On December 23, 1825, a handsome, six-foot, young American, with blue eyes and light brown hair, celebrated his twentieth birthday. His name was Joseph Smith, Jr.
For a young man of twenty, it was a fascinating time to be alive. In the United States, General Andrew Jackson, whom Joseph later admired as one of America’s greatest leaders, lost his first bid for the presidency. The Erie Canal was opened, ready to become the most important economic development in America since the invention of the cotton gin.
In South America, the last republics to win separation from Spain were celebrating their first year of independence. In Russia, Nicholas I became czar, and in Japan, the government, alarmed at the unwanted influence of outsiders, was trying to expel nearly all foreigners.
Joseph’s world was different. However, many of his personal activities and problems were similar to those of young Latter-day Saints in the 1970s. Let’s bridge the generations and see how the early life of Joseph Smith resembles our lives.
By the time he was twenty, the Prophet had already done many things that few people, before or since, have done. He had seen and conversed with the Father and the Son; he had talked with angels; he had viewed and handled the ancient records that would become the Book of Mormon.
But Joseph Smith had not achieved perfection. He had faults to overcome. One of them was his writing—his mother said his spelling habits were the worst in the family. As a teenager, he was often observed in deep thought—daydreaming, to most people—so he had the reputation of being somewhat idle.
Nor was young Joseph above temptation. In his writings he later mentioned that even after his first spiritual manifestation, he mingled with all kinds of society and “frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations offensive in the sight of God.” (JS—H 1:28.) Not that he committed any “great or malignant sins,” because, as he said, “a disposition to commit such was never in my nature.” But being of a jovial, cheery nature and full of fun, he was “guilty of levity.” He often felt condemned, he said, for his “weakness and imperfections,” but by the time he was seventeen, he had found the inner strength necessary to overcome his most serious imperfections and the courage to fervently seek, with success, the forgiveness of God.
His judgment and good sense were continuing to develop, because in the year he turned twenty he was able to persuade his employer to quit digging for treasure. Joseph had gone to work for Josiah Stoal for fourteen dollars a month. Along with many people in this part of New York, Mr. Stoal dug for buried treasure. Joseph said: “I continued to work for nearly a month, without success in our undertaking, and finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it. Hence, arose the very prevalent story of my having been a money-digger.” (JS—H 1:56.)
Even though he was to become a prophet, young Joseph experienced many of the problems, temptations, and concerns of youth. In the process he learned repentance and forgiveness, principles of vital importance to people in any age.
Unfortunately, young Joseph did not keep a diary; his name did not appear in any of the newspapers of the time; and contemporary letters of journals contain no information about him. So we have to reconstruct his young manhood from the reminiscences of his mother and other people who knew him and from our knowledge of the general conditions of the time.
He was only nine when his family moved from Vermont to western New York. The Smiths had become New Yorkers, along with thousands of other New Englanders, in order to seek a better farm and improve their economic lot. Their new farm (about a hundred acres) was covered with trees. At least the first year was spent clearing timber.
The Smiths had eight children, and times were difficult for them. Young Joseph knew what it meant for his parents to be in debt. He also knew what it meant to be depended on, for he had to work to help support the family.
Joseph learned woodcutting on his father’s farm in New York as he and his brothers helped clear the heavily timbered land. Trees were “girdled”; that is, the men cut a ring of bark around each tree so it would die. The dead timber was then burned, and the pioneer family could sometimes sell the hardwood ashes or the potash and pearl ash made from them. If trees were not girdled, they were cut while still green, and in the maple-timbered land of western New York, this was no easy task.
The Smith farm was well suited for raising wheat, and if the Smiths were typical settlers, they began doing so as soon as possible.
The new farm could not immediately provide a livelihood for a household of ten, and Joseph and his brothers soon found themselves helping with all kinds of small enterprises. Their mother painted oilcloth, which the family peddled from door to door.
In Palmyra, before they moved to the farm, Joseph’s father opened a cake and root beer shop and sold gingerbread, pies, boiled eggs, and other items, sometimes peddling them from door to door in a homemade handcart. Joseph probably assisted.
Later he sold firewood, as well as such homemade products as chairs, baskets, birch brooms, and maple syrup. The Smiths peddled their cake and root beer at public occasions, including revivals and holiday celebrations.
As he grew older, Joseph found opportunities for employment away from home, hoeing corn, digging wells, and removing rock. One neighbor who employed him said of Joseph: “His noble deportment, his faithfulness, and his kind address could not fail to win the esteem of those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. In all his boyish sports and amusements, I never knew anyone to gain advantage over him, and yet he was always kind and kept the good will of others.”
Joseph Smith’s young life was not all work and hardship. His mother said he spent much time in contemplation. He was also curious about the things around him—perhaps even to the point of sometimes making a nuisance of himself. He got his face blackened with ink by a young prankster when he got too close to a printing press. On the other hand, he had a cheerful nature and a good sense of humor; and it was not uncommon, even in adult life, for him to indulge in a few harmless jokes of his own.
