The First Vision
The history of the Mormon Church begins with a question: Which of all the churches does God want me to follow? Joseph Smith, Jr. asked that question in 1820 when he was only a boy of 14. The answer changed his life forever. Joseph Smith was born on December 23, 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, to Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. He was the fourth of nine children, which included six boys and three girls. After several years of bad harvests and a failed business venture, the Smith family moved to Lebanon, New Hampshire, in 1811. While there, the young Joseph Smith experienced a severe typhoid infection which nearly cost him his life (for more detail on Joseph Smith’s early life, see Joseph Smith biography on this site). His life was spared, but Joseph Smith was forced to walk on crutches for many years and retained a slight limp for the rest of his life, after the infection settled in his leg and required surgery.
In 1816, Joseph Smith, Sr. moved his young family to Palmyra, New York, where they purchased a large tract of wooded land south of town and began clearing it. To earn extra money, the family hired themselves out as day laborers and occasionally ran a food stand in town. In the years 1816 and 1817, a religious revival swept through upper state New York, so much so that the region was termed the “burned-over district.” Though only a boy of 11 or 12 during this revival, the contention and debates left a deep impression on Joseph Smith. He later wrote:
For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions. (Joseph Smith-History 1:6)
Joseph Smith began pondering deeply on the many things he had heard, and for the next few years, according to his mother, Lucy, he read from the Bible, prayed, and frequently went into the woods to meditate. The religious divide affected his own family, as some of them joined the Presbyterian Church and others refused to join any. Joseph Smith himself felt drawn toward the Methodist Church, and though he attended meetings and even participated in debating clubs at the local Methodist Church, he did not join. He was determined to learn more, and after much prayer and study, he came across James 1:5, which reads:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
He determined to do what James recommended, and so on a spring morning in 1820, when he was only 14 years old, Joseph Smith went into the woods near his house to pray. As he tried to pray vocally, he was seized by some powerful force which bound his tongue, and he felt as though he was being attacked by some real, but unseen evil power. He prayed again and at that moment:
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (Joseph Smith-History 1:16-19)
Mormons refer to this experience as the First Vision, for it was the first of Joseph Smith’s visions and was the foundation for his becoming a Prophet. He had seen God the Father and Jesus Christ, two separate beings, united in purpose. His sins were forgiven, and he was commanded that for a time he was to wait for further instructions. The wait lasted three years.
On September 21, 1823, after three and a half years without another manifestation from the Lord, Joseph Smith was led again to pray for forgiveness of his sins, and to know his standing before God. This time Joseph was in his bedroom, late at night. Although he reported that his previous experience had led him to confidently expect an answer, even a miraculous manifestation, the content of that answer astonished him. He was visited that night by an angel who announced himself as Moroni, and told Joseph of the existence of a record engraved on golden plates. The angel told Joseph that it would be his responsibility to obtain these plates, which were buried in a hillside near his home, and translate the contents. The angel quoted a number of prophecies from the Holy Bible, saying that they were about to be fulfilled, and gave Joseph additional instructions.
The angel returned twice more that night and repeated the instructions he had given, and he appeared again the next day. Joseph went to the place the angel had indicated and attempted to recover the plates, but the angel appeared and told him that the time was not yet right. He instructed Joseph to return to that spot yearly on that date (September 22) for further instructions. This Joseph did, and was permitted to recover the plates on his final visit in 1827.
Digging for Money
During the intervening period, a number of significant events had happened in Joseph’s life. His idolized elder brother, Alvin, died just two months after Moroni’s first visit. Despite this loss, his family, through much hard work, had begun to prosper. Rumors of Joseph’s visions had begun to spread through the surrounding countryside, with the result that in addition to being hired out as a laborer, Joseph was persecuted and harassed, as well as sought after for his presumed supernatural talents. He was ostracized by the community and frequently vilified by local ministers. In 1825 he was employed by Josiah Stowell (also spelled Stoal), a wealthy resident of South Bainbridge in Chenango County, New York, to help him locate a Spanish silver mine believed to be somewhere in the vicinity.
The enterprise was unsuccessful, and after one month, Joseph Smith convinced Stowell that there was nothing to be found. However, the project bore fruit in another way. While employed by Stowell, Joseph and his father boarded at the home of Isaac Hale. There Joseph met Hale’s daughter, Emma, whom he subsequently married. He also had his first taste of official persecution when one of Stowell’s relations, evidently jealous of Joseph’s friendship with Stowell, contrived to get him arrested on trumped-up charges of disturbing the peace by claiming to be able to see hidden things. He was brought before a local magistrate and discharged without trial. Rumors about this event, which by all solid evidence constituted Joseph’s only involvement with the “money-digging” industry, have been parlayed by some detractors into a supposed long-running money-digging career and a criminal conviction, neither of which ideas can be sustained by the evidence.
