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Joseph Smith and His Papers: An Introduction

Origins

The origins of the translations are not easily identified to everyone’s satisfaction. Smith had little education and no history of literary experimentation. Indeed, nothing in his background prepared him either to translate or to lead a church. He brought neither wealth, social position, nor education to his work.

Joseph Smith’s paternal great-grandfather, Samuel Smith, a third-generation New Englander, held local political offices in Topsfield, Massachusetts, a village just north of Salem, but died with his estate insolvent. His son Asael Smith migrated to Vermont and opened farms for his sons, allowing Joseph Smith’s father and mother, Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack, to begin married life with substantial acreage and fair prospects. Joseph Sr. had the enterprise to open a store and export ginseng root to China at the moment when Yankee merchants, released from the constrictions of the British mercantile system, were sending ships around the globe. But by requiring him to go into debt, the trading ventures—and the dishonesty of a business partner—led to his financial downfall. He lost his farm and for the next fourteen years worked rented land to support his family.9

Joseph Smith Jr. was born 23 December 1805, in Sharon, Vermont, the fifth of eleven children. The Smith family moved every few years during his boyhood until about 1816, when they migrated to Palmyra, New York, a town along the future route of the Erie Canal. Here they contracted for a farm in the adjacent township of Farmington (later Manchester) and began clearing the land, but even the combined efforts of a large family were insufficient to hold on to the farm. The Smiths made the mistake of beginning a frame house to replace their log house, and when the added expense made it impossible to make payments on their farm, the owners foreclosed.

Because of the family’s financial situation, Joseph Jr. acquired no more than a few years of schooling during the rare periods when his family could spare him from work. Indicative of the family’s aspirations, his older brother Hyrum attended Moor’s Charity School at Dartmouth, but Joseph was not so fortunate in his education. He was further disadvantaged by lacking a church. His parents’ families on both sides had lost touch with the Congregational churches of New England. Grandfather Asael Smith, though ostensibly a Congregationalist, sympathized with Universalist doctrines. Joseph Sr. lost confidence in the integrity of churches altogether. He had dreams about wandering in the wilderness in search of peace and salvation. When his wife, Lucy, joined the Presbyterians in Palmyra, he refused to attend.

Lucy Mack Smith was more amenable to churchgoing than was her husband. Her mother, Lydia Gates Mack, was the daughter of a Congregational deacon. Her father, Solomon Mack, though he lived without religion most of his life, finally converted to Christianity in his old age. Her brother Jason became a “seeker,” as she called him—one who was searching for true religion. Early in her life, after passing through a distressing illness, Lucy tried to find a church but could not connect with the right pastor. When she finally affiliated with the Presbyterians in Palmyra, three of her children—Hyrum, Sophronia, and Samuel—attended with her. Joseph Jr. stayed home with his father.

In their search for contact with the divine, the Smiths were susceptible to the folk magic still flourishing in rural America in the early nineteenth century. Harboring the perpetual hope of the poor for quick riches, Joseph Smith Sr. searched for lost treasure, often with the help of Joseph Jr. Like many of their neighbors, the family combined the use of divining rods and seer stones with conventional forms of Christian worship. In his early twenties, Joseph Jr. had to extricate himself from the local band of treasure seekers before he could focus on his calling to translate the Book of Mormon.

Even though connected to a church only intermittently, the Smiths were religious. They read the Bible together, and as a young man Joseph Jr. felt the need for personal salvation. He was frustrated by the denominational chaos of the early republic, which was nowhere more confusing than in the highly evangelized “burned-over district” where the Smiths lived. The repeated visits of revival preachers kept religious concern at a high pitch, but the strife of contending voices made it difficult to know where to turn for instruction. The split within the family compounded Joseph Jr.’s confusion.10 Was he to follow his mother into the Presbyterian church or join his father in abstention? Amid the war of words, he later wrote, he could find no answer to the question “Who of all these parties are right?”11

In 1820, in a solitary place where his family had been clearing land, he prayed for an answer. According to his account, he was at first unable to speak as an unseen force nearly overcame him. Then, mustering his strength, he called upon God and saw two persons, the Father and the Son, in “a pillar of light.” One told him that he was forgiven of his sins and, in answer to his query, said that he should join none of the churches; they had “a form of Godliness” but lacked godly power.12 A world overrun with churches was bereft of true religion.

In 1823, three years after his first vision, Joseph Smith was again visited by a messenger from heaven. As Smith retold the story later, while praying for forgiveness one night he noticed a light appearing in his room. In a moment, a white-robed angel stood in the air before him. The angel introduced himself as Moroni and spoke of the record of a people who dwelt anciently on the American continents. Moroni, Smith was to learn, was the last in a long line of prophets in the Western Hemisphere who had written their story, just as the prophets in Palestine had written the Bible. Smith would find the book, he was told, inscribed on gold plates buried in a hill near his house in Manchester. His task was to translate the record. In 1827 he obtained possession of the plates, and in 1828 he began the translation with the aid of an interpreting instrument, later called a Urim and Thummim, consisting of two stones set in a bow and attached to a breastplate. His wife, Emma Hale, whom he married in January 1827, was the first to take down his dictation, followed by others such as the young schoolteacher Oliver Cowdery.