A Hero to Follow: Excitement in the Woods


From their bed in the garret, Joseph Smith and his younger brother, William, could hear the night wind slide over the bark roof of their two-story log house. Presently, William leaned his head over the side of the bed and put his ear close to the floorboards. He could hear the voices of his parents above the whispers and sighs of the wind. “… great excitement … everyone for miles around … down in the woods …”

William wriggled back under the quilt and shook his brother. “Joseph, it’s time for another camp meeting. When will it be?”

“The first week of July … down in the woods.”

William’s eyes popped in the darkness and a grin creased his cheeks. Nothing could make a boy’s heart beat faster than thoughts of a revival. A camp meeting in 1819 meant a holiday, with more going on than one could possibly take in. There would be picnics and games and friends to play with, along with the preaching and praying. But more fun than anything, though William didn’t ever speak it, was watching the weeping and wailing of the sinners.

“We’ll be going, I expect.”

“For certain,” Joseph answered.

On the morning of the great Genesee camp meeting, Joseph was up early to attend to his chores. Then the little handcart that his father had fashioned to use for selling refreshments was lifted into the wagon. Joseph and his father often traveled to other villages and camp meetings to sell Lucy’s pies and gingerbread, as well as hard-boiled eggs, root beer, and other “like notions of traffic.” Today the whole family was going and there was a feeling of gaiety in the air.

Sophronia brought out the baskets of baked goods that would be offered for sale to the crowds of people. “Some say there will be four to five thousand,” she said expectantly.

Joseph knew that some folks would attend because of a desire to “get religion” but many would be there just for the excitement.

By the time they were ready to leave, the sun had begun its daily climb. Joseph tried to appear calm as a farm-bred boy ought, but the happiness in his heart pushed out in a whistled song.

The family followed the road that ran diagonally between Palmyra and Vienna, where the meeting would be held in the woods. When the Smiths arrived there was already a confusion of people and wagons. Everyone was trying to find a place on the outer edge of the clearing. Some had already made tents by stretching bed covers between their wagons and small trees, with a layer of straw on the ground for sleeping.

Joseph’s father drove their wagon close to a platform made of rough boards. It was built off the ground so the crowds could see and hear the preachers.

Lately Joseph had been doing a lot of thinking about religion, comparing what the various churches believed with what Jesus taught in the Bible. And he wasn’t alone. An excitement over religion was affecting young and old alike.

As Joseph sold his mother’s baked goods among the crowds, he saw many of his friends from Palmyra. He stopped long enough to play a game of pulling sticks or to wrestle, but for the most part he listened to the preachers calling the sinners to repentance. Some of the sessions lasted all day and into the night. One minister after another took the stand to preach long, powerful sermons. Sometimes they directed prayer circles or the singing of hymns. While the meetings were going on, many people “got religion” by shouting and crying for mercy.

In his own thoughtful, quiet way, Joseph found himself caught up in the tremendous emotions of the revival. Much of what Joseph heard didn’t agree with what he read in the Bible, so the preaching and exhortations of each day added to the confusion he felt within.

Joseph was a thinker. He enjoyed debating with the other boys in the neighborhood. It helped to satisfy his yearning for understanding and truth.

One evening when Joseph reached the village of Palmyra, a light snow had fallen and the cold penetrated his clothing, carefully patched to make it last through the season. The lamplight flickering through the windows of the village store beckoned him on. His long legs lengthened their stride.

Joseph stood for a moment outside the door, studying the figures in the crowded room. Orsamus Turner and Pomeroy Tucker, two of the older boys, were already there, as were some of the men of the village.

Joseph stamped the snow from his shoes and entered the store. It smelled strongly of burning wood, cheese, and wet wool. He joined the group around the stove, scrubbing his hands in its warmth until he was scorched through.

When all the boys had gathered they discussed a subject to debate. Joseph’s penetrating blue eyes deepened as he offered a suggestion. “Ever since the big Genesee camp meeting people hereabouts have been stirred up over religion …”

Some mornings later, when the world was pink with sunrise, young Joseph slipped quietly out of his log home. His steps were quick with anticipation now that he had determined what to do to resolve his search for the truth.

Joseph thought it rather strange as he recalled the events of the previous night. He was reading a certain passage in the Bible, when the words seemed to leap from the page and found their way into his heart where they would not be stilled. Over and over his mind reflected on them. Even now, if he closed his eyes, he could see those words in the first chapter of James clustered together on the page: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

If anyone needs wisdom, I do, Joseph decided. And if God will give me an answer and not consider it a bother, I’ll venture it, he thought humbly.

Joseph cut directly across the clearing, striding over tree stumps that protruded from the earth like wooden eruptions.

The Smith family had moved to their new farm in Farmington (later Manchester), New York, some three miles from the village of Palmyra, a little more than a year ago. Joseph had helped log the trees, and hauled many wagonloads of wood into the village to be sold for fuel. Some of the stumps had been burned out, but mostly they were left and the soil was tilled around them. Soon he would help scatter kernels of wheat into the broken ground, rich and fertile from layer upon layer of decayed leaves. Then the earth would need to be dragged over with a large maple limb to level it.

It was wearying work to clear forestland and make it tillable for farming, though somehow it didn’t leave him as tuckered out as trying to clear up the confusion in his mind. For some time Joseph had been in the midst of a “war of words” over religion. Some settlers argued for one church, some for another, and many ministers claimed that theirs was the only true church. The bad feelings that arose were not too well hidden either.

Joseph thought of his mother as almost a saint, and he believed his father was as good as Moses back in ancient times ever was. But even they could not agree on a religion. His mother and three of the children, Hyrum, Sophronia, and Samuel, attended the Western Presbyterian Church in Palmyra. Joseph’s father agreed with his father, Asael Smith, who wasn’t satisfied with any religion. He just kept studying the Bible; said he was looking for “the ancient order, as established by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and His apostles.” Joseph was somewhat inclined toward Methodism, and had attended some of their meetings. Yet in the midst of all the agitation around him, how could a boy be sure?

As he climbed a fence at the far end of the clearing he recalled how often he had asked himself: “What should I do? Who is right? How shall I know?” At times his yearning for the truth had almost been a hurt within him.

But now Joseph knew how to find the answer. Since he had read those words in the Bible, they were carved on his consciousness as clearly as initials on the trunk of a tree. He had decided to follow them implicitly, and he was going into the woods to pray. He would ask God which church to join, believing that God meant just what He said, “… and it shall be given him.”

Why didn’t I think of it before? he wondered. (To be continued.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by Ron Crosby