Translating the Book of Mormon and Establishing the Church
In the autumn of 1827, Joseph was 21 years old, then the age of legal majority, and married. On September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith and Emma procured the golden plates from the angel and hid them in various places, trying, whenever mobs were not trying to steal the plates, to translate them. He translated using the Urim and Thummim, two stones set in a bow which had been buried with the Golden Plates and which had been used by ancient biblical prophets to comprehend revelation. Emma was the first scribe, followed by Martin Harris, a local farmer. Harris’s wife, Lucy, was opposed to the work and felt that her husband was being deceived. Martin was curious, but cautious. He took a transcript of the translated characters to Charles Anthon at Columbia College (now Columbia University), who verified that the characters appeared genuine. Later, in an effort to ameliorate his wife’s anger, Martin begged to be permitted to take the translated manuscript and show it to his wife. Joseph Smith prayed about it again and again, and on the third time, the Lord said he could, but only if he promised to show it unto only a select group of people. He promised, but soon broke his word. and the first 116 translated pages were lost. Joseph Smith was devastated and felt that he had disobeyed God. Ultimately, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that he had foreseen their error and that they should continue translating, but not to retranslate the original portion.
A short time later, Joseph Smith and Emma moved to Harmony, Pennsylvania, and began to translate in peace, while living with Emma’s family. When he was not working on the translation, Joseph would work at local farms and mills to earn money. In due course he was able to complete the translation with the help of his wife Emma, Martin Harris, and especially Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher from the Palmyra area. Cowdery had been teaching in Palmyra, when he heard rumors about the Golden Bible, as residents referred to the Book of Mormon. He eventually went to Harmony to meet Joseph Smith and became convinced the work was genuine. He was the major scribe for the Book of Mormon. Several people worked as scribes, and two friends, Martin Harris and Peter Whitmer, helped Joseph obtain food and paper until the translation was complete. In March of 1830, the translated work was published as the Book of Mormon. Joseph Smith’s own account is now published in Mormon scriptures as the Joseph Smith-History.
Two important events occurred during the translation of the Book of Mormon. While translating 3 Nephi 11 of the Book of Mormon, Joseph and Oliver read about the authority of God, called Priesthood, necessary to properly baptize someone. On May 15, 1829, they went into the woods near the Susquehanna River on the New York-Pennsylvania border and prayed to understand more about this concept. An angel appeared to them both and introduced himself as the resurrected John the Baptist who had been sent to restore God’s authority to earth. This authority, called Priesthood, would never again be lost from the earth before Christ’s Second Coming (see Doctrine and Covenants 13). A short time later, Joseph Smith translated a passage which indicated that three people would be called as witnesses to the Book of Mormon and would be permitted to see the Golden Plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the angel. These three men, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, and Oliver Cowdery witnessed these things in late June of 1829, and their testimony, known as the testimony of the Three Witnesses, appears at the front of the Book of Mormon. Later, eight other men, known as the Eight Witnesses, also saw the Book of Mormon plates.
The Book of Mormon was finished in mid-summer of 1829 and published in Palmyra, New York, in March of 1830. It was at this time that the history of Mormonism as a movement and a church began. Shortly after the Book of Mormon was published, Joseph Smith received a divine commandment to organize the Church of Christ, as the Mormon Church was originally known. This organization occurred on April 6, 1830, in the home of Joseph Knight, in Fayette, New York (where Joseph had been living since June 1829). Some historians believe there were two meetings– a smaller, more private meeting held first in Palmyra and the public meeting in Fayette. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were sustained as the leading Elders of the Church. Immediately after the Mormon Church was founded, the first Mormon missionaries began preaching. The first Mormon missionary was Joseph Smith’s own brother, Samuel H. Smith.
These missionaries converted many in the areas around Fayette, Colesville, and Manchester, New York. Mormon missionaries were sent in all directions. One group of four in the summer of 1830 went west to preach to the Native American Indians. Along the way they taught and converted many around Kirtland, Ohio. The Mormon Church grew quite rapidly and attracted much attention in the local press. Though much of the press was negative, the new Church, then called the Church of Christ, grew rapidly in New York. Mobs continued to harass their meetings, and baptismal services were routinely broken up. Joseph Smith himself was shot at and attacked multiple times, but escaped serious injury. In late 1830, after praying what he should do to help the persecuted members in New York, Joseph Smith received a revelation from God commanding them to move to Ohio, where several hundred had been converted to Mormonism and where they would find some peace for a time.