“The Alvin Smith Story: Fact and Fiction,” Ensign, Aug. 1987, 58
A popular phrase among some Mormon historians today is “the new history.” But some “new history” (which can be merely the old skepticism) is in trouble. For example, attempts to reposition the foundations of the Church on the basis of documents tied to Mark Hofmann are now outdated, because he has pleaded guilty in open court to selling false documents. Thus, revised histories based on these documents must now be revised themselves.
The historical result is like the football penalty for too many players on the field. There is a moment or two of brief confusion, but after a quick adjustment the game continues with the same momentum. The Prophet Joseph Smith told the story of his visions several times with great power, and the historical records containing this testimony continue to be the basis of any serious study of his life and work.
And yet revisions of the Prophet’s history, based on rumors started by documents created or manipulated by Mark Hofmann, persist. It is time to put many of these myths to rest.
One document that has played a key role in questioning the Prophet Joseph Smith’s version of what happened at the Hill Cumorah is the so-called Salamander Letter. In it, Martin Harris is supposed to have said that on his first visit to the hill, Joseph saw a salamander in the hole in which the plates rested and that this salamander transformed itself into a spirit which struck Joseph and instructed him to bring his brother, Alvin, to the hill.1
The confusion created by this letter should have cleared now that Mark Hofmann has confessed the letter is a fraud. But rumors that Alvin had a major role in laying the foundations of the Church continue to circulate. Because Alvin’s story is less known than Joseph’s, attempts have been made to refashion the story of the foundation of Mormonism—to present Alvin or Joseph as finding the plates by magical practices rather than by divine revelation. This article will attempt to answer those charges and then review the real story of Alvin Smith and his role in the Restoration.
Two years ago a news report made Alvin Smith a central figure in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. A suspiciously anonymous source claimed he had seen an early ledger-type book containing an unknown Oliver Cowdery history in the LDS historical archives. “I don’t remember the exact wording, but it said that Alvin located the buried gold with his seer stone.” The informant was further quoted as saying that “Alvin had other people with him, including Joseph. There was no mention of a dream beforehand. … The salamander appeared on three occasions, once to Alvin and twice to Joseph.”2
The story was immediately suspect because those entrusted with the custody of early LDS records indicated that they had never seen an early Oliver Cowdery history. But the credibility of the report was later crushed completely when the intermediary arranging the interview disclosed that the informant was Mark Hofmann. In the meantime, LDS Historical Department personnel had made systematic searches of Church archives for Joseph Smith period histories and for all references to them. They announced the results in a news release dated 16 October 1986:
“Employees of the Church Historical Department have carefully searched the Church’s historical collections, including the First Presidency’s vault, and have found no evidence that the Church ever obtained the early Oliver Cowdery history. No such record appears on any past or present inventories, catalogs, or other lists of the Church’s collections. None of the persons most familiar with these collections remembers ever having seen such an item in Church possession.”3
The news release did reveal that the search turned up “a little-known draft of Joseph Smith’s published history that some persons apparently have mistakenly assumed to be the Cowdery history.” I have examined the document and can report the following facts about it:
This manuscript is an unbound, stitched section of a hand-written ledger-type record, starting in the middle of historical narrative and continuing for twenty-five pages. The last eleven pages are blank, without evidence that the writer intended to add more.
The content corresponds to material in volume 1 of Joseph Smith’s printed History of the Church, beginning in the middle of the Aaronic Priesthood restoration (p. 42) and closing in the middle of the second New York conference of the Church (p. 115). All events in the manuscript are identical to those published in Joseph Smith’s History of the Church.
The wording of this fragment closely follows the History’s source—the Manuscript History of the Church, serially published in the Times and Seasons beginning in 1842. The document is clearly a semifinal draft or dictation. Compared to the final History, only minor vocabulary differences exist, since word changes almost always involve synonyms. There is no mention of Alvin Smith, salamanders, or seer stones.
No evidence suggests that the beginning of this manuscript would have differed from Joseph Smith’s official History of the Church, or that the earlier part was even preserved—authors typically discard intermediate copies when final revisions are made.
Joseph Smith began the History of the Church in the summer of 1838 (see JS—H 1:60), but Oliver Cowdery had been excommunicated earlier that year, on 11 April 1838. Thus, this surviving draft of the History has nothing to do with Oliver. Instead, it is in the writing of James Mulholland, who says in his journal: “Commenced to write for President Joseph Smith, Jr., on Monday the 3d September, 1838.”4
Now that the 1985 newspaper rumor tying Alvin and Joseph to the appearances of salamanders has been discredited and no Oliver Cowdery history has been located, we are left with only one document that claims Alvin and Joseph had anything to do with salamanders—the letter supposedly written by Martin Harris but which Mark Hofmann confessed was a fraud.
One of the reasons the Salamander Letter was taken seriously by early examiners was that it imitated some genuine historical sources and patterns.5 This imitation and variation of factual themes lent a semblance of authenticity to the document. An examination of these sources, therefore, will not only reveal the historical perversions of the Salamander Letter, but also dispel claims that Alvin had some prominent and occult part to play in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.
