Life for Joseph Smith was never the same once he had told the story of his vision. For one thing, that remarkable experience had left an indelible impression upon him. The knowledge he had thus received placed him in a unique position. Nevertheless, his manner of living was not greatly different from that of the ordinary farm boy of his day, except that he was often made an object of ridicule. But he continued to work on his father’s farm, to work for others in the area, and to associate with companions of his own age. Those acquainted with him describe him as a strong, active boy of cheerful disposition, who enjoyed wrestling and other sports. The story of his life and experiences at this time is again best told in his own words:
“I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, … which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession no one need suppose me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was never in my nature. …
“In consequence of these things I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections; when, on the evening of [September 21, 1823], after I had retired to my bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.
“While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.
“He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.
“Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.
“He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.”
An American Scripture
“He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants [of America];
“Also, that there were [deposited with the plates] two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim … ; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and … God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
“After telling me these things, he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament. … [Joseph then lists some of the passages of the scripture quoted by Moroni.]
“Again, he told me, that when I got those plates of which he had spoken … I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to show them; if I did I should be destroyed. While he was conversing with me about the plates, the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I knew the place again when I visited it.
“After this communication, I saw the light in the room begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking to me, and it continued to do so until the room was again left dark, except just around him; when, instantly I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.
“I lay musing on the singularity of the scene, and marveling greatly at what had been told to me by this extraordinary messenger; when, in the midst of my meditation, I suddenly discovered that my room was again beginning to get lighted, and in an instant, as it were, the same heavenly messenger was again by my bedside.
“He … again related the very same things which he had done at his first visit, without the least variation. … Having related these things, he again ascended as he had done before.
“By this time, so deep were the impressions made on my mind, that sleep had fled from my eyes, and I lay overwhelmed in astonishment at what I had both seen and heard. But what was my surprise when again I beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him rehearse or repeat over again to me the same things as before; and added a caution … that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade me. …
“After this third visit, he again ascended into heaven as before, and I was again left to ponder on the strangeness of what I had just experienced; when almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had ascended from me for the third time, the cock crowed and I found that day was approaching, so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that night.
“I shortly after arose from my bed, and, as usual, went to the necessary labors of the day; but, in attempting to work as at other times, I found my strength so exhausted as to render me entirely unable. My father, who was laboring along with me, discovered something to be wrong with me, and told me to go home. I started with the intention of going to the house; but, in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength entirely failed me, and I fell helpless on the ground, and for a time was quite unconscious of anything.
“The first thing that I can recollect was a voice speaking unto me, calling me by name. I looked up, and beheld the same messenger standing over my head, surrounded by light as before. He then again related unto me all that he had related to me the previous night, and commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments which I had received.
“… I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger. I left the field, and went to the place where the messenger had told me the plates were deposited; and owing to the distinctness of the vision which I had had concerning it, I knew the place the instant that I arrived there.” 1
The Hill Cumorah
About four miles south of Palmyra is a hill of considerable size, rising abruptly on the north side and tapering to the south with a long slope. On the west side, not far from the top, as Joseph had seen it in vision, was the weathered surface of a rounded stone, the edges of which were covered with earth.
Eagerly he removed the earth so that he might get a lever under the edge. Lifting the rock, he looked into a box formed by a stone in the bottom with other stones cemented together to form the sides. There, indeed, was the treasure!—a breastplate, two stones set in silver bows, and a book of gold leaves bound together with three rings.
Anxiously he reached down to take them, but immediately felt a shock. He tried again, and received another paralyzing shock. Yet again he reached, and this time the shock was so severe as to render him weak and powerless. In his frustration he called out, “Why can I not obtain this book?”
“Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord,” answered a voice at his side. The boy turned, and there stood the same messenger with whom he had conversed during the night. Guilt overwhelmed him, and Moroni’s solemn caution flashed through the boy’s mind that Satan would try to tempt him because of the indigent circumstances of his father’s family, but that the plates of gold were for the glory of God, and he must have no other purpose in mind in relation to them. 2
Thus rebuked, he was told that he would not receive the plates at that time, but that he would undergo four years of probation, and that during that period he should come to the hill each year on this same day.
“Accordingly,” he writes, “I went at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days. …
“At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-seven, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them up to me with this charge: that I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, until he, the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected.” 3
Joseph soon learned why Moroni had charged him so strictly to guard the record taken from the hill. No sooner was it rumored that he had the plates, than efforts were made to seize them from him. To preserve them, he first carefully hid them in a hollow birch log. Then he locked them in a chest in his father’s home. Later they were buried beneath the hearthstone of the family living room. A cooper’s shop across the street was their next hiding place. All of these and other stratagems were employed to keep the plates safe from neighborhood mobs who raided and ransacked the Smith home and surrounding premises, and even employed a diviner in their zeal to locate the record.
On two different occasions Joseph was shot at, and it soon became apparent that he could find no peace in the neighborhood of Palmyra. Some months prior to the time he received the plates he had married Emma Hale of Harmony Township, Pennsylvania. He had met her nearly two years earlier when he boarded at her father’s home while working in the vicinity for a Mr. Josiah Stoal. And when in December 1827 an invitation came from his wife’s parents to live in their home at Harmony, Joseph accepted in the hope that he could find there the peace needed for the work of translation.
