Accounts of the restoration of the gospel and the true Church usually begin with Joseph Smith’s first vision, as is well-known to the Latter-day Saints. But as an introduction to this series of articles in Church history, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at the setting in which the restoration took place. As President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, “The dawn of a better day began to break over the nations.” (Essentials in Church History, 11th Ed., p. 18.)
The long historical development which led to religious freedom in the United States can be traced back hundreds of years. Martin Luther’s well-known challenges to the Catholic Church of the 16th Century began the reformation. But as far as Joseph Smith’s New England heritage goes, a more important Christian reformer was the Swiss theologian, John Calvin. It was Calvin’s teachings that influenced some of the English Protestants to dissent from the established Church and seek refuge in the colonies of North America. They in turn helped establish American religious attitudes. The people called Puritans,—for example, saw themselves as a special people chosen by God to build an exemplary Christian community, a City of Zion, in the New World.
The religion of these people through a dominant religious influence in the English colonies, was not the only one of significance. Many other Christian sects established congregations there to help characterize America as a land of religious diversity. The American Revolution of 1776 helped achieve religious freedom by creating a political climate leading to the formal separation of the affairs that are of the Church and those that are of the state. As the move for separation between church and state spread in the new nation, religious revivals swept the country in great movements from time to time beginning in the 1790s and continuing until after the British-American War of 1812.
One revival reached its peak in the late 1820s in western New York, where many former New Englanders who had moved westward seeking better ways of earning a living turned to religion in search for lasting meaning in their lives. Some proceeded on their own authority in various attempts to restore the ancient gospel. They often acted under a fervent belief that the Savior’s second coming was imminent.
One of the most active groups called itself the Disciples of Christ, (known as Campbellites) after the founder Thomas Campbell and his son Alexander. Sidney Rigdon, who later became a close associate of the Prophet Joseph Smith, was one of their most popular preachers. Before joining with the Campbellites, Sidney Rigdon had been a Baptist. The Disciples of Christ church attracted several other seekers who later became prominent Latter-day Saints—among them was Parley P. Pratt. One of the themes that most attracted them was the organization’s emphasis on the need for a restoration of the basic New Testament principles of faith, repentance, baptism, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. But some of the new converts wondered if the Campbellites had the proper authority to administer the ordinances of salvation.
Among others seeking for the true gospel of Jesus Christ was Joseph Smith’s own family in western New York State. His father, Joseph Smith, Sr., and his mother Lucy Mack Smith, were both of New England parentage. On farms in New Hampshire and Vermont the family had been discouraged by the rocky soil and early frosts, crop failures, and an epidemic of typhus. Thus in 1816 the Smiths, with their eight children, followed the migration westward. In the forested hills of western New York, they cleared land near the little village of Palmyra. On their 50 hectares farm the Smiths built a two-room cabin with two attic bedrooms, and to this frontier home they later added an extension lean-to roof.
It was necessary for the family to work at odd jobs to sustain themselves. Joseph, Sr. cooked sugar from the sap of maple trees. With his boys he dug wells and made buckets and barrels for sale. Lucy painted and sold oil cloth table coverings and baked and sold breads and pies. Their neighbors came to know the family as reliable, hardworking people.
Educational opportunities in this rural setting were limited, and the Smith children attended school only about three months of the year. They learned little more than the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. But one of the children, Joseph Smith, Jr., was specially interested in books, and studied on his own. He also read the local newspaper and joined a young people’s debating club. His mother later remembered Joseph as “remarkably quiet, of even disposition” who admired his parents and frequently expressed his love and loyalty for them, As a young man, Joseph’s jovial personality helped him win many friends.
The Smith family had joined no church, but studied the scriptures together as a family. About 1819 they began investigating the churches in Palmyra-Manchester area. That year the Methodists held an annual conference in a community, Vienna (now Phelps) about 16 kms. from the Smith farm. Dozens of ministers met to deliberate policy. After the conference, they scattered through the countryside, as was the custom of the time, and conducted camp meetings or revivals. Preachers for the Baptists and Presbyterians also swept the area seeking converts. Lucy Smith, her daughter Sophronia and sons Hyrum and Samuel affiliated to the Presbyterians and apparently continued membership until about 1828. But Joseph Smith, Sr., William, and Joseph, Jr., decided against joining any of the denominations.