It is unfortunate that the writers who did the earliest work of gathering information about the Smith family were more concerned with blackening their reputation than with finding the facts. Interviewers not only ignored the positive things about the Smiths, but distorted many answers to mean what the interviewer wanted them to mean. For instance, Mormon apostate Philastus Hurlburt collected affidavits in 1833 that contain repetitious variations on the theme that “digging for money was their principal employment.”6 Though evidence involves the Smiths and their neighbors in treasure searching—a common practice in many American communities at the time—this was not their main occupation. Their true “principal employment” was conversion of one hundred acres of timbered wilderness into a cleared farm with dwellings, fences, and wheat and maple-sugar production.
Most of the affidavits Hurlbut collected steered clear of Joseph Smith’s story of finding and obtaining the Book of Mormon plates. In fact, of fifteen affidavits from the Palmyra vicinity taken in 1833, only five specifically mention the Book of Mormon plates. Obviously, the interviewer was more intent on attacking the Smiths’ character than in understanding their claims.7
The notable exception is the detailed report of Willard Chase, who at one time paid enough attention to the Prophet’s claims to try taking the plates from him.8 Born in 1798, Chase became a skilled carpenter and lay Methodist minister who at times sought supernatural insight through the use of a seer stone. Consequently, his 1833 affidavit contains a fairly informed point of view mixed with hostility toward the Smith family. Chase’s affidavit is of particular interest here because some of the recent distortions about Alvin Smith have come from Hofmann’s Salamander Letter, and Hofmann has admitted using the Chase statement in constructing it.9
In his affidavit, Chase says that Joseph, Sr., told him of his son’s first visit to the hill four years before, on 22 September 1823, and of his failure to obtain the plates because he had not yet learned total obedience to the angel’s instructions. Chase then records that Joseph “enquired when he could have them, and was answered thus: come one year from this day, and bring with you your eldest brother, and you shall have them. This spirit, he said, was the spirit of the prophet who wrote the book, and who was sent to Joseph Smith, to make known these things to him. Before the expiration of the year, his oldest brother died, which the old man said was an accidental providence! Joseph went one year from that day, to demand the book, and the spirit enquired for his brother, and he said that he was dead.”10
As will be detailed later, Joseph’s oldest brother, Alvin, was alive at the time Joseph first visited the hill. He believed in the existence of the Book of Mormon plates, but he died 19 November 1823, just two months after Joseph’s first visit to the hill.
Despite his sarcastic distortions, Willard Chase evidently reported the instructions concerning Alvin correctly. The event was confirmed by Joseph Knight, the LDS convert who supplied Joseph and Oliver with necessities while they translated the Book of Mormon. Brother Knight tells how Joseph first went to the hill but was denied the record because of carelessness: “Joseph says, ‘When can I have it?’ The answer was the 22nd day of September next if you bring the right person with you. Joseph says, ‘Who is the right person?’ The answer was ‘Your oldest brother.’ But before September came his oldest brother died.”11 Two later reports tell similar stories, basically repeating the Chase affidavit.12
We do not know why Alvin was identified as the person Joseph was to bring with him to the hill the following year. Nor do we know why Alvin died a few months later. Perhaps Alvin’s death was simply an accident of mortality, as Chase reported Father Smith saying. On the other hand, the Lord may have taken Alvin home for reasons we do not yet understand. Part of the problem is that we do not know the exact words of the angel. Joseph Knight simply said that Joseph’s oldest brother was the right person to bring.
Whatever the reasons Joseph was told to bring Alvin to the hill, the point is that the Salamander Letter copies Chase and Knight. However, it makes a serious historical mistake by misrepresenting the timing of the command. In the Salamander Letter, “Joseph says, when can I have it? The spirit says, one year from today if you obey me. Look to the stone. After a few days he looks. The spirit says, bring your brother Alvin. Joseph says, he is dead—shall I bring what remains? But the spirit is gone.” In this fraudulent version, the command to bring Alvin comes after Joseph’s first conversation at Cumorah, and even after his brother’s death on 19 November 1823. Whether these perversions of the facts were intentional or not, they added an unnecessarily macabre dimension to a wonderful experience later made bittersweet by the tragedy of Alvin’s death.
Why was Joseph instructed to bring another person? The procedure must have been important, for both Knight and Chase add that after Alvin died Joseph was told to bring Emma, a reality confirmed in her patriarchal blessing given by Joseph Smith, Sr.: “Thou shalt ever remember the great condescension of thy God in permitting thee to accompany my son when the angel delivered the record of the Nephites to his care.”13 These and other sources suggest that Emma went to the hill in 1827 but prayerfully waited nearby while Joseph received instructions and the ancient book.14
Evidently, no one would be entrusted with the plates without companionship. It may be that knowing that someone else would also share the burden would strengthen the young prophet, or perhaps it had something to do with the scriptural law of witnesses. (See Deut. 17:6; 2 Cor. 13:1; 2 Ne. 27:14.) Whatever the reason, in 1823, before Joseph met Emma, Alvin was honored by being named worthy to assist him, an evident result of Alvin’s strength of character.
The 1833 Willard Chase affidavit served to supply other concepts for the fraudulent Salamander Letter as well. One of these is the salamander itself. The idea of a salamander transforming itself into a spirit who prevents Joseph from taking the plates comes directly from Chase—with one variation: in the Chase affidavit, the Spirit is transformed from a toad. Evidently, the salamander was purely Mark Hofmann’s invention.