Once comfortably settled, he commenced work on the record. It was a strange volume, approximately six inches in width by eight inches in length, and six inches thick. The golden pages, or plates, were not quite so thick as common tin, and were bound together by three rings on one side. Approximately one-third of the plates could be turned freely, similar to the pages of a loose-leaf book, but the remaining two-thirds were “sealed” so that they could not be examined. Beautiful engravings, small and finely cut, were found on the plates.
Joseph began his work by copying onto paper several pages of the strange characters. Some of these he translated by means of the Urim and Thummim, the “interpreters” which he had received with the plates.
Not far from Joseph’s New York home lived a prosperous farmer by the name of Martin Harris. He had heard much of Joseph’s experiences, and in contrast with most of the people of the community, he had shown a friendly interest in them. In February 1828, Mr. Harris called on Joseph.
“I Cannot Read a Sealed Book”
He was shown the pages of transcribed characters with some of the translations that had been made from them. They greatly interested him, and he asked permission to borrow them. Joseph consenting, he took them to New York City, and, according to his testimony, “presented the characters which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments. Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct, more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true characters, … and that the translation of such of them as had been translated was also correct. I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
“He then said to me, ‘Let me see that certificate.’ I accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’ I left him and went to Dr. [Samuel] Mitchell, who sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and the translation.” 4
Some years later when he was approached by an avowed detractor of Joseph Smith, Professor Anthon denied ever having commented with favor upon the characters or the translation. Yet the fact remains that Martin Harris was so impressed by the experience that he returned to Joseph Smith and then immediately proceeded to Palmyra to put his affairs in order so that he might assist with the translation.
He arrived back in Harmony on April 12, 1828. Work on the translation was begun and carried forward, although there were frequent interruptions. By June 14, 1828, Martin Harris had recorded 116 pages of manuscript from Joseph’s dictation.
During this period, Mrs. Harris had asked her husband to bring the manuscript home so that she might see it. Martin asked Joseph for this privilege, but Joseph denied him.
Refusing to accept the decision, Martin continued pleading until, eventually, he was permitted to take the manuscript, provided he show it to none other than members of his immediate family. Martin agreed, but when he returned to his home he yielded to pressure from others who were curious, and evidently the work was stolen from him.
Joseph Smith realized too late that he had made a serious mistake in permitting the translation to get out of his hands. He knew that he had done wrong, and he suffered great mental anguish. This was a lesson he never forgot; nor did Martin Harris ever forget it, for he was never again permitted to assist with the translation. The lost portion was not redone, since it was evident to Joseph that his enemies could alter the original and publicly belittle him.
For the remainder of that year and the following spring he was prevented from doing any further work with the plates. Most of his time was spent in farming his own land and working for others.
Unfolding the History
On April 5, 1829, there came to his door a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery. He was a stranger to Joseph, but he knew the Smith family, having boarded with them while teaching school in the vicinity of their home the previous season. He had heard the unusual story of the golden plates and was determined to investigate it firsthand. Two days following his arrival he commenced writing as Joseph read aloud the translation of the record.
They found an unusual story. It concerned the descendants of a family who left Jerusalem about 600 B.C. The father, Lehi, had been inspired to flee the city, which was doomed to the sorrowful destruction which came shortly thereafter. Building a ship, the family crossed the ocean and landed somewhere on one of the American continents.
From this family sprang two nations known as the Nephites and the Lamanites. For the most part, the Nephites were a God-fearing people, while the Lamanites were generally indolent, quarrelsome, and wicked. The Nephites had among them the history of Israel up to the time the family had left Jerusalem, and with this they kept a record of their own nation as well as translations of writings from other civilizations they encountered.
Their history records that prophets and priests taught them principles of righteousness and administered to them the ordinances of salvation. Most remarkable of all, the Savior visited these people following his resurrection in fulfillment of his statement recorded in the Gospel of John: “Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.” 5 He taught them the principles he had taught in Palestine and set up his church among them, giving its leadership authority identical to that which he conferred upon the Twelve Apostles in Jerusalem.
Following the teachings of Christ, these people lived in peace and happiness for generations. But as the nation grew prosperous it became wicked, despite the warnings of the prophets. Among these prophets was Mormon, who in his day kept the chronicles of the nation. From these extensive records he had compiled on plates of gold an abridged record. This he had given to his son, Moroni, who survived the destruction of the Nephite nation at the hands of the Lamanites. Moroni, prior to his death, buried the record in the Hill Cumorah, where Joseph Smith received it some fourteen centuries later. A remnant of the Lamanite nation is found today among the American Indians.
2. Oliver Cowdery’s account of the experience as found in a letter from Cowdery to W. W. Phelps dated 28 May 1835. (See Cowdery’s Letters on the Bringing In of the New Dispensation [Burlington, Wis.: Free Press Print, 1899], pp. 26–27.) The letter was first published in 1854.
5. John 10:16.