“Joseph Smith’s Susquehanna Years,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 42
The years 1825 through 1831 on the land along the Susquehanna River near Harmony, Pennsylvania, proved to be a time of growth and chastisement as well as great joy and sorrow for the Prophet Joseph Smith. It was here in 1825 that 19-year-old Joseph worked, obtained some schooling, and met, courted, and married his future wife, Emma Hale, daughter of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale. Together they suffered the death of their first child. Here much of the Book of Mormon was translated, the Aaronic and the Melchizedek Priesthoods were restored, and 15 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were received.
Connecticut-born Isaac Hale left Vermont in about 1787. Journeying through the state of New York, he descended the Susquehanna River as far as the “great bend.” Finding the country much to his liking, he returned to Vermont and married his sweetheart, Elizabeth Lewis. The happy couple then joined company with Elizabeth’s brother, Nathaniel C. Lewis, and his new wife, Sarah Cole, for the return trip in about 1790. Placing their belongings in a cart pulled by a yoke of steers, the brothers-in-law took their wives on a 220-mile emigrants’ journey from Wells, Rutland County, Vermont, to sparsely settled Willingborough, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania.1 Isaac and Elizabeth located on the north side of the Susquehanna. The area eventually became Harmony Township, which was attached to Susquehanna County in 1810.
“Hale was a mighty hunter,” wrote Rev. George Peck, a Methodist Episcopal minister who frequently visited the Hales because they were of like religious persuasion. “In fact, [Hale] … fixed his home in this new region for the purpose of pursuing game. … He slaughtered about 100 deer annually, most of which he sent to the Philadelphia market. He often killed bears and elks, as well as a great variety of smaller game, of the flesh of which I often partook at his table.”2
In this wilderness setting Isaac Hale was a friend of the poor and was spoken of as a man of “forethought and generosity.” The meat from elk he killed “often found its way unheralded, to the tables of others when the occupants of the house were out of sight; and to them the gift seemed almost miraculous.”3
Isaac and Elizabeth became the parents of nine children: Jesse, born 24 February 1792; David, born 6 March 1794; Alva, born 29 November 1795; Phebe, born 1 May 1798; Elizabeth, born 14 February 1800; Isaac Ward, born 11 March 1802; Emma, born 10 July 1804; Tryal, born 21 November 1806; and Reuben, born 18 September 1810.4 Isaac’s ability as a farmer and his prowess on the hunt, coupled with the domestic skills of Elizabeth, provided the children with a comfortable existence.
Local tradition and folklore surrounding the possible existence of an old Spanish silver mine created a condition in the 1820s which led to a decided change for the Hales. An enterprising farmer by the name of Josiah Stowell came 30 miles from his farm in Bainbridge Township, Chenango County, New York, carrying a purported treasure map and accompanied by a digging crew. The company took their room and board with the Hale family. On the crew were Joseph Smith Jr. and his father. Lucy Mack Smith records that Josiah “came for Joseph on account of having heard that he possessed certain keys, by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye.” The Smiths had initially refused Josiah’s invitation in October 1825. However, the reality of the family’s difficulty in meeting the $100 annual mortgage payment on their farm and Stowell’s promise of “high wages to those who would dig for him” finally persuaded them both to join in the venture.5
Isaac Hale said that Stowell and his men arrived at his home in November 1825. Their dig located up Flat Brook beneath Oquago Mountain was short lived, reported by Isaac to have ended about 17 November.6 The Prophet said of Josiah Stowell’s search for wealth, “Finally I prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it” (JS—H 1:56).
Nevertheless, their stay was sufficiently long for young Joseph to make the acquaintance of the Hales’ tall, comely, 21-year-old daughter, Emma. A strong mutual attraction between these two was not lost even when Joseph’s employment suddenly shifted upriver to Josiah Stowell’s farm. Joseph continued to “pay his addresses” to Emma in Harmony. Another employer, nearby Joseph Knight Sr. of Colesville Township, Broome County, New York, said, “I furnished him with a horse … to go and see his girl down to Mr. Hale.”7
At last Joseph summoned sufficient courage to request the hand of Emma in marriage. Isaac Hale was adamant in his refusal, saying that Joseph “was a stranger, and followed a business that I could not approve.”8 Joseph felt that there was also an element of Hale family prejudice arising from his continuing assertion that “I had seen a vision,” so “persecution still followed me, and my wife’s father’s family were very much opposed to our being married.” Finding no relief for their frustrated matrimonial plans, the couple eloped. Joseph related, “I was therefore, under the necessity of taking her elsewhere” (JS—H 1:58). Isaac Hale reported that while he was absent from home Joseph “carried off my daughter, into the state of New York, where they were married without my approbation or consent.”9
Going initially to the home of Josiah Stowell, Joseph and Emma then visited the village of South Bainbridge where arrangements were made for their marriage before Esquire Zachariah Tarble, Justice of the Peace. The ceremony was performed on 18 January 1827 at the Tarble home, located on the east side of the Susquehanna River. It is probable that Josiah Stowell was among those who witnessed the marriage because he had encouraged Emma to unite with Joseph.