Rather than enlightening him, the evangelism of the traveling ministers left Joseph, Jr., disillusioned. He believed that the great fervor of the revival movement was evidence of confusion among those professing religion. “I knew not who was right or who was wrong,” he recalled in 1835, “but considered it of the first importance to me that I should be right.” (BYU Studies, 9:284, Spring 1969.)
Though he joined none of the religious denominations that were competing so fiercely for converts, Joseph studied and pondered and investigated Christianity carefully. His inquiries led him to conclude that the New Testament church was no longer on the earth and that mankind “Had apostatized from the true and living faith.” (BYU Studies, 9:279.) While studying the scriptures one day, he read in the writings of James an inspired admonition to seek for divine wisdom through prayer. (See James 1:5.) Joseph concluded that unless he wanted to remain in uncertainty he should do as the ancient apostle suggested.
In the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith, then a boy not yet fifteen years of age, knelt to pray in a secluded grove of trees near his home. According to the accounts which he later gave of that important morning, he was concerned about his own salvation and about the welfare of mankind. More directly, he wanted to know which, if any, of the churches he should join. But as he began to pray, Joseph experienced a desperate struggle. As he tried to pray, he was seized by an evil power so strong that he could not speak. Distracting thoughts ran through his mind, he heard a noise like someone walking towards him, and soon he was enveloped in thick darkness which seemed about to overpower him.
Despite his alarm, young Joseph continued to pray inwardly for deliverance, and the evil presence disappeared, replaced by a bright pillar of light that descended around him in the grove. Within the intensely bright light two glorious beings appeared. One of them spoke to Joseph by name and pointed to the other saying, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him.” [JS—H 1:17]
As the solemn vision of the Father and the Son continued, Joseph’s questions were answered. The Savior told him his sins were forgiven, that none of the churches held all the correct doctrines or proper authority, and that the fulness of the gospel would be made known to him at some future time.
Joseph told the story of his sacred interview to his family and close friends. One with whom he shared the account of the vision was a minister, who treated his story lightly and challenged the reality of modern visions and revelations. Joseph was to find both believers and scoffers as he continued his preparation. Fortunately he would also find many, like himself, who were searching for God’s message of salvation. These were people turned toward religion, in part, because of the revivals of the early 1800s.
For three and one-half years after the First Vision, Joseph Smith continued the routine of life as a New York farm worker. At times, he later explained, he associated with jovial company and allowed his youthful exuberance to express itself with levity. Though not guilty of any act except the mischievousness which his native cheery temperament led him into, he began to feel that he had not acted consistent with the solemn counsel received in the vision.
With that concern uppermost in his mind, Joseph Smith, now seventeen, retired to his room, on September 21, 1823, and began to pray. Suddenly the room filled with light and he was visited by a heavenly messenger. The messenger who proclaimed himself to be an angel of God introduced himself as Moroni, the last record keeper of the Nephites, a people who had lived on the American continent fourteen hundred years earlier. Moroni’s message stirred Joseph to a realization of his mission, for he was told that in a nearby hill were buried sacred plates containing a record of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and of the Savior’s teachings among them. Moroni repeated the message in two additional visits that night and again the following morning. Joseph was instructed to visit the Hill Cumorah each year to receive instructions to prepare him for his mission. Finally, on September 22, 1827, he was entrusted with the plates.
During these four years of preparation, life for the Smith family continued with little variation in daily activities. The Smiths worked to meet their financial obligations. They were unable to pay off the mortgage and became renters on their former property. However, they did complete a new wood frame home. The oldest son, Alvin, died November 19, 1823, before their home was finished. Just before his death, Alvin urged Joseph to remain faithful to Moroni’s instructions so that the promised work would be brought forth.
