Challenge to Greatness: The Nineteenth-Century Saints in New York
September 1978

“Challenge to Greatness: The Nineteenth-Century Saints in New York,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, 25

Challenge to Greatness:

The Nineteenth-Century Saints in New York

Authors’ original spelling has been retained, following standard historical practice. See reasons for spelling variations in “Nineteenth-Century Spelling,” Ensign, Aug. 1975—including uncertain spelling conventions and spelling as an expression of personality.

“My father was a sober, honest man,” wrote one of his seven children, “generally beloved and respected by his neighbors and acquaintances.” A typical entry from a nineteenth-century journal?

“I do not know that anything special occurred more than is common to all families during our childhood with our parents. … Owing to the business my Father was engaged in he often had hired help. Among the many he from time to time hired was a young man by the name of Joseph Smith, Junior.” Suddenly, this family history becomes electrifyingly interesting.

The father described is Joseph Knight, the man whose hospitality and generosity helped sustain the Prophet during the translation of the Book of Mormon—in fact, the man in whose wagon the plates were carded home from the Hill Cumorah. Joseph Knight’s son, Newell Knight, later lost his health, his possessions, his wife, and ultimately, in 1847, his life as he gave unstinting obedience to Joseph Smith, who was once his father’s hired laborer. Of the young Joseph Smith, Newell Knight wrote: “To him I was particularly attached; his noble deportment, his faithfulness, his kind address could not fail to win the esteem of those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance.”1

The fact is that the Knights—and the other Saints in nineteenth-century New York—were not typical. They faced unique opportunities and challenges as the first members of the Church and the first citizens of the restored kingdom of God on the earth. But a study of nineteenth century journals and diaries for that period does show us that many of those early Saints were “regular, ordinary people” who were given a challenge to greatness. Some of them, like Newell Knight, met that challenge with extraordinary Commitment and we remember his name today. Others met the challenge with the same commitment but are unknown outside their family circle. Others took up the challenge for a moment, but dropped it again and turned away. And still others accepted, rejected, and then came back with increased determination.

The faithful Saints were extraordinarily blessed, but they were also extraordinarily tested, chastized, and refined. Spiritual manifestations were poured out in abundance, but these Saints exercised mighty faith to receive them. Ziba Peterson, for instance, could have accepted that challenge to greatness. He probably was baptized within a few months of the Church’s organization, since the Lord, through Joseph Smith in October 1830 singled Ziba Peterson out to go on a mission to the Lamanites with Parley P. Pratt, Oliver Cowdery, and Peter Whitmer. (D&C 32:1–3.) We know the other three names. We should know Ziba Peterson’s, for on that mission he helped convert Sidney Rigdon in Mentor, Ohio, the same month. In November, he was in Painsville, Ohio, talking with Edward Partridge. (HC, 1:129n.) The next spring he was Oliver Cowdery’s missionary companion. (HC, 1:182.) But in August 1831, another revelation rebuked Ziba for wanting to hide his sins (D&C 58:60), and ten years later, his former missionary companion, Parley P. Pratt, said he had “turned away from fellowship with the Church.” (Times and Seasons 3:624.) And that’s what we know of Ziba Peterson. The challenge to greatness was before him, but he turned from it.

Saints then, like Saints now, came in all sorts. Some knew from the beginning the dimension of the commitment that they were making, others recognized only the sweet, strong taste of the truth and, hungering for more, followed where the search led them, step by step.

One of these people was David Lewis, a neighbor boy not yet twelve, who remembered the meeting at which the Church was organized, including the fact that the room they met in “had no floor except dirt.” He asked if he could be baptized, and the Prophet sent him home to talk it over with his parents and “if possible get their consent.”

He wrote, “I went home and asked my mother if she was willing that I join the Church.” (There’s a little humor in the account: She asked, “What church?”) Her answer was: “Yes, David, you can do so if you please, but David, the whole world is against them, including all the good ministers.” Stubbornly David gave his reasons: “I like the way Joseph speaks, he preaches baptism for the remission of sins, the laying on of hands for the reception of the Holy Ghost, etc.”