Before the marriage Joseph had informed his own parents, Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith, of his plans and asked their blessing in the matter. Lucy said that “we were pleased with his choice, and not only consented to his marrying her, but requested him to bring her home with him, and live with us.”10 Having no conveyance of his own, the Prophet accepted Josiah Stowell’s offer to take the newlyweds by wagon to the Smith frame home in Manchester. Here Joseph had a brief respite and farmed that season with his father.
From Manchester, Emma wrote to her father in Harmony asking “whether she could take her property, consisting of clothing, furniture, cows.” Isaac responded that “her property was safe, and at her disposal.”11 Peter Ingersoll, a neighbor of the Smiths, was hired to take them to Pennsylvania in his wagon during August 1827. Peter said that as they drove into the yard, Father Hale came out in an agitated state and amidst a “flood of tears” confronted Joseph for having “carried away” his daughter. However, before their return to Manchester, Isaac asked Joseph to move to Harmony and said he “would assist him getting into business.”12 Given the severity of the situation which soon developed in the Manchester–Palmyra area because of the intensity of the mob action, this offer shortly became an important option for the besieged Prophet.
According to earlier divine instruction, Joseph was to receive the plates from the angel Moroni that very autumn. Emma, clad in her riding dress, was positioned at the base of the Hill Cumorah three miles southeast of the Smith farm in Manchester Township with the horse and wagon sometime after midnight on 22 September 1827. Joseph climbed the hill to the place where the plates lay secreted and there received careful instruction from the angel for their preservation. Having secured the ancient record, Joseph chose to hide the plates at a certain location in the woods as a precautionary measure. The couple then returned to the house and were met with expectant inquiries from not only Smith family members but also two house guests—Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight Sr. These two men had come on a three-day visit, so anxious were they about the outcome of Joseph’s session with the angel.13
Following repeated attempts to steal the plates and constant threats of bodily harm to the Prophet by local antagonists, Emma’s brother Alva was summoned. He came from Harmony in his wagon to take the couple to the comparative safety of Susquehanna County and the Hale home. But even in Harmony problems began to surface with Isaac Hale himself. When shown the box in which the gold plates had been placed, Isaac said that he “was allowed to feel the weight of the box” but he was not permitted to see the plates. He then declared to Joseph “if there was any thing in my house of that description, which I could not be allowed to see, he must take it away.”14 Joseph was under a strict charge not to divulge the contents of the box to Isaac or anyone else. This difficult situation was alleviated when Isaac sold the Prophet 13 acres of land a short distance away. A house formerly belonging to Emma’s brother Jesse was then moved onto the property for their use.15
A house of his own provided Joseph with added freedom of access to the gold plates. It was there that he was enabled to prepare the transcript of characters and their accompanying definitions which Martin Harris took to learned men in eastern New York during February 1828. The transcript was shown to the Honorable Luther Bradish at Albany and Doctors Samuel Latham Mitchill and Charles Anthon in New York City, thus fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah, chapter 29.16 With Martin acting as scribe, 116 pages of transcript were prepared between 12 April and 14 June 1828. After repeated requests from Martin Harris and after the Prophet’s persistent importuning of the Lord on his behalf, Martin was allowed to take the manuscript to his Palmyra home in order to satisfy the many inquiries of a skeptical Harris family.17
The day following the departure of Martin for Palmyra, Emma gave birth to their first child. The little one, identified as Alvin in the family Bible, did not survive his birth.18 The simple inscription on his slate headstone merely stated, “In Memory of An Infant Son of Joseph And Emma Smith June 15th 1828.” He joined his little two-year-old cousin, Nancy Hale, daughter of Jesse, who had died that same year on 29 January. This was a most difficult season on the Susquehanna. Emma lay near death’s door for weeks. The sleepless ministrations of Joseph and exhaustive efforts of her mother, Elizabeth, gradually nurtured Emma back to health.19
The Prophet then made a hurried trip to Manchester to ascertain why Martin had been delayed beyond the agreed time. On discovering what turned out to be the irretrievable loss of the 116-page manuscript through Martin’s broken covenants, the Prophet was devastated. His soul-wrenching anguish was witnessed by his mother, who said, “He wept and groaned, and walked the floor continually.”20 Upon his return to Harmony, the Prophet was severely chastised by the Lord for having “feared man more than God” (D&C 3:7; see also D&C 10). Following this strong rebuke, Moroni took from him the gold plates and the Urim and Thummim for a season.21
