A little over a year ago, President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, traveled to a quiet, rustic location in rural Vermont and walked amongst maple trees planted over 100 years ago to line the road to a sacred location.
A monument and visitors’ center now stand beside the foundation stones of the home where, on Dec. 23, 1805 — 215 years ago — “a baby with the responsibility of restoring to the earth the fullness of the everlasting gospel, was born,” President Ballard said.
Joseph Smith Jr. was born to Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith in a New England frame home in Sharon, Vermont. After suffering a financial setback, the Smith family moved to a home on the farm belonging to Lucy’s father, Solomon Mack, shortly before Joseph’s birth, where they lived for three years.
This birth was just the first in a chain of events that began the ongoing Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ.
When he was 14, Joseph knelt in a grove of trees to ask God which Church to join. In this Sacred Grove, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to young Joseph in an experience known as the First Vision.
Three years later, in 1823, the Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith, and after that, Joseph began translating the Gold Plates. The resulting translation was published as the Book of Mormon in 1830, just before The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized on April 6. And in June 1844, the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum Smith were martyred, sealing their testimonies of the Restored Church of Jesus Christ with their blood.
“I can’t get anywhere near this birthplace without having deep affection and love for the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr.,” President Ballard told the Church News in October 2019. “I feel obligated to do everything I can to declare and to teach that the gospel is once again on the earth.”
A monument to the Prophet
Efforts to preserve and memorialize this sacred place of the Prophet’s birth began over a century ago.
As the centennial of Joseph Smith’s birth approached in 1905, Junius F. Wells — the first president of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association and later an assistant Church historian — began formulating plans to build a monument to the Prophet.
Wells visited the Solomon Mack farm for the first time in 1894. He was accompanied by Spencer Clawson and his daughter Clara — a granddaughter of Brigham Young.
“I was impressed at that time, and made the remark as we drove away, that some time we ought to mark this place with a monument of the faith of our people in Joseph Smith the Prophet,” Wells said.
That thought remained dormant until the 100th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth was approaching. “It seemed to me that it was the proper time to revive it.”
Under the direction of President Joseph F. Smith and the First Presidency, Wells purchased 68 acres of the Soloman Mack farm in May 1905 and by July, arrangements were made to construct a monument.
The monument is a 38-½ foot obelisk, each foot representing a year of Joseph Smith’s life. Moving such a large piece of stone proved difficult since railroads covered much of the 40 miles to the monument site, and the last six miles were narrow country roads that turned to mud in bad weather. However, the monument was erected on Dec. 8 — two weeks before the dedication.
At the same time, a memorial cottage was built to welcome visitors, constructed on top of the cellar walls, hearthstone and front step that remained from the original home.
On the morning of Saturday, Dec. 23, 1905, a congregation consisting of Church leaders and members from Salt Lake City and representatives of the Eastern States Mission gathered for the dedication of the Joseph Smith Birthplace Monument.
President Joseph F. Smith, son of Hyrum Smith and nephew of the Prophet Joseph Smith, presided at the dedication and offered the dedicatory prayer.
“May the light of the gospel restored to the earth through Thy servant, the Prophet Joseph Smith, shine forth to every land and nation, until all people shall come to the knowledge of Thy truth, and the name of Thy chosen minister be known for good, and not for evil, unto the uttermost parts of the earth,” he said.
President Smith’s son, Elder Hyrum M. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (and President Ballard’s maternal grandfather) also spoke during the dedication. “I (am) delighted … to have the privilege of coming here and viewing the very hearthstone of the old home of Father Smith, my great grandfather, and the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the Prophet of God, is something that I esteem as a blessing from the Lord,” he said.
In his dedicatory remarks, Wells reported that the monument cost between $25,000 and $30,000. “Still we think it is well spent, in honor of the man who was the founder, under the Almighty, of our religion,” he said.
Edith A. Smith, the “oldest lady representative of the Smith family present,” had the honor of unveiling the monument.
On the south side of the monument is a memorial inscription dedicating it to Joseph Smith. On the north side is inscribed the testimony of the Prophet.
“In the spring of the year of our Lord, 1820, The Father and The Son appeared to him in a glorious vision, called him by name and instructed him,” it reads. “Thereafter heavenly angels visited him and revealed the principles of the Gospel, restored the authority of the Holy Priesthood, and the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ in its fulness and perfection.”
The molded cap is inscribed with the verse that inspired the young Joseph to seek the Lord in prayer in the spring of 1820: “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5).
Stored in the base is a time capsule containing copies of the four standard works, biographies of Joseph Smith by his mother and George Q. Cannon, newspaper articles, photographs, coins and other documents.
A century more
Over the next 100 years and more, Church leaders and members continued to remember Joseph Smith’s birth and the vital role he played in the Restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ.
Elder Melvin J. Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (and President Ballard’s paternal grandfather) spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle just a few days before the Prophet’s 125th birthday.
“Elder Ballard said that [it was] just 125 years ago next Tuesday that there occurred an event destined by God to do more to contribute to the knowledge of God and his purposes since the apostles of old fell asleep, referring to the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose birthday anniversary occurs on that day,” the Deseret News reported on Dec. 22, 1930.
“It is clearly evident that one like he was needed in the world, when we consider conditions,” Elder Melvin J. Ballard said. “It was by no chance of circumstance that Joseph went into the grove to pray. It was all for an important and definite purpose.”
After centuries, God had again spoken to man upon the earth, he said. Through Joseph Smith, the knowledge that the Father and the Son are distinct and separate personages was brought to the world (“Elder Ballard lauds Lincoln at Tabernacle,” Deseret News, Dec. 22, 1930, p. 5).
Another 25 years later, a counselor in the East Mill Creek Stake presidency delivered a radio address marking the sesquicentennial of the Prophet’s birth. On Sunday, Dec. 18, 1955, Gordon B. Hinckley focused his address on NBC’s “Faith in Action” on the life of a modern witness for Christ, “a man of our land and time who gave his life in testimony of the divinity and reality of Jesus of Nazareth” (“A Testimony Of The Divinity Of The Prophet Joseph Smith,” Church News, Dec. 24, 1955, p. 4).
Relying on the promise found in James 1:5, Joseph sought the Lord in prayer, “and from that experience … came the revelation which was to affect his life and the life of millions who followed him,” President Hinckley said. “Thereafter Joseph Smith had no doubt concerning the tangible and personal reality of God, the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Henceforth his energies were devoted to the promulgation of that fact.”
Fifty years later, celebrations took place in Utah and around the world to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth, the largest of which was held in Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Some 42,000 youth and 8,000 adult leaders from the Utah Salt Lake City Area performed in a “Day of Celebration” on July 17, 2005.
A Deseret News story that same day reported that President Hinckley, now president of the Church, encouraged participants to never forget the experience, keeping it as “a reminder of the great and sacred obligations which you have as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The Prophet Joseph Smith “has done more save Jesus only for the salvation of men in this world than any other man that ever lived in it,” he said.
“He lived great and he died great in the eyes of God and his people, and like most of all the Lord’s anointed in ancient times he has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”
A bicentennial year
The year 2020 has been notable for many reasons. But for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it has been a year to celebrate the opening of the Restoration.
“This year, we commemorate the 200th anniversary of one of the most significant events in the history of the world — namely, the appearance of God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith,” President Russell M. Nelson said during his opening remarks at the April 2020 general conference. “During that singular vision, God the Father pointed to Jesus Christ and said: ‘This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!’ ”
For this bicentennial year, the First Presidency considered what type of monument could be constructed as commemoration. “But as we considered the unique historic and international impact of that First Vision, we felt impressed to create a monument not of granite or stone but of words — words of solemn and sacred proclamation — written, not to be carved in ‘tables of stone’ but rather to be etched in the ‘fleshy tables’ of our hearts,” President Nelson said in his Sunday morning address on April 5.
He then read the proclamation, “The Restoration of the Fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ: A Bicentennial Proclamation to the World,” in a video recording from the Sacred Grove.
“Two hundred years ago, on a beautiful spring morning in 1820, young Joseph Smith, seeking to know which church to join, went into the woods to pray near his home in upstate New York, USA,” the proclamation states.
“In humility, we declare that in answer to his prayer, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph and inaugurated the ‘restitution of all things’ (Acts 3:21) as foretold in the Bible. In this vision, he learned that following the death of the original Apostles, Christ’s New Testament Church was lost from the earth. Joseph would be instrumental in its return.”
In his April 2020 general conference address, President Ballard spoke of the birth of the Prophet Joseph and the struggles and difficulties he and his family faced.
“As we celebrate this joyous occasion, the 200th anniversary of the First Vision, we should always remember the price Joseph and Hyrum Smith paid, along with so many other faithful men, women, and children, to establish the Church so you and I could enjoy the many blessings and all of these revealed truths we have today. Their faithfulness should never be forgotten!”