A comparison of the Prophet’s account with Chase’s will show the latter’s historical exaggerations. When writing his 1838 History, the Prophet only summarized how he initially went for the plates and “made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden by the messenger.” (JS—H 1:53.) But in 1832, Joseph had been more specific. He told how he originally visited the hill and tried unsuccessfully three times to take the plates. When he asked aloud why he could not get them, the angel answered: “you have not kept the commandments of the Lord; … therefore, thou wast left unto temptation that thou mightest be made acquainted with the power of the adversary.”15
Oliver Cowdery verified this experience in 1835 when he published an expanded account of Joseph’s experience at Cumorah. He tells how the Prophet tried to pick up the plates three times but was prevented by “a shock … by an invisible power,” followed by his question of why, the angel’s answer of not obeying, and then the sight of Satan: “The angel said, ‘Look’; … and he beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates.” This vision of the adversary was apparently given to teach Joseph not to trifle with the “power of darkness.”16
The Willard Chase affidavit relates the same chain of events, but with a tone of strong ridicule and the peculiar addition of a toad:
“He repaired to the place of deposit … took out the book of gold; but fearing some one might discover where he got it, he laid it down to place back the top stone, as he found it. And turning round, to his surprise there was no book in sight. He again opened the box, and in it saw the book, and attempted to take it out, but was hindered. He saw in the box something like a toad, which soon assumed the appearance of a man, and struck him on the side of his head. Not being discouraged at trifles, he again stooped down and strove to take the book, when the spirit struck him again, and knocked him three or four rods, and hurt him prodigiously. After recovering from his fright, he enquired why he could not obtain the plates; to which the spirit made reply, because you have not obeyed your orders.”17
Given that Chase reported some events basically the same way they were reported by Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery, Lucy Smith, and Joseph Knight,18 why does he add details found in no other original source?19 Certainly, as we have already seen, he was capable of slanting his report to match his prejudices. He was also capable of embellishing a story, purposely or inadvertently, by contaminating it with gossip.20
On the other hand, he may simply have misunderstood what was told him of the events and then colored the misunderstanding as he colored most of what he heard about the Smiths. At this point in the story, the LDS sources say that Joseph Smith, rather than seeing a toad, witnessed either the power or the physical appearance of Lucifer.21 Since Chase claimed to get his information second-hand from Joseph Smith, Sr., could Joseph, Sr., have referred to Satan in scriptural language as “that old serpent, which is the Devil” (Rev. 20:2)? Certainly, Satan’s reptile image was commonly known, illustrated by the Puritan lines of “the Dragon bold, that Serpent old.”22 Chase’s Yankee humor may even have transformed the serpent imagery into toad imagery.
How this notion developed may never be clear, but the fact is that no early source except Chase hints of a toad at Cumorah, much less a salamander. The salamander is an outright embellishment, appearing in no other document except the fraudulent Salamander Letter. Furthermore, even Chase steers clear of tying Alvin to the golden plates and to toads or salamanders. As we noted earlier, that connection was a fiction placed into the rumor mill by Mark Hofmann.
Another falsehood generated by the Salamander Letter is the idea that the Smiths considered exhuming Alvin’s body so Joseph could take it to Cumorah and fulfill the angel’s instructions. In discussing the roots of this strange idea, we need to remember that all historical sources are not created equal. It is not enough to quote a Palmyra “source” without asking whether some form of bias is distorting the recollection—and if so, how much and why. One obvious way to rank sources is to list them chronologically. Early information would be preferred, if it is direct and without severe prejudice.
The oldest source dealing with community rumors about Alvin comes from Joseph Smith, Sr. Almost a year after Alvin died, Father Smith ran a public notice five times in the Palmyra weekly, answering falsehoods about Alvin’s body. The vigorous correction of slander by the family head shows why community statements on the Smiths should not be trusted without substantiation:
“TO THE PUBLIC: Whereas reports have been industriously put in circulation that my son Alvin had been removed from the place of his interment and dissected; … therefore, for the purpose of ascertaining the truth of such reports, I, with some of my neighbors this morning, repaired to the grave, and removing the earth, found the body, which had not been disturbed. This method is taken for the purpose of satisfying the minds of those who may have heard the report, and of informing those who have put it in circulation, that it is earnestly requested they would desist therefrom.” After questioning the motives of rumor mongers, the printed signature of “Joseph Smith” closed the advertisement-notice.23
Why did this gossip target the Smiths? General religious prejudice against the Smiths has been noted by many historians, but the problem has a tighter focus when we see the timing of this public notice. Father Smith penned his protest on 25 September 1824, three days after Joseph’s second visit to the hill, saying that the grave was opened and Alvin’s body located “this morning.”24 So gossip about exhuming Alvin’s body was highest a year after Joseph’s 1823 visit to the hill, the time when, according to the angel’s instructions, Joseph was to bring Alvin. Apparently, word had circulated of Joseph’s instructions, and the false rumor was being spread that the Smiths had dug up—or would dig up—the corpse to fulfill the instructions. Father Smith was evidently pained that the family would be accused of such procedures, and so he took the action necessary to correct the rumor.
Scholars should not underestimate how rumor, speculation, and sarcasm erode true history. A clear example concerning the Smith family is furnished by the newspaperman and regional historian Orsamus Turner, who was slightly older than Joseph Smith, Jr., and knew him as a boy.