Not hearing from their son for nearly two months, and worried at his state of mind when last seen, Father and Mother Smith traveled to Harmony and spent more than three months there during the winter of 1828–29. Lucy recalled the joy which they experienced when they learned that the plates and the Urim and Thummim had been restored to their son on 22 September 1828. She also recorded a choice expression exchanged between Moroni and Joseph at the moment of return. The Prophet told his mother that “the angel seemed pleased with me when he gave me back the Urim and Thummim, and told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.”22 After all the agony experienced following the loss of the manuscript, it was important to the Prophet to know that the Lord continued to love His servant. On their visit Father and Mother Smith became better acquainted with their in-laws, the Hales, whom Lucy described as being “an intelligent and highly respectable family. They were pleasantly situated, and lived in good style.”23
Joseph Smith Sr. requested that his son inquire of the Lord as to what he might do to qualify himself for the work of the kingdom. Doctrine and Covenants 4 was the resultant revelation, which became a personal guide to that grand patriarch and to countless others across the years. He was instructed that those who would “embark in the service of God” must possess certain godly attributes, among which “faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work.
“Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence.
“Ask, and ye shall receive; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (D&C 4:2, 5–7).
Fifteen revelations as contained in the Doctrine and Covenants would ultimately be given for the guidance of the formative Church from the little two-story frame house of Joseph and Emma in the “great bend.”
Martin Harris was no longer allowed to act as scribe, which required finding another to perform that labor. The Prophet said that his brother Samuel and Emma gave some limited service to fill the void. Emma mentioned that her brother Reuben Hale helped.24 But the consistency of a permanent scribe was needed. The Prophet lamented that he was virtually without means and “had become reduced in property and … had not where to go, and I cried unto the Lord that he would provide for me to accomplish the work whereunto he had commanded me.”25
His supplication was heard, for Oliver Cowdery, a schoolteacher in Manchester District 11, was given a heavenly manifestation of the validity of the work while boarding at the Joseph Smith Sr. home. The Prophet recorded, “The Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me, his unworthy servant; therefore, he was desirous to come and write for me.”26 Oliver then made arrangements to accompany the Prophet’s brother Samuel, who was on his way to Harmony in the forepart of April 1829. Oliver said to Joseph’s parents, “I have now resolved what I will do for the thing which I told you seems working in my very bones insomuch that I cannot for a moment get rid of it.”27 The pair went by way of Oliver’s friend’s place, David Whitmer’s home in Fayette, New York, and arrived in Harmony on 5 April 1829. Oliver was fully satisfied that his assistance as scribe was a direct call from the Lord and commenced his labors with Joseph on 7 April.
The Lord not only furnished a scribe but also provided for the physical necessities of the Prophet and his household. On more than one occasion the Joseph Knight Sr. family came to the aid of the Prophet in times of want. While returning from a business trip to Catskill, Joseph Knight related: “I bought a barrel of mackerel and some lined paper for writing. And when I came home I bought some nine or ten bushels of grain and five or six bushels [of] taters [potatoes], and … I went down to see him and they were in want. Joseph and Oliver were gone to see if they could find a place to work for provisions, but found none. They returned home and found me there with provisions, and they were glad, for they were out. … Then they went to work and had provisions enough to last till the translation was done.”28
While translating 3 Nephi, the Prophet Joseph and Oliver Cowdery went into the wilderness along the banks of the Susquehanna on 15 May 1829 and in supplication to the Lord asked for guidance relative to priesthood authority and the power to baptize. Oliver left a moving description of the majestic sensations which they felt at the wondrous moment when John the Baptist responded to their cry in the wilderness and conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood:
“What joy filled our hearts … when we received under his hand the Holy Priesthood as he said, ‘Upon you my fellow-servants, in the name of Messiah, I confer this Priesthood and this authority.’ …
“I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage” (note to JS—H 1:71 on page 59).
