The Farm Boy And The Angel


In the history of religion in the United States, surely no story is more astounding than that of the Mormons, or, as they style themselves, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Their chronicle has a Biblical ring, for it contains not only a revelation and a martyred prophet but also a pilgrimage through a wilderness and a discovery, after long sufferings, of a promised land. It starts with a few disciples, then a few score; today it reckons its numbers close to two millions, many of them beyond the seas, with fresh converts added daily. Yet all this is the work of barely a century and a third —as if the whole Old Testament could be crowded into the span of but four or five begats, and Moses were the contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain.

The story has its beginnings in upstate New York near the town of Palmyra, in a time of deep religious ferment. It is told here by Carl Canner, historian and poet, who is a member of the Council of the Society of American Historians and also of the Advisory Board of A MERICAN H ERITAGE . In such works as The Hudson, Listen for a Lonesome Drum , and Dark Trees to the Wind , he has demonstrated his special attainments as an authority on tlie history and folklore of his native state. For some time now, Mr. Carmer has been engaged in research and preparation for a much-needed objective history of the Mormons. He is a “Gentile” in their terms, that is, not a Mormon, but he has been able to augment his researches through the assistance of Mormon authorities and scholars; he has pursued his studies at the Church House in Salt Lake City, at the University of Utah, and at other Mormon sources.

This series, which begins here with the story of Joseph Smith, will coutume in later issues with accounts of his violent death, of Brigham Young’s trek to the shores of the Great Still Lake, and of the establishment in Utah of the Mormon Zion. Mr. Carmer’s completed manuscript, as yet untitled, will eventually be published by Doubleday. —The Editors

Just after midnight had ended ilie twenty-first day of September in the year 1827, tall, twenty-oneyear-old Joseph Smith entered the room where his mother lay and asked her if she had a (liest with a lock and key. Years later Lucy Smith recounted what happened after she heard the question. She “knew in an instant what he wanted it for, and not having one, was greatly alarmed.” Joseph comforted her, saying, “Never mind. I can do very well for the present without it—be calm—all is right.”

The young man left his mother on her couch and strode out into the cool of the cloud-blanketed night. A moment later Emma, his tall, straight wife, “passed through the room with her bonnet and riding dress.” To the mother’s ears then came the familiar sounds of hitching up, and she reali/cd at once that her son had borrowed the horse and wagon of Joseph Knight, who had arrived on a mysterious business trip from Broomc County the day before, bringing with him her son’s employer, farmer Josiah Stowel.

When the clopping of hooves died out, Lucy Smith began an anxious vigil filled with “prayer and supplication to God.” Sleepless in the small frame farmhouse so filled with slumbering folk that it seemed itself to be breathing, she awaited the slow coming of light. In the rooms about her lay the two guests; her husband, Joseph, Sr.: and seven of her children. Twen(y-scvcn-year-old IIyrum was her eldest now since Alvin’s death three years before when he was twenty-six. Sophronia, an “old maid” at twenty-four, had at last found her man and woidd be married in December. Then came Samuel, nineteen: \ViIliam, sixteen; Catherine, fifteen; Don Carlos, eleven; and little Lucy, six.

“At the usual hour,” Lucy remembered, “I commenced preparing breakfast. My heart fluttered at every footstep as I now expected Joseph and Emma momentarily, and feared lest Joseph might meet with another disappointment.”

Lucy Smith knew, as her son and his wife began their dark journey, that it was four years ago to the very night when Joseph had first seen the angel. His supernatural experience, as he had told her, had begun even earlier—when he was fourteen. At that time he had been so troubled by (he bitter quarreling of proselyting evangelists in the neighboring hill-shadowed western New York town of Palmyra that he had walked alone into a grove behind his father’s farmhouse and knelt in a sun-dappled sequestered place to ask God what denomination he should join. Then a pillar of light, sweeping across the trcctops, came to rest before the praying boy. In it he saw two glorious beings. One of these spoke, saying that the other was His Beloved Son, and that Other told him to join no sect, but to prepare himself for a work to which he was destined. After that, both of t lie beings vanished.