Young Joseph also loved sports and the great outdoors. He found time to excel at several games and amusements. In America’s frontier communities, tests of skill and strength, such as wrestling, footracing, jumping, and stick-pulling, were popular among the young men, and Joseph was good at all of these.
Stick-pulling is a game in which the two contestants sit with their feet together and their hands grasping a stick suspended between them. The one who is able to pull the other up by pulling on the stick is the champion. Being large in stature as well as skillfully coordinated, Joseph seldom lost in this or in wrestling. He also liked fishing, especially in Durfee’s Millpond near Palmyra; and he was fond of hunting. Even as an adult he spent many hours in the woods with his dog and gun.
Like many other farm youths of the time, Joseph had little opportunity to go to school. As a child he may have attended the elementary grades in Vermont, where the law required public schools in every community. In New York, there were no public schools, and the Smiths did not have the money to send their children to private schools.
According to some of their neighbors, the Smiths conducted a school in their own home during the winter evenings and discussed the Bible. Joseph did learn the rudiments of reading, writing, and arithmetic. He also learned to be an effective speaker and was an active member of a local debating club. In later years he greatly augmented his education by studying languages, history, sciences, and government.
Like all normal and well-rounded young men, Joseph eventually reached the age where he was also interested in the opposite sex. Two of the young ladies whom he courted were daughters of Josiah Stoal, who lived forty miles from Palmyra. Joseph went to work for their father just before he turned twenty. There is no direct information available concerning what they did on their dates, but if they followed the pattern of most western settlers, there was no form of amusement more popular than dancing.
The most common dance was the famous Virginia reel, with its fast, whirling sets that kept everyone moving. Parties at home were also common. Here groups of young people got together for good meals, dancing, and various parlor games. As one frontier historian has written, “Since many of these games had kissing as a main objective, they were most efficient in helping courtship along.”
Young Joseph undoubtedly enjoyed his courting days, but it also seems clear that his conduct toward the girls he courted was exemplary. A few years later certain people who were intent on finding something evil in Joseph’s background brought the Stoal sisters into court to try to draw something from them. Both, however, declared that his behavior toward them, both in public and in private, was of the highest order.
Cheerful, good-natured, and fun-loving, but at the same time mindful of his responsibilities toward the character of himself and others, Joseph Smith gave no young lady any cause for regret at having kept company with him.
While Joseph was still working for Josiah Stoal, he met a very special young lady, who soon became his wife. Emma Hale was the daughter of Isaac Hale, a local hunter, and Joseph boarded in their home. Emma was seventeen months older than the handsome young man who had come to the town of Bainbridge. Before long, the two young people were deeply in love.
But their romance met with some problems, as Emma’s father became concerned over the stories of Joseph’s having had visions and revelations. Not knowing Joseph very well, Mr. Hale’s suspicions were naturally aroused, and he refused to consent to the marriage. The two young people were genuinely in love, however, and decided that their only recourse was to elope. They were fully of age, Joseph being twenty-one and his bride twenty-two, and they were married on January 18, 1827.
In one respect, Joseph Smith’s youth resembles that of the young men and women of today. In high schools and colleges all over the world, students are expressing their concern not only for their own future, but also for the future of the world around them. War, crime, and the destruction of their environment have caused thoughtful students to search for meaning in life. What is it all about and where may ultimate truth be found?
The issues and problems in Joseph Smith’s day were different, but the spirit of his quest was the same. Joseph’s contemplative nature, his curiosity, and his interest in reading stimulated him, as did the turmoil around him. As he was entering his teens, the most dramatic event in western New York concerned religion. The “second great awakening” was sweeping the country, especially the West, and even though most people were not members of churches, many showed an interest in the revivals that were held in hundreds of communities.
Joseph was more than curious. He became a seeker for meaning in life—and a seeker for truth. At the age of twelve he was so profoundly influenced that he became concerned for the welfare of his soul. During the next few years he studied the Bible diligently enough that he became concerned also for the welfare of mankind in general. The outcome was his decision to seek the Lord in prayer, and the result of that was his first vision.
Joseph Smith’s youth was many-sided, and it is comparable in many ways with the experiences and problems of the youth of today. He lived in a smaller world than ours. Yet his world influenced him just as directly. He worked and he played, and sometimes he just sat and thought. He had high aspirations, but he also made mistakes. He had little learning, but he saw the need for more.
He suffered the temptations of most young men and yet he learned the reality of forgiveness. Even as a young man, Joseph Smith set the pattern for young adults of the Church by the wholesome, well-rounded life that he lived and by his overcoming problems and obstacles.
If he did it, the rest of us can also.
James Allen is an American history professor at BYU with a special love for the life and times of Joseph Smith. The New Era gathered a committee of history professors and a group of high school and college students who listed the things they wanted to know about Joseph Smith’s youth. Here’s the result.