Chapter Four

A Period of Preparation, 1823–29

“Chapter Four: A Period of Preparation, 1823–29,” Church History in the Fulness of Times Student Manual (2003), 37–51

When Joseph Smith walked out of the grove of trees that beautiful spring morning in 1820, he would never be the same again. He knew the Father and the Son lived, and he would testify of this truth throughout his life. It was three years, however, after he experienced his great vision of God before Joseph received further instructions concerning the important work he had been called to.

During this period Joseph passed through his mid-teens, a time when sympathetic teachers and a congenial community could have strengthened him. But Joseph had little formal education, and as we have seen, his testimony aroused hostility. Even some trusted friends turned against him; however, Joseph continually had the loving support of his family.

Joseph acknowledged that during this period he “frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth” (Joseph Smith—History 1:28). His native cheery temperament was one reason he gave for sometimes associating with jovial company and being guilty of levity, which he considered inconsistent with the character of one called of God (see v. 28). He was not, however, guilty of any “great or malignant sins” (v. 28). According to his mother, little of importance took place during this period. Joseph labored as usual with his father on the family farm working in the fields, clearing trees, or tapping sugar maples; occasionally he had an odd job, such as digging a building foundation or working in the corn fields for Martin Harris. This three-year interval gave young Joseph the time to grow, mature, gain experience, and receive further nurturing.

First Appearance of Moroni

In 1822, Joseph began helping his older brother Alvin build a new frame house for the family. By September of 1823, it was two stories high but without a roof. The family continued to live in their small log house.

Here late in the evening on Sunday, 21 September 1823, seventeen-year-old Joseph retired for the night. Concerned about his standing before the Lord, he earnestly prayed for forgiveness of his sins. He was confident that he would again receive a divine manifestation. Suddenly his room filled with light and a heavenly messenger stood by his bedside in partial fulfillment of the great prophecy of John the Apostle (see Revelation 14:6–7). Joseph described this resurrected being:

“He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.

“Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me” (Joseph Smith—History 1:31–32).

The messenger introduced himself as Moroni, a prophet who had lived on the American continent. As holder of the keys of the “stick of Ephraim” (see D&C 27:5), Moroni came at the appointed hour to reveal the existence of a record written on gold plates which had lain hidden in the ground for fourteen centuries. It was “an account of the former inhabitants of this continent. … He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants” (Joseph Smith—History 1:34). Joseph was to translate the record and publish it; because of this and other things he would be called to do, his name would be known for good and evil among all people (see v. 33).

Moroni cited several passages from the Bible quoting prophets such as Malachi, Isaiah, Joel, and Peter concerning the preparations to be made in the last days for the millennial reign of Christ. This commenced the gospel tutorship of Joseph Smith by Moroni.

President Heber J. Grant

President Heber J. Grant presided at a special meeting held in the Sacred Grove on 23 September 1923 in commemoration of the one hundredth anniversary of the appearance of Moroni.

Pictured in this photo are (from left) John Harris Taylor, Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, Elder Rudger Clawson, President Grant, Sister Augusta W. Grant, Elder James E. Talmage, and Elder Brigham H. Roberts, president of the Eastern States Mission.

So important was Moroni’s message and the need to impress it on the mind of the young Prophet that Moroni returned twice more that night and repeated the same instructions, adding information each time. During the first “interview” Joseph saw in vision the location of the plates (see v. 42). They were buried in a hillside about three miles from his home. In the second visit, Joseph was told of judgments which were coming upon the earth (see v. 45). At the end of the third visit, Moroni warned Joseph that Satan would try to tempt him to get the plates for their temporal value because of his family’s poverty. Moroni directed seventeen-year-old Joseph that he was to have only one purpose for obtaining the plates and that was to glorify God. Only one motive should influence him, and that was to build God’s kingdom (see v. 46). Through subsequent events the Prophet learned why Moroni had given such admonitions and directions. Joseph’s interviews with Moroni occupied most of the night, for at the end of the third visit he heard a rooster crow. Indeed, a new day of spiritual light was about to dawn. Isaiah spoke of this day as a time when a “marvellous work and a wonder” would come forth (Isaiah 29:14).