He was baptized—twenty-nine days after the organization of the Church, on his twelfth birthday, in a stream two miles down a road and two miles over a “cow trail.” Joseph performed the ordinance and then tried to persuade David not to go home yet, since a violent thunderstorm had broken as soon as the baptism was completed. David insisted on going straight home—he’d promised his mother he would. The Prophet pressed no further but instead “promised me that the Lord would be with me, and would take me safely home to my mother.”

Lost and frightened on the way home through the woods, he remembered the Prophet’s promise and knelt to pray that the Lord would “take me safely to my home and to be a lamp to my feet and a guide to my pathway.” The answer came as specifically as his prayer. A light, resembling the illumination from a coal-oil lamp, appeared and moved ahead of him down the path to his house, circled around to the back door, and went out as soon as his mother, who had seen it pass the window, opened the door. When David told the Prophet about it later, Joseph answered, “David, I knew that you would get lost in the woods and that the Lord would guide you home.”2

Within a few days, another baptism was held on 9 June 1830. Among those baptized by David Whitmer were Don Carlos Smith, the Prophet’s devoted younger brother and Orrin Porter Rockwell, then a teenage boy who has since come to be known as the hard-riding, long-haired, barely literate frontiersman whose loyalty to Joseph never wavered. Another member of that same group was Joseph’s brother William, who left the Church in 1845. But when they were confirmed on the evening of June 10, William said, “I felt the Spirit of God like a burning fire shut up in my bones.”3

People moved often, in search of better farming opportunities. It may have been happenstance that in Freedom, New York, a family named Miles moved to a farm on one side and a family named Hyde bought a farm that touched another side of the farm owned by Warren A. Cowdery, brother of Oliver Cowdery. Warren’s dead sister had been Miles’s first wife. Through him, the Mileses “became acquainted with the rise of the … Mormons.”

Missionaries came by in the winter of 1833–34, and seven-year-old Samuel Miles remembered going to that first meeting with his father, and afterward watching baptisms in the icy midwinter stream. Within a few weeks, Orson Pratt, John Murdock, and others established a branch in Freedom, and young Samuel remembered “attending our meetings and prayer meetings where the gift of tongues was made manifest and notably the interpretations of tongues by Eunice Sawyer, a young woman who had received the Gospel, the only one of her family.” He mused, “She made strong impressions on my early boyhood, being one of my first school teachers.” By the time he was ready for baptism, the family was in Kirtland.4

The neighbors on the other side, the Hydes, also had an observant son. William Hyde remembered that Warren Cowdery early received some proof sheets from Oliver of the Book of Mormon, “some of which we had the privilege of perusing.” With deliberate understatement, he added, “And we did not peruse any faster than we believed.”

Early in 1834, Joseph Smith and Parley P. Pratt came to the family home. Before they left, they baptized the oldest son, Heman Tilton Hyde, who went with them on Zion’s Camp. On April 7, William and his father were baptized. Soon the rest of the family joined the Church and moved to Kirtland.5

In Kirtland they may have exchanged greetings and news with Andrew Lee Allen, a neighbor from the same county who had run away from blacksmithing at the age of fourteen, joined the American Navy during the war of 1812, been arrested in Canada for imprudently proposing a toast to the American eagle, and escaped across the border to New York, where he settled down to log off a farm and raise a family. One of his seven children, Charles Hopkins Allen, remembered that his actions were as direct when he heard about the church as they had been at other times of his life. “He sought the Elders and was converted the first time he heard them speak and was baptized before he returned home.”6

For Mary Adeline Beman, the process took longer, and her love for the gospel developed along with her love for a young man named Joseph Noble. One of seven children and devoted to her studies, she was teaching school by age eighteen near her home in Avon, New York. Her father had been friends with the Prophet’s father for years and, according to her record, once helped hide the gold plates when a mob ransacked the Smith home. He brought a copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon to his home town, and his daughter Mary took it to some friends for an opinion.

It was probably not coincidence that one of these friends was Joseph Noble’s landlady, for Mary admits, “The first time I ever saw him I felt an attachment to him that I never did to any other man upon so short an acquaintance,” but she said nothing to him. In this account, written years later, there are very human feelings revealed beneath the surface of her quiet prose: “Mr. Noble was paying attention to Mr. Knowls’s daughter, she was a fine girl; she was my intimate acquaintance”—but then having given her her due, Mary tells the other side: “She was naturally rather of a proud spirit … and did not care much about religion; but … I always had respect to the principles of truth and righteousness; and sought the happiness of others as well as my own.” She confesses that marrying Joseph Noble would have been her choice “could I have been permitted to have made it; but I unbosomed my feelings to no one.”

