Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.

This article is part of the series
Joseph Smith, Jr.
Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Life of Joseph Smith, Jr. from 1827 to 1831
Life of Joseph Smith, Jr. from 1831 to 1844
Death of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Teachings of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Joseph Smith, Jr. and Polygamy
Prophecies of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Works relating to Joseph Smith, Jr.
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The early life of Joseph Smith, Jr. covers the period from his birth on December 23, 1805, to the end of 1827, when Latter Day Saints believe Smith located a set of Golden Plates engraved with ancient Christian scriptures, buried in a hill near his home in Manchester, New York.

Joseph Smith, Jr. was the principal founder and leader of the Latter Day Saint movement, which gave rise to Mormonism, and includes such denominations as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ. Smith's followers believe he was a latter-day prophet.

This early period of Smith's life is significant within Mormonism because it represents the time when Smith is said to have first acted as a prophet, had a theophany (called by his followers the First Vision), and to have obtained the Golden Plates, the source material for the Book of Mormon, a Latter Day Saint sacred text. During this period, Smith was influenced by numerous religious and cultural trends in early United States history. The nation at the time was undergoing a cultural reaction against the secularism of the Age of Enlightenment, called the Second Great Awakening. In addition, Americans' widespread acceptance of folk religion up until the 1830s and a growing interest in forming separate religious communities created ripe conditions for a young man such as Smith to successfully build a religion based on the appearance of angels and the miraculous translation of ancient records. Latter Day Saints view the events in Smith's early life as evidencing his calling as a prophet and as providing the basis for organizing the Church of Christ.




Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, the fifth child of Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smiths were a farming family and several moves in and around New England were necessitated by crop failures and some ill-fated business ventures.

During the winter of 1812-1813, when Joseph was eight years old, his leg became dangerously infected. Some doctors advised amputation, but his family refused. After a successful operation to remove parts of his affected shin bone (without anesthesia or the commonly used tranquilizer at that time, whiskey), Smith eventually recovered, though he used crutches for several years and was bothered with a limp for the rest of his life. (Smith 1853, pp. 62-65)[1].

George Edward Anderson's photograph of the Joseph Smith family farm in Manchester, New York, c. 1907. (LDS Archives)
George Edward Anderson's photograph of the Joseph Smith family farm in Manchester, New York, c. 1907. (LDS Archives)

In approximately 1816, after three years of crop failures in Norwich, Vermont (the last resulting from the Year Without a Summer) (Smith 1853, p. 66), the Smith family was "warned out of town" (Norwich 1816). Although reasons for this warning out of town are unknown, they could be related to the family's financial difficulties. Alternatively, such warnings were a widespread method in New England for established communities to pressure or coerce "outsiders" to settle elsewhere (Benton 1911, pp. 106–113, 115, 117), and the Smith family had recently been moving from town-to-town in Vermont. Joseph Smith, Sr. moved alone to Palmyra, New York, followed soon by the rest of his family. In Palmyra village, Smith, Sr. and his oldest sons took odd jobs, and opened a "cake and beer shop" (Tucker 1867, p. 12). In 1818 the family obtained a mortgage on a 100-acre farm just outside of Palmyra in Manchester (which was part of Farmington until 1821).

The Smith family built a log home, technically just outside their property, in the town of Palmyra (Berge 1985). In 1822, the Smiths began building a larger frame house that was actually on their new property (Smith 1853, p. 87). On November 19, 1823, Joseph Smith Jr.'s older brother Alvin died, possibly as a result of calomel given for "bilious fever" (Smith 1853, p. 89). In 1825, the Smiths were unable to raise money for their final mortgage payment, and their creditor foreclosed on the property. However, the family was able to persuade a local Quaker, Lemuel Durfee, to buy the farm and rent the Smiths the property. At the end of 1828, the family moved to another house further south, where they remained until 1830.

Smith had little formal schooling (Pratt 1840, p. 3); rather than going to school, he worked on his father's farm, hunted, fished, took odd jobs, and sold cake and beer at Palmyra's public events (Tucker 1867, pp. 14-15). His mother described him as "much less inclined to the perusal of books than any of the rest of the children, but far more given to meditation and deep study", never having read through the Bible until at least the age of eighteen (Smith 1853, p. 84). He was described as "remarkably quiet" (Smith 1853, p. 73) and "taciturn" (Tucker 1867, p. 16), as well as "proverbially good-natured", but "never known to laugh" (Tucker 1867, p. 16–17). He reportedly had an interest and aptitude in debating moral and political issues in a local junior debating club (Turner 1851, p. 214).


Religious background

Smith was raised during the Second Great Awakening, a time in U.S history when there was a considerable revival of interest in Christianity, in reaction to the more secular Age of Enlightenment which preceded it. During the Awakening, western New York so frequently "caught fire" with revivalism that it later became known as the "Burned-over district".

