Joseph Smith: mission to restore gospel known since the 'councils of eternity'

Grandfather Asael Smith had long predicted that among his descendants there would be a prophet raised up. After viewing a copy of the Book of Mormon in October 1830, the aged gentleman declared that his grandson, Joseph Smith Jr., was that very person. (History of the Church 2:443.)

Both Presidents Brigham Young and John Taylor confirmed the fact that the Prophet had been set apart in the councils of eternity to bring forth the word of God to the people, and that Joseph had come into mortality through a "watched bloodline," which stemmed from the days of Adam. Ancient prophets such as Isaiah and Nephi had also been aware of his mission and select lineage, and recorded that knowledge. (See Isa. 11:1-16; 2 Ne. 3:5-6, 8-9, 11, 13, 15, 18.)Joseph's inconspicuous birth on Dec. 23, 1805, in a simple log house on "Dairy Hill" in Sharon, Vt., was not then a heralded event. Born to New Englanders - Joseph Smith Sr., of Topsfield, Mass., and Lucy Mack Smith of East Haddam, Conn. - the future prophet was introduced into the uncertain circumstances then plaguing many Vermonters.

In an attempt to bolster its household economy, the Smith family engaged in a succession of moves, eventually going from Royalton, Vt., to West Lebanon, N.H., in 1811.

Instead of an improvement, they found the ravages of typhus (typhoid) fever, which racked the family.

While trying to recover from the severities of typhus, young Joseph developed a bone infection in his left leg, since diagnosed as osteomyelitis. (BYU Studies 17 [Spring 1977]: 319.) Because the local physician, Dr. Phinaes Parkhurst, lacked the skills needed to treat him adequately, Dr. Nathan Smith of Dartmouth Medical College at Hanover was called into the case, and agreed to operate rather than merely amputate the dangerously infected leg. While Joseph remained clasped in the arms of his father, Dr. Smith performed a surgical procedure that involved drilling the long bone in Joseph's leg and removing diseased portions. The prayers of his parents and the deft hand of the surgeon resulted in a cure that eventually allowed Joseph to walk with an "imperceptible limp," to jump at the mark, pull sticks, and to wrestle.

The combined aftereffects of the War of 1812, the typhus epidemic, failure of the Vermont State Bank, torrential rains that washed away the Green Mountain soils unmercifully, and the cold season of 1816 (created by dust and debris filling the atmosphere from the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies in 1815), caused a flood of family migrations from Vermont in search of a better clime. Joseph's father was among the number, and he journeyed from the family's new home in Norwich, Vt., to Palmyra, N.Y., where he found the prospects more to his liking.

In 1817-18, the family worked together to secure a piece of land and entered an agreement to purchase 100 acres in the adjoining township of Farmington (later Manchester). The Smiths initially lived in a story and one-half log house that they had constructed just inside the Palmyra township line on the north edge of the farm. It was while living there that the family became embroiled in the religious revivalism sweeping that region of country.

Joseph confided that from the age of about 12 years "my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all-important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures believing as I was taught, that they contained the word of God." (The Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:5, Autobiographical and Historical Writings, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Deseret Book Co., 1989.) Now, at age 14 the apparent confusion between the respective denominations made him even more anxious to know the will of God concerning himself.

Both William Smith, Joseph's brother, and Oliver Cowdery later wrote of a Rev. George Lane of the Methodist Church, who was instrumental in "awakening" Joseph's mind. The Rev. Lane preached a sermon entitled, "What Church Shall I Join?" and used as text James l:5. William said that Joseph went out into the woods and "with childlike, simple trusting faith believing that God meant just what He said, kneeled down and prayed." (Deseret Evening News, Jan. 20, 1894, p. 11.)

As he first attempted to pray, Joseph said thick darkness gathered around him and his tongue was bound by an unseen adversary. However, by exerting all his power he called upon God and was delivered from the enemy. In a state of awe he then witnessed the heavens opened and he knelt in the presence of the Father and the Son. Responding to Joseph's plea for direction, the Savior instructed him that he "must join none of them." (Joseph Smith - History, hereafter JS - H.) He was also informed that "the fullness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him." (Orson Pratt's An Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840).

For 3 1/2 years, Joseph received no more direct communication from the heavens. He constantly watched for the further enlightenment which he had been promised. Fearing that his personal follies might be the reason for any delay in the manifestation of God's will, Joseph gave himself to extended supplication on the evening of Sept. 21, 1823.