The first missionaries she saw, besides Father Smith and Samuel, were two men who “looked different to me than any other men I ever saw. They carried an expression in their countenance that bespoke men of God. … I was always edified when in their society, to hear them converse on the subject of Mormonism for I realized [they] were in possession of something that I was not.—and it was my meditation by day, and by night; … and I had a testimony of myself that it was the truth of God.” One of those missionaries was Brigham Young, the other his brother Joseph.

About two years later, in 1832, Joseph Noble was baptized. He and Mary started “keeping company,” and she discovered that, more than ever, “his course, conduct and conversation was highly gratifying to me.” With simplicity, she summed up her feelings: “In his society I was happy.”

Then Joseph Smith came to their community and she knew “at first sight that … he was a man chosen of God.” Eagerly she helped her sisters serve meals to him and a dozen traveling elders and listened to the conversation afterward. “His society I prized, his conversation was meat and drink to me. The principles that he brought forth and the testimony that he bore of the truth of the Book of Mormon made a lasting impression on my mind.” When he left, he took her Joseph with him on the Zion’s Camp trek—truly “her” Joseph now, for they had promised to be married when he returned, “if our lives were spared.” He came back, and they married and moved to Kirtland.7

For Mary and Joseph Noble, the unfolding of the gospel was one natural blossoming after another as their lives joined and moved into the future.

For Sanford Porter, born in Massachusetts in 1790, the gospel was the answer to the prayers of a lifetime. His father had looked for an apostolic church all of his life, and his son inherited both that stubborn belief and an equally stubborn resistance to any substitute. A phrenologist had characterized Sanford as “very self-willed and determined … almost obstinate … very hard to please … will never give one inch in argument” and Sanford’s life proved the truth of all those statements.

Religion was an unfailing interest of his, and he was willing to talk about it with anyone, “but I found none that could reasonably convince me that I was wrong, and show me that they were rite.” The confusion of the different sects finally led him to doubt the Bible. He was living in Vermont in 1818 when his hunger to know became a torment. One question-prayer ran unceasingly through his mind: “Oh is there a god, if there is a god, may I know the way that is wright?” He fasted three days and nights. Too restless to sit or stand still, he paced the barn by day and the house by night. Although he had told no one the cause of his anguish, he was uninterrupted—even by his wife and children—all this time. Then on the third night, in the barn, he heard a “voyce, plain and distinct, … there is a god, that has known the Desires of your heart this number of years, and I have been sent to instruct you. I am to show you three times this night the way that is wright, that you need never doubt.” (Italics added.)

His first response, naturally, was surprise. His second response, characteristically, was suspicion. He flung open the barn door looking for the prankster but found three inches of unbroken snow outside. Still not satisfied, he went to the house and searched not only the rooms but the barrels in the attic. Convinced but puzzled, he sat by the fire and then realized that “all my pains … and all my former troubles” had left at the sound of the voice and that he felt “quiet and peacible.” Then it seemed that his spirit left his body and returned to the barn, where he met a personage dressed in brilliant white who repeated his message and showed him in vision the life of the Savior, the creation of Adam and Eve, and his own place in the plan. Filled with joy, Sanford accepted the vision and never doubted the existence of God again.

Years later, his business partner sent to him two missionaries with a letter explaining that they “had set the methodist and baptist professors all in an uprore … and he wanted me to search them to the bottom … and let him know what I thought of them.” After three exhausting days and nights of questioning, he admitted, “Well, gentlemen, if you have told the truth, and I have no doubt but what you have, your church is wright and the only church on Earth that is wright.”8

No mere persecutions made him change his mind. When he came to Utah, he was presiding elder in Circleville, Utah, and its first bishop until he moved away to found Porterville in Morgan County.

Martin Harris was another who “was Inspired of the Lord and Tought of the Spirit that I should not Join Eny Church although I was anxiously Sought for By meny of the Sectarians.”9

Martin Harris

Martin Harris, one of the Three Witnesses, was “Tought of the Spirit that I should not Join Eney Church.”

