“Moroni—Joseph Smith’s Tutor,” Ensign, Jan. 1992, 22
The prophet Isaiah saw an extraordinary scene as he was allowed to view this last dispensation. He saw a young man, lacking all but the most elementary educational skills, commissioned by the Lord to translate from engraved plates a most important record intended for the benefit and enlightenment of all the nations of the earth.
The Lord explained to the young man that “the learned shall not read [these words], for they have rejected them, and I am able to do mine own work; wherefore thou shalt read the words which I shall give unto thee. …
“For I will show unto the children of men that I am able to do mine own work.” (2 Ne. 27:20–21.)
Working through Joseph Smith, the Lord brought about the translation and publication of the Book of Mormon in a remarkably short time. This was possible because the Lord prepared Joseph in his formative years for his role as the prophet of the Most High. To that end, the Lord had assigned Joseph a personal tutor named Moroni.
In a period of seven years (1823–1829), Moroni appeared to his young pupil many times. A review of those visits can show us much about how Joseph was taught.
It was the first day of fall 1823. In three months Joseph would celebrate his eighteenth birthday. On the evening of September 21, he determined to ask forgiveness for his sins and follies so that he might know his standing before God. Of that night in 1823, Joseph wrote, “I had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as I previously had one.” (JS—H 1:29.)
The story of the events that followed is familiar to most Latter-day Saints. A personage appeared in Joseph’s bedroom, surrounded by brilliant light: “His whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning.” (JS—H 1:32.)
This glorious being introduced himself as Moroni, stating that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God. He said that God had a work for Joseph to perform, and then he prophesied that Joseph’s name would be “had for good and evil” among all peoples of the earth. (JS—H 1:33.) The heavenly visitor then spoke of the book that Isaiah had seen in a vision, explaining that it contained an account of this continent’s former inhabitants, and it also contained “the fulness of the everlasting Gospel” as delivered by the Savior to those ancient peoples. He told Joseph of the Urim and Thummim, which had been prepared to help in translating the record. (JS—H 1:34–35.) Moroni also quoted many passages of scripture relative to the establishment of this dispensation and the great changes it would bring on the earth. (JS—H 1:36–41.)
Oliver Cowdery recorded that while Moroni was speaking, a vision was also opened to Joseph’s mind, so that he was permitted to see marvelous manifestations relative to what was being taught. (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Kirtland, Ohio, Apr. 1835, p. 112.)
Concluding his presentation, Moroni warned Joseph that when the time came to obtain the plates, if he showed them to anyone not approved of the Lord, he would be destroyed. The light gathered around the heavenly messenger, a conduit opened up into heaven, and Moroni ascended. (See JS—H 1:43.)
Moroni’s visit to Joseph Smith was repeated twice more that night, and Moroni gave the same message and added warnings, including one that Joseph must resist the temptation to use the plates to make himself and his family rich.
The following day, Joseph, too weak to work in the fields as usual, started home. “In attempting to cross the fence out of the field … ,” he later wrote, “my strength entirely failed me, and I fell helpless on the ground, and for a time was quite unconscious of anything.” (JS—H 1:48.) When he came to himself, Moroni was there again with another repetition of his message. This time, Joseph was instructed to tell his father of the visions and the commandments he had received. (See JS—H 1:45–49.) Joseph Smith, Sr., ratified the divine nature of the experiences and told his son to do as he had been commanded. Joseph then left the field to go to the hill where the plates were buried.
According to the early account of this experience published in the Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Satan apparently tried to exert great influence on Joseph during the walk to the Hill Cumorah, two to three miles distant, to obtain the sacred relics. Joseph told Oliver Cowdery later that “it seemed as though two invisible powers were influencing, or striving to influence his mind.” One urged him to get the record and treat it as he had been commanded, seeking the glory of God. The other influence urged him to get the record to make himself wealthy and important. The instruction he had received, to “pray always—which was expressly impressed upon him, was at length entirely forgotten, and … a fixed determination to obtain [the plates] and aggrandize himself, occupied his mind when he arrived at the place where the record was found.” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, pp. 157–58; spelling modernized.)