The heavenly messenger informed the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery that he had been sent by the ancient Apostles Peter, James, and John and that they would be the recipients of the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood under the hands of these ancient gospel ministrants. Those ordinations soon followed “in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broome county, on the Susquehanna river” (D&C 128:20).29
Mobocracy reared its persistent head in Harmony as the translation of the Book of Mormon was nearing completion. One of the central figures in stirring up the opposition to a high pitch was Emma’s own uncle, Nathaniel Lewis. As an elder in the local Methodist Episcopal Church, he felt the necessity of contending against those who might threaten any inroads into the flock. Unfortunately the danger escalated to more than mere idle threats. Lucy Smith affirmed that there were actually “evil-designing people” who were “seeking to take away Joseph’s life.”30
The Prophet requested Oliver to write to his friend David Whitmer in Seneca County, New York, to see if the Whitmers could provide them a safe place to complete their labors with the gold plates. In an affirmative response, David Whitmer went to Harmony in the latter part of May 1829 and conveyed them to his father’s log home in the rural setting of Fayette Township by 1 June. During the month of June the translation was completed, a copyright filed, and initial arrangements commenced for printing the Book of Mormon.
When the problems of publication were worked out with Egbert B. Grandin of Palmyra, the Prophet left the work in the hands of Oliver Cowdery, Hyrum Smith, and Martin Harris, and returned to Harmony, reaching his home on 4 October 1829. As the time for the public release of the printed Book of Mormon neared, the Prophet and Joseph Knight Sr. drove to Palmyra with great anticipation and were there for that momentous event on 26 March 1830.31
Eleven days later the Church was officially organized at the Peter Whitmer farm on 6 April. That same month Joseph and others made a concentrated proselyting effort at the Joseph Knight Sr. homestead in Colesville Township, Broome County, New York. The Prophet wrote: “Mr. Knight and his family were Universalists, but were willing to reason with me upon my religious views, and were as usual friendly and hospitable. We held several meetings in the neighborhood; we had many friends, and some enemies. Our meetings were well attended, and many began to pray vocally to Almighty God, that He would give them wisdom to understand the truth. Amongst those who attended our meetings regularly, was Newel Knight, son of Joseph Knight.”32
Newel Knight was apparently the first of his family and the Colesville Saints to join the Church. During the last week in May 1830 he visited the Whitmer farm in Fayette and was baptized by David Whitmer. Most Knight family members and friends, however, were converted and baptized near their homes.
Following the 9 June 1830 conference of the Church in Fayette, the Prophet Joseph Smith, his wife Emma, Oliver Cowdery, John Whitmer, and David Whitmer visited Colesville. A number of converts applied for baptism at that time. A dam was made by the brethren on the stream coming out of Pickerel Pond and running down to the Susquehanna on the Joseph Knight Sr. farm. However, their enemies tried to intervene by breaking down the dam and releasing the water. But the “font” was reconstructed and the baptisms carried out on Monday, 28 June 1830. It is noteworthy that Emma Smith was among those entering the water on this occasion. Oliver Cowdery performed the ordinance for her and others, including Joseph Knight Sr. and wife, Polly Peck, daughter Polly Knight and son Joseph Knight Jr.; Sally Coburn Knight (wife of Newel Knight); Hezekiah Peck and wife, Martha Long; Aaron Culver and wife, Esther Peck; William Stringham and wife, Esther Knight and daughter Julia Stringham; Levi Hall; and probably Anna Knight DeMill.33
As the baptisms were concluded, they were greeted by a hostile spectacle. Joseph Knight Jr. recalled: “When we were going from the water, we were met by many of our neighbors, pointing at us and asking if we had been washing sheep; before Joseph could confirm us he was taken by the officers to Chenango Co. [South Bainbridge] for trial, for saying that the Book of Mormon was a revelation from God; my father employed two lawyers [James Davidson and John Reid] to plead for him and cleared him; that night our wagons were turned over and wood piled on them, and some sunk in the water, rails were piled against our doors, and chains sunk in the stream and a great deal of mischief done. Before Joseph got to my Father’s house he was taken again, to be tried in Broome Co. [Colesville]. Father employed the same lawyers who cleared him there.”34
While the Prophet Joseph Smith was detained by the court officers, Emma found some comfort at the home of her sister, Elizabeth Hale Wasson, who lived in the adjoining township of Windsor with her husband, Benjamin. We do not know for a certainty the exact building sites where the Prophet’s trials were held other than their taking place in the village of South Bainbridge and somewhere in the town of Colesville. Joseph was exonerated of the charges in both instances. Joseph Knight Sr. stated, “They could find no thing against him; therefore he was dismissed.”35 The moment he was free to go his way, he went directly to the Wasson home in the town of Windsor and took Emma to the welcome shelter of their homestead in Harmony.