Smith's family and ancestors, like the majority of families of this era, had little affiliation with organized religion; however, they were privately religious, accepting of things like visions and prophecies, and they practiced various kinds of folk religion (Quinn 1998). Smith's paternal grandfather Asael Smith, a Christian universalist, is said to have predicted that one of his descendants would be a prophet (Roberts 1902, p. 2:443). Smith's maternal grandfather Solomon Mack published a book in 1811 describing a series of heavenly visions and voices which he says led to his conversion to the "Christian faith" at the age of seventy-six (Mack 1811, p. 25).

Smith's parents also said they experienced visions and prophecy. Before Joseph was born, Lucy, his mother, went to a grove to pray about her husband's refusal to go to church with her, and when she returned to her home and went to bed, she reportedly had a dream-vision which she interpreted as a prophecy that Joseph, Sr. would later accept the "pure and undefiled Gospel of the Son of God" (Smith 1853, pp. 55-56).

Joseph Smith, Sr. also reported his own series of seven visions between 1811 and 1819, according to Lucy, five of which she described (Smith 1853, pp. 56, 58-59, 70–72, 74). These dreams, Lucy said, came when Joseph, Sr. was "much excited upon the subject of religion", and they confirmed in his mind the correctness of his refusal to join any organized religion, and led him to believe that he would be guided on the proper path to his own salvation (id.) The dreams involved an "attendant spirit" (p. 56), and many commentators have noted that his second vision (pp. 58-59) has many similarities to a dream in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon (First Book of Nephi 8:2-28).

Like most Americans at the time (Quinn 1998), the Smith family also practiced various forms of folk religion. According to an early Vermont historian, Joseph Smith, Sr. was reportedly a member of a sect of divining rodsmen in Vermont known as the "New Israelites" (Quinn 1998, p. 38); however, the evidence to support this claim is very thin. Several other accounts report that Smith, Sr. used a divining rod later in Palmyra for seeking treasure (Quinn 1998, p. 38).

An engraving of a Methodist camp meeting in 1819 (Library of Congress)
An engraving of a Methodist camp meeting in 1819 (Library of Congress)

Thus, Smith was brought up in a family that believed in prophecy and visions, was skeptical of organized religion, and was open to new religious or folk-religious ideas. He was also exposed to the intense revivalism of his era. During the Second Great Awakening, numerous revivals occurred in many communities in the northern U.S., and were often reported in the Palmyra Register, a local paper read by the Smith family (Turner 1851, p. 214). In the Palmyra area itself, the only large multi-denominational revivals were from 1816-1817 and 1824-1825; in the intervening years, however, there were revivals, perhaps on a smaller scale, not in Palmyra itself but nearby. One account, apparently from a local editor of a newspaper in nearby Lyons, New York, recalled years later that prior to 1823, there had been "various religious awakenings in the neighborhood" (Mather 1880, pp. 198–199). Smith himself also made that claim (Roberts 1902). One of Smith's acquaintances stated that the Methodists were holding camp meetings "away down in the woods, on the Vienna road" (Turner 1851, p. 214). The local Palmyra newspaper also referred to a man who died of intoxication at a Methodist camp meeting which was held in the town's vicinity in June 1820 (Backman 1969, p. 309).

Smith had some interest in the Methodist denomination (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 3). Smith's associate, Oliver Cowdery, later wrote that Smith was highly influenced by the teachings of a Rev. George Lane, a presiding Methodist Elder and an administrator in the Palmyra era during the intense revivals of 1824 and 1825 (Cowdery 1834b, p. 13); Lane's influence is confirmed by Joseph's brother William (Smith 1883). It is not known whether or not Smith attended a meeting at which Lane spoke, but Lane visited the nearby town of Vienna (15 miles (24 km) from Palmyra) for a large Methodist conference in 1819, and was a leader over the Palmyra area from 1824 to 1825 (Porter 1969, p. 330). Smith himself reportedly spoke during some of the local Methodist meetings, and he was described as a "very passable exhorter" (Turner 1851, p. 214). However, one of Smith's young acquaintances considered Smith's interpretations of Scripture as sometimes "blasphemous" (Tucker 1876, p. 18).

However, at some point, Smith reportedly withdrew from the Methodist probationary class in which he was enrolled, announcing that he believed that "all sectarianism was fallacious, and the churches on a false foundation" (Tucker 1876, p. 18). According to one recollection years later, Smith "arose and announced that his mission was to restore the true priesthood. He appointed a number of meetings, but no one seemed inclined to follow him as the leader of a new religion" (Mather 1880, p. 199). By some time during the intense revivals of 1824-1825, Smith was adamantly refusing to attend any organized church, according to his mother because he claimed, "I can take my Bible, and go into the woods, and learn more in two hours, than you can learn at meeting [sic] in two years, if you should go all the time" (Smith 1853, p. 90).


