What it was like finishing President Hinckley’s Book of Mormon challenge at Joseph Smith’s birthplace

When President Russell M. Nelson issued an invitation to read the Book of Mormon by the end of 2018, I thought of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s challenge to members to read the book by the end of 2005 and my experiences in accepting that challenge.

Thirteen years ago I read the book at home, during lunch breaks at work and while traveling. I remember the unique experience of being in Hawaii on a Sunday afternoon and, wanting to take advantage of the tropical setting, going to a park overlooking the ocean and settling down to read. I met a Latter-day Saint family who was reading the Book of Mormon also. I saw people on the flights from Honolulu to Los Angeles, and from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City reading the Book of Mormon.

I completed my reading on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Joseph Smith, who was born at Sharon, Vermont, on Dec. 23, 1805. President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder M. Russell Ballard — now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — went to the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial Visitors’ Center to deliver addresses in a satellite broadcast.

I was there. On Dec. 22, 2005, President Hinckley and Elder Ballard walked around the mammoth granite shaft erected in 1905 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth.

President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder M. Russell Ballard stand at the granite obelisk erected to honor the birthplace of Joseph Smith near Sharon, Vermont, Thursday, December 22, 2005. The monument was dedicated on Dec. 23, 1905 by then-President Joseph F. Smith to mark the 100th anniversary of the Prophet's birth. President Hinckley delivered an address from the visitors center on the grounds on Friday, Dec. 23, 2005, to mark the 200th anniversary.
President Gordon B. Hinckley and Elder M. Russell Ballard stand at the granite obelisk erected to honor the birthplace of Joseph Smith near Sharon, Vermont, Thursday, December 22, 2005. The monument was dedicated on Dec. 23, 1905 by then-President Joseph F. Smith to mark the 100th anniversary of the Prophet’s birth. President Hinckley delivered an address from the visitors center on the grounds on Friday, Dec. 23, 2005, to mark the 200th anniversary. Credit: Jason Olson, Deseret News, Deseret News

The next day, on the exact 200th anniversary, Elder Ballard and I went back to the monument. Except for the sounds of the Tabernacle Choir drifting on the frigid air — part of a recorded narration about the birth of Jesus Christ — it was quiet at the monument. No one else was outside during the few minutes that Elder Ballard and I walked and he talked about the significance of that date, and about his great-great-uncle Joseph Smith and his great-great-grandfather Hyrum Smith.

I asked Elder Ballard about this thoughts of being where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born 200 years earlier. “You don’t realize the impact of Joseph’s life until you come out here and see this almost desolate area where his father and mother were trying to eke out an existence,” he said. “They already had four children. Their little baby girl passed away shortly after being born, so there were Alvin, Hyrum and Sophronia, and now comes to them, in this setting, Joseph.

“I am sure they didn’t realize who had come into their home 200 years ago. But the Lord, in His great design, had the Smith family and the Mack family in His eye from the very foundations of the world, ultimately to this day where Joseph could be born here.”

He was an instrument in the hand of the Lord.

Elder Ballard reviewed with me the difficulties and the struggles Joseph Smith Sr. and his wife, Lucy Mack Smith, had with farming and failing, and “the Lord moving them through some trials, trauma and difficulty, keeping that family so deeply humble. They arrived in Palmyra (New York) when Joseph, who was born here, was in his 14th year.”

He added, “You have to stand in reverence when you’re in the proximity of where Joseph was born. He was an instrument in the hands of the Lord; (Joseph’s) work has impacted more than 12 million people in the world today (as of 2005).”

There are now more than 16 million members of the Church worldwide.

“We don’t worship him, but surely we honor him and we hold him in the highest esteem as the Prophet of this dispensation of the fulness of times. As Brigham Young said, Joseph was prepared from the foundations of the world to lead this dispensation. It’s overwhelming when you see the full picture.”

Elder Ballard spoke of members reading the Book of Mormon during the closing months of 2005. “Just think, 130 million copies of the Book of Mormon have been printed. It has been translated in over 77 languages scattered in every corner of the world — all from this humble beginning here in Sharon, Vermont.”

I had read all of the Book of Mormon that year — except for the last 10 verses. I saved them to read at the Joseph Smith Memorial. A few minutes after Elder Ballard went inside the visitors’ center, I sat near the monument and read those verses, and wrote a note in the book indicating when and where I had completed reading it. Later that afternoon, Elder Ballard signed his name beneath my note.