The spirit of revelation was again manifest at Harmony as the voice of the Lord was given through His servant Joseph Smith unto “Emma Smith, my daughter” in July 1830. The Lord addressed Emma as an “elect lady” and called her to the work.36 Amidst the blessings and admonitions that followed, Emma was given the charge to “make a selection of sacred hymns, as it shall be given thee, which is pleasing unto me, to be had in my church”—a command which was later carried out in 1835 during the Kirtland period (see D&C 25).
Because the evening meeting which followed the Colesville baptisms was interrupted by the arresting constable, Emma Smith and Sally Coburn Knight were among those who had not yet been confirmed members of the Church. In early August, Newel and Sally Coburn Knight made a personal visit to the Prophet’s home at Harmony, where the two couples and John Whitmer held a special confirmation service and partook of the sacrament. It was on this occasion that the Prophet was met by a heavenly messenger as he went out to procure wine for the sacrament. He was given the instruction “that it mattereth not what ye shall eat or what ye shall drink when ye partake of the sacrament, if it so be that ye do it with an eye single to my glory—remembering unto the Father my body which was laid down for you, and my blood which was shed for the remission of your sins” (D&C 27:2). The Prophet was also told not to purchase wine of enemies but to “partake of none except it is made new among you.” Newel said, “We confirmed the two sisters into the church, and spent the evening in a glorious manner. The spirit of the Lord was poured out upon us. We praised the God of Israel and rejoiced exceedingly.”37
Once again the clamor of Joseph’s enemies in Harmony became such that he and Emma responded to the invitation of the Whitmer family to stay with them. At the end of August 1830 they made their move. For Emma it was a particularly heartrending moment. As circumstances developed this proved to be the last time that she would share the embrace of her parents or visit the grave of her infant son.
The Prophet did return briefly one last time to the Susquehanna area as an outgrowth of an assignment from the Lord that he and Sidney Rigdon not go to the Ohio “until ye have preached my gospel in those parts, and have strengthened up the church withersoever it is found, and more especially in Colesville; for, behold, they pray unto me in much faith” (D&C 37:1–2). In January 1831 the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon went to Colesville and held several gatherings at Joseph Knight Sr.’s home. John Whitmer informed us that “they held prayer meetings, among the disciples, and they also held public meetings but it was all in vain, they [enemies of the Church] threatened to kill them.”38 Joseph Knight Sr. said that the Prophet and Sidney not only came to Colesville but also made a hurried trip “down to Harmony to settle some business.”39 This was the last visit of the Prophet to the Susquehanna area.
Joseph Knight Sr., a great friend and benefactor of the Prophet Joseph, continued to assist. He took the Prophet and Emma from New York to Kirtland, Ohio, during January–February 1831. He also conveyed his own wife and an unmarried daughter, Polly, with him. Brother Knight never looked back but said good-bye to his Colesville property with its “one hundred and forty-two acres, … two dwelling houses, a good barn, and a fine orchard,”40 linking himself unequivocally with the Prophet Joseph and the earliest scenes of the Restoration. Some 68 members of the Colesville Branch followed him to Ohio in April–May 1831.
Years later, while seeking seclusion from his enemies near Nauvoo, the Prophet greeted Emma, who had come to be by his side. On that occasion he looked in retrospect on their early experiences together in Pennsylvania, New York, and elsewhere. A flood of poignant memories filled his mind as he reflected: “With what unspeakable delight, and what transports of joy swelled my bosom, when I took by the hand, on that night, my beloved Emma—she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart. Many were the reverberations of my mind when I contemplated for a moment the many scenes we had been called to pass through, the fatigues and the toils, the sorrows and sufferings, and the joys and consolations, from time to time, which had strewed our paths and crowned our board. Oh what a commingling of thought filled my mind for the moment, again she is here, even in the seventh trouble—undaunted, firm, and unwavering—unchangeable, affectionate Emma!”41
There is still a spirit of peace that lingers over the banks of the “great bend” of the Susquehanna and its environs. The lives of those Saints who embraced the unpopular new religious cause in that quarter were irreversibly changed. During the call to “assemble together at the Ohio” (D&C 37; see also D&C 38:32), it is sad that for a multiplicity of reasons some members fell by the wayside and remained behind. However, the majority chose to ally their fortunes with the Church, and they and their numerous posterity now enjoy the everlasting blessings of the covenants they kept with the Lord.