First Vision

Like his father, the younger Smith reportedly had his own set of visions, the first of which occurred in the early 1820s when Smith was in his early teens and is called by Latter Day Saints the First Vision. The first description of this event was not published until 1832, which said the event occurred in 1821 (Smith 1832, p. 3); however, most accounts date the event to the year 1820.[2] The First Vision was a theophany (a personal and direct communication from God), but the details of the theophany have varied as the story was retold throughout Smith's life.

According to Joseph's brother, William, the First Vision was prompted in part by a minister who referred to the Epistle of James 1:5, which in the King James Version reads, "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him", and he suggested that Smith "Ask of God" (Smith 1884). William also suggested that much of the "religious excitement" in the area was caused by the Rev. George Lane, a "great revival preacher" (Smith 1883, p. 6). Lane is never recorded as having visited Palmyra until 1824, although he visited the nearby town of Vienna (15 miles from Palmyra) in 1819 for a large Methodist conference (Porter 1969, p. 330). Joseph and his family could have traveled to sell cake and beer at this event, as they did other events in the Palmyra vicinity, but this is pure speculation (Anderson 1969, p. 7).

Stained glass depiction of Smith's First Vision, completed in 1913 by an unknown artist (Museum of Church History and Art)
Stained glass depiction of Smith's First Vision, completed in 1913 by an unknown artist (Museum of Church History and Art)

The exact details of the First Vision vary somewhat depending upon who is recounting the story and when. Smith's first account in 1832 dated the vision to 1821 and stated that he saw "a piller [sic] of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day", and that "the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord and he spake unto me saying Joseph my son thy sins are forgiven thee" (Smith 1832, p. 3). Whether Smith regarded this event as a vision or as an actual visitation by a physical being has been debated, because a missionary tract published for Smith's church in 1840 stated that after Smith saw the light, "his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision" (Pratt 1840, p. 5).

In an account Smith dictated in 1838 for inclusion in the official church history, he described the First Vision as an appearance of two divine personages sometime during the spring of 1820:

"I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…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!'" (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 5).

It is unclear who, if anyone, Smith told about his vision prior to his reported discovery of the Golden Plates in 1823. According to Smith, he told his mother at the time that he had "learned for [him]self that Presbyterianism is not true" (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 5); however, mention of this conversation is omitted from Lucy's own history (Smith 1853, p. 77), and Joseph never stated that he described the details of the vision to his family in 1820 or soon thereafter. He did say that he spoke about the vision with "one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before-mentioned religious excitement" (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 6). Many have presumed this to be the Rev. Lane, but there is no record of Lane visiting the Palmyra vicinity in 1820. Joseph's brother William was apparently unaware of any visions until 1823 (Smith 1883, pp. 8–9), although he would have only been nine years old in 1820.

Smith stated that the retelling of his vision story "excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase" (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 6). Tales of visions and theophanies, however, were not unusual at the time, though the clergy of many organized religions often resisted the stories (Quinn 1998). Early prejudice against Smith may have taken place by clergy, but there is no contemporary record of this. The bulk of Smith's persecution seems to have arisen among laity, and not because of his First Vision, but because of his later assertion to have discovered the Golden Plates in a hill near his home; the statement was widely publicized and ridiculed in local newspapers beginning around 1827.

Years later, one non-Mormon neighbor summed up views of Smith and his family by their Palmyra neighbors by saying, "To tell the truth, there was something about him they could not understand; some way he knew more than they did, and it made them mad" (Cobb 1881).


Work as a treasure seeker and marriage to Emma Hale

At about the same time as Smith reportedly had his First Vision, it has been said that he began to practice crystal gazing, a form of divination in which a "seer" looks into a crystal, often called a seer stone, to divine esoteric knowledge. Witnesses say that Smith practiced crystal gazing by placing a stone in a white stovepipe hat, putting his face over the hat to block out all the light, and then divining information from the stone (Tiffany 1859, p. 164; Mather 1880, p. 199). There are two stories about how Smith obtained his first seer stone. According to an account of an interview with Smith, Sr., a 14-year-old Joseph borrowed the stone from a person working as a local crystal gazer (Lapham 1870, pp. 305-306); it reportedly showed him the underground location of his own stone near his home, which he located at a depth of about twenty-two feet (Id.)

According to another story, in either 1819 (Tucker 1867, p. 19) or 1822 (Howe 1834, p. 240), while the older Smith males were digging a well for Clark Chase, a Palmyra neighbor, at a depth of more than twenty feet they reportedly found an unusual stone (Tiffany 1859, p. 163). This stone was described as either white and glassy, shaped like a child's foot (Tucker 1867, p. 19), or "chocolate-colored, somewhat egg-shaped" (Roberts 1930, 1:129). Fascinated, Smith reportedly took this stone and later began to see things inside it clairvoyantly (Tucker 1867, p. 20). Some scholars have concluded that these two accounts refer to two distinct stones found in 1819-1820 and 1822, and that these stories have in some cases been conflated (Quinn 1998). Other scholars believe that the two accounts refer to the same event in 1822 (Vogel 1994, p. 202). However, this has little support among his current followers.

In any case, about 1825, Smith was approached by a man named Josiah Stowell, from South Bainbridge, New York, who had been searching for a lost Spanish mine near Harmony, Pennsylvania (Smith 1853, p. 91). He had traveled to Manchester because of Smith's reputation as "possess[ing] certain keys[3], by which he could discern things invisible to the natural eye" (Smith 1853, p. 92), and Stowell wanted to employ his services. Stowell was working with a William Hale, also from Harmony, who reportedly had learned from a crystal gazer named Odle of treasures supposedly concealed in a hill near Hale's home (Lewis & Lewis 1879).

Smith agreed to take the job of assisting Stowell and Hale, and he and his father worked with the Stowell-Hale team for approximately one month, attempting, according to their contract, to locate "a valuable mine of either Gold or Silver and also...coined money and bars or ingots of Gold or Silver" (Wade 1880). Smith boarded with an Isaac Hale (a relative of William Hale), and fell in love with Isaac Hale's daughter Emma, a schoolteacher he would later marry in 1827. Isaac Hale, however, disapproved of their relationship and of Smith in general. According to an unsupported account by Hale, Smith attempted to locate the mine by burying his face in a hat containing the seer stone; however, as the treasure seekers got close to their objective, Smith said that an enchantment became so strong that Smith could no longer see it. (Howe 1834, pp. 262–266). The failed project disbanded on November 17, 1825 (Howe 1834, p. 262); however, Smith continued to work for Stowell on other matters until 1826.

Emma Hale Smith.
Emma Hale Smith.

Court records from Bainbridge, New York, show that Smith, identified as "The Glass Looker," was before the court on March 20, 1826 on a warrant for an unspecified misdemeanor charge (Hill 1972, p. 2), and that the judge issued a mittimus for Smith to be held, either during or after the proceedings (Hill 1972, p. 5). Although Smith's associate Oliver Cowdery (who had not met Smith as of 1826) later stated that Smith was "honorably acquitted" (Cowdery 1835, p. 200), the result of the proceeding is unclear, with some eye-witnesses (including the court reporter) claiming he was found guilty, others claiming he was "condemned" but "designedly allowed to escape," and yet others claiming he was "discharged" for lack of evidence (Hill 1972, p. 5).

By November 1826, Josiah Stowell could no longer afford to continue searching for buried treasure; Smith traveled to Colesville, New York for a few months to work for Joseph Knight, Sr. (Jesee 1984, p. 32), one of Stowell's friends. There are reports that Smith directed further excavations on Knight's property and at other locations around Colesville (Vogel 1994, pp. 227, 229). Smith later commented his working as a treasure seeker: "'Was not Joseph Smith a money digger?' Yes, but it was never a very profitable job for him, as he only got fourteen dollars a month for it." (Smith 1976, p. 120)

Because Smith had been unable to gain Isaac Hale's approval, he and Emma Hale Smith eloped to South Bainbridge on January 18, 1827, after which Joseph and Emma went to live with Smith's parents in Manchester, New York (Roberts 1902, p. 17).


Moroni and the Golden Plates

While Smith was working as a treasure seeker, he was also frequently occupied with another more religious matter: acquiring a set of Golden Plates he said were deposited, along with other artifacts, in a prominent hill near his home.

In Smith's own account dated 1838, he stated that an angel visited him on the night of September 21, 1823[4]. Concerning the visit, Smith dictated the following:

Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.

He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni[5]; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people.

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" (Smith 1838, p. 4)[6].

Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.

The words Urim and Thummim derive from passages in the Old Testament which describe the use of "the Urim and the Thummim" as a means for divination by Israelite priests (see, e.g., Book of Exodus 28:30). In Smith's view, the Urim and Thummim operated much like the seer stones with which he had much prior experience, and observers reported that Smith eventually used the Urim and Thummim and his seer stone interchangeably. (Stevenson 1882, p. 86).

After the messenger departed, Smith said he had two more encounters with him that night and an additional one the next morning, after which he told his father (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 2, p. 14) and soon thereafter the rest of his family, who believed his story, but generally kept it within the family (Smith 1853, pp. 83–84) (Smith 1883, pp. 9–10).