Staying awake until a late hour, and as "slumber had spread her refreshing hand over others beside him," Joseph prayed for guidance. (Messenger and Advocate 1:78-79). In the midst of an intense light an angel of the Lord appeared in his room.

The figure quieted the young man's fears by announcing that he was a messenger from the presence of God, and that his name was Moroni. He told Joseph of an ancient record deposited in a stone box and hidden in a nearby hill. He explained that the record contained an account of the Lord's dealings with the people on this continent and the fullness of the gospel as delivered by the Savior to the early inhabitants. Moroni also quoted to him several prophetic scriptures relative to the forthcoming restoration of the Lord's gospel as recorded in the books of Isaiah, Joel, Malachi, and Acts. (JS - H 1:36-41.)

The angel reiterated his message three times in three successive visits during the course of the night. The next day the angel again came to him as Joseph was returning early from the fields because of exhaustion. Moroni bid him tell his father all that had occurred and again directed him to the hill were the ancient plates were hidden. After hearing everything that had happened to his son, Joseph Sr. cautioned him that this angelic visit was of the Lord and that he must do as he had been commanded. (History of the Church, (hereafter HC) 1:15.)

Joseph went to the hill (Cumorah) where the record was concealed as shown him in vision. As he uncovered the stone box he sought to remove its contents. A shock ran through him, then a second and a third as he tried to withdraw the items from the receptacle. In exasperation he finally exclaimed, "Why can I not obtain this book?" Moroni appeared and explained that it was Joseph's mind-set at that moment was more inclined toward the monetary value of the gold plates than for the intrinsic worth of the sacred record which they contained.

To impress him with the importance of the contents of the plates and to make him aware of the counterforce which was at work trying to destroy the record and keep its message from coming forth, Moroni allowed Joseph to see the adversary of mankind.

At the outset Joseph thus became painfully aware of Satan's role and the reality of that unseen power that had attempted to destroy him while he was praying in his First Vision experience just a few years before. Moroni established with Joseph a series of four annual visits designed to instruct him in his duties relative to the prospective translation and publication of the record obtained from the plates of gold. (JS - H 1:53.)

Joseph was at the Hill Cumorah for his annual instruction from Moroni on the evening of Sept. 22, 1824, and again on that same date in 1825. In the succeeding month of October 1825, he was approached by a gentleman farmer from Chenango County, N.Y., Josiah Stowell, who had been searching unsuccessfully for a supposed Spanish silver mine in Susquehanna County, Pa. Joseph at first rejected the request to work for Stowell, but the financial state of the Smith family caused him to respond favorably to the proffered $14 per month, room and board, and the hiring of his father in the bargain. This was just two months before the Smiths would lose their Manchester farm because they could not make the annual $100 payment. (HC 1:17; Lucy Mack Smith, pp. 91-99; Elders' Journal, July 1838, p. 43.)

Lodging at the home of Isaac Hale in the township of Harmony (now Oakland), Pa., Stowell's crew began their excavations in early November 1825. But by mid-November, Joseph reported that he finally "prevailed with the old gentleman to cease digging after it." (HC 1:17.) The only substantive results of the project seems to have been the personal relationship which developed between Joseph and Isaac Hale's comely daughter, Emma. Even when the operation was suspended and Stowell took Joseph to work on his farm in Chenango County, N.Y., the Prophet continued his courtship of Emma down river. When Joseph finally proposed marriage and sought her family's approval, Isaac Hale refused. Joseph said that an important consideration in Hale's rejection was Joseph's continued affirmation that he had seen a vision. (HC 1:17.)

Undaunted, the couple found themselves "under the necessity" of going elsewhere. Journeying to South Bainbridge (now Afton), Chenango County, N.Y., Joseph and Emma were married on Jan. 18, 1827, by Esq. Zachariah Tarbell, justice of the peace. Unlike the Hales, the Prophet's parents had previously approved the marriage and had extended an invitation to the newlyweds to come and live in the new frame home in Manchester, and farm with them that season.

Joseph was now in a position to make his fourth annual visit to the Hill Cumorah in September 1827. Emma accompanied her husband to the place of meeting, just three miles distance, on the early morning of the 22nd, and waited at the base of the hill.

The Prophet cited his conversation with Moroni saying: "The same heavenly messenger delivered them to me with the charge: that I should be responsible for them; that if I should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them, until he, the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected." (HC 1:18.)

Subsequently finding that the security of the record was in jeopardy at the Smith household, Joseph sent word to the Isaac Hale family in Harmony, Pa., requesting that a wagon be sent to pick them up.