On the west side of the Hill Cumorah, near the top, Joseph located the large stone he was seeking. When he pried this stone lid away, he saw, inside a box, the sacred items spoken of by Moroni.
He tried three times to take them out of the box, but suffered progressively stronger shocks that deprived him of much of his natural strength, until he exclaimed in frustration, “Why can I not obtain this book?”
“Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord,” was the answer. For a fifth time within twenty-four hours, Moroni stood before him. “In an instant,” Oliver recorded, “all the former instructions, the great intelligence concerning Israel and the last days, were brought to his mind, … but he had failed to remember the great end for which [the gold plates] had been kept, and in consequence could not have power to take them into his possession and bear them away.” (Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, pp. 197–98.)
Joseph proceeded to pray, and the pall of darkness that had blurred his spiritual vision was dispelled. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. Joseph saw a vision of contrasts. Initially, the heavens were opened and “the glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him,” Oliver Cowdery’s account continues. As Joseph “stood gazing and admiring,” Moroni abruptly changed the scene. Joseph “beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates.” Then Moroni explained the contrasts:
“All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one. Behold, whatever entices and leads to good and to do good, is of God, and whatever does not is of that wicked one: It is he that fills the hearts of men with evil, to walk in darkness and blaspheme God; and you may learn from henceforth, that his ways are to destruction, but the way of holiness is peace and rest.” (Ibid., p. 198.)
Joseph was told to return to the hill one year later, when Moroni would again meet him and teach him more.
When Joseph went back to Cumorah on 22 September 1824, he once again dislodged the stone lid on the box containing the plates. While extracting the plates, he wondered if there might be anything else of material worth in the box, so he laid the plates on the ground to check. Finding nothing, he replaced the stone lid and concealed evidence that the ground had been disturbed. When he reached for the plates, they were gone. In great alarm, he knelt down “and asked the Lord why the Record had been taken from him.” Moroni appeared and reminded him that he had not done as he had been commanded. Joseph had been told in a former revelation, according to his mother’s account, “not to lay the plates down, or put them for a moment out of his hands, until he got into the house and deposited them in a chest or trunk, having a good lock and key.” But “contrary to this he had laid them down with the view of securing some fancied or imaginary treasure that remained.” (Lucy Smith, Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Liverpool, England: S. W. Richards, 1853, pp. 85–86.)
Moroni instructed Joseph to dislodge the stone cover, and there the Prophet, reassured, saw the plates again. He reached to get them, but “he was hurled back upon the ground with great violence.” When he recovered he was alone. Mother Smith reported that Joseph returned home “weeping for grief and disappointment.” His expectations shattered, he was afraid his family would question his story, since all were expecting him to return with the plates.
Joseph related the incidents at Cumorah. His family believed him, and, Mother Smith wrote, “We, therefore, doubled our diligence in prayer and supplication to God, in order that he might be more fully instructed in his duty, and be preserved from all the wiles and machinations of him ‘who lieth in wait to deceive.’” (Ibid., p. 86.)
Each year at the same time, Joseph returned to the hill for further instruction “respecting what the Lord was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted in the last days.” (JS—H 1:54.)
From his mother’s account, we know that the visions Joseph experienced while receiving Moroni’s instructions must have been vivid. She wrote: “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 travelling, 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.” (Biographical Sketches, p. 85.)
The instructions Joseph received were not limited to the Book of Mormon. Moroni was priming his maturing student for the many responsibilities to accompany his calling as a prophet. Joseph saw other celestial beings in addition to Moroni between 1823 and 1827. He later wrote: “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.” (History of the Church, 4:537.)
Joseph explained that he received “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.” (JS—H 1:59.) The young Prophet found that as soon as it was known he had the sacred relics, “the persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible.” (JS—H 1:60.)