An 1841 engraving of "Mormon Hill" (looking south), where Smith said he found the Golden Plates on the west side, near the peak.
An 1841 engraving of "Mormon Hill" (looking south), where Smith said he found the Golden Plates on the west side, near the peak.

Thus, on September 22, 1823, a day listed in local almanacs as the autumn equinox, Smith said that he went to a prominent hill near his home, and found the location of the artifacts (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 2, p. 15). There are varying accounts as to how Smith reportedly found the precise location of the Golden Plates. In 1838, Smith stated that this location was shown to him in a vision while he conversed with Moroni (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 2, p. 13). This conforms to an account by Smith's friend Joseph Knight, Sr. (Jesee 1976, p. 2). However, according to another friend Martin Harris, Smith discovered the location of the Golden Plates through the use of the seer stone he had used to seek treasure as part of the Stowell-Hale team in 1825 (Tiffany 1859, p. 163). Martin Harris's account is corroborated by Palmyra resident Henry Harris, who said Smith told him he located the plates using his seer stone (Howe, p. 252). In yet another account, the angel required Smith to follow a sequence of landmarks until he arrived at the correct location (Lapham 1870, p. 305).

The plates, according to Smith, were inside a covered stone box. However, Smith stated he was unable to obtain the plates at his first visit. According to an account by Willard Chase, the angel gave Smith a strict set of "commandments" which he was to follow in order to obtain the plates. Among these requirements, according to Chase, was that Smith must approach the site "dressed in black clothes, and riding a black horse with a switch tail, and demand the book in a certain name, and after obtaining it, he must go directly away, and neither lay it down nor look behind him" (Howe 1834, p. 242). Smith's close friend Joseph Knight, Sr. corroborates the requirement that Smith was to "take the Book and go right away" (Jessee 1976, p. 2). According to Smith's mother, the angel forbade him to put the plates on the ground until they were under lock and key (Smith 1853, pp. 85–86). He was, however, according to a retelling of an account by Smith, Sr., allowed to put down the plates on a napkin he was to bring with him for that purpose (Lapham 1870, pp. 305–306).

When Smith arrived at the place where the plates were supposed to be, he reportedly took the plates from the stone box they were in and set them down on the ground nearby, looking to see if there were other items in the box that would "be of some pecuniary advantage to him" (Smith 1853, p. 85). When he turned around, however, the plates were said to have disappeared into the box, which was then closed (Jessee 1976, p. 2). When Smith attempted to get the plates back out of the box, William Chase's testimony of a conversation he had with Joseph Smith, Sr. claims that Joseph Smith, Jr. saw a toad that grew into the form of the angel (Howe 1834, p. 242), and hurled him back to the ground with a violent force (id.); (Smith 1853, p. 86); (Lapham 1870, p. 305). After three failed attempts to retrieve the plates (Smith 1832, p. 3), the angel told him that he could not have the plates then, because he "had been tempted of the advisary [sic] and saught [sic] the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandments that I should have" (Smith 1832, p. 3).

Thus, Smith said the angel directed him to return the next year on September 22, 1824, with the "right person", whom the angel reportedly said was his brother Alvin (Jessee 1976, p. 2). However, Alvin died within a few months, and when Smith returned to the hill in 1824, he did not return with the plates. Once again, the angel reportedly told Smith that he must return the next year with the "right person", the identity of whom the angel would not say (Jessee 1976, p. 2). According to Smith's associate Willard Chase, Smith originally thought this person was to be Samuel T. Lawrence, a seer himself who worked in Smith's treasure-seeking company in Palmyra (Tiffany 1859, p. 164), and therefore Smith reportedly took Lawrence to the hill in 1825 (Howe 1834, p. 243). At Lawrence's prompting, Smith reportedly ascertained through his seer stone that there was an additional item together with the plates in the box, which Smith later called the Urim and Thummim (Howe 1834, p. 243).[7] However, Lawrence was apparently not the "right person", because Smith did not obtain the plates in his 1825 visit.

Later, Smith reportedly determined by looking into his seer stone that the "right person" was Emma Hale Smith, his future wife (Jessee 1976, p. 2). There is no specific record of Smith seeing the angel in 1826, however, after Joseph and Emma were married on January 18, 1827, Smith returned to Manchester, and as he passed by Cumorah, he said he was chastised by the angel for not being "engaged enough in the work of the Lord" (Smith 1853, p. 99). He was reportedly told that the next annual meeting was his last chance to get the plates and the Urim and Thummim (Jessee 1976, p. 3).

An 1893 engraving of Joseph Smith receiving the Golden Plates and the Urim and Thummim from Moroni.
An 1893 engraving of Joseph Smith receiving the Golden Plates and the Urim and Thummim from Moroni.

