- 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
As strange as the atmosphere created by the drumlin country was the talk of the people. Only a few of the pioneers were learned, and superstition stirred the others into unchanneled reckonings. There were long-continued discussions of the ignorant farm girl, Rachel Baker, a neighbor who had amazed the countryside for two years by preaching eloquently in her sleep.
The boy Joseph Smith would come much closer to another and more powerful personality in the next few years. She, too, seemed by background and schooling completely unequipped for the work which, she assured all who would listen, had been chosen for her by God. It was her claim that in 1776 when she was Jemima Wilkinson, an unschooled maiden of eighteen, she had expired of a fever in Rhode Island. No sooner, she said, had her soul left her slim, lithe body than the “Spirit of Life from God” had inhabited it. At once she had risen from the dead proclaiming herself the “Publick Universal Friend.” Though she could not read, she proved herself divinely inspired by her knowledge of the Bible, all of which she could quote from memory, and her speech was so laden with God’s truth, so her followers said, that she won the devotion of hundreds. Because she was darkly beautiful and emotionally persuasive, more than two hundred of these migrated with her to the country of the Finger Lakes shortly after 1790. There, in her purple robe and white beaver hat—low-crowned and broad-brimmed—she ruled her people as a queen who derived her authority from the Almighty.
Her palace was a large white house on the shores of Crooked Lake (now Keuka), and there seven pretty handmaidens sought to fulfill her every wish. At her right sat lovely and youthful Rachel Malin—heir apparent to her kingdom—and at her left, in the white robes of a prophet, James Parker, “the spirit of Elijah,” who was accustomed on occasions he thought propitious to draw his girdle so tight that his belly swelled out above it like a balloon, then to announce that he was filled with the wind of prophecy and deliver oracular utterances with an assurance frequently accepted by “The Friend” and her people as proceeding from direct communication with the Lord.
In 1816 Jemima Wilkinson was fifty-eight, and her »’ striking beauty had vanished. She would die for the second time (“leave time,” she called it) in three years, but she was still the autocratic leader of her people. Young Joe Smith heard much of her upon his arrival in the drumlin country and, since she was still very active in attending to what she considered the needs of her flock, he may have seen her, pitifully fat and dropsical, behind the fluttering damask curtains of her couch, which shone like an uptilted half-moon above wheels that glittered through the dust of the turnpike.
It is unlikely that the spindling, yellow-haired lad, tall for his years, dreamed in those days of ever becoming the third of the region’s religious “originals” whose lack of formal education rendered their achievements in the eyes of those who believed in them inexplicable save through the miraculous power of God. Nevertheless, a few years later when he was bitterly assailed as an ignorant though cunning charlatan, he may have taken some comfort from the fact that hundreds of good and honest people had believed in the divine origin of the words that came from the mouths of Rachel Baker and the Publick Universal Friend.
For the two years that followed their exodus from Vermont the Smith family earned and saved in and around lively Palmyra. There were wells to be dug, farms to be cleared, harvests to be reaped, and father Joseph and his sons were employable. When such work was scarce they diversified the articles for sale at their shop by making split-wood baskets, kegs, churns, wooden flails for threshing. By 1818 they had enough money to make a down payment on one hundred acres of wild land two miles south of Palmyra and near the largest of the drumlins. Here, they raised a substantial log house, and when a thaw