- 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
When darkness came, the mob returned. This time there was no stopping them. They swarmed about the Smith house, searching every inch of ground but finding nothing. By this time they had lost faith in the imported conjurer and were placing their confidence in Willard Chase’s sister, who, having found a stone of a strange green color, claimed that by looking into it she could see “where Joe Smith kept his Bible hid.” Apparently her assumed clairvoyance had led to the box, for in the morning the Smiths found the floor of the cooper shop once more torn up and the wooden chest splintered into many pieces. The treasures were safe in the loft beneath the flax.
This is the “origin story” of the religious sect known formally as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, informally as “the Mormons.” All conversion to the Mormon creed begins with the acceptance of this miracle-fraught narrative. John Henry Evans, Mormon historian, who has written one of the most objective and thoughtful biographies of Joseph Smith, delivers plainly the accepted Mormon attitude: “Mormonism has its basis on the miraculous element in religion, or it has no foundation at all on which to stand. They are fooling themselves, whether within or without the Mormon church, who think they can accept the faith of Joseph Smith and at the same time reject the visions of Joseph Smith. No such choice is permissible. One must believe these supernormal experiences and Mormonism, or one must reject Mormonism with the visions.”
When young Joseph Smith was ten years old his mother bore another son—who was romantically christened Don Carlos. The new baby was the ninth of her children, and only one, Ephraim, had died. The prospect of having to feed ten mouths moved the father to set out from his high barrens above the Connecticut River at Norwich and seek an opportunity for a better living in newly developed lands to the west. With him went a like-minded neighbor named Howard. Considerations other than unfertile soil strengthened the decision of these men, for this was 1816, ever afterward reviled as “old eighteen-hundred-and-froze-todeath.” Because most of their crops froze, the Yankees called it “poverty year” or, since the only food obtainable was from the coast fisheries, “mackerel year.”
From the high perch above the White River, the older Smith children and their mother with her baby could see irregular blotches on a cold sun. In early June came almost intolerable heat and, suddenly, sunspots again and snow and fierce cold that froze the new-plowed acres hard. After that, each day dawned to bright frost and dry weather. Even hot-weather birds—goldfinches and scarlet sparrows—took refuge in houses, where people could pick them up in their hands to warm their numbed bodies.
In July snow lay on the summits of the Green Mountains. The smoke of wood fires dimmed the wintry weeks of a summer that had vanished. For one hundred and twenty days there was no rain. A farmer said that when he was mowing the lower forty on the fourth of July, he had seen an antlered buck leap a stone fence and land in a snowdrift so deep he could not move before the scythe had decapitated him and provided venison for a large family.
In the midst of this long drought, unexpected hope came to the Smiths. Mr. Howard appeared at their door to tell Lucy that in western York State he and her husband had come upon the busy town of Palmyra, in which they thought they might prosper. Father Smith had sent word to the family to sell what they could not pack, pay their debts, and accompany Mr. Howard when he set out on his return.
No sooner had she told her Norwich neighbors that the family was moving west than they gathered like vultures. Knowing that the decision was final, they made ridiculously low offers for the farm possessions, and she was forced to accept them. Soon Mr. Howard was clucking to the Smith team, and the overloaded Smith buckboard was rattling along the road south.
Lucy was forty years old that summer. With her new baby at her breast and seven older children, she was Ipavincr the mountains she had alwavs known and making the journey to the Genesee country far across the state of New York.
The mother soon discovered that Mr. Howard, the one adult male of the expedition, was dissatisfied and sullenly unco-operative. He disciplined her children strictly, and she quarreled with him over his treatment of young Joseph. He had decided that the older children should walk as much of the way as possible. Samuel Harrison, eight; William, five; Catherine, four; and baby Don Carlos were obviously too small to keep up with the wagon. Joseph was still recovering from an operation that had taken place two years before. Without aid of anesthetic a primitive surgeon had lanced an infection on his knee and, cutting deep below it, had scraped the bone. Afterward the boy had been Wj sent to his uncle, Jesse Smith, who lived in Salem, Massachusetts, in the hope that salt sea air might improve his general condition, but he still limped. Howard ignored this and ordered him out of the wagon time and time again.