachusetts to bear testimony of their truthfulness to family and associates.12
Solomon Chamberlain of Lyons, a village 12 miles east of Palmyra, had a similar experience. Hearing of a “gold Bible,” he went to the Smiths’ log home to inquire. There he heard the Book of Mormon manuscript read aloud. Hyrum Smith bore a powerful testimony to him of the divinity of the book. Hyrum then took him into the village where Solomon saw the book at press. He was given 64 pages and went away rejoicing toward Buffalo and Upper Canada, preaching the Book of Mormon and convincing some listeners of its truth as he journeyed. Three brothers—Brigham, Phineas, and Joseph Young—were among those he prepared for future contact with the book.13
Finally, on Friday, 26 March 1830, seven and a half months after starting, Grandin’s weekly newspaper, the Wayne Sentinel, announced that the Book of Mormon was printed and was for sale in his bookstore. What a jubilant day for disciples who believed in the latter-day work! From that printing office in the rural village of Palmyra came the book that long ago was foretold would come into the world to bring about a renewal of the blessings of salvation through the covenant God made with Abraham.
With the Book of Mormon published, the Lord’s Church, which would administer that covenant to mankind, was reestablished on Tuesday, 6 April 1830. The “gathering” of the righteous—and who were or who would desire to be the “seed of Abraham”—could now begin in earnest.
So predominant was the Book of Mormon in the restoration of the Lord’s Church that nonbelievers referred to its members as “Mormonites” and eventually as “Mormons” (Millennial Star, 15:254). However, the name first given derisively soon came to symbolize their belief. “Mormon” was the name of the land where ancient followers of Christ in Book of Mormon times were privileged to have the Church of Christ established among them. The prophet Mormon of old, who abridged the record known as the Book of Mormon, had been given his name to honor that sacred event in Nephite history (see 3 Ne. 5:12). Thus, latter-day “Mormons,” like the ancient Nephites in the land of Mormon, came to see themselves literally and symbolically as the people of Christ’s covenant, the children of Abraham.