A farmer of respectability and means, Martin Harris served as Joseph’s scribe during the translation of the Book of Mormon in early 1828. By June 14, Martin had written 116 pages of manuscript, which Joseph had dictated to him. Martin begged to take the manuscript home to show scoffers in his family. The Lord twice refused Joseph’s requests on Martin’s behalf, but the third time granted permission, under some exacting conditions. Martin agreed, but soon broke his solemn trust, and somehow the manuscript was taken from him.
When Joseph heard from Martin’s lips that the manuscript was missing, he exclaimed, “All is lost! All is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned—it is I who tempted the wrath of God. … How shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?” (Biographical Sketches, p. 121.)
In consequence of the incident, Joseph lost the privilege of translating for a time. He was told that it was because he had “suffered the counsel of [his] director to be trampled upon from the beginning.” (D&C 3:14–15.) The Lord, through the teachings of Moroni, was Joseph’s “director.”
The plates and the Urim and Thummim were returned to Joseph within a short time so the work could continue.
In the spring of 1829, while residing at Harmony, Pennsylvania, Joseph was invited to be a guest in the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette Township, Seneca County, New York, where he hoped to finish the translation. But he was concerned about safely transporting the plates that considerable distance. The Lord told Joseph that an angel would call for them to transport them.
Many years later, David Whitmer told Elder Joseph F. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve about his wagon trip to Fayette with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. As they traveled across a section of prairie, they came upon a man walking along the road, carrying something that was obviously heavy in a knapsack on his back. Invited to ride, the man replied, “No, I am going to Cumorah.” Puzzled, David looked around inquiringly, but when he turned again, the man was gone. David demanded of Joseph: “‘What does it mean?’ Joseph informed him that the man was Moroni, and that the bundle on his back contained plates which Joseph had delivered to him before they departed from Harmony, Susquehanna County, and that he was taking them for safety, and would return them when he (Joseph) reached father Whitmer’s home.” (Andrew Jenson, ed., The Historical Record, vol. 6, May 1887, pp. 207–9.)
In his ancient role as recorder, Moroni saw the latter days in vision and was allowed to write some instructions to the man who would translate his record. He wrote of three sets of witnesses:
The Eight Witnesses. The new Prophet would be allowed to show the plates unto “those” (a number not designated in the Book of Mormon) “who shall assist to bring forth this work.” (Ether 5:2.) These were the eight witnesses.
The Three Special Witnesses. A select trio would be shown the plates “by the power of God: wherefore they shall know of a surety that these things are true.” (Ether 5:3.)
The Godhead. The restoration of the gospel was to bring back both the power of God (the keys to the priesthood) and the witness of his word (the revealed scriptures). Moroni testified that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost would bear record of the work. (See Ether 5:4.) Moroni brought back one important part—the word; other personages would be assigned to bring the power—the keys and the priesthood—to the young Prophet. But without the Father and the Son testifying through the power of the Holy Ghost that the word is divine and the Church’s leaders are their authorized servants, there is no assurance of truth.
There was indeed heavenly testimony of the work for which Moroni had tutored Joseph.
Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer, and Martin Harris pleaded with Joseph to ask the Lord if they might have the privilege of being the prophesied three witnesses. They were told in a revelation that after they had exhibited that same faith “which was had by the prophets of old,” they would have the privilege of seeing the plates, as well as other sacred objects.
“And after that you have obtained faith, and have seen them with your eyes, you shall testify of them, by the power of God.” (D&C 17:2–3.)
A few days later, Joseph and the three retired to a woods near the Whitmer home to pray for fulfillment of the revelation. Their prayers went unanswered at first, and Martin withdrew from the group, suggesting that his presence was the problem. As Joseph, Oliver, and David continued praying, an angel appeared to show them the plates and sacred relics. (A short time later, some distance away, Martin and Joseph would receive the same manifestation.) As the angel was with the three men, they heard a voice from the light above them, saying, “These plates have been revealed by the power of God and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear.” (History of the Church, 1:54–55.)
The Three Witnesses testified to the world “that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon.” (The Testimony of Three Witnesses, Book of Mormon.) The eight witnesses neither saw nor heard Moroni nor God, but testified that they had hefted and handled the plates, which had the appearance of gold and were of an ancient and curious workmanship. (See The Testimony of Eight Witnesses, Book of Mormon.)