Orson Pratt as a teenager began “in real earnest, to seek after the Lord.” He would “pray very fervently,” rising at night to seek “some secret place in the lonely fields or solitary wilderness. … The greatest desire of my heart was for the Lord to manifest His will concerning me.” When his brother Parley came to him in September 1830 with the gospel message, he was ready, “the only person in the [region] who received and obeyed the message.” He was baptized on his nineteenth birthday—and left within two weeks to travel over two hundred miles to meet the Prophet Joseph in Fayette. The Lord spoke to him through what is now Section 34 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and within a month, Orson was setting out on his first mission.10

Orson Pratt

Orson Pratt, early missionary to New York, was later called to the Quorum of the Twelve.

Benjamin Brown, an ancestor of Presidents Hugh B. Brown and Nathan Eldon Tanner, among others, was another man prepared through his own spiritual struggle for the Restoration. Born in 1794 in Queensbury, New York, he spent his first isolated fifteen years reading the Bible with such simplicity that he was shocked when he learned from ministers that spiritual gifts and revelation had “ceased.” His own experience contradicted it; he had frequently prayed in private for the healing of a relative and had seen him “suddenly restored to health.”

And at about thirty-five years of age, resting late at night by the fire, he had a vision of his dead brother, who announced “a great work to be done on the earth during the last days.” After his brother disappeared, a voice announced, “‘This is the spirit of understanding’” and he saw an open Bible which he “seemed able to read” by the chapter instead of by the verse:

“With the rapidity of lightning, various truths of the Bible were presented to my mind, and what each Prophet or Apostle had said on each particular subject met my eyes, in consecutive order, concentrated and connected, showing that each and all of those men were inspired by the same Spirit, and had a distinct knowledge of the same grand events and glorious truths. … I never before saw such connection between the Scriptures.”

His wife called him in the middle of this vision “and I felt just like a hungry man who is … snatched suddenly away from a feast. But the joy and peace with which my spirit was filled remained with me, and I glorified God.”

Hungry for the truth, he decided to attend a protracted religious service being held in the neighborhood, even though he didn’t think much of the methods of the group. Resolved to be humble, he “covenanted with the Lord, that if He would reveal His mind and will unto me, whatever sacrifice or duty He might require at my hands, I would do it. Little did I think of the way my truthfulness would be tried,” he adds with refreshing honesty, “or possibly I might have shunned such a contract.”

It was not a Mormon meeting, but great spiritual gifts were manifest, at least to Benjamin Brown. “I seemed filled to overflowing with its teachings, a continual stream of glorious truths passed through my mind, my happiness was great.” He doesn’t remember feeling hungry for the entire fifteen days. About a day before the end of the meeting, “A knowledge was given me that the ancient gifts of the Gospel—speaking in tongues, the power to heal the sick, the spirit of prophecy, etc., were just about to be restored to the believers in Christ. The revelation was a perfect knowledge of the fact, so sure and certain, that … I knew it from the crown of my head to the sole of my foot— … I can compare it to nothing better than the change made on a clean sheet of paper by a printing press, leaving an indelible impression behind.”

Assuming that these gifts would come to the people with whom he had been meeting, he joyfully went to the minister and was utterly shocked when he heard “it was all of the Devil, for such things had ceased for ever!” Within a few days, he visited a Mormon meeting and saw prophecy and the gift of tongues manifest.

Here Benjamin Brown’s experience becomes very instructive. For even though he had received this confirmation—and he had spoken in tongues himself at the meeting—he was not convinced of the truthfulness of the gospel. He felt confident of his own spiritual powers, and when he started reading the Book of Mormon, “felt greatly to dislike the book. Ere I had perused ten pages, I rejected it altogether.”

But he realized that Satan was duping him when he “felt a similar dislike seize me towards the Bible,” and he resolutely started reading his way through the Book of Mormon. Reading about Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, “I took the book and laid it before the Lord, and pleaded with Him in prayer for a testimony whether it was true or false.” Specifically he asked for the witness of the Nephite disciples; and about five days later, two Nephites visited him in his bedroom, speaking in the same tongue that he had heard at the Mormon meeting and rebuking him for his doubts. “I was dumb before my rebuker, for I knew that what he said was right, and I felt deserving of it.”

Now he had no more doubts, but he delayed his baptism for a year and a half, hoping that his wife’s determined enmity would be softened. Finally, in 1835, he was baptized without her—but with the assurance that she would join. That assurance kept him patient through the next year and a half of bitter opposition; she even threatened to leave him.

But one night she dreamed that they had a great deal of company and only a potato the size of a robin’s egg in the pantry. “However, with this small stock, she commenced, and by some wonderful means converted this little affair into a splendid preparation of pies, puddings, etc.,” and then stood puzzled at how she had contrived “such an elegant entertainment.” Benjamin, “just at that moment,” woke with the instructions ringing in his ears that he should immediately tell her, “Don’t you remember hearing that you should not dispise the day of small things? He promptly woke her and spoke the sentence to her. It explained her dream. It was also the answer to one of her chief objections—“that she considered it disgraced her to have her husband belong to a Church that was so poor, and everywhere spoken against.” With this culinary analogy of the Church’s future, her heart was softened, “she was baptized, and … remained firm to the Church ever since.”11

Not everyone, even those so prepared, was willing to accept the truth when it was presented. Jonathan H. Hale remembered hearing his father predict that “there would yet be another religious book similar to the bible, for religious people to be guided by,” since a new dispensation needed a new book. Then he recorded, with a note of sadness, “But when in after years I brought him the Book of Mormon, he had no more relish for it than for the former two testaments.” His father was also one who had been standing outside on the night of 22 September 1827 and had seen “armies marching and rushing into battle” in the sky, a phenomenon attested to by many on the night that Joseph Smith received the plates to begin translation. (See Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1945, pp. 16–17.)

But even without his father’s manifestations, Jonathan Hale’s heart was softer. In 1832 he heard Orson Hyde and Samuel Smith bear testimony in Westfield, New York. With no other religious instructor, the sixteen-year-old boy turned to the Lord and asked to learn the truth or falseness “of what I had heard. … I received what I asked for; I found what I sought; and when I knocked the vision was opened unto me, in which I was shown the principle events that will transpire at the coming of Christ, in His glory.” He was baptized on 28 April 1833 and spoke in tongues that day; in Kirtland nearly three years later, he recognized in his study of the Hebrew language some of the words he had used. “I could not (in the English language) be thankful enough to God, for the renewing of his covenant, so the spirit gave me utterance in the Hebrew,” he commented.12

Harrison Burgess, baptized in July 1832 by Simeon Carter, started on his first mission at the age of eighteen and had the same experience of putting the Lord to the test. As he preached, he bore testimony to the Book of Mormon, but the next day, the doubts within him whispered, “Do you know the Book of Mormon is true?” The question so perplexed and tormented him that he retired to the woods in “misery and distress” and struggled for two hours. “All at once the vision of my mind was opened, and a glorious personage clothed in white stood before me” and gave him assurance that the Book of Mormon was truly an ancient record.13 He had asked a real question—and had struggled until he received a very dramatic answer.

Those challenges were real; the opposition was real; the blessings were real. Over and over again, the testimony of these “first” Saints is the urgent priority they gave to finding and following the truth. They did not deny their hunger to know the truth, and they did not delay their search for the truth because it was inconvenient.

William E. McLellin, in a letter written to his relatives in 1833, explained that the first time he heard the missionaries, it seemed “very strange to me,” but he had no time to question them for they left next morning. David Whitmer was the next missionary, and William spent a week satisfying his desire for knowledge. At the end of that week, he simply packed up and started for Missouri where the Prophet was. Illness, bad weather, and distance delayed him, and he missed making connections by a few days.

But about a dozen elders were there, and “I examined the book, the people, the preaching and the old scriptures, and from the evidences which I had before me I was bound to believe the Book of Mormon to be a divine Revelation; and the people to be Christians. Consequently,” he summarized matter-of-factly, “I joined them.”14

William E. McLellin

William E. McLellin felt “bound to believe the Book of Mormon.”

Jared Carter was on a business trip that should have lasted several days when he obtained the Book of Mormon not twelve miles from his home. “After reading awhile … and praying earnestly to the Lord that he would show me the truth of the book, I became immediately convinced that it was a revelation of God and it had such an influence on my mind that I had no mind to pursue, my business.”

He went home, told his puzzled wife what had happened, and expressed his desire to seek out the Church. She was unwilling to encourage this “delusion”; but as he continued to pray, she became “entirely willing” for him to investigate further.

