“Moroni’s Message to Joseph Smith,” Ensign, Aug. 1990, 13
With Moroni’s appearance to seventeen-year-old Joseph Smith on 21 September 1823, the Lord began to educate the Prophet in preparation for the restoration of the gospel. The Nephite prophet Moroni, as the last prophet of the Lehite dispensation and the final author, compiler, and caretaker of the Nephite record, was appropriately chosen to serve as young Joseph Smith’s tutor. From Moroni, Joseph Smith learned more about his own future calling, and through the process of bringing forth the Book of Mormon, he began to receive and share the gospel light that this sacred volume contains. Moroni’s statue on our temples today announces to the world the message that he delivered to Joseph Smith: The gospel has been restored in its fulness, and its blessings are now available to humankind.1
During Joseph Smith’s lifetime, he wrote or dictated four separate accounts of the appearance of Moroni: one dictated to Frederick G. Williams in 1832; a journal entry in 1835; another, the “official” account, dictated in 1838; and the Wentworth Letter, published by the Prophet in 1842.2 In addition to the accounts that came directly from Joseph Smith, other early accounts were written by Orson Pratt and Oliver Cowdery. Elder Pratt’s account was published in a pamphlet in 1840, while he was serving a mission in Scotland.3 Oliver Cowdery’s rendition is contained in three articles published in February, April, and July 1835 in the Kirtland Messenger and Advocate.4
During his initial visit with Joseph Smith, Moroni informed Joseph that his sins had been forgiven and that he had been chosen to bring forth the sacred record of the ancient Americans. But that was not all. In his 1832 account of the visitation, the Prophet reported simply that he learned “many things concerning the inhabitants of the earth.” In his 1835 account, he said that Moroni “explained many … prophesies.” And in the 1842 Wentworth Letter, Joseph Smith wrote that Moroni taught him “that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.” Moreover, he wrote, “I was informed that I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of his purposes in this glorious dispensation.”5
In the 1838 account, which is found in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith shared the greatest detail regarding Moroni’s teaching. The Prophet recorded that Moroni “commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament.” Joseph Smith then listed several passages from the Bible that Moroni quoted. He listed those passages in this order (see JS—H 1:35–41)6:
After reviewing Moroni’s recitation of these scriptures, Joseph Smith noted the following: “He quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here.” (JS—H 1:41.) The Prophet never specified what those “other passages of scripture” were, but Oliver Cowdery provided more information.7
As stated earlier, in 1835 Oliver Cowdery wrote three articles in the Messenger and Advocate regarding the appearance of Moroni to Joseph Smith. All of the articles were written in the form of epistles addressed to W. W. Phelps, and they are characterized by Elder Cowdery’s rich literary style. The letters contain lengthy discourses on the restoration of the gospel and the message conveyed to the Prophet by Moroni. In writing them, Elder Cowdery apparently used the opportunity to present to the Church some expositions on several gospel subjects, based on the things Moroni communicated to Joseph Smith. In two of the articles, appearing in February and April, he included scriptures that presumably were quoted or paraphrased by Moroni. The following compilation lists them in the order in which they appear in the narrative.
Messenger and Advocate 1.5 (Feb. 1835), p. 77–80:
Messenger and Advocate 1.7 (Apr. 1835), p. 108–12:
Obviously, Oliver Cowdery was not with the Prophet on the occasion of Moroni’s coming, so the account is secondary. Yet it is not too much to assume that Joseph Smith had rehearsed the event to his colleague on numerous occasions. Elder Cowdery had been the Prophet’s scribe and was designated “Second Elder” of the Church at the time it was organized. When Oliver Cowdery wrote about the Restoration, he was Assistant President of the Church, in addition to being editor of the Messenger and Advocate. His close association with the Prophet, especially in the early part of the Prophet’s ministry, may have enabled him to know more about these events than anyone except Joseph Smith himself.
In the February and July articles, Elder Cowdery marked his reconstructions of Moroni’s words with quotation marks to make it clear to the reader which were Moroni’s words and which were his own comments. However, the April article, which is of greatest interest to this study because it contains more than two dozen Bible passages quoted in context of Moroni’s visit, presents special problems. In this article it is not clear which words are Oliver Cowdery’s and which are the words of Moroni. Unlike the other articles, there are no quotation marks to assist the reader.
