“Book of Mormon Personalities Known by Joseph Smith,” Ensign, Aug. 1978, 12
Whenever the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., saw their father feel for the “specs” he carried in his vest pocket they knew it was time for the evening devotional; by custom, each day in their home ended with song, prayer, and Bible reading.1 Father Smith conducted, read from the Bible, and prayed. However, shortly after the initial visits of Moroni to the young Prophet Joseph in September 1823, these family gatherings took on, according to the Prophet’s mother, a singular aspect. She wrote:
“From this time forth, Joseph continued to receive instructions from the Lord, and we continued to get the children together every evening, for the purpose of listening while he gave us a relation of the same. I presume our family presented an aspect as singular as any that ever lived upon the face of the earth—all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons, and daughters, and giving the most profound attention to a boy, eighteen years of age. …
“During our evening conversations, Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.”2
These detailed descriptions were given during the four years between Moroni’s first appearance and the time that Joseph was allowed to take the gold plates. Where did his information come from? Unfortunately, all his history records is:
“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.” (History of the Church, 1:16.)
In later life as well, he seldom elaborated on the events of those days. (See History of the Church, 1:220.) One rare exception appears in his letter to John Wentworth:
“I was also informed concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of this country, and shown who they were, and from whence they came; a brief sketch of their origin, progress, civilization, laws, governments, of their righteousness and iniquity, and the blessings of God being finally withdrawn from them as a people was made known unto me: I was also told where there was deposited some plates on which were engraven an abridgement of the records of the ancient prophets that had existed on this continent. The angel appeared to me three times the same night and unfolded the same things. After having received many visits from the angels of God unfolding the majesty, and glory of the events that should transpire in the last days, on the morning of the 22nd of September A.D. 1827, the angel of the Lord delivered the records into my hands.”3
Thus, Moroni revealed the initial information to the Prophet Joseph, but many angels revealed additional things to him before he received the plates. (See Journal of Discourses, 14:140.) Orson Pratt recalled in later years that these angels were Book of Mormon personalities to whom Joseph spoke face to face. (See Journal of Discourses, 13:66.) Elder Pratt also said they came to instruct Joseph concerning the work he was to perform, and that Moroni gave him “much instruction.”4
Others among Joseph Smith’s close associates add intriguing details. Wilford Woodruff said that Joseph was taught by “angels from heaven, by the voice of God, and by the inspiration and power of the Holy Ghost.” (Journal of Discourses, 16:35.) Orson Spencer wrote how “at his touch the ancient prophets spring into life.”5
Naturally, Moroni, who held the keys of the restoration of the Book of Mormon, was most prominent during this time of preparation. (See D&C 27:5.) In at least twenty-two visits, he worked with the young prophet, appearing three times during the night of September 21–22, 1823, once the following day while Joseph was on his way back to the house from the field, later the same day at the Hill Cumorah when Joseph first saw the plates, three times more as Joseph returned to the hill on 22 September 1824, 1825, and 1826, and once during the summer of 1827. His father had sent Joseph on business to Manchester and he returned exhausted, very late at night, explaining:
“As I passed by the hill of Cumorah, where the plates are, the angel met me, and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing, and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do.”6
The tenth visit occurred on 22 September 1827 when Joseph received the plates. During the next summer, the angel took the plates and the Urim and Thummim from the Prophet “in consequence of my having wearied the Lord in asking for the privilege of letting Martin Harris take the writings, which he lost by transgression.” (History of the Church, 1:21–22.)
The messenger subsequently returned (the twelfth visit) to bring the Urim and Thummin, by which Joseph Smith received section 3, which chastizes him for his negligence. The angel took the Urim and Thummin again, but later returned both the plates and the Urim and Thummin so that the work of translation could continue. (History of the Church, 1:23.) According to Lucy Mack Smith, this fourteenth visit occurred on 22 September 1828.7
David Whitmer, in 1878, told Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt a story that includes three more visits, the fifteenth through seventeenth. He was traveling with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith to Fayette, to finish the translation when “a very pleasant, nice-looking old man suddenly appeared by the side of our wagon and saluted us with, ‘good morning, it is very warm,’ at the same time wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and, by a sign from Joseph, I invited him to ride if he was going our way. But he said very pleasantly, ‘No, I am going to Cumorah.’ This name was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant. We all gazed at him and at each other, and as I looked around enquiringly of Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared, so that I did not see him again.
“Joseph F. Smith: Did you notice his appearance?