Just days prior to the day Smith said he was to meet with the angel on September 22, 1827, Smith's treasure-seeking associates Josiah Stowell and Joseph Knight, Sr. arranged to be in Palmyra for the attempt to retrieve the plates (Jessee 1976, p. 3); (Smith 1853, p. 99). Because Smith was concerned that Samuel Lawrence, his earlier confidant, might interfere, Smith sent his father to spy on Lawrence's house the night of September 21 until dark (Jessee 1976, p. 3). Late that night, Smith took the horse and carriage of Joseph Knight, Sr. to Cumorah with his wife Emma (Smith 1853, p. 100). Leaving Emma in the wagon, where she knelt in prayer (Tiffany 1853, p. 164), he reportedly walked to the site of the Golden Plates, retrieved them, and hid them in a fallen tree-top on or near the hill (Howe 1976, p. 246); (Tiffany 1859, p. 165). He also reportedly retrieved the Urim and Thummim, which he showed to his mother the next morning (Smith 1853, p. 101). According to Knight, Smith was more fascinated by this artifact than he was the plates (Jessee 1976, p. 3).

Over the next few days, Smith took a well-digging job in nearby Macedon to obtain money to buy a solid lockable chest in which he said he would put the plates (Smith 1853, p. 101). By then, however, some of Smith's treasure-seeking company had heard that Smith was successful in obtaining the plates, and they wanted what they believed was their cut of the profits from what they saw as part of their joint venture (Tiffany 1859, p. 167). Spying once again on the house of Samuel Lawrence, Smith, Sr. determined that a group of ten–twelve of these men, including Lawrence and Willard Chase, had enlisted the talents of a renowned and supposedly-talented seer from sixty miles away, in an effort to locate where the plates were hidden by means of divination (Smith 1853, p. 102). When Emma heard of this, she went to Macedon and informed Smith, Jr., who reportedly determined through his Urim and Thummim that the plates were safe, but nevertheless he hurriedly traveled home by horseback (Smith 1853, pp. 103–104). Once home in Palmyra, he then walked to Cumorah and said he removed the plates from their hiding place, and walked back home with the plates wrapped in a linen frock under his arm, suffering a dislocated thumb as he fended off attackers (Howe 1834, p. 246; Smith 1853, pp. 104–106; Tiffany 1859, p. 166).

According to Smith, the plates "had the appearance of gold", and were:

Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.
...six inches wide and eight inches long and not quite so thick as common tin. They were filled with engravings, in Ancient Egyptian characters and bound together in a volume, as the leaves of a book with three rings running through the whole. The volume was something near six inches in thickness, a part of which was sealed. The characters on the unsealed part were small, and beautifully engraved. The whole book exhibited many marks of antiquity in its construction and much skill in the art of engraving. (Smith 1842)
Early life of Joseph Smith, Jr.

Smith refused to allow anyone, including his family, to view the plates directly. Some people, however, were allowed to heft them or feel them through a cloth (Howe 1834, p. 264; Tiffany & 1859 169–70; Smith 1884). At first, he reportedly kept the plates in a chest under the hearth in his parents' home (Smith 1853). Fearing it might be discovered, however, Smith hid the chest under the floor boards of his parents' old log home nearby (Tiffany 1859, p. 167). Later, he said he took the plates out of the chest, left the empty chest under the floor boards, and hid the plates in a barrel of flax, not long before the location of the empty box was discovered and the place ransacked by Smith's former treasure-seeking associates, who had enlisted one of the men's sisters to find that location by looking in her seer stone (Smith 1853, pp. 107–109).


Move to Harmony, Pennsylvania

Once Smith had the Golden Plates, temporarily kept safe from his Palmyra neighbors, his focus turned to getting the engravings on them translated. To do so, however, he needed money, and at the time he was penniless (Smith 1853). Therefore, Smith sent his mother (Smith 1853, p. 110) to the home of Martin Harris, a local landowner said at the time to be worth about $8,000 to $10,000 (Howe 1834, p. 260).

Harris had apparently been a close confidant of the Smith family since at least 1826 (Howe 1834, pp. 255), and he may have heard about Smith's attempts to obtain the plates from the angel even earlier from Smith, Sr. (Smith 1853, p. 109). He was also a believer in Smith's powers with his seer stone (Tiffany 1859, p. 164). When Lucy visited Harris, he had heard about Smith's report to have found Golden Plates through the grapevine in Palmyra, and was interested in finding out more (Tiffany 1859, pp. 167–168). Thus, at Lucy Smith's request, Harris went to the Smith home, heard the story from Smith, and hefted a glass box that Smith said contained the plates (Tiffany 1859, pp. 168–169). Smith convinced Harris that he had the plates, and that the angel had told him to "quit the company of the money-diggers" (Tiffany 1859, p. 169). Convinced, Harris immediately gave Smith $50, and committed to sponsor the translation of the plates (Smith 1853, p. 113).

