“Ezra Thayer: From Skeptic to Believer,” Revelations in Context (2016)
“Ezra Thayer: From Skeptic to Believer,” Revelations in Context
In the fall of 1830, Ezra Thayer was living in the township of Farmington, New York, with his wife, Elizabeth,1 and their children.2 He was in his late thirties and had spent several years in the area building bridges, dams, and mills.3
Earlier that year, some of the workmen he employed told him of rumors circulating about Joseph Smith and his translation of the Book of Mormon. Thayer rejected the story as blasphemy and “was filled with wrath about it.”
His brusque reaction was due in part to the fact that he knew the Smiths, having previously employed Joseph, his father, and his brothers to work on projects near Palmyra. The idea of Joseph translating and publishing a book of scripture was totally incongruous with what Thayer knew of the uneducated young man.
Thayer was perturbed to discover that several members of his family began to take an interest in the Book of Mormon. While he was away for a few days, his half brother and nephew rode his horses to hear Hyrum Smith preach. When Thayer returned, he chastised them, demanding that they “not take [his] horses again to hear those blasphemous wretches preach.” They maintained “that there was something in it, and that [Thayer] had better go and hear him.”4
Thayer remained unconvinced, but his brother soon came to visit from Auburn, New York, about 40 miles to the east. He, too, desired to learn more about the Book of Mormon and demanded that Thayer go with him to hear the Smiths preach. “I will not be found going after such a delusion,” Thayer retorted. His brother insisted there could be no harm in going to listen—after all, Ezra did know the Smith family. Thayer reluctantly agreed to go.
On a Sunday in early October,5 the two brothers traveled roughly 12 miles to the Smith farm in Manchester, just south of Palmyra. When they arrived, they encountered “a large concourse of people” filling the lot around Joseph Smith Sr.’s log home and spilling out into the road.
Intent on hearing what was said, Thayer jostled through the crowd to get a place near the stand at the front. As Hyrum Smith began to preach, Thayer’s resistance melted away. He later wrote about his experience that day: “Every word touched me to the inmost soul. I thought every word was pointed to me. … The tears rolled down my cheeks, I was very proud and stubborn. There were many there who knew me. … I sat until I recovered myself before I dare look up.”6
After the sermon, Hyrum showed Thayer a copy of the Book of Mormon. As he took and opened it, he was instantly filled with “exquisite joy.” Closing the cover, he asked, “What is the price of it?” He paid the 14 shillings and took the book. When Martin Harris, who was standing by, affirmed that the book was true, Thayer replied “that he need not tell me that, for I knew that it is true as well as he.”7
Upon arriving home, Thayer realized that although he was thoroughly convinced, it would be another matter to help his family, friends, and neighbors understand, let alone believe as he did. Word spread among his neighbors that Ezra Thayer, respectable businessman, was now Ezra Thayer, believer in Joseph Smith and his “gold Bible.”
Thayer’s house was soon thronged with neighbors anxious to dissuade him. He recalled, “They filled my house all day, and men made my wife believe that I was crazy and would lose my friends and all my property.” When Thayer endeavored to reason with a Methodist couple regarding his new faith, they curtly dismissed his argument, leaving Thayer’s wife, Elizabeth, to despair. “My wife began to cry,” he wrote, “and said that I was crazy, and it would ruin me, and she would leave me.”8 He succeeded in calming her fears, but his newfound faith would soon undergo further attacks.
He took his Book of Mormon to the nearby town of Canandaigua, where his friends, unimpressed by it, took turns giving him their opinions. When they asked if he still believed it, he countered, “I could not say that I believed it, I knew it.” A local newspaper editor “said that he could tell me that I knew nothing concerning God if I had not had a liberal education.”9 Thayer demonstrated his simple faith and testified of God and of the Book of Mormon.
In the wake of these encounters, he experienced a vision or dream in which “a man came and brought me a roll of paper and presented it to me, and also a trumpet and told me to blow it. I told him that I never blowed any in my life. He said you can blow it, try it. I put it in my mouth and blowed on it, and it made the most beautiful sound that I ever heard.”10 The meaning of the dream for Thayer would soon become apparent.
The following Sunday, Thayer returned to Manchester to meet with other believers. This time, he met Joseph Smith and related to him his experience with the Book of Mormon. He accepted Joseph’s invitation to be baptized and traveled a few miles to a millpond, where Parley P. Pratt baptized him and others, including a man named Northrop Sweet. Joseph Smith confirmed them.
Shortly after their baptism, Thayer and Sweet were called to the ministry in a revelation (now Doctrine and Covenants 33) dictated by Joseph Smith in nearby Fayette, New York. In it, the voice of God commanded them, “Lift up [your] voices as with the sound of a Trump to declare my Gospel unto a Crooked & a perverse generation.”11 This passage reminded Thayer of his dream. He concluded, “The roll of paper was the revelation on me and Northrop Sweet. Oliver [Cowdery] was the man that brought the roll and trumpet.”12
“Open thy mouth,” the revelation intoned, admonishing the newly called missionaries to “spare not.” But Ezra Thayer and Northrop Sweet responded in markedly different ways to this injunction. Sweet soon parted ways with Joseph Smith to form what he called “the Pure Church of Christ.” He and five others began to hold meetings, but this early schism grew no further.13
Thayer, on the other hand, immediately began to assist in the spread of his new faith. He arranged to have Joseph Smith come preach at his barn and encouraged his family, friends, and neighbors to attend. On the appointed day, his 50-by-18-foot barn was filled to overflowing, and the onlookers heard sermons from Joseph and Hyrum Smith as well as four other recently called missionaries: Oliver Cowdery, Parley P. Pratt, Peter Whitmer Jr., and Ziba Peterson.
In December,14 Thayer arranged another meeting, this time in Canandaigua. At first he attempted to secure a Methodist meetinghouse as the venue but was rebuffed, so he reserved the courthouse. That evening, Sidney Rigdon and others met Thayer at his home, and Thayer accompanied them to Canandaigua and “attended the door” while Rigdon preached.
Because of the deeply spiritual experiences that led to his conversion, Thayer acted on the revelation’s call to share his belief in spite of risks to his reputation and livelihood. He later wrote, “When God shows a man such a thing by the power of the Holy Ghost he knows it is true. He cannot doubt it.”15