He left his home in Broom County to go to Colesville, where he was baptized in February 1831. “As I stepped out of the water I was wraped in the spirit both soul and body, even so that the chill of the cold water was taken from me and I walked near a half of a mile and was no more cold than as though I had not been baptized.”15 He and his brothers became some of the Church’s great missionaries, though the trials at Kirtland were too severe for them, and they eventually left the Church.

Joseph Holbrook, visiting his cousin Mary Ann Angell in New York, resisted her attempts to influence him religiously by telling her that “when the right kind came along I should embrace it for I did not care for any other.” In 1832 he attended a Mormon meeting in a town four miles away. The speaker didn’t come but sent some material by his son and another missionary. After it had been read, Joseph “asked them where I could get a Book of Mormon. They said they did not know. I then told them I would go 50 miles the next day to get one if they could direct me where. They said they could not tell me. I told them where I lived and if they could direct any Elder there in the future they would be welcome.”

Mary Ann Angell

Mary Ann Angell was an early member missionary.

Mary Ann, at this point, whispered that she had a copy she could lend him in about two weeks after she had loaned it to someone else. He walked home with her and read the testimony of the witnesses, and then hoped during the next two weeks that she would not forget her promise. His heart was soft with faith and warmed by hope and “I felt much to rejoice for the words came often to my mind, ‘blessed are ye for ye believe and have not seen.’”

Mary Ann brought the book at the end of two weeks, and he started reading it that evening, a Friday. Saturday morning—a “working” day—he went back to the field and kept on digging potatoes, “but soon found I could not content my mind at work.” He went back to the house and began reading, but his wife was so alarmed at this behavior that he returned to the field.

It was no use. “I had not dug long before I wished with all my heart I knew all there was in that book.” He prayed, determinedly went home, and read for the rest of the day, and far into the night. He also read all day Sunday, even though his wife refused to stay in the house. Monday he took the book back to Mary Ann “and told her I was now ready to fulfill my promise to her some few years before, that I would have religion when the right kind came along and I believed this was the right kind.”16

Thomas B. Marsh, like Joseph Holbrook, was looking for the “right” religion. When he married and settled down in the grocery business in Boston, he also joined the Methodist church and “tryed for 2 years to be a genuine Methodist, but did not succeed any better in getting Methodist religion than I did in the Grocery business.” When his “class leader” asked him to stay with Methodism as he moved westward, “I had a measure of the spirit of prophecy and told him that I expected a new church would arise, which would have the truth in its purity.” For some years, the Marshes studied with a group of friends who were also interested in religion.

It was in 1829, while on a business trip to New York state, that Thomas B. Marsh heard about the Book of Mormon. Immediately, “I became very anxious to know concerning the matter,” so he retraced his steps to Palmyra, tracked down Martin Harris at the printing office, and got some proof sheets. Martin Harris took him to the Joseph Smith home, where Oliver Cowdery told him more, and he returned home, “highly pleased with the information I had received.” He showed the pages to his wife, who was also “well pleased, believing it to be the work of God.”

For the next year, he corresponded with Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith, learned of the Church’s organization, and “in September following … landed at the house of Joseph Smith Sen. with my whole family.” In October he was baptized and a few days later ordained. In the spring, the whole family moved with the Church to Kirtland. He went to Missouri, went on several missionary journeys, became an apostle, and presided over the Church in Missouri. But about August 1838, “I got a beam in my eye and thought I could discover a mote in Joseph’s.” Gradually he apostatized from the Church.

In 1857, the same year he returned to the Church, he penned this brief prayer-covenant: “I, Thomas B. Marsh, do hereby this day, September 7, A.D. 1857, consecrate and dedicate myself soul, body and spirit with all I possess on earth, to the Lord, praying to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to set me afoot or sanctify me to be exclusively his to do whatsoever he should require of me and to give me Grace to sanctify the Lord of hosts in my heart that I might Love him with all my heart, soul, mind, strength and understanding. Amen.”17

The intensity of love and urgent desire colors the experience of the New York Saints. Joining the Church was not a light decision; belonging to the Church was not convenient. Its challenge was to greatness or nothing. And the spiritual gifts poured out upon these “ordinary” members of the Church remind us—if we ever needed reminding—that no one is ordinary, that all prayers are heard by our Heavenly Father, and that the Savior’s mission was to each individual.

