In American history there were two periods of “Great Awakening,” wherein there was a huge religious upswelling among the people. The fervor was inflamed by the many tent revivals which were staged, and there was much competition for converts by the various sects of Protestantism. The amount of interest varied from time to time and from state to state, but the northeastern U.S. was so inflamed in the early 1820’s, that it was nicknamed the “burned over district.”
The family of Joseph Smith, Sr. were sincere Christians. However, some members of the family became partial toward Methodism, while others favored Presbyterianism. One son, Joseph Smith, Jr. (future Mormon prophet), was fourteen years old in 1820. The family had left Vermont and settled in Palmyra, New York, after a series of crop failures and medical emergencies disabled them financially. Joseph was leaning toward Methodism, but he felt very unsure. This is what he said:
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.
My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others.
In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it? While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: 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.
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture (Joseph Smith History 1:8-13).
The Smith family had a farm in Palmyra with maple trees they could tap for syrup. As was the law, they had left a portion of the woods on the property un-felled. Early in April, 1820, Joseph resorted to the little grove of trees to pray. He had only one question—”Which church should I join?” Joseph was no stranger to prayer, but he had never vocally petitioned God in this manner. He recounts his experience thus:
I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him! (JSH 1:15-17).
The profound ramifications of this experience for Joseph and for the world have reverberated ever since. All the Protestant sects taught that revelation ceased with the apostles. All the sects, including Christian orthodoxy, taught the Trinitarian belief that God is a spirit who can take three forms, God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost, and that He had embodied Himself as Christ during His mortal ministry on earth. Yet, here were two heavenly beings in the form of men, one calling Himself God the Father. He introduced the other being as His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
Without any doubt, most Christians in all the various sects were sincere believers in Jesus Christ, but they had been led away by the doctrines of men, which had imposed themselves into religion over the centuries since Christ’s atonement and the ensuing death of His apostles. Joseph asked his question. Which religion should he join? The Lord commanded Joseph to join none of the churches, for they had all gone astray.
A few days after his religious epiphany, Joseph was talking with a Methodist minister. Joseph told him about the vision. To his surprise, the minister turned on him, said the vision was from the devil, and that the heavens were closed. From that moment on, Joseph and his family were subjected to bitter persecution.
It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself.
However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation (JSH 1:23-25).
Persecution would become more and more dangerous for Joseph, all the days of his life, ending with his martyrdom in 1844.
Three years later, at age seventeen, Joseph wondered whether he was still favored by God. During the past three years, he had never denied his vision, and he had been cast out of all the Christian congregations. He was a naturally light-hearted person, prone to engaging in athletics and levity. In September of 1823, he knelt by his bed before retiring to ask God’s forgiveness to discover what his status was before God.
While I was thus in the act of calling upon God, I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor. He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.
Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me (JSH 1:30-32).
The angel, a resurrected being named Moroni was the last prophet to write in the Book of Mormon. He told Joseph that the Lord had a work for him to do, and that his name would be held for “good and evil” among all the nations of world.
He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants; Also, that there were two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim—deposited with the plates; and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted “seers” in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book (JSH 1:34, 35).
Moroni quoted from Malachi regarding the hearts of the children being turned to their fathers, and the fathers to their children. He quoted from Isaiah, Acts, and Joel regarding things that were soon to come to pass. Moroni visited Joseph three times that night, each time delivering the same message. Joseph saw in vision the location of the gold plates (just two miles from his home) and visited the spot every year for three years where he received instruction from Moroni. Part of this instruction was to prepare Joseph for his calling as the first prophet of the “last dispensation of time,” but part was also to prepare him to be single-minded when the plates were given to him for translation. The plates were comprised of thin metal leaves engraved with ancient writing. A composite of gold and of great antiquity, the plates were priceless. Given that the Smith Family was so poor, it would be natural for Joseph to desire the plates for gain, but he was forbidden to entertain any thought of it.
Finally, on the Jewish holiday of Rosh HaShanah, September 22, 1827, Joseph was allowed to take the plates from their resting place; they were buried in a stone box beneath a large curved stone on a hill called Cumorrah.
…no sooner was it known that I had them, than the most strenuous exertions were used to get them from me. Every stratagem that could be invented was resorted to for that purpose. The persecution became more bitter and severe than before, and multitudes were on the alert continually to get them from me if possible. But by the wisdom of God, they remained safe in my hands, until I had accomplished by them what was required at my hand. When, according to arrangements, the messenger called for them, I delivered them up to him; and he has them in his charge until this day, being the second day of May, one thousand eight hundred and thirty-eight (JSH 1:60).