With heavy satire, Turner portrays Alvin as carrying the religious hopes of the family. Alvin, he says, was “originally intended, or designated, by fireside consultations, and solemn and mysterious outdoor hints, as the forthcoming Prophet.” What Turner really means in his satirical narrative is unclear, but no serious source names Alvin as anything but an assistant to Joseph. Turner mixes nine parts parody to one part history: “Alvah … eat too many green turnips, sickened and died.” As will be seen, this rough-shod view of an agonizing family tragedy merely shows how unfit many were to write anything about the Restoration. Indeed, Turner closes his guide to LDS origins justifying his levity “because it will admit of no other treatment.”25
This spirit of sarcasm and love of exaggeration were rampant in Palmyra, as is evidenced by the community’s support of the Reflector, a weekly newspaper that ran a year and a half with little else than caricature, including regular mockery of Mormonism.26 Out of this environment of ridicule has come about forty statements from those who claimed to know the Smiths. The problem is that most of these statements came from memory, years after the events took place. Without early documentation, it is impossible to verify them. In fact, a close look at what passes for memory suggests that tradition mingled freely with recollection in these statements.
Alvin is notably absent in most of these reports, except when listed as a member of the family or mentioned as in demand as a hard worker. He made no lasting impact on community memory as a religious leader, though he was included in one detailed money-digging tale evidently intended to suggest that magical activities were involved somehow in finding the Book of Mormon.
This tale comes from Lorenzo Saunders, one of three sons of Enoch Saunders, who died in 1825. The eldest, Orlando, was born in 1803 and took over his father’s farm, not far from the Smith’s. Two younger brothers grew up in Palmyra and later moved to Michigan. One was Lorenzo, born in 1811, and the other was Benjamin, born in 1814.27 Both Lorenzo and Benjamin mention Alvin, though one should be cautious about specifics: at Alvin’s death, Lorenzo was twelve and Benjamin nine. In fact, Benjamin’s only memory of Alvin is understandably general: “Oldest boy was Alvin—died. I remember when he died.”28
Lorenzo’s story about Alvin shows a suspicious coincidence of memory and family stories. In 1884, Lorenzo said: “Willard Chase told me about a place; he said he and Alvin Smith went there to dig, and there was a chest. … And he said they dug down, and it only lay a little under the ground. I says, how did this shovel become broken up like that, and Willard Chase then told me. He says, Alvin and I went down and found that chest.”29 Something told second-hand sixty years after the fact is less verified history than it is vague memory. Furthermore, those who try to tie this account to the Book of Mormon are grasping at straws, because the story is not given in a Book of Mormon context.
There are several examples of major weaknesses in Lorenzo’s memory: “Now I can tell you what he told to our house respecting this revelation that he had in the very commencement before Alvin died, his brother. Sometime before this he claimed he saw the angel, and that he was notified of these plates and all that—and the time would be made known to him, but it was not at that time made known to him, but he must take his older brother and go to the spot, and he could obtain them. Before that time his oldest brother died. Jo Smith got that revelation a year or two before that. I don’t know as I can tell you what year Alvin died in; it was in the summer before Alvin died he told it at our house.”30
This rambling recollection six decades after the fact misses on chronology, for the early Knight and Chase reports say the instruction to bring Alvin was given at the first Cumorah visit on 22 September 1823, whereas in this quote Lorenzo projects back the instruction to bring Alvin “a year or two” before his death. But the first time Joseph was visited by the angel was on 21 September 1823, only two months before Alvin died. This lack of precision is a serious problem in Saunders’ statements claiming to give Joseph’s inside story years after a single hearing of the Prophet’s account.
But perhaps the major weakness in Lorenzo’s information is that it is not entirely a first-hand account. Many details obviously come from the debunker, Willard Chase, who had married Lorenzo’s older sister.31 This Chase connection is significant in several “memories” in the Saunders’ statements, for they are found in only one other original document—their brother-in-law’s affidavit.32 Over the years, Chase undoubtedly told his brothers-in-law of his interview with Joseph, Sr., and his affidavit, printed in 1834, was certainly available to the family. Lorenzo Saunders’ account of the command to bring Alvin to the hill could very easily be based on either or both of these sources, leading us to suspect that his “first-hand” account is really a mix of personal memory and family tradition.
The same suspicion follows younger brother Benjamin’s report of Joseph at the Saunders’ home in 1827: “I heard him tell my brother and sister how he procured the plates. He said he was directed by an angel where it was. He went in the night to get the plates. When he took the plates, there was something down near the box that looked some like a toad that rose up into a man, which forbid him to take the plates. He found a big pair of spectacles also with the plates. As he went home some one tried to get the plates away from him. He said he knock the man down and got away. Had two or three skirmishes on the way. I saw his hand all knocked up, and he said it was done in hitting the enemy. He told his story just as earnestly as any one could.”33
No doubt Benjamin remembered the general conversation and Joseph’s bruised hand. That physical detail requires a date of 1827, when Benjamin was thirteen. But he introduces a major inconsistency into the story by mixing events that occurred in 1823 with events that happened in 1827. Even Chase agrees that Joseph was blocked from possessing the plates in 1823, not four years later when he received them. Since Benjamin is foggy on this basic chronology, how precise can he be on his toad story? No early source close to the Prophet ever gave such a story. But since Lorenzo and Benjamin echo other things from their relative, the toad detail likely also came from Willard Chase, particularly because Benjamin’s phrases so closely reflect Chase’s words.