Zerah Pulsipher, when the first Book of Mormon came to his town in the fall of 1831, “succeeded in getting it. I directly read it through twice, gave it a thorough investigation and believed it was true.” When Jared Carter came through the next winter, Zerah was hungry for more. He asked specifically about the spiritual gifts of the restored Church and whether Jared had ever healed the sick.

When Jared preached the next night, bearing specific testimony of the Book of Mormon, the audience seemed dazed. Zerah must have expressed the feelings of many when he arose and announced that the news, if true, was “of the utmost importance to us,” and, if false, was “one of the greatest impositions.”

But he also staked out the dimensions of his own faith when he continued that Jared Carter was “nothing but a man” and that he himself, consequently, “had just as good a right to obtain that blessing” of testimony. Considering a sure knowledge to be his right and his privilege, “from that time I made it a matter of fervent prayer.”

The ministry of angels was his answer: “About the seventh day as I was thrashing in my barn with doors shut, all at once there seemed to be a ray of light from heaven which caused me to stop work for a short time, but soon began it again. Then in a few minutes another light came over my head which caused me to look up. I thought I saw the angels with the Book of Mormon in their hands in the attitude of showing it to me and saying, ‘This is the great revelation of the last days in which all things spoken of by the prophets must be fulfilled.’ The vision was so open and plain that I began to rejoice exceedingly so that I walked the length of my barn crying, ‘Glory Hal-la-lu-ya to the God and the Lamb forever.’”18

The experiences of Zerah Pulsipher and the other early Saints in New York remind us of the Savior’s parable of the sower—for truly the good seed of the gospel was sown among all kinds of hearts in those brief years. Some rejected it outright with hearts of flint; others received it and rejoiced in it, but were unable to give it enough growing room. For still others, the gospel was not only received gladly, but returned again in thanksgiving, “some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some an hundred.” (Mark 4:20.)


  1. Newell Knight, Autobiography (1800–1846), Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Historical Department (cited hereafter as Church Archives). In most cases, original spelling has been retained, but punctuation and capitalization have been added for ease in reading.

  2. David Lewis, Reminiscence dictated to Andrew Jenson, 10 Sept. 1908, Church Archives.

  3. William Smith, William Smith on Mormonism, Lamoni, Iowa: Herald Steam Book and Job Office, 1883, p. 16.

  4. Samuel Miles, Diary (1826–1881), Church Archives, pp. 1–2.

  5. William Hyde, “Private Journal of William Hyde” (1818–1873), Church Archives, pp. 8–9.

  6. Charles Hopkins Allen, Autobiography (1830–1906), Church Archives.

  7. Mary Adeline Beman Noble, Autobiography (1810–1834), Church Archives.

  8. Sanford Porter, Journal (1780–1830), Church Archives.

  9. Martin Harris, Testimony dictated in Salt Lake City, 4 Sept. 1870.

  10. Elden J. Watson, comp., The Orson Pratt Journals, Salt Lake City: Elden Jay Watson, 1975, p. 9.

  11. Benjamin Brown, Testimonies for the Truth, A Record of Manifestations of the Power of God, Miraculous and Providential, Witnessed in the Travels and Experience of Benjamin Brown … , Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1853; reprinted in typescript, pp. 1–6.

  12. Jonathan H. Hale, Journal (1800–1840), typescript, Church Archives, pp. 5–6.

  13. Harrison Burgess, Autobiography, Church Archives, pp. 1–2.

  14. McLellin to “Beloved Relatives,” 4 Aug. 1832, Church Archives.

  15. Journal of Jared Carter, typescript, Church Archives, p. 1.

  16. Joseph Holbrook, “A Family Record of Joseph Holbrook,” vol. 1, Church Archives, pp. 9, 11–12.

  17. Thomas Baldwin Marsh, Autobiography (1799–1838), written in Salt Lake City in 1857; an untitled statement with autobiography, Church Archives.

  18. “Excerpts from the Pulsipher Family History Book,” in Pioneer Journals, n.p., n.d., p. 2.

Photographs courtesy of LDS Historical Department

William Hyde read Book of Mormon proof sheets prior to his baptism.

Joseph Noble travelled to Zion’s Camp with the Prophet.