- Historic Sites
The Farm Boy And The Angel
Of sensitive, mystical Joseph Smith, of a heavenly visitor and a buried scripture, and of the founding of a new religion destined to enlist many followers and carve from the desert a new Zion
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
Joseph said it was on a clear and sunny morning of T early May in the year 1820 when he decided to take f this advice. The lanky, tow-haired youngster had found a secret, quiet place, and like many another boy of his age he took pride in feeling that by right of discovery it was his own. A quarter of a mile behind his home he climbed a gentle slope edged with young beeches and a tangle of shrubbery, to a summit where stood a company of tall sugar maples. An opening among the leaf-hung branches allowed a shaft of yellow sunlight to penetrate the shade. There was a stillness here, overwrought with almost inaudible sounds—bird calls, the hum of bees, the whisper of foliage as the air drifted in a movement too gentle to be called a breeze. Here was a refuge from the pressures exerted by the shouting preachers, the emotional hymns, the outcries of hysterical penitents. Here, as he lay on his back in the shade of the high maples, he believed peace might enter his tortured mind. Not peace, he reported later, but darkness enveloped him: “It seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction … and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair … just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head.”
Consciousness of the material world left him, he said, without his being aware of its going; for all seemed real as before except for movement among the tiny particles that danced within the gleaming column, a massive changing into distinguishable forms of light existing within light. He saw, or dreamed he saw, two figures suspended there; heard, or dreamed he heard, their voices.
“I asked the personages, who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right … I was answered … all their creeds were an abomination.”
When the luminous gods had uttered their message and vanished from the bright shaft, Joseph said, he came to himself again, lying on his back and looking up to heaven. His mind had been freed of torment.
The vision and the voices, despite their intimations that he was chosen to fulfill a divine purpose, had not, L however, created a sense of consecration to a mission promised but unexplained. After he had told one of the Methodist evangelists of his experience and been ridiculed for his pains, he put aside the idea of conversion to any denomination. Being a sociable, growing adolescent, he gave himself over to such enjoyments as came naturally to a youth of his time and in his region. Even the first visit of the tall angel, Moroni, when he was seventeen, did not deter him from worldly pleasures. In his late twenties, after the birth of Mormonism, Joseph frankly admitted this fact: “As is common to most, or all youths, I fell into many vices and follies … and those imperfections to which I allude, and for which I have often had occasion to lament, were a light and, too often, vain mind exhibiting a foolish and trifling conversation.”
Most available descriptions of Joseph Smith as a boy were written after he had become the founder of the Mormon Church. They show resentment that such a youth became important enough to command public attention, shock at his claims, which were regarded as sacrilegious, suspicion that he was a charlatan and to be regarded with amused contempt. Any testimony in his favor could be regarded, then, as unwilling and therefore worth considering. A learned historian, O. Turner, who recalled Joseph’s walking in to Palmyra village from the Smith farm two miles out on Stafford Street, remembered that the boy once a week strolled into the office of the old Palmyra Register for his father’s paper and sometimes did odd jobs at Scovell’s store. “I can see him now in my mind’s eye,” reported Daniel Hendrix, who had been a typesetter in those days, “with his torn and patched trousers held to his form by a pair of suspenders made out of sheeting, with his calico shirt as dirty and black as the earth, and his uncombed hair sticking through the holes in his old battered hat.”
This lake-country prototype of Huckleberry Finn combined in his person strangely fascinating qualities. Said Hendrix, “Joe had a jovial easy don’t-care way about him that made him a lot of warm friends.” Pomeroy Tucker, one of the owners of the Palmyra Sentinel , remembered that the boy was proverbially good-natured, yet he was never known to laugh. All witnesses agreed that he was both imaginative and articulate. And there was his ability as an exhorter, to which Turner referred. To quote Hendrix again: He was a good talker and would have made a fine stumpspeaker if he had had the training. He was known among the young men I was associated with as a romancer of the first water. I never knew so ignorant a man as Joe to have such a fertile imagination. He could never tell a common occurrence in his daily life without embellishing the story with his imagination; yet I remember he was grieved one day when old Parson Reed told Joe he was going to hell for his lying habits.