Now that the Hofmann-related references to salamanders have been discredited, some writers may still try to save the concept by using Benjamin Saunders’ reference to a toad, arguing that he remembered Joseph’s exact words. If so, they will ignore the fact that Benjamin told his story in 1884, nearly sixty years after the conversation took place. They will also ignore Benjamin’s close relationship to Chase, as well as the close similarities between Benjamin’s account and Willard Chase’s.
It makes a difference, too, that Benjamin’s account is the report of a nonbeliever. Although believers documented Joseph’s visions in their early diaries, unbelievers generally did not care what Joseph said and produced no literature about the Prophet unless contacted by an interviewer. Benjamin was definitely among this latter group. After recounting the 1827 conversation about the bruised hand, Benjamin was asked whether he believed the Prophet. His answer was “no,” because his story “did not look consistent to my idea.”34 Should the memory of an apathetic observer—a memory six decades old and contaminated by Willard Chase’s version of the story—carry more weight than the early first-hand accounts of Joseph and his family? There is no justification for a campaign to save either the salamander or the toad.
Only two general impressions of Alvin remain to be added to the above survey. Both point out his reliability. The first comes from Christopher Stafford, who was Joseph’s age and lived a mile south of the Smiths on Stafford Street. In spite of his prejudices about the Smiths, he added an occasional compliment: “Alvin was the oldest son and worked the farm and was the stay of the family.”35 And Orlando Saunders, the oldest brother of Lorenzo and Benjamin, was a little younger than Alvin but included him in recalling the Smiths’ work record: “I knew all of the Smith family well; there were six boys … Young Joe (as we called him then) has worked for me, and he was a good worker. They all were.”36
As one travels toward a mirage in flat country, the illusion of the gleaming lake recedes, requiring another interpretation of what one sees. Quite independent of the Hofmann rumors, two statements of early Church leaders could be interpreted as evidence of undiscovered early histories of the Book of Mormon period of the Church. However, close examination of these “clues” shows that both of them evidently refer to a form of history other than an early written narrative.
A newspaper report in October 1986 claimed that President Woodruff referred “to a history written by Smith in which the church founder describes finding a seerstone.” The newspaper claimed this conclusion was based on “an entry of the First Presidency Office journal.”37 Actually, the quotation is not from the First Presidency Office journal, but from an unsigned, undated memo found in the Emily Smith Stewart papers at the University of Utah. This typed memorandum recalls a conversation with Wilford Woodruff just before he dictated a recollection about Zion’s Camp. Although the conversation was apparently held “on February 22nd, 1893,” the memo itself explains what was said by “our late President upon this occasion,” showing that it was written after President Woodruff’s death in 1898 and therefore is not a contemporary journal note.38
The memo says President Woodruff made some spontaneous comments to Elder James E. Talmage “in relation to the seer stone known as ‘Gazelem,’ which was shown of the Lord to the Prophet Joseph Smith to be some thirty feet under ground, and which he obtained by digging under the pretence of excavating for a well, as related in his own history.”39 Since no history written or dictated by the Prophet contains this incident, some have concluded there must be another, undiscovered history somewhere.
Of course, that conclusion is necessarily based on three premises: (1) that the phrase “his own history” was actually used by President Woodruff; (2) that the memo reported President Woodruff’s words accurately, even though they were remembered from five years earlier; and (3) that, if truly spoken by President Woodruff, the phrase referred to a written history rather than to an oral history.
None of these premises should be automatically assumed to be true, particularly the last. The nineteenth-century Presidents did not rely solely on written sources when talking about Joseph Smith, for they had lived with him, worked with him, and heard him speak. Thirty years earlier, Wilford Woodruff had recorded Brigham Young’s version of “the seer stone which Joseph Smith first obtained” by digging “15 feet underground” after seeing it first in another seer stone.40 Since the post-1898 memo resembles this 1859 Woodruff entry, the phrase “his own history” could easily refer to conversations with Joseph as remembered by Brigham Young and other early leaders of the Church.
The second statement that could hint at an undiscovered early Church history comes from John Whitmer, who wrote the first known Church history. In his history, Whitmer copied the revelation commanding him to be historian and then noted: “Oliver Cowdery has written the commencement of the Church history, commencing at the time of the finding of the plates, up to June 12, 1831.”41
For many, this statement means that Oliver had compiled the events up to that time in some detail. This, of course, is what John Whitmer had done, telling the story of the Church from 1831 to 1838 in about one hundred manuscript pages. A similar Cowdery account would be priceless. But searches in several generations have failed to locate any history earlier than John Whitmer’s. A century ago, Church historians Franklin D. Richards and Andrew Jenson spent much time trying to locate an Oliver Cowdery history, and did not find one, as shown by the careful Historical Department study detailed in the news release published in the December 1986 Ensign.
Was there a Cowdery history? Probably not—at least not the narrative history that has traditionally been assumed to exist. Previous to 1832, many Church records were kept by Oliver Cowdery. However, these were not chronological history, but mostly drafts of Joseph’s early revelations and the minutes of the first two conferences of the Church held June 9 and September 26, 1830, to which Oliver Cowdery signed his name.42 Soon after the latter date, he left with the western missionaries for Ohio and Missouri, not returning until the following summer. Away from the center of the Church, he was obviously not keeping general records after late 1830.
Was Oliver indeed the “church historian” in early 1830? Only if his historical function is carefully defined. In this period he was Joseph Smith’s companion in preaching and copying revelations and translations. Oliver Cowdery’s known writings are: (1) the major part of the original Book of Mormon manuscript, and the printer’s copy; (2) apparently many revelations when he and Joseph were together, presumably noting their times and circumstances; (3) an existing first draft of the ordinance requirements that later became Doctrine and Covenants 20; (4) nearly five chapters in the present Book of Moses, evidently done in the summer of 1830; and (5) the minutes of the two 1830 conferences mentioned above. Thus, we know that Oliver kept the official records from the period of the Book of Mormon translation until the summer of 1830, but there is no evidence that he ever compiled them with interpretive comments in the way John Whitmer and succeeding Church historians have done.43
This may be why no guidelines for Oliver Cowdery’s historical assignment are known to exist, whereas John Whitmer’s charge to keep a chronicle of events is recorded: “he shall continue in writing and making a history of all the important things which he shall observe and know concerning my church.” (D&C 69:3.) There are half a dozen more significant references to the Whitmer volume in Church records before he was excommunicated, as well as a formal demand to return “your notes on the history of the Church of Latter-day Saints.”44 No such request was ever made of Oliver Cowdery, even though Oliver and John were excommunicated during the same period. This different treatment is best explained by Oliver not producing interpretive history but the raw materials of history—various manuscripts that constituted the original Church archives.
It is also significant that the word history does not appear in the revelations concerning record-keeping until John Whitmer was appointed on 8 March 1831 to “write and keep a regular history.” (D&C 47:1.) In terms of strict language, then, John Whitmer replaced Oliver Cowdery but was given a broader commission: “It shall be appointed unto him to keep the church record and history continually; for Oliver Cowdery I have appointed to another office.” (D&C 47:3.) Oliver was Church recorder, but John was recorder and historian.
John Whitmer’s historical method fits this picture. His revealed appointment came at the beginning of March 1831, but his narrative opens with events of the previous autumn when Oliver Cowdery left his work as scribe to fulfill a mission. This was a historical approach, not just one of keeping records. Furthermore, John Whitmer’s opening words do not suggest that he inherited more than bare documents: “I shall proceed to continue this record.”45 In the pages that followed, John would include the background and text of Joseph’s revelations, summarize conferences of the Church and—to long official documents—add his own personal observations. In fact, his commentary makes up half his history.
Thus, the tradition of the “Documentary History of the Church” was born. It was established by Oliver Cowdery, the scribe-secretary, and developed by John Whitmer, the recorder-historian. John could well describe the official reporting of his predecessor as “the commencement of the church history,”46 for he built on the foundation that Oliver had laid. But it is unlikely that in his tenure as first Church recorder, Oliver Cowdery recounted the early Smith experiences in story form. That was left for the Prophet to begin in his summary history of 1832 and to complete in much greater detail in his own “Documentary History,” begun in 1838.47
In an entry in “The Book of the Law of the Lord,” Joseph Smith refers to his beloved deceased brother: “Shall his name not be recorded in this book?” With this question the Prophet added his oldest brother to his book of remembrance, emphasizing Alvin’s generous and spotless life: “In him there was no guile.”48
So we come to the main question: What part did this brother play in the Restoration? The records are all too brief. But they say enough to reveal Alvin’s character and the sacrifices of the family during the Prophet’s youth. They also confirm the early appearance of Moroni, for Alvin died in 1823, deeply believing that Joseph was about to get the plates.
But Alvin’s story does not end with his death, because the Smith family’s search for consolation regarding his death would yet be answered in 1836 in the Kirtland Temple. Thus, when we understand Alvin’s life, new perspectives open about the Kirtland vision of Alvin in celestial glory—and why he so appropriately represents the righteous dead.
Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack were married in 1796 at Tunbridge, Vermont.49 A premature birth took their first son, but in 1798 a second was born to them, and lived. They named him Alvin.
Father Smith once ran a store and also taught school, but he regularly farmed until Alvin reached his teens. As the parents prospered, they sought better opportunities for their family, and in time left the White River area of middle Vermont for Lebanon, New Hampshire, on the Connecticut River. Mother Lucy recalled her hopes then: “As my children had been deprived of school, we made every arrangement to supply that deficiency. Our second son Hyrum we established in the academy in Hanover. The remainder who were old enough attended a school nearby.”50
But life’s reverses were to be the Smiths’ real education. A dangerous typhoid epidemic affected the Smiths, leaving the complication of dying bone tissue in young Joseph’s leg. Following the emotional and financial crisis of operations and slow recovery, the family moved across the river to a rented farm at Norwich, Vermont. Then, after three crop losses in a row, Father Smith went to the expanding farmlands of western New York. Lucy remembered the tenderness between father and sons at their temporary parting: “My sons Alvin and Hyrum followed their father with a heavy heart some distance.”51
This was undoubtedly the year 1816, when Alvin turned eighteen and Hyrum sixteen. Their maturity explains why Joseph, Sr., let Lucy and their eight children make the move to New York without him, although he did arrange for an escort.
The trip was grim for Joseph, since the hired driver forced him to walk sometimes forty miles a day on his mending leg. Lucy Smith recalled the “repeated aggravations” of this teamster, and Joseph later told how Alvin and Hyrum tried to help him on this wintry exodus: “When my brothers remonstrated with Mr. Howard for his treatment to me, he would knock them down with the butt of his whip.”52
This incident fits other glimpses of Alvin’s deep concern for others. Joseph later recalled that Alvin once witnessed a fight between two Irishmen but intervened to prevent one from gouging out the eyes of the other: “Alvin took him by his collar and breeches and threw him over the ring which had been formed to witness the fight.”53
Yet Alvin’s strength was controlled. A New York neighbor was only twelve when Alvin died, but left this impression of the physical and moral abilities of the older Smiths: “They were big, stout men, but never was quarrelsome—would put up with anything and everything rather than have a quarrel.”54
Alvin lived seven years after the family’s move to New York. LDS sites expert Don Enders located the highway work rolls of Palmyra from 1804 to 1822, and these agree with the family history of their move to the farm two miles south of the village. Highway district 26 was made up of known residents of Stafford Street, on which the Smiths lived. The name Joseph Smith appears on the district list beginning in 1817 and continues to 1819. In 1820, the names of Alvin and Hyrum also appear on the list, and in 1821 the names of Joseph, Alvin, and Hyrum appear.55 Thus, local records confirm the Smiths’ account of where they lived in the years immediately before and after the First Vision.
During these years, Alvin and Hyrum made special contributions to buying and improving the farm. Pomeroy Tucker, a Palmyra printer, related how the father “and his eldest sons” hired out at jobs “such as gardening, harvesting, well-digging, etc.”56 The family’s goal was to pay their purchase contract for about one hundred unimproved acres. Mother Smith relates how the parents and the “two oldest sons” worked for a year, paid “nearly all” of their first payment, and were then authorized “to build a log house on the land and commenced clearing.”57
But this project required Alvin’s sustained work: “It was not long till we had 30 acres ready for cultivation. But the second payment was now coming due and no means as yet of meeting it. Alvin accordingly proposed: … ‘I will go abroad to see if I cannot make the second payment and the remainder of the first.’ By my son’s persevering industry he was able to return to us after much labor, suffering, and fatigue with the necessary amount of money for all except the last payment.”58
The Smiths now followed the pioneer pattern of replacing the cabin with a frame house, and again Alvin took the lead. We watch him through Lucy’s eyes: “My oldest son took principle charge of this, and when the month of November, 1822 arrived, the house was raised and all the materials procured for completing the building. Alvin was very much animated by the idea, as he said, of making father and mother so comfortable. He would say: ‘I am going to have a nice pleasant room for them to sit in and everything arranged for their comfort, and they shall not work as they have done any more.’”59
Alvin was then twenty-four, and Joseph, at seventeen, was deeply influenced by his older brother’s example of constant loyalty to family and parents. Joseph later called Alvin “the noblest of my father’s family,” one who “lived without spot from the time he was a child.” Then the Prophet added what he called some “childish lines” that are telling in content: “From the time of his birth/he never knew mirth/He was candid and sober/and never would play;/And minded his father and mother/in toiling all day.”60 Alvin was clearly Joseph’s role model in labor and obedience, contributing much to Joseph’s strong feelings of responsibility to God and to others. He was evidently also well adjusted socially, for his mother notes the person who “felt our grief more deeply than the rest” at Alvin’s passing—“a lovely young woman who was engaged to be married to my son shortly after the time in which he died.”61
By 1823, much of the farm land had been cleared, the new frame home was nearly ready for occupancy—and Joseph was ready for the visit of Moroni. Sometime after Joseph retired to his room the evening of September 21, the angel visited him three times and revealed the existence of the ancient record.
The next morning, Joseph labored weakly in the field. Lucy Smith’s history describes how Alvin noticed Joseph slackening, how Joseph was sent to the house by his father, how Joseph then received another vision commanding him to tell his father, and how Alvin obeyed Joseph’s request to bring their father to hear of the revelation. Joseph next went to the hill, and that night Alvin saw that Joseph was too emotionally drained to talk further. So the oldest brother proposed that all should work hard enough to quit an hour early the next day in order to hear Joseph.
Alvin immediately believed Joseph’s story. As Lucy Smith emphasized: “Alvin had ever manifested a greater zeal and anxiety, if it were possible, than any of the rest with regard to the record which had been showed to Joseph.”62 The Prophet and his mother consistently give Alvin a secondary role. The Prophet had first received the spiritual experiences, and Alvin was an eager listener.
Two months later, these scenes of excitement were replaced by mourning for the departed eldest brother. Painfully attacked by stomach cramps, possibly caused by appendicitis, Alvin asked for a doctor. The family’s regular physician could not be found, so a substitute gave Alvin calomel, a chalky substance later found in his blocked intestine along with gangrene. To the Smiths, the heavy dose of the purging agent was unforgivable medical malpractice, and their family physician agreed.63 Yet his regular doctor may not have been able to save him, either. Treating a ruptured appendix was beyond any medical skill of the time.