The money provided by Harris was enough to pay all of Smith's debts in Palmyra, and for him to travel with Emma and all of their belongings to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where they would be able to avoid the public commotion in Palmyra over the plates. (Tiffany 1859, p. 170). Thus, in early October 1827, they moved to Harmony, with the glass box reportedly holding the plates hidden during the trip in a barrel of beans (Tiffany 1859, p. 170).

Biographical articles on
Joseph Smith, Jr.:
Early life | Life from 1827 to 1831
Life from 1831 to 1844 | Death


  1. Joseph's mother's account, Lucy Mack Smith.
  2. Joseph Smith, Jr. dated the vision to when he was "a little over fourteen years of age" (Roberts 1902, vol. 1, ch. 1, p. 7), which would have been 1820. However, Smith's brother William stated it happened when Joseph was eighteen years old, when William himself would have been twelve (Smith 1883, p. 6). For a discussion of these dating issues, see First Vision.
  3. Lucy Mack Smith later used the word key to refer to the Urim and Thummim (Smith 1853, p. 101).
  4. The date of Moroni's first visits is generally taken as 1823. However, Smith's 1832 history (his first written account) dates the visit of Moroni to September 22, 1822, a year earlier, although he also states he was seventeen years old (Smith 1832, p. 3), and his seventeenth birthday would not have been until December 23, 1822. Further possible ambiguity arises because in an 1830 interview, Joseph Smith, Sr. reportedly claimed that he was not told about Moroni's visit until a year after the fact, during which Smith, Jr. had been collecting items in preparation for receiving the plates (Lapham 1870, p. 305). Lucy Mack Smith asserts that Smith, Sr. was told about Moroni's visit in 1823, the day after Moroni's first visit (Smith 1838, p. 7); (Smith 1853, p. 82); however, Lucy's history also indicates that after the appearance of the angel, Joseph had made two annual visits to the hill Cumorah before the 1823 death of her son Alvin (Smith 1853, p. 85), which Lucy incorrectly dated to 1824 (Smith 1853, p. 87).
  5. As originally taken down in dictation and published, the story stated that the angel was Nephi (Smith 1838–1840, p. 4). Long after Smith's death, however, this reference to Nephi in the official history was changed to Moroni (Roberts 1902) to conform to Smith's other statements from as early as 1835 that refer to the latter (Smith 1835, sec. 50:2, p. 180). Generally, modern historians refer to this angel as Moroni.
  6. Punctuation has been modernized.
  7. In addition to the Urim and Thummim, Smith also reportedly discovered at some point that the box, or the ground nearby, contained several other artifacts, including the Liahona, the sword of Laban (Lapham 1870, p. 306), the vessel in which the gold was melted, a rolling machine for gold plates, and three balls of gold as large as a fist (Howe 1834, p. 253).