“D. Whitmer: I should think I did. He was, I should think, about five feet eight or nine inches tall and heavy set, about such a man as James Vancleave there, but heavier; his face was as large; he was dressed in a suit of brown woolen clothes, his hair and beard were white, like Brother Pratt’s, but his beard was not so heavy. I also remember that he had on his back a sort of knapsack with something in, shaped like a book. It was the messenger who had the plates, who had taken them from Joseph just prior to our starting from Harmony. Soon after our arrival home, I saw something which led me to the belief that the plates were placed or concealed in my father’s barn. I frankly asked Joseph if my supposition was right, and he told me it was.”8
After the translation was complete, Joseph returned the plates to the angel who later showed them to Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and David Whitmer, and, later the same day, returned to show them to Martin Harris and Joseph Smith.
The last two recorded visits occurred when Joseph received the plates from the angel and displayed them to the eight witnesses, then gave them back. Twenty-two known visits!
In addition to Moroni, the Savior himself, whose advent among the Nephites is central in the book, appeared to Joseph in the First Vision, at the time section 76 was given, and in the Kirtland Temple. (History of the Church, 1:5–7, D&C 76:19–24; D&C 110:1–10.)
In addition to these visits, early chroniclers record other visits of the Savior. For example, Zebedee Coltrin, speaking to the School of the Prophets of the Salt Lake Stake—which included President John Taylor and other general authorities—said that the Savior had appeared during a meeting two or three weeks after the organization of the original School of the Prophets in Kirtland. He passed through the room without speaking, and Joseph Smith identified the holy visitor: “That is Jesus, the Son of God, our elder brother.”9
Several other Book of Mormon personalities came in relationship to the book’s publication. Parley P. Pratt, for one, said:
“Through that young man and the ministration of holy angels to him, that book came forth to the world.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:212.)
Thus, Joseph Smith was apparently aided by the ministering of angels who had been Nephites during mortality.
Elder George Q. Cannon named two of these angels as, probably, Alma and Nephi. (Journal of Discourses, 13:47.) In a later address, Elder Cannon said Joseph was visited constantly by angels, including Moroni and the heads of various dispensations, that Joseph Smith’s mind “might be fully saturated with a knowledge of the things of God, and that he might comprehend the great and holy calling that God had bestowed upon him.” (Journal of Discourses, 23:362.)
John Taylor amplified:
“He learned by communication from the heavens, from time to time, of the great events that should transpire in the latter days. He understood things that were past, and comprehended the various dispensations and the designs of those dispensations. He not only had the principles developed, but he was conversant with the parties who officiated as the leading men of those dispensations, and from a number of them he received authority and keys and priesthood and power for the carrying out of the great purposes of the Lord in the last days, who were sent and commissioned specially by the Almighty to confer upon him those keys and this authority.” (Journal of Discourses, 20:174–75.)
Elder John Taylor also identified “Mormon, Moroni, Nephi, and others of the ancient Prophets who formerly lived on this Continent” as visitors. (Journal of Discourses, 17:374.) Speaking at Ephraim, Utah, in 1879, Elder Taylor said the Nephite twelve disciples also came to Joseph.
“The principles which he had, placed him in communication with the Lord, and not only with the Lord, but with the ancient apostles and prophets; such men, for instance, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Noah, Adam, Seth, Enoch, and Jesus and the Father, and the apostles that lived on this continent as well as those who lived on the Asiatic continent. He seemed to be as familiar with these people as we are one with another.” (Journal of Discourses, 21:94.)
In a later talk at the Fourteenth Ward in Salt Lake City, Elder Taylor added:
“The Angel Moroni came to him and revealed to him the Book of Mormon. … And then came Nephi, one of the ancient prophets, that had lived upon this continent, who had an interest in the welfare of the people that he had lived amongst in those days. …
“Again who more likely than Mormon and Nephi, and some of those prophets who had ministered to the people upon this continent, under the influence of the same Gospel, to operate again as its representatives?” (Journal of Discourses, 21:161, 163.)
Elder Orson Pratt, in a personal letter to John Christensen of Brigham City, testified:
“The prophet often received visits from Nephi, Moroni, Peter, James, John (the beloved), John (the Baptist), Elijah, Moses, the three Nephites, etc. etc.”10
Let us make no mistake. Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission and the translation of the Book of Mormon were events for which righteous beings had waited and prayed for centuries. The unseen world was close during those crucial events. Those visits of instruction and inspiration to the young Prophet, spoken of with sacred reticence by himself and his colleagues thereafter, show him to be a seer second to none in this dispensation. The words of William Taylor, brother to President John Taylor, pay a fitting tribute to this great gift of the Prophet:
“He seemed to be just as familiar with the Spirit World, and as well acquainted with the other side, as he was here.”11