It is impossible to determine the number of “interviews” Joseph had with Moroni, but twenty-two visits are often identified. (See accompanying chart, “Moroni’s Known Appearances to Joseph Smith, 1823–1829.”)
Moroni displayed amazing patience. He wrote the last portion of the book, he knew the language and the culture of the Nephite recordkeepers, he knew the Lord. But “line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isa. 28:10), Moroni instructed Joseph in how to perform his task, helping as the young Prophet persevered in learning his role.
As Joseph read Moroni’s words in Ether 12:25 (“when we write we behold our weakness”), he must have empathized and yet felt reassured when he realized that his angelic instructor had at one time experienced deep frustrations relative to his own literary ability. No doubt the next verse furnished great comfort: “Fools mock, but … my grace is sufficient for the meek.” (Ether 12:26.)
The plates were in Joseph’s possession for about twenty-one months. “By the wisdom of God, they remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him,” Joseph wrote. (JS—H 1:60.)
Joseph Smith’s six years of advanced training were anything but ordinary, for his tutors were celestial beings who taught eternal truths that would never change or become obsolete. Whereas much of man’s formal education is tentative, wrong, or outdated within a few years of graduation, Joseph said of his own education: “Could you gaze into heaven five minutes, you would know more than you would by reading all that ever was written on the subject.” (History of the Church, 6:50.) This was the quality of the heavenly instruction Joseph Smith enjoyed.
Number of Appearances
21–22 Sept. 1823
Joseph’s bedroom—Message repeated three times. (Palmyra Township, N.Y.)
22 Sept. 1823
Field outside Joseph’s home—initial message repeated. (Manchester Township, N.Y.)
22 Sept. 1823
At the Hill Cumorah—Plates, Urim and Thummim, and breastplate are shown, in addition to an open vision. (Hill Cumorah, N.Y.)
JS—H 1:51–53; Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, July and Oct. 1835
22 Sept. 1824, 1825, and 1826
Yearly at Cumorah, instructions given to help Joseph prepare for the Restoration. (Hill Cumorah, N.Y.)
Moroni meets Joseph by the Hill Cumorah and says that the time has come for the record to be brought forth. He tells Joseph to be up and doing the things he has been commanded. (Hill Cumorah, N.Y.)
Biographical Sketches, p. 99
22 Sept. 1827
Joseph receives the plates. (Hill Cumorah, N.Y.)
Urim and Thummim are taken by Moroni because of the Martin Harris incident. (Harmony, Pa.)
Urim and Thummim are returned.
Plates and Urim and Thummim are taken. (Harmony, Pa.)
July–Aug. 1828 or 22 Sept. 1828
Plates and Urim and Thummim are returned. (Harmony, Pa.)
HC 1:23; Biographical Sketches, p. 126
Angel obtains the plates at Harmony, Pa., to transport them to Fayette Township, N.Y., because Joseph is apprehensive about their safety en route. (Harmony, Pa.)
Biographical Sketches, p. 137
On the road between Harmony, Pa., and the Hill Cumorah, Joseph, Oliver, and David Whitmer see Moroni carrying the plates; Moroni appears and disappears instantly.
The Historical Record, pp. 207–9
Joseph has the plates once again in his possession in Fayette Township. Moroni meets Joseph in the garden and gives the plates to him. (Fayette Township, N.Y.)
Biographical Sketches, p. 137
Joseph finishes the translation; Moroni takes the record. (Fayette Township, N.Y.)
Oliver, David Whitmer, and Joseph Smith (witnesses) see Moroni, who shows them the plates. (Fayette Township, N.Y.)
Martin Harris and Joseph Smith (witnesses) see Moroni and the plates. (Fayette Township, N.Y.)
Moroni gives the plates to Joseph, and Joseph shows them to the Eight Witnesses. Moroni then calls for the plates and keeps them. (Manchester, N.Y.)
Biographical Sketches, pp. 140–41
Total Recorded Visits of Moroni to Joseph Smith