To help supplement the family income, young Joseph and others of the family went to work as day laborers from time to time. In October 1825 Joseph went to work for Josiah Stowell of Bainbridge, New York, who directed his employees to dig for treasure supposedly buried in the abandoned Spanish silver mine. Joseph finally convinced Stowell to give up the fruitless search, but the young man’s participation soon prompted rumors that he possessed psychic powers to locate buried treasure. The incident is significant because there resulted the first of a long line of legal challenges Joseph Smith faced at the hands of those who tried to discredit him.
While working for Stowell, Joseph stayed with the family of Isaac Hale and became acquainted with a daughter, Emma. She and Joseph were married on January 18, 1827, and moved to the Smith family farm near Palmyra. That fall, at the end of the four years, the Prophet received the ancient plates from Moroni at the Hill Cumorah. At the same time he was given the power to translate, aided by two transparent stones called Urim and Thummim that had been deposited in the stone box with the plates. Joseph Smith said the stones were set in the rim of a bow fastened to a breastplate. “Through the medium of the Urim and Thummim,” he said, “I translated the record by the gift and power of God.” (History of the Church 4:537, Wentworth Letter, IM Jun 1978.)
No sooner did Joseph obtain the sacred records than some people plotted to steal them from him. The Prophet changed their hiding place several times—trying a hollow birch log, a barrel of beans, a space under the hearthstone—and finally he and Emma decided to move to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Emma’s father offered them refuge. Joseph and Emma were without the means to make the 240-km trip, so Martin Harris, a prosperous farmer who believed Joseph’s account of the origin of the plates, contributed fifty dollars to help them.
As the work of translation began, Martin Harris took a transcription of some of the characters copied from the plates to scholars in the eastern United States. In New York City he explained Joseph Smith’s activities to the famous Dr. Charles Anthon, a professor of classical studies at Columbia College, and Dr. Samuel L. Mitchill, a New York medical doctor. These men could not translate the reformed Egyptian, and Martin Harris returned home convinced of the authenticity of Joseph’s work. The incident fulfilled a prophecy contained in the Book of Mormon (see 2 Ne. 27:6–20). In subsequent months, Martin Harris served as a scribe while the Prophet translated early sections of the ancient record. Martin Harris later became one of the three witnesses of the Book of Mormon.
It was while translating during the early summer of 1828 that Martin Harris borrowed the first 116 pages of the handwritten manuscript. These were lost or stolen, probably through the carelessness or deceit of Harris’ non-believing wife. As a consequence, the work of translation halted for a time; then, when Joseph was instructed by revelation to begin again, he employed Emma as a scribe for a short time. Fortunately, Oliver Cowdery, an itinerant school teacher who was boarding with the Smiths in Manchester Township, heard of the work and became interested in it. Traveling to Harmony, Pennsylvania, to investigate, he began work in early April 1829 as Joseph’s scribe. It was Oliver Cowdery who recorded the major portion of the Book of Mormon as the Prophet dictated the text word-by-word from behind a curtain.
Joseph Smith received many revelations during this time. Clearly, the Lord was guiding his young servant in preparing a foundation upon which the restored church of Jesus Christ would be built. An important step preceding the organization of the Church occurred on May 15, 1829. While translating the records, Joseph and Oliver read of baptism for a remission of sins. Desiring further information on the subject, they retired to the woods on the bank of the Susquehanna River near Joseph Smith’s home. While praying, John the Baptist appeared to them in a cloud of light, laid his hands upon them, and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood upon them. He instructed them in the proper mode of baptism; and following this heavenly messenger’s counsel, Joseph and Oliver baptized each other in the river. Some time between then and the end of June 1829, the ancient apostles Peter, James, and John restored the Melchizedek Priesthood, which included the authority to confer the gift of the Holy Ghost and to organize the Church. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, the first elders and apostles of this dispensation, thus received direct, divine authority to administer the ordinances of exaltation and to establish God’s kingdom on the earth.