Joseph and Emma had been in Harmony during August 1827, to acquire Emma's dowry, which she had left behind. While there, Isaac Hale had extended an invitation for the couple to come down and farm with him. Now, in December, the Smiths took him up on his offer and Alva Hale, Emma's brother, arrived with his wagon to take them to Harmony. Martin Harris paid all of the Prophet's debts locally so that no one could harass him on their departure with the atrocious debtor's laws then extant. On the way out of Ontario County, they were, nevertheless, stopped by the sheriff and a body of men who on some fabrication searched the contents of the wagon. However, they did not detect the plates which were in a barrel of beans. (HC 1:18-19; Lucy Mack Smith, pp. 117-18.)

The Prophet acquired 13 acres from Isaac, and onto that property he moved a small frame house formerly belonging to Jesse Hale, Emma's brother.

Martin Harris came down from Palmyra in February 1828, and took a transcript of characters which Joseph had drawn from the plates to learned men for their review. Among those he visited were professors Charles Anthon and Samuel Lapham Mitchill of Columbia College in New York City.

From April 12 to June 15, 1828, Joseph translated from the plates while Martin acted as scribe. Martin had begged to show the 116 pages thus far produced to his family, who were concerned over the validity of the project in which he was engaged. After a series of petitions to the Lord on Martin's behalf, Joseph was finally allowed to let his scribe take the manuscript to his home in Wayne County, N.Y. He was under strict promise that he would show the pages only to specifically named members of his immediate family. (HC 1:20-21.) However, Martin was soon displaying them to every "discreet" person who came by. Eventually they were lost to designing individuals.

Joseph Smith, occupied with serious difficulties of his own, was unable to follow up on his concerns over Martin's delay in bringing the manuscript back to Harmony. On June 15, the day after Martin's departure, Emma had delivered her first child, a boy, who did not survive his birth. Joseph had lent his entire effort to saving his wife, who lay at death's door for many days following her delivery. After several weeks Emma began to recover and encouraged her husband to follow up on the reason for Martin's prolonged absence. The Prophet traveled to Manchester and summoned Martin to meet with him. The entire Smith household heard Martin cry aloud, "Oh, I have lost my soul! I have lost my soul!" He had searched everywhere, but the manuscript was never recovered. Lucy said that Joseph wept and groaned at the disconcerting news and "walked the floor continually." (Lucy Mack Smith, p. 128.)

Joseph and Martin were severely chastised for their repeated pleas that had placed the manuscript at risk (See D&C 3 and 10). Martin was not allowed to continue as scribe and Joseph temporarily lost the use of the Urim and Thummim and possession of the gold plates. Lucy said they were not returned for purposes of translation until Sept. 22, 1828. The Prophet had been instructed not to attempt to retranslate the lost 116 pages from Mormon's abridgment of the Large Plates of Nephi. Rather the Lord had a counter plan for such an eventuality that had developed at the time Mormon first abridged the original plates of the Book of Mormon. (See Words of Mormon.) Now, centuries later, when wicked persons had altered the text, Joseph was instructed to translate the Small Plates of Nephi (which contain a religious account of the same time period covered by the lost manuscript), and insert this new translation in place of the missing pages. (See D&C 10; Words of Mormon.)

Without a regular scribe, the Prophet was materially hampered in his efforts to return to his translation. Emma did what she could in her weakened condition, and Joseph said his brother Samuel was of some assistance. Joseph prayed for the availability of a regular scribe. The Prophet said that the Lord then "appeared to a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and showed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work and what the Lord was about to do through me his unworthy servant therefore he was desirous to come and write for me." (Jessee, Papers, 1:10.)

Oliver Cowdery, a school teacher in the Manchester district, was boarding with the Joseph Smith Sr., family when he learned of the unusual visitations experienced by Joseph. Oliver subsequently explained to Father and Mother Smith that he had "now resolved what I will do for the thing which I told you seems working in my very bones insomuch that I cannot for a moment get rid of it. . . ." (Lucy Smith, Preliminary Manuscript, p. 98.) Oliver accompanied Samuel to Harmony and commenced to act as the Prophet's scribe on April 7, 1829.

While the work of translation was continuing, on May 15, 1829, they encountered a question concerning baptism for the remission of sins. Oliver stated that "our souls were drawn out in mighty prayer - to know how we might obtain the blessings of baptism and of the Holy Spirit, according to the order of God, and we diligently sought for the right of the fathers and the authority of the holy priesthood, and the power to administer the same." (Patriarchal Blessing Book 1.) Seeking to resolve their need by inquiring of the Lord, they went into the woods, or as Oliver said, "the bush," to pray. An angelic personage appeared before them, announcing himself as John the Baptist of the New Testament. Laying hands on the two men he said, "Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins." (D&C 13.)