Perhaps Elder Cowdery did not feel a need to use quotation marks in the recitations of the story; editorial convention was fairly unstructured in those days. Or perhaps he did not use quotation marks in order to alert the reader to the fact that the entire message was reconstructed from his own understanding and was not necessarily a historical transcript of the event. At the beginning of his discussion, Elder Cowdery wrote: “I have thought best to give a farther detail of the heavenly message, and if I do not give it in the precise words, shall strictly confine myself to the facts in substance.”8 At the end of the account he wrote: “I have now given you a rehearsal of what was communicated to our brother. … I may have missed in arrangement in some instances, but the principle is preserved.”9
How well he succeeded only God, Moroni, and Joseph Smith know. As historian Milton Backman has pointed out, “It is not clear whether Oliver is quoting Moroni or merely explaining, with scriptural references, themes emphasized by Moroni.”10 And so, as we study Elder Cowdery’s accounts, it is wise to view the angel’s words and the biblical passages cited with a degree of caution. His is a secondhand treatment of an event in which only Moroni and Joseph Smith were participants.
Although Joseph Smith’s prayer as he went to bed that autumn night was for “a manifestation” to know of his “state and standing” before the Lord (JS—H 1:29), what he received, in addition to that, was a powerful lesson about the mission of God’s people in the dispensation of the fulness of times. Moroni’s message to the young Prophet outlined not only the calling of Joseph Smith, but also the destiny of the Church and kingdom of God from the time of the Restoration until the Millennium. Significantly, the Lord’s messenger taught these truths by quoting passages out of the Bible. Since the resurrected Christ also taught by quoting and expounding scripture during his appearance to the children of Lehi in the Americas (see 3 Ne. 22–25), we can view this method of teaching as a significant model to be followed in gospel instruction.
From the scriptures cited by the Prophet in Joseph Smith—History, we can see that Moroni did not select random passages to outline the future of the Lord’s kingdom. They were chosen specifically to introduce the Prophet to his work. In them the following aspects of the mission of the Church in the last days are discussed:
—The opening of the heavens through the Restoration (Joel 2:28–29).
—The restoration of the priesthood and of the sealing keys (Mal. 4:5–6).
—The gathering of the elect (Isa. 11:10–16).
—The Second Coming (Mal. 3:1–2).
It is interesting that, with only the following exceptions, all of the biblical passages presented in Oliver Cowdery’s accounts fit into these categories. Adding to these groupings, Elder Cowdery included some scriptures that tell of the apostasy and scattering of Israel—as a background to the discussion of the return—and he quoted material from Isaiah that deals with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. In my view, his consistency with the message as related by Joseph Smith adds to the credibility of his reconstructions.
It is significant that Moroni trained Joseph Smith by teaching him from the scriptures. It may be that the Prophet’s great love for the Bible was a by-product of this experience, because for the rest of his life he taught others by using the scriptures. It is also worthy of note that with the exception of Paul’s phrase that the weak would confound the wise (1 Cor. 1:27–29)—which Moroni cited to introduce the topic of Joseph Smith’s work—all of the other scriptures quoted by Moroni come from the Old Testament.11 In using the words of ancient Israel’s prophets to instruct the messenger to modern Israel, Moroni symbolically tied the gospel dispensations together—the actual realization of which is a major goal of the Restoration. Moroni, an Israelite prophet, was the first emissary to provide the link between ancient dispensations and the dispensation of the fulness of times.
The visitation of Moroni to Joseph Smith holds an important place in our church history. With Moroni’s appearance, the process of restoring lost truths and educating the Prophet gained great impetus. Under the care and instruction of that great prophet of ancient America, the Prophet Joseph Smith received training and guidance that ultimately will lead to the restoration of all things. To all this Moroni’s first visits were a prelude—an instructional session from which Joseph Smith and all of us have learned the course that we are to pursue as we continue in the Lord’s service.
The following is a list of the scriptures quoted by Moroni, as reported by Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The numbers in brackets refer to the subject-matter categories listed below.
[1, 7, 10]
[2, 6, 7, 10]
[1, 2, 3]
[2, 7, 9, 10]
[5, 7, 8]
Apostasy and scattering
The calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith
The opening of the heavens during the Restoration
The coming forth of the Book of Mormon
The restoration of the priesthood and of the sealing keys
The gathering of the elect
Destruction and purification prior to and during the Second Coming
Deliverance for the faithful
The Second Coming
The premillennial and millennial state of the faithful