The First Visit to Cumorah

That morning Joseph went to work as usual with his father and brothers in the field. Lack of sleep and having been in the presence of a glorified, resurrected being most of the night weakened him so that he had trouble working. Noticing his son’s condition and thinking he was ill, Joseph’s father told him to go back to the house. On the way home Joseph collapsed. The next thing he knew someone was calling him by name. When Joseph became aware of his surroundings, he saw Moroni standing before him for the fourth time.3 Moroni then repeated the same message he had given Joseph before and further commanded him to inform his father of the vision and commandments he had received.

Joseph returned and explained the whole matter to his father, who assured him it was from God and instructed him to do as he had been commanded. Joseph related, “I left the field, and went to the place where the messenger had told me the plates were deposited; and owing to the distinctness of the vision which I had had concerning it, I knew the place the instant that I arrived there” (Joseph Smith—History 1:50). Near the top of the hill Joseph found a large stone, “thick and rounding in the middle on the upper side, and thinner towards the edges” (v. 51). It was the lid of a stone box. We can only imagine his excitement as he opened the box. There, having laid hidden for centuries, were the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate just as Moroni had explained.

“The box in which they lay was formed by laying stones together in some kind of cement. In the bottom of the box were laid two stones crossways of the box, and on these stones lay the plates and the other things with them” (Joseph Smith—History 1:52).

The Hill Cumorah is a drumlin

The Hill Cumorah is a drumlin, a long hill with steep sides and a sloping end formed under an advancing continental ice sheet. Drumlins in this region run north and south. Oliver Cowdery, who visited the hill in 1830, described it:

“The north end rose suddenly from the plain, forming a promontory without timber, but covered with grass. As you passed to the south you soon came to scattering timber, the surface having been cleared by art or by wind; and a short distance further left, you are surrounded with the common forest of the country. … It was at the second mentioned place where the record was found to be deposited, on the west side of the hill, not far from the top down its side.”4

While in mortality Moroni had prophesied that the plates could not be used for temporal gain because of the commandment of God, but would one day be of “great worth” to future generations in bringing them to a knowledge of God (Mormon 8:14–15).

As Joseph approached the Hill Cumorah, he had thoughts about the poverty of his family and the possibility that the plates or the popularity of the translation would produce enough wealth to “raise him above a level with the common earthly fortunes of his fellow men, and relieve his family from want.”5 When he reached down for the plates he received a shock and was thus prevented from taking them out of the box. Twice more he tried and was thrown back. In frustration he cried out, “Why can I not obtain this book?” Moroni appeared and told him it was because he had not kept the commandments but had yielded to the temptations of Satan to obtain the plates for riches instead of having his eye single to the glory of God as he had been commanded.6

Repentant, Joseph humbly sought the Lord in prayer and was filled with the Spirit. A vision was opened to him, and the “glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him. … He beheld the prince of darkness. … The heavenly messenger [Moroni] said, ‘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.’ … You now see why you could not obtain this record; that the commandment was strict, and that if ever these sacred things are obtained they must be by prayer and faithfulness in obeying the Lord. They are not deposited here for the sake of accumulating gain and wealth for the glory of this world: they were sealed by the prayer of faith, and because of the knowledge which they contain they are of no worth among the children of men, only for their knowledge.”7 Moroni concluded by warning Joseph that he would not be allowed to obtain the plates “until he had learned to keep the commandments of God— not only till he was willing but able to do it. …

“The ensuing evening, when the family were altogether, Joseph made known to them all that he had communicated to his father in the field, and also of his finding the record, as well as what passed between him and the angel while he was at the place where the plates were deposited.”8

Joseph’s Preparation Continues

The monumental work of bringing forth the Book of Mormon was foretold by ancient prophets (see Isaiah 29; Ezekiel 37:15–20; Moses 7:62). A work of such magnitude requires careful preparation. In this instance, it required four years of tutoring. During that time Joseph met annually with Moroni at the Hill Cumorah to receive instructions in preparation for receiving the plates. Other Nephite prophets who had a vital interest in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon also played a significant role in Joseph’s preparation. Nephi, Alma, the twelve disciples chosen by the Savior in America, and Mormon all instructed Joseph.9 His education was intense during this period.

His mother, Lucy, describes their evening conversations: “Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing [interesting] recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, 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 among them.”10

Interim Events

Between Moroni’s first appearance and when Joseph received the plates, several significant events occurred in his life. In November of 1823, tragedy struck the Smith home. Alvin, Joseph’s oldest brother, became ill; Father Smith was unable to find their family physician. The doctor who finally came administered calomel (mercurous chloride), a laxative, which at the time was used as a remedy for many ailments. But the medicine lodged in Alvin’s stomach, creating greater suffering. He died 19 November 1823 after four days of illness. Alvin was a faithful and serious young man, and Joseph idolized him. Joseph saw in him a guileless person who lived an upright life. Alvin loved Joseph, too, and was greatly interested in the sacred record. As death neared he counseled Joseph: “I want you to be a good boy, and do everything that lies in your power to obtain the Record. Be faithful in receiving instruction, and in keeping every commandment that is given you.”11 Joseph learned by revelation years later that Alvin was an heir to the celestial kingdom (see D&C 137:1–6).

Following Alvin’s death the Smiths experienced economic difficulties. Joseph and his brothers hired out by the day at whatever work was available. Treasure hunting, or “money-digging” as it was then called, was a craze in the United States at this time. In October 1825, Josiah Stowell, from South Bainbridge, New York, a farmer, lumber mill owner, and deacon in the Presbyterian church, came to ask Joseph to help him in such a venture. Stowell had relatives in Palmyra and probably heard of Joseph from them. Stowell was looking for a legendary lost silver mine that was thought to have been opened by Spaniards in northern Pennsylvania. Stowell had heard that Joseph was able to discern invisible things and desired his assistance in the project. The Prophet was reluctant, but Stowell persisted, and since Joseph’s family was in need, he and his father together with other neighbors agreed to go. It was a decision that would have great importance to Joseph’s life and the future of the Church.

Joseph and his associates boarded with Isaac Hale in Harmony township in Pennsylvania. The village of Harmony was several miles away where a bend of the Susquehanna River dips into northeastern Pennsylvania, not far from the supposed mine site. While boarding with the Hales, Joseph was attracted to Isaac’s dark-haired daughter Emma. She was also attracted to him, although she was Joseph’s senior by a year and a half. The budding romance, however, was frowned upon by Emma’s father, who disliked money digging and disdained Joseph’s lack of education. His cultured daughter was a schoolteacher, and he wanted better for her. Meanwhile, the search for the silver mine was unproductive. After nearly a month’s work, Joseph was able to persuade Josiah Stowell that his efforts were in vain, and the pursuit of the mine in Harmony was abandoned.

Emma Hale was the seventh of nine children

Emma Hale was the seventh of nine children. “Emma was a tall, attractive young woman with comely features. Dark-complexioned, with brown eyes and black hair, she possessed a singular, regal beauty of form and of character.”12

Courtesy of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints

Since the time of this episode Joseph’s detractors have used what they call his “money digging” to attack his character, to question his motives, and to cast doubt upon the validity of the church he organized. The circumstances are best understood in the context of their time and place. In New England and western New York, such activities were not frowned upon the way they came to be later. Years later, Joseph candidly acknowledged his participation in the venture but pointed out that it was insignificant.13

While working in the borderlands of New York and Pennsylvania, Joseph made another contact that became important to him and to the early Church in New York. Joseph Knight, Sr., a friend of Josiah Stowell, was a humble farmer and miller who lived in Colesville, Broome County, New York. Joseph Smith also worked for him for a time and in the process developed close friendships with him and his sons, Joseph, Jr., and Newel. They accepted the testimony of the young Prophet as he recounted his sacred experiences to them.

Between working for Josiah Stowell, Joseph Knight, Sr., and visiting his own family in Manchester, Joseph continued to court Emma Hale. Because of her father’s strong opposition to the marriage, Joseph and Emma eloped. They were married by a justice of the peace in South Bainbridge, New York, on 18 January 1827. Immediately afterward, Joseph moved his new bride to the family home in Manchester, where he spent the succeeding summer farming with his father. Emma was well received by Joseph’s family, and a close relationship developed between Emma and Lucy Mack Smith.

Joseph Entrusted with the Plates

Little is known of Joseph’s visits with Moroni between 1824 and 1827, but sometime before the fall of 1827, Joseph returned home one evening later than usual. His family was concerned, but he told them he had been delayed because he had just received a severe chastisement from Moroni. He said that as he passed by the Hill Cumorah, “The angel met me and said that I had not been engaged enough in the work of the Lord; that the time had come for the record to be brought forth; and that I must be up and doing and set myself about the things which God had commanded me to do.”14

Much must have transpired in Joseph’s four years of preparation. He passed through his teens largely untainted by the precepts of men. He enjoyed the emotional support of his family, and he took on the responsibilities associated with marriage. Angels prepared him to translate a divinely inspired record and taught him the necessity of self-discipline and obedience. He was undoubtedly anxious to begin translating the Book of Mormon. At this time Joseph Knight and Josiah Stowell were in Manchester visiting with the Smith family. This might have been in anticipation of Joseph’s receiving the plates.

Moroni Delivers the Plates

Moroni Delivers the Plates, by L. A. Ramsey

Museum of Church History and Art

Long before sunrise on 22 September 1827, Joseph and his wife hitched Joseph Knight’s horse to Josiah Stowell’s spring wagon and drove the three miles to the Hill Cumorah. Leaving Emma at the base, Joseph climbed the hill for his final interview with Moroni. Moroni gave him the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. He also gave Joseph a specific warning and promise concerning his responsibilities. Joseph was now responsible for these sacred objects, and if he was careless or negligent and lost them he would be cut off. On the other hand, if he used all his efforts to preserve them until Moroni returned for them, he was assured that they would be protected (see Joseph Smith—History 1:59).

For the first time in over fourteen hundred years the precious records were entrusted to a mortal. Joseph carefully hid the plates in a hollow log near his home. The Prophet’s friends were not the only ones who eagerly anticipated his receiving the plates. Others in the neighborhood had heard that Joseph was going to bring home valuable metal plates. Some of them may have also been involved in searching for the silver mine and now felt that they should have a share in any treasure. Joseph soon learned why Moroni had strictly charged him to protect the plates. “Every stratagem that could be invented” was used to get them from him (v. 60). For example, Willard Chase, a neighboring farmer, along with other treasure seekers, sent for a sorcerer to come and find the place where the plates were hidden. When the Smiths learned of the plot they sent Emma to get Joseph, who was working in Macedon a few miles west of Palmyra. He returned immediately and retrieved the plates. Wrapping them in a linen frock, he started through the woods, thinking it might be safer than the traveled road. But just as he jumped over a log, he was struck from behind with a gun. Joseph, however, was able to knock his assailant down and flee. Half a mile later he was assaulted again but managed to escape, and before he arrived home he was accosted a third time. His mother said that when he reached home he was “altogether speechless from fright and the fatigue of running.”15

Efforts to steal the plates intensified, but Moroni’s promise of protection was also fulfilled. Joseph often moved the plates from their hiding place just minutes before the treasure seekers arrived. Once he hid them under the hearthstone of the fireplace of his home. A large group of men gathered in front of the house, but they scattered when Joseph and his brothers faked a counterattack by running out the front door screaming and yelling as if a large company of men were assisting them. Joseph then hid the chest under the wooden floor of the cooper shop on the Smith farm, but he was prompted to conceal the records themselves under the flax in the loft. That night his enemies tore up the floor of the cooper shop, but the plates remained safe.

wooden box the Prophet hid the plates in

This is the wooden box the Prophet hid the plates in. The inside measurement of the box is 14″ x 16″. The depth is 6 1/4″ sloping to 4″. The wood is 3/4″ thick.

The lid and bottom are walnut, and the sides are made from boxwood. The box was used as a lap desk, which explains the sloped top.

The box is in the possession of Patriarch Eldred G. Smith.

Prophecy of Isaiah Fulfilled

During this period Joseph’s life was in danger, so he decided to take Emma back to Harmony, where he hoped to begin the translation in peace. Before they left, Martin Harris, a prominent citizen of Palmyra who would later play a great role in the Restoration, stepped forward and offered help. He was a prosperous weaver, businessman, and farmer who had met the Smiths when they first settled in Palmyra and had hired various family members to work for him over the years. He provided money so Joseph and Emma could liquidate their debts and also gave them fifty dollars for their trip. With the plates hidden in a barrel of beans in the back of the wagon, they drove out of town on a wintry day in December of 1827 headed for Harmony. Prior arrangements had been made to board temporarily with Emma’s parents.

Martin Harris

Except for Joseph Smith, no man played a more varied role in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon than Martin Harris. He provided financial support so the Prophet could move from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, in December 1827, helping to fulfill an ancient prophecy (see Isaiah 29:11–12). He also served as scribe, became a witness of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, financially assisted in its publication, and testified of the truthfulness of the book throughout his life.

Following a brief stay with the Hales, the couple purchased a house from Emma’s eldest brother, Jesse. It was a small two-story home on a thirteen-acre farm bordering the Susquehanna River. For the first time in weeks Joseph was able to work in relative peace. Between December 1827 and February 1828, he copied many of the characters from the plates and translated some of them by using the Urim and Thummim. In the early stages of the work, Joseph spent considerable time and effort becoming familiar with the language of the plates and learning how to translate.

According to previous arrangement, Martin Harris visited Joseph in Harmony sometime in February of 1828. By then the Lord had prepared Martin to assist Joseph in his mission. According to his own testimony, Martin was instructed by the Lord in 1818 not to join any church until the words of Isaiah were fulfilled. Sometime later it was revealed to Martin that the Lord had a work for him to do. In 1827 several manifestations convinced Martin Harris that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that he should assist Joseph in bringing the Book of Mormon to this generation. Therefore, Martin went to Harmony to obtain a copy of some of the characters from the plates to show several noted linguists of the time, which fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 29:11–12 to help convince an unbelieving world.16

Isaiah 29

This ancient prophecy of Isaiah has mystified students of the Bible for generations. Martin Harris and Joseph Smith understood it as pertaining to the Book of Mormon. This was verified by an expanded version of Isaiah’s prophecy in 2 Nephi 27.

Martin visited at least three men with reputations as able linguists. In Albany, New York, he talked with Luther Bradish, a diplomat, statesman, world traveler, and student of languages. In New York City he visited Dr. Samuel Mitchill, vice president of Rutgers Medical College. He also visited a man who knew several languages, including Hebrew and Babylonian. This was Professor Charles Anthon of Columbia College in New York City, who was perhaps the most qualified of Martin’s contacts to judge the characters on the document. He was among the leading classical scholars of his day. At the time of Martin Harris’s visit, Charles Anthon was adjunct professor of Greek and Latin. He knew French, German, Greek, and Latin, and was familiar, if books in his library are evidence, with the latest discoveries pertaining to the Egyptian language, including the early work of Champollion.17

According to Martin Harris, Professor Anthon examined the characters and their translation and willingly gave him a certificate stating to the citizens of Palmyra that the writings were authentic. Anthon further told Martin the characters resembled Egyptian, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Arabic, and expressed his opinion that the translation was correct. Martin put the certificate in his pocket and was about to leave when Anthon called him back and asked how Joseph Smith found the gold plates in the hill. Martin explained that an angel of God revealed the location to Joseph, whereupon Charles Anthon asked for the certificate, which Martin gave to him. “He took it and tore it to pieces, saying, that there was no such thing now as ministering of angels, and that if I [Martin] would bring the plates to him, he would translate them. I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden to bring them. He replied, ‘I cannot read a sealed book.’”18

Martin Harris’s trip was significant for several reasons. First, it showed that scholars had an interest in the characters and were willing to give them serious consideration as long as an angel was not part of their story. Second, it was, in the view of Martin and Joseph, the direct fulfillment of prophecy relative to the Book of Mormon. Third, it was a demonstration that translating the record would require the assistance of God; intellect alone was insufficient (see Isaiah 29:11–12; 2 Nephi 27:15–20). Finally, it built up Martin’s own faith. He returned home confident that he had evidence to convince his neighbors of Joseph Smith’s work. He was now ready to wholeheartedly commit himself and his means to the bringing forth of the Book of Mormon.

The Lost Manuscript

Martin’s wife, Lucy, was suspicious of Joseph Smith. She had questioned him about the plates and demanded to see them. He had told her she could not, “for he was not permitted to exhibit them to any one except those whom the Lord should appoint to testify of them.”

That same night Lucy had a dream: “A personage appeared to her who told her that as she had disputed the servant of the Lord, … she had done that which was not right in the sight of God. After which he said to her: ‘Behold, here are the plates, look upon them and believe.’”

Unfortunately, Lucy’s concerns were not resolved by her dream. She was angry that her husband was spending so much time away from her and wondered if the Smiths were trying to defraud him. She insisted on going to Harmony again. This time she announced to Joseph that she was not going to leave until she saw the plates. She ransacked the entire house looking for them, but did not find them. From that day on she claimed that her husband had been duped by “a grand imposter.” After two weeks, Martin took her home. Despite her attempts to dissuade him, he returned to Harmony. In Martin’s absence, Lucy continued her criticism in Palmyra.19

In Pennsylvania, Joseph and Martin labored together on the translation until 14 June 1828. By that time the translation filled 116 foolscap pages (roughly legal-size), and Martin asked if he could take this manuscript home to show his wife and friends. He hoped this would convince Lucy that the work was legitimate and stop her opposition. Through the Urim and Thummim, Joseph inquired of the Lord. The answer was no. Martin, not satisfied, persisted until Joseph again asked the Lord; still the answer was no. Martin’s pleadings and solicitations continued. Joseph wanted to satisfy his benefactor. He was young and inexperienced, and he relied upon the age and maturity of Martin. Moreover, Martin was the only one Joseph knew who was willing to work as scribe and finance the publication of the book. These considerations moved him to ask again. Finally, the Lord granted a conditional permission. Martin agreed in writing to show the manuscript to only four or five people, including his wife; his brother, Preserved Harris; his father; his mother; and Lucy’s sister, Mrs. Polly Cobb. Martin then left for Palmyra with the only copy of the manuscript.

Shortly after Martin’s departure, Emma Smith bore a son, Alvin, who died the day he was born. Emma nearly died herself, and for two weeks Joseph was constantly at her bedside. When she improved, his attention returned to the manuscript. By this time Martin had been gone for three weeks, and they had heard nothing from him. Martin had not been totally irresponsible. He had spent time with his wife, taken care of business in Palmyra, and served on a jury.

Emma encouraged Joseph to catch a stage to Palmyra and check on the matter. After traveling from Harmony to the Palmyra area and walking the last twenty miles during the night, Joseph finally arrived at his parents’ home in Manchester. He immediately sent for Martin. Martin usually came quickly, so breakfast was prepared for him and the Smiths. Several hours passed before Martin finally plodded up the walk with head hung down. He climbed on the fence and sat there with his hat down over his eyes. Finally he came in and sat down at the breakfast table, but he could not eat. Lucy Mack Smith, the Prophet’s mother, recorded: “He took up his knife and fork as if he were going to use them, but immediately dropped them. Hyrum, observing this, said ‘Martin, why do you not eat; are you sick?’ Upon which Mr. Harris pressed his hands upon his temples, and cried out in a tone of deep anguish, ‘Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!’

“Joseph who had not expressed his fears till now, sprang from the table, exclaiming, ‘Martin, have you lost that manuscript? Have you broken your oath, and brought down condemnation upon my head as well as your own?’

“‘Yes; it is gone,’ replied Martin, ‘and I know not where.’”

Self-condemnation and fear beset the Prophet. He exclaimed, “‘All is lost! all is lost! What shall I do? I have sinned—it is I who tempted the wrath of God. I should have been satisfied with the first answer which I received from the Lord; for he told me that it was not safe to let the writing go out of my possession.’ He wept and groaned, and walked the floor continually.

“At length he told Martin to go back and search again.

“‘No’; said Martin, ‘it is all in vain; for I have ripped open beds and pillows [looking for the manuscript]; and I know it is not there.’

“‘Then must I,’ said Joseph, ‘return with such a tale as this? I dare not do it. And how shall I appear before the Lord? Of what rebuke am I not worthy from the angel of the Most High?’ …

“The next morning, he set out for home. We parted with heavy hearts, for it now appeared that all which we had so fondly anticipated, and which had been the source of so much secret gratification, had in a moment fled, and fled forever.”20

Upon returning to Harmony without the 116 pages of manuscript, Joseph immediately began to pray for the Lord to forgive him for acting contrary to his will. Moroni appeared to Joseph and required him to return the plates and the Urim and Thummim, but promised that he could receive them back if he were humble and penitent. Some time later he received a revelation which chastised him for negligence and for “setting at naught the counsels of God” but also comforted him that he was still chosen to perform the work of translation if he repented (see D&C 3:4–10). Joseph did repent and again received the plates and the Urim and Thummim, along with a promise that the Lord would send a scribe to assist him in the translation. There was a special message: “The angel seemed pleased with me … , and he told me that the Lord loved me, for my faithfulness and humility.”21

With his divine gift restored, Joseph learned by revelation that wicked men, intending to entrap him, had altered the words of the manuscript. If he translated the same material again and published it, they would say he was unable to do it the same way twice, and therefore the work must not be inspired (see D&C 10). God, however, had prepared for this circumstance. The lost document was the book of Lehi taken from Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi. But Mormon had been inspired to attach the small plates of Nephi to his record for “a wise purpose,” which at the time he did not understand (see Words of Mormon 1:3–7). These smaller plates contained an account similar to that in the book of Lehi. Joseph was instructed not to retranslate, but to continue on and at the appropriate time to include the material from the small plates of Nephi. These records were the account of Nephi which the Lord said was “more particular concerning the things which, in my wisdom, I would bring to the knowledge of the people” (D&C 10:40).

The Prophet’s Preparation

The five and one-half years between September 1823 and April 1829 were important in Joseph Smith’s preparation for translating the Book of Mormon and leading the Church in the dispensation of the fulness of times. He was now twenty-three years old. He was tall and strong; he worked on the farm, in the fields, and at odd jobs. Although he had had little formal schooling, Joseph had a hungry and curious mind. He liked to discover things for himself and to seek his answers from the scriptures (see Joseph Smith—History 1:11–12). This thirst for knowledge, especially spiritual knowledge, never left him.

In June of 1843, Joseph told the Saints: “I am a rough stone. The sound of the hammer and chisel was never heard on me until the Lord took me in hand.”22 Courage, optimism, and faith were hallmarks of his personality. He had shown great courage at an early age, when he endured a painful leg operation. He later faced moblike neighbors who were trying to get the plates from him. Despite his poverty and lack of education, he was optimistic about himself and life. Rebuked by the Lord and corrected by Moroni, he was always submissive, repentant, and energetic. He faced despair when the 116 pages were lost, but from that experience he learned obedience and was later able to say, “I made this my rule: When the Lord commands, do it.” 23 He also learned valuable lessons about controlling his motives and purposes and was, therefore, able to keep his “eye single to the glory of God” (D&C 4:5) and channel his energies and thoughts toward building the kingdom.

By this time Joseph Smith had gained considerable experience with various means of revelation. He had communed with God and his Son and with angelic messengers. He had seen visions, felt the promptings of the Spirit, and grown in skill in using the Urim and Thummim. We should not conclude that revelation came easy to him, for another lesson he learned during this time was the price in faith, diligence, persistence, worthiness, and obedience he had to pay to receive communication from God.

Terminology Helpful in Understanding the Eastern United States

The names of places connected with the early history of the Church in the eastern United States often confuse modern readers. This is because many people are not familiar with the political subdivisions of most eastern states and the different meanings of common words pertaining to them. If we understand the terminology used in the eastern United States, this confusion is cleared up and the reading of Church history becomes more understandable.

The word town does not mean a village, hamlet, or city. Rather, it is the shortened form of the word township, which refers to a subsection of a county. A county may be subdivided into many townships. For example, Windsor County, Vermont, is composed of twenty-four townships, one called Sharon. When we read in Church histories that Joseph Smith was born in the “town” of Sharon in Windsor County, Vermont, it does not mean the village or community of Sharon, but the township of Sharon.

The names of these towns (townships) were and are often used in such legal documents as deeds and wills. These towns also have their own local governments and elected officials, which are distinctly different from government officials of villages and communities in the township.

Often villages or small communities have the same name as their township, which can add to the confusion. In some cases, however, communities in a state have the same name as a township but are not in that township. Thus, if we assume that Joseph and Emma lived in the community of Harmony, Pennsylvania, and look for it on a map, we would find it in Butler County in the western end of the state. But this was not the location of their home. They lived in the “town,” or township, of Harmony, which is in Susquehanna County, in the northeastern corner of Pennsylvania.

One of the ways easterners have avoided confusion of the two meanings of the word town is to be specific in reference to communities. When a community is too small to have a local organization, it is usually called a hamlet. When it is incorporated, it is called a village (or, in Pennsylvania, a borough). It remains a village until it has a population of about ten thousand; then it becomes a city.

With this background, it may be helpful to review some of the significant locations of Church history mentioned in these early chapters. The maps in these chapters will also help clarify these points.

  1. Joseph Smith’s progenitors did not live in the village of Topsfield, Massachusetts, but in the township of Topsfield.

  2. Joseph Smith was born in the township of Sharon in Windsor County, Vermont. The home was located some distance from the village of Sharon and straddled the township line. It is believed that he was born in the township of Sharon only because the bedroom where he was born was on the Sharon side of the line.

  3. The Joseph Smith farm and the Sacred Grove are in the township of Manchester, Ontario County, New York, and not in the village of Palmyra. The post office address, however, is and always has been Palmyra, Wayne County, New York.

  4. There was no hamlet of Oakland in the days of Isaac Hale and Joseph Smith, but there was a village of Harmony in what was then the township of Harmony. The community of Oakland developed later. Oakland township was then divided off from the old township of Harmony. The village of Harmony has since disappeared and is no longer identifiable.

  5. The Joseph Knight farm was not in a village or hamlet called Colesville, Broome County, New York. Rather, it was in the township of Colesville and was some distance from the hamlets of North and West Colesville, the closest village being that of Nineveh.

  6. Joseph and Emma were married at the home of Squire Tarbell in the village of South Bainbridge (now Afton) in the township of Bainbridge, Chenango County, New York.

  7. The Church was not organized in the hamlet of Fayette, Seneca County, New York. The organization took place in the log cabin of Peter Whitmer in the township of Fayette.

Show References


  1. See Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, ed. Preston Nibley (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), p. 79.

  2. In Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, pp. 195–96.

  3. Oliver Cowdery, in Messenger and Advocate, July 1835, p. 157.

  4. Cowdery, in Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, p. 198.

  5. Cowdery, in Messenger and Advocate, Oct. 1835, p. 198.

  6. In Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 81; emphasis added.

  7. See History of the Church, 4:537; George Q. Cannon, in Journal of Discourses, 13:47; John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 17:374; 21:94.

  8. Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 83.

  9. In Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 87.

  10. Buddy Youngreen, Reflections of Emma, Joseph Smith’s Wife (Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Co., 1982), p. 4.

  11. See History of the Church, 3:29.

  12. In Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp. 100–101.

  13. Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 108.

  14. See Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 114; Joseph Smith 1832 History, Joseph Smith Letterbook, cited in Dean C. Jessee, ed., The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1984), pp. 7–8.

  15. See Stanley B. Kimball, “I Cannot Read a Sealed Book,” Improvement Era, Feb. 1957, pp. 80–82, 104, 106; “Charles Anthon and the Egyptian Language,” Improvement Era, Oct. 1960, pp. 708–10, 765; “The Anthon Transcript: People, Primary Sources, and Problems,” Brigham Young University Studies, Spring 1970, pp. 325–52.

  16. In History of the Church, 1:20.

  17. Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp. 116–17, 122.

  18. Smith, History of Joseph Smith, pp. 128–29.

  19. In Smith, History of Joseph Smith, p. 135.

  20. In History of the Church, 5:423.

  21. History of the Church, 2:170.