Joseph and Oliver were then directed to go into the Susquehanna River and baptize each other. Emerging from the waters, they ordained each other to the Aaronic Priesthood, "for so we were commanded," by the angel. (JS - H 1:71.) On that occasion both men were filled with the Spirit of the Holy Ghost and prophesied concerning the rise of the Church in that generation.

Joseph also said, "Our minds being now enlightened, we began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention of their more mysterious passages revealed unto us in a manner which we never could attain to previously." (JS - H 1:74.) During his appearance John the Baptist told them that he acted under the direction of Peter, James and John, who held the keys of the Priesthood of Melchizedek and that these ancient apostles would come and confer this power upon them in due time. These keys were restored by those very ministrants on the banks of the Susquehanna River sometime during the May-June 1829 period.

Threats of mob action and persecution against the two men took on a new vigor. Seeking a place of safety, they appealed to Oliver's friend, David Whitmer, in Seneca County, N.Y. David responded favorably and took the men to his father's farm in Fayette township.

They finished the work of translation at the Peter Whitmer Sr., farm during the month of June. David Whitmer said that "it was a laborious work for the weather was very warm, and the days were long and they [Joseph and OliverT worked from morning till night." But they were both young and strong and were soon able to complete the work. (Deseret Evening News, March 25, 1884.)

Toward the end of the month of June 1829, the Lord put into force the law of witnesses. (D&C 5, 17.) Oliver Cowdery, David Whitmer and Martin Harris were summoned to serve as witnesses.

With an application for a copyright having been made on June 11, 1829, to R.R. Lansing, clerk of the Northern District Court, all things were in readiness to secure the services of a printer and to publish the translation. Egbert B. Grandin, editor of the Wayne Sentinel, and a "book and job printer," in Palmyra, N.Y., was appealed to. Grandin at first refused on religious grounds. However, both family and friends finally convinced him that printing the book would be purely a business matter and that he would in no way be related to the religion. Martin Harris provided the necessary financial security required by Grandin to produce the 5,000 copies in leather binding for $3,000. In a mortgage dated Aug. 25, 1829, Martin agreed to pay the $3,000 within an l8-month period. If he failed to comply then his land was to be sold at public auction to satisfy the demand.

Despite several complications, the first copies of the sacred record were printed, bound, and made available for public purchase on March 26, 1830, in the Grandin Bookstore.

Just 11 days later the Church of Jesus Christ was organized at the farm of Peter Whitmer Sr., in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830. Under the direction of the Prophet, founders followed a plan of organization dictated by the Lord a year previous (June 1829) in the chamber of the Whitmer home to Joseph Smith, Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer (HC 1:60-61). Similarly they adhered to later revelations now contained in Section 20 of the Doctrine and Covenants. And lastly, the organizers sought to meet the regulations imposed by an 1813 law of the New York Assembly directing the proper legal requirements for the "Incorporation of Religious Societies."

After a long night of spiritual darkness, the Church of Jesus Christ was once again restored to earth under the command of heaven. It possessed the authority to teach the gospel and to perform the ordinances necessary for the salvation of the human family.

Joseph had ushered in the dispensation that will culminate in the Savior's millennial reign.

Next week: The Prophet Joseph Smith in later years.


Milestones in life of Prophet

Early spring, 1820: First Vision received.

Sept. 21-22, 1823: Five visits from Angel Moroni revealed location of Gold Plates.

Sept. 22, 1827-June 1829: Gold Plates received, Book of Mormon translated.

May 15, 1829, May or June, 1829: Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthood restored, respectively.

April 6, 1830: Church formally organized.

March 26, 1830, 1835: Book of Mormon published, Doctrine and Covenants published.

Feb. 17, 1834: Kirtland Stake, Church's first, created.

Feb. 14, 1835: Council of the Twelve organized.

Feb. 28, 1835: First Quorum of the Seventy organized.

June 5, 1833, March 27, 1836: Kirtland Temple started, completed.

April 3, 1836: Savior appeared in Kirtland Temple, followed by visitations of Moses, Elias, and Elijah, restoring keys of the gathering of Israel, of dispensations, and of temple work.

October 1840: Nauvoo Temple started.

1840-42: Temple ordinances introduced.

March 17, 1842: Relief Society organized.

July 12, 1843: Revelation on eternal marriage received.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed