“Joseph Smith in Harmony,” Ensign, September 2015, 50–57
In December 1827, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, moved from Palmyra, New York, to northeastern Pennsylvania, taking with them the golden plates, which Joseph had recently obtained from the angel Moroni. In Pennsylvania, Joseph embarked on the translation of the Book of Mormon, and he also received several revelations and angelic visitations during this period. Paramount among these sacred events was the restoration of priesthood authority and keys that prepared and enabled Joseph to organize The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On September 19, President Russell M. Nelson, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, will dedicate the Priesthood Restoration Site in northeastern Pennsylvania, USA. Located along the Susquehanna River, the restored setting, known in scripture as Harmony, re-creates Joseph and Emma’s first home, as well as the nearby home of Emma’s parents. It also features a visitors’ center, which is incorporated into a new meetinghouse, and walking paths in the woods and down to the riverbank. Visitors to this historic site will learn the compelling story of the young Prophet Joseph, who was seeking to do God’s will and struggling in the face of challenges and opposition. At Harmony, Joseph learned line upon line what it would mean to be a prophet of God in the latter days.
Joseph Smith first arrived in Harmony in the autumn of 1825. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, wrote that earlier that year “a man by the name of Josiah Stoal [Stowell] came from Chenango County, New York, to get Joseph to assist him in digging for a silver mine. He came for Joseph from having heard, that [Joseph] was in possession of certain means, by which he could discern things, that could not be seen by the natural eye.”1
Stowell was a prominent resident of South Bainbridge, New York, and for a man of his standing to be searching for buried treasure was not at all unusual, since it was a common folk practice of the time. By 1825, young Joseph had a reputation in Manchester and Palmyra for his activities as a treasure seer, or someone who used a seer stone to locate gold or other valuable objects buried in the earth.2 Thus, it was no surprise that Stowell specifically sought out Joseph’s services.
In November of 1825, Joseph the Prophet, his father (Joseph Sr.), and other men signed an agreement with Stowell, and the crew boarded at the farm of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale.3 There Joseph first met the Hales’ 21-year-old daughter, Emma. Joseph eventually convinced Stowell to abandon his search for the mine, but rather than returning home, Joseph moved to South Bainbridge to work on Stowell’s farm. Despite the demands of his work and the 28-mile distance from South Bainbridge to Harmony, the young suitor made time to call on Emma as often as possible. He also faced the disdain and outright rejection of Emma’s father, who said Joseph “was a stranger [perhaps because he came from New York], and followed a business that I could not approve,” apparently a reference to Joseph’s involvement with the search for the mine.4
Emma Hale, 17 months older than Joseph, had been born on July 10, 1804, the seventh of nine children of Isaac and Elizabeth Lewis Hale, on their 130-acre (53 ha) farm in Harmony Township. The farm consisted of a large orchard of apples and pears, a substantial garden, and groves of maple trees used for producing sugar. Isaac also owned a herd of sheep and hunted large game, tanning hides and smoking meat, which he exported downriver.5
As a young woman, Emma learned to work hard. She was attractive, tall, intelligent, and well educated. She had a quick mind with “uncommon ability … and judgement.”6 She was also devoutly religious. It was no wonder that Joseph Smith became smitten with her.7
When Emma visited her sister in Colesville and the Stowell family in South Bainbridge in January 1827, Joseph, then living nearby with the Joseph Knight family, called on her and convinced her to marry him despite her father’s objections. Years later she said, “I had no intention of marrying when I left home.” However, “preferring to marry him to any other man I knew, I consented.”8
Emma and Joseph went to the home of Zechariah Tarble, justice of the peace in South Bainbridge, and were married on January 18, 1827. Afterward, Stowell took them to Manchester, where they lived with Joseph’s family while Joseph helped on the Smith farm and awaited his fourth and final prearranged appointment with the angel Moroni.
Shortly after midnight on September 22, hoping to acquire the golden plates without arousing the notice of thieves and ruffians who had previously threatened them, Joseph and Emma borrowed a wagon and drove to the Hill Cumorah, where the plates were hidden. While Joseph proceeded to the designated location and received the plates from Moroni, Emma knelt in prayer and waited. Joseph hid the plates in the woods and then returned home with Emma. Joseph later retrieved the plates when he felt it was safe to do so.9
News that Joseph had the plates spread quickly. Although he wanted to begin translating them right away, the persistent attempts by mobs to find the plates and the constant threats against Joseph made this impossible. Earlier that summer, Isaac Hale had invited Joseph and Emma to move to Harmony, which they had planned to do. The threats led them to make the move soon after retrieving the plates so the Prophet could work without interference.10
In November 1827, Emma’s brother Alva arrived in Manchester with a wagon to take the couple to Harmony. Joseph later wrote that he and Emma were “very poor and the persecution so heavy upon us that there was no probability that we would ever be otherwise.” But the hand of the Lord was soon evident. “We found a friend in a Gentleman by the name of Martin Harris, who came to us and gave me fifty dollars to assist us in our affliction.” As Joseph and Emma prepared to leave with Alva, Joseph and Alva each placed a heavy club in the wagon for defense, and they hid the box containing the plates in a barrel, filled the barrel one-third full of beans, and sealed the lid. They arrived in Harmony in December.11
Not long after, Emma’s father had the opportunity to hold the box containing the plates. However, when Joseph told him he could not open it to look at the plates, Isaac became frustrated and said that if he couldn’t see the plates, Joseph would have to take them away. Joseph then hid the plates in a nearby hillside. In February 1828, Joseph and Emma moved into a small home built by Emma’s brother Jesse on a modest farm divided from Isaac’s land.12
After the couple settled into their new home, Joseph resumed translating, with Emma as his scribe. To Emma, the translation process was “a marvel and a wonder,” especially because her husband was so unlearned. Indeed, she related that Joseph “could neither write nor dictate a coherent and well-worded letter; let alone dictat[e] a book like the Book of Mormon.”13 Further, she said that Joseph “had such a limited knowledge of history at that time that he did not even know that Jerusalem was surrounded by walls.”14 Nevertheless, as Joseph labored diligently, he found that the Lord blessed him with extraordinary capabilities. After returning from meals or other interruptions, for instance, Joseph would begin at once where he had left off “without either seeing the manuscript or having any portion of it read to him.”15
Not all the details about the translation of the Book of Mormon are known, but Joseph and his scribes did mention his use of two instruments. One was the Urim and Thummim (called the “interpreters” in the Book of Mormon), which Joseph received with the plates and “which consisted of two transparent stones set in the rim of a bow.” The other instrument was a seer stone that Joseph had found some years before. Both of these instruments helped him translate the plates “by the gift, and power of God.”16
Emma served as Joseph’s scribe for more than four months. She received a reprieve with the arrival of Martin Harris on April 12, 1828. By June 14, at least 116 pages had been translated. The work then paused because Joseph and Emma were expecting the birth of their first child any day, and Martin returned home, taking with him a portion of the manuscript to show his family in New York.
Emma gave birth to their first child—a boy—on June 15, but the baby died shortly after birth.17 Emma herself became gravely ill. For two weeks she lay near death while Joseph cared for her. At last Emma began to recover, and she urged Joseph to check on the manuscript. Nearly three weeks had passed since Martin had left, but he had not returned or sent word. Leaving Emma in the care of her mother, Joseph went to New York to inquire about the manuscript.18
Joseph discovered to his horror that Martin Harris had lost the manuscript. The young prophet, awash in his anguish, returned to Harmony empty-handed. These were some of his darkest days. Severely chastised by the Lord (see D&C 3), Joseph was required to return the golden plates to Moroni even though he had not finished the translation.
Joseph humbled himself before the Lord and learned an important truth: even though he had “transgressed the commandments and the laws of God” and “feared man more than God,” God was merciful. If Joseph repented, he was “still chosen” and “again called to the work.”19 Moroni returned the ancient record on September 22, 1828. Over the next several months, however, the work progressed slowly until the Lord provided a new scribe in the form of Oliver Cowdery. Oliver, a schoolteacher, had been boarding with Joseph’s parents when he learned of Joseph’s work. After receiving a heavenly manifestation of the truthfulness of Joseph’s visions, Oliver set out for Harmony in the company of Joseph’s brother Samuel. Oliver arrived at the Prophet’s home on April 5, 1829.20 Two days later, Oliver began his role as scribe while Joseph translated.
By May, Joseph and Oliver reached a passage in the Book of Mormon that prompted them to pray regarding the authority to baptize. On May 15, as Oliver later noted, they “repaired to the woods … and called upon the name of the Lord.”21
Their prayer was answered by a glorious angelic visitation from John the Baptist, who conferred upon them the Priesthood of Aaron and commanded them to be baptized (see D&C 13). The two men subsequently “repaired to the water, even to the Susquehanna River, and were baptized.”22 Joseph and Oliver later received keys associated with the Melchizedek Priesthood somewhere along the Susquehanna River between Harmony and Colesville. We know little about this most sacred event other than the reference in scripture to the general location (see D&C 128:20).
At least initially, persecution forced Joseph and Oliver “to keep secret the circumstances” of their having received the priesthood and been baptized.23
Joseph and Oliver continued their work in Harmony, but opposition in the area had become quite intense, and Oliver wrote to David Whitmer (whom he had met in Palmyra in the autumn of 1828), asking if the Whitmer family could help them. Peter Whitmer Sr., David’s father, agreed to help, and early in June, David arrived in a wagon to move Joseph and Oliver to the Whitmer home in Fayette Township, New York, where they could finish the translation. Uprooted once again, Joseph and Oliver left with David, and Emma followed shortly thereafter.24
In those more supportive circumstances, Joseph was able to finish the translation. Joseph and others then arranged for the Book of Mormon to be printed, and he and Emma returned quietly to Harmony on Sunday morning, October 4, 1829. Fortunately, they found that opposition in the area had quieted considerably.25 For the next 10 months, Joseph and Emma resided in their home at Harmony with only brief excursions away. The most memorable of these trips was to Fayette, where the Church was officially organized on April 6, 1830. Two months later, Joseph was arrested for “setting the country in an uproar by preaching the Book of Mormon.”26 Although Joseph was acquitted at a trial in South Bainbridge, it was clear that opposition to Joseph’s work would only increase.
Around the time of the trial in July 1830, Joseph recorded, someone told Isaac Hale “falsehoods concerning me, of the most shameful nature, which turned the Old gentleman and his family so much against us, that they would no longer promise us protection, nor believe our doctrines.”27 But Joseph also encountered opposition in Colesville, Fayette, and Manchester. He added to his home that summer as though he planned to stay in Harmony. The Lord, however, had something different for him.
Only weeks later, around mid-September, Joseph and Emma left Harmony to take care of Church responsibilities in New York. While there, Joseph Smith received a series of revelations calling missionaries to preach to the Lamanites on the western frontier (see D&C 28, 30, and 32), and Emma, expecting twins, directed all of her efforts toward helping make clothing for the missionaries. She became ill, and by the time she recovered, the Lord had called them to gather in Ohio. In January 1831, Joseph and Emma left for Ohio, never to return to Harmony.
While Joseph and Emma lived at Harmony for only a brief time (about three years), their experiences in this valley were crucial to God’s plan for the unfolding restoration of His gospel. Here Joseph found the spiritual solitude and protection necessary to focus on his calling to translate the Book of Mormon. Through this period, the Lord helped Joseph further understand his divine role as prophet, seer, and revelator. Through revelation he came to understand that the Church of Christ would administer the gospel and its ordinances, gather Israel, and establish Zion in the latter days, preparatory to the Savior’s Second Coming. None of these lessons came easily but involved struggle, sacrifice, and personal tragedy. Nevertheless, through these experiences the Lord revealed that a restoration of scripture, authority, and the Church was necessary to bring about the salvation of men. And Joseph Smith came to understand what it would mean to be the instrument by which God would restore the plan of salvation to earth and lay the foundations for the fulfillment of His latter-day work.