  1. Anderson, Richard Lloyd (1969), "Circumstantial Confirmation Of the First Vision Through Reminiscences", BYU Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 373–404.
  2. Backman, Milton V., Jr. (1969), "Awakenings in the Burned-over District: New Light on the Historical Setting of the First Vision", BYU Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 301–315.
  3. Benton, Josiah Henry (1911), Warning Out in New England, 1656–1817, Boston: W.B. Clarke.
  4. Berge, Dale L. (1985), "Archaeological Work at the Smith Log House", Ensign, vol. 15, no. 8, pp. 24.
  5. Bidamon, Emma Smith (March 27, 1876), letter to Emma S. Pilgrim, published in Vogel, Dan, ed. (1996), Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-072-8.
  6. Booth, Ezra (October 20, 1831), "Mormonism—No. II (Letter to the Editor)", The Ohio Star, vol. 2, no. 42, pp. 1.
  7. Cobb, James T. (June 1, 1881), "The Hill Cumorah, And The Book Of Mormon. The Smith Family, Cowdery, Harris, and Other Old Neighbors—What They Know", The Saints' Herald, vol. 28, no. 11, pp. 167.
  8. Cowdery, Oliver (1834), "Letter [I]", Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 13–16.
  9. Cowdery, Oliver (1834b), "Letter III", Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 41–43.
  10. Cowdery, Oliver (1835), "Letter VIII", Latter Day Saints' Messenger and Advocate, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 195–202.
  11. Hill, Donna (1999), Joseph Smith: The First Mormon, Salt Lake City: Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-118-X.
  12. Hill, Marvin S. (1972), "Joseph Smith and the 1826 Trial: New Evidence and New Difficulties", BYU Studies, vol. 12, no. 2, pp. 1–8.
  13. Howe, Eber Dudley (1834), Mormonism Unvailed, Painesville, Ohio: Telegraph Press.
  14. Jessee, Dean (1976), "Joseph Knight's Recollection of Early Mormon History", BYU Studies, vol. 17, no. 1, pp. 35.
  15. Lapham, [La]Fayette (1870), "Interview with the Father of Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet, Forty Years Ago. His Account of the Finding of the Sacred Plates", Historical Magazine [second series], vol. 7, pp. 305-309, republished in Vogel, Dan, ed. (1996), Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-072-8.
  16. Lewis, Joseph & Lewis, Hiel (April 30, 1879), "Mormon History", Amboy Journal, vol. 24, no. 5, p. 1.
  17. Mack, Solomon (1811), A Narraitve [sic] of the Life of Solomon Mack, Windsor: Solomon Mack, (No ISBN assigned).
  18. Mather, Frederic G. (1880), "Early Days of Mormonism", Lippincott's Magazine, vol. 26, no. 152, pp. 198–211.
  19. Norwich, Vermont (March 15, 1816), A Record of Strangers Who are Warned Out of Town, 1813–1818 (Norwich Clerk's Office), p. 53, published in Vogel, Dan, ed. (1996), Early Mormon Documents, Vol. 1, Signature Books, ISBN 1-56085-072-8, page 666.
  20. Phelps, W. W., ed. (1833), A Book of Commandments, for the Government of the Church of Christ, Zion: William Wines Phelps & Co..
  21. Porter, Larry C. (1969), "Reverend George Lane—Good "Gifts," Much "Grace," and Marked "Usefulness"", BYU Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 321–340.
  22. Porter, Larry C. (1971), A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816–1831, Ph.D dissertation, BYU.
  23. Pratt, Orson (1840), A Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, and of the Late Discovery of Ancient American Records, Edinburgh: Ballantyne and Hughes.
  24. Quinn, D. Michael (1998), Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Signature Books, 2d ed., ISBN 1-56085-089-2.
  25. Roberts, B. H., ed. (1902), History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
  26. Roberts, B. H., ed. (1930), A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Century I, Brigham Young University Press, ISBN 0842504826.
  27. Smith, Joseph III (October 1, 1879), "Last Testimony of Sister Emma", The Saints' Herald, vol. 26, no. 19, pp. 289.
  28. Smith, Joseph, Jr., translator (1830), The Book of Mormon: An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon, Upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi, Palmyra, New York: E. B. Grandin.
  29. Smith, Joseph, Jr. (1832) History of the Life of Joseph Smith, in Joseph Smith Letterbook 1, pp. 1–6, Joseph Smith Collection, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, published in Jessee, Dean C. (ed.) (2002), Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, ISBN 1-57345-787-6.
  30. Smith, Joseph, Jr. et al., eds. (1835), Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Kirtland, Ohio: F. G. Williams & Co.
  31. Smith, Joseph, Jr. et al. (1838–1842) History of the Church Ms., vol. A–1, pp. 1–10, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, published in Jessee, Dean C. (ed.) (2002), Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, ISBN 1-57345-787-6.
  32. Smith, Joseph, Jr. (March 1 1842), "Church History [Wentworth Letter"], Times and Seasons, vol. 3, no. 9, pp. 906–710.
  33. Smith, Joseph Fielding (1976), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 0-87747-626-8.
  34. Smith, Lucy Mack (1901), History of Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, (No ISBN assigned).
  35. Smith, Lucy Mack (1853), Biographical Sketches of Joseph Smith the Prophet, and His Progenitors for Many Generations, Liverpool: S.W. Richards.
  36. Smith, William (1883), William Smith on Mormonism: A True Account of the Origin of the Book of Mormon, Lamoni, Iowa: RLDS Church, (ISBN not assigned).
  37. Smith, William (1884), "The Old Soldier's Testimony", The Saint's Herald, vol. 34, no. 39, pp. 643–644.
  38. Stevenson, Edward (1882), "One of the Three Witnesses: Incidents in the Life of Martin Harris", The Latter Day Saints' Millenial Star, vol. 44, pp. 78–79, 86–87.
  39. Tiffany, Joel (1859), "Mormonism, No. II", Tiffany's Monthly, vol. 5, pp. 163-170.
  40. Tucker, Pomeroy (1867), Origin, Rise and Progress of Mormonism, New York: D. Appleton.
  41. Turner, Orasmus (1851), History of the Pioneer Settlement of Phelps and Gorham's Purchase, and Morris' Reserve, Rochester, New York: William Alling.
  42. Vogel, Dan (1994), "The Locations of Joseph Smith's Early Treasure Quests", Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, vol. 27, no. 3, pp. 197-231.
  43. Wade, B. (April 23, 1880), "An Interesting Document", The Salt Lake Daily Tribune, vol. 19, no. 8.
  44. Whitmer, David (1887), An Address to All Believers in Christ By A Witness to the Divine Authenticity of the Book of Mormon, David Whitmer, Richmond, Missouri.
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