Looking forward to the reestablishment of the true Church, Joseph completed translation of the Book of Mormon July 1, 1829. The translation was finished at the Peter Whitmer, Sr., home in Fayette, New York. The small group of believers lending their support to the Prophet’s work was beginning to grow. Three of these supporters, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, and David Whitmer, were shown the plates by an angel and became witnesses of their existence. Eight others, friends and family members, added their joint testimony after having handled the plates, and both statements were printed with the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith secured a copyright on June 11, 1829, and made arrangements in August to have Egbert B. Grandin, of Palmyra, print the new scripture. Martin Harris contracted to pay $3,000 for the first edition of 5,000. copies, and eventually had to sell a portion of his farm to obtain the money. Late in March 1830 the first bound copies of the Book of Mormon were distributed.
The time was now ripe for the organization of the Church. On April 6, 1830, at least thirty people met in the Whitmer log home at Fayette. Six of those gathered for the solemn occasion were listed according to law as the formal organizers: Joseph Smith, Jr., Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, Peter Whitmer, Jr., David Whitmer, and Samuel H. Smith. All of those present accepted as their leaders Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, who were designated “first” and “second” elder.
From this simple beginning the organizational structure in succeeding years would unfold. Other offices in the priesthood would be established and a more complex governing body would be introduced as the Church expanded through constant missionary work. The name of the Church also would undergo a process of development. The revelation now known as section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants called it the “Church of Christ.” This name was in general use for several years, although the public began to use the term “Mormonite.” A revelation on April 26, 1838, introduced the established, name, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (D&C 115:3–4.)
The months immediately following the organization of the Church were important ones. The manner in which the infant church differed from other religious organizations was explained to curious seekers. The principles of the gospel, outlined clearly by the Book of Mormon prophets, were expounded from door to door. Listeners heard of modern revelation and of a living prophet, of the importance of finding the one true church with priesthood authority, and of the necessity of observing the Lord’s commandments in preparation for the Day of Judgment.
The vigorous activities of early Latter-day Saint missionaries brought ridicule, bitterness, and even violence against them. Twice during the summer of 1830 Joseph Smith was arrested and tried on charges of a legal team for a petty offense against public order. Because nothing substantial could be proven he was acquitted. Eventually the Saints left New York in search of refuge from harassment, but in the meantime the opposition served only to further unify the believers.
Members of the Church responded quickly to the call to serve in spreading the good news of the restoration. Every convert considered himself a potential missionary. “Therefore, if ye have desires to serve God,” Joseph Smith had said by revelation in 1829, “ye are called to the work.” (D&C 4:3–4.) Within two months of the organization of the Church, a formal missionary system was inaugurated. Samuel Smith, brother of the Prophet, was called as one of the first missionaries. Though discouraged by the responses to his message, Samuel distributed copies of the Book of Mormon which found their way into the hands of Brigham Young and others who subsequently joined the Church.
New members came from a variety of religious backgrounds and from every part of the countryside contacted by the early Latter-day Saint elders. Typical of the early converts who accepted the gospel after long years of searching and waiting, was Parley P. Pratt. At age eighteen he had joined the Baptists. Not satisfied that he had found the Church of Christ, he turned four years later to the Campbellites. Though impressed with the preaching of Sidney Rigdon, Pratt still wondered about the authority to administer the ordinances of salvation. In 1830, at age twenty-three, he left Ohio on a preaching trip and near Newark, New York, learned of the Book of Mormon. He read it, believed its message, and interrupted his mission to travel to Palmyra seeking Joseph Smith. Upon conversion, and after receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood, Elder Pratt continued his missionary journey, this time as a teacher of the restored gospel.
And so it went. One after another of those seeking religious truth accepted the message first delivered to Joseph Smith in 1820, the divine declaration that the authority of Jesus Christ and His church were not to be found in existing organizations but would be restored through the Lord’s chosen prophet. By 1830 the work of establishing the Kingdom of God upon the earth in the last dispensation had begun.