Alvin faced pain and death with courage and control, using his last moments to express love, to urge Hyrum to finish the house, to encourage Joseph. Lucy emphasized her oldest son’s dying faith in the Prophet’s mission: “Alvin was never so happy as when he was contemplating the final success of his brother in obtaining the record. And now I fancied I could hear him with his parting breath conjuring his brother to continue faithful that he might obtain the prize which the Lord had promised him.”64
In Lucy Smith’s history, Alvin began to be sick on November 15 and died late in the night of November 19. Mother Smith says that four additional physicians were called, and the account of one of them has an entry dated 19 November 1823: “Joseph Smith visit, attend, $3.00.”65 The billing may be for the autopsy. This is also the date of the Palmyra gravestone: “In memory of Alvin, son of Joseph & Lucy Smith, who died Nov. 19, 1823, in the 25 year of his age.”66
Alvin’s death was a tragic blow for the family. Perhaps it was part of a divine plan. At least Joseph’s vision of Alvin in the celestial kingdom confirms that Alvin “would have received” the gospel had he “been permitted to tarry.” (D&C 137:7.) As we have seen, Alvin heard his younger brother relate his first attempt to get the plates, and he died a devout believer in Joseph’s mission.
As the comments and histories of the Smith family have been brought together, it has become clear that the impact of Alvin’s death was the “great affliction” remembered by the Prophet. (See JS—H 1:56.)67 Joseph was nearly eighteen when his brother died, but he carried the shock of that night into his latest years: “I remember well the pangs of sorrow that swelled my youthful bosom and almost burst my tender heart when he died.”68 Lucy Smith later pictured the family’s feelings for the oldest son who would “return no more in this life—we all with one accord wept over our irretrievable loss.”69
Mother Smith describes how the community shared the family’s grief at the loss of this young adult “of singular goodness of disposition,” possessed of “kind and amiable manners.”70 Yet Calvinistic theology was not broad enough to allow such a person salvation, as younger brother William reports: “Reverend Stockton had preached my brother’s funeral sermon and intimated very strongly that he had gone to hell, for Alvin was not a church member, but he was a good boy, and my father did not like it.”71 The elder Joseph rightly recognized such doctrine as uninspired by a God extending love and opportunity to all. But real understanding would come to the Smith family only after work for the dead was taught by the Prophet at Nauvoo.
Those doctrines did not come to Joseph immediately. For thirteen years the Smiths struggled to understand this earthly tragedy. At a Nauvoo funeral, Joseph reflected on the deaths of Alvin and his youngest brother Don Carlos: “Yes, it has been hard to be reconciled to these things. … Yet I know we ought to be still and know it is of God and be reconciled—all is right. It will be but a short time before we shall all in like manner be called.”72 Father Smith’s remarks in 1834 blend grief and faith: “My next son, Alvin, as you are all aware, was taken from us in the vigor of life, in the bloom of youth. My heart often mourns his loss, but I have no disposition to complain against the Lord.”73 These and other Smith statements show constant faith that their relationship would continue in eternity, but only further revelation would show them how.
On 21 January 1836, the Smith family and others were gathered together, and the First Presidency “laid our hands on our aged father Smith and invoked the blessings of heaven.” Then Father Smith blessed his son Joseph, after which the Prophet beheld the intense glory of the celestial kingdom, and in the midst of that glory he saw “my father and mother [and] my brother Alvin that has long since slept.” As he marvelled that Alvin was rewarded with a celestial resurrection though unbaptized, the voice of assurance came that the faithful dead would be given the highest glory.74
The vision was clearly a picture of the future, for Joseph saw his parents in the celestial kingdom with their son. At the time of the vision, both parents still lived on earth—his father was standing in the same room after having given the Prophet a priesthood blessing, and the authority to perform vicarious work for the dead had yet to be restored.
That authority came two months later, when Elijah delivered to the Prophet and Oliver Cowdery the keys of temple work for the living and the dead. (See D&C 110:15–16.) Four years later, in 1840, Joseph taught his ailing father the newly revealed doctrine of baptism for the dead, and Father Smith asked that “Joseph should be baptized for Alvin immediately.”75 That work was done by Hyrum, and appears first in the 1840 Nauvoo records.76
Father Smith himself died in the fall of 1840, surrounded by his family. It had been nearly seventeen years since Alvin’s death, a time in which their loved one had never been far from their thoughts. In his quiet, last moments, Father Smith’s eyes brightened with the surprise of clear vision, and before passing he simply said, “I see Alvin.”77
After all known sources are reviewed, we find very little about any involvement of Alvin with the money-digging or magic of his day and nothing about any involvement with salamanders. On the other hand, we discover a great deal about Alvin’s moral excellence in a home intensely seeking light and leadership from God. Lucy Smith saw Alvin not only as loving and dutiful, but alive with “zeal and piety,” her words of admiration for his deep religious commitment.78 Few outsiders knew of the family prayers and hymns described as daily devotions by younger brother William.79
Although Alvin lived only long enough to see the beginning of the Restoration, he believed deeply in Joseph’s prophetic calling. Recording her oldest son’s parting words to eighteen-year-old Joseph, Lucy reported his total faith in the Book of Mormon: “I want you to be a good boy and do everything that lays in your power to obtain the records. Be faithful in receiving instruction and keeping every commandment that is given you.”80 In his fading moments, Alvin had strengthened his younger brother for coming trials.
In turn, a sheet “in memory of Alvin Smith” was inserted as the flyleaf of the first volume of Joseph Smith’s 1838 manuscript history, which began with careful reports of the Prophet’s early visions and the translation of the Book of Mormon. Smith family history shows that this dedication was intended to honor Alvin’s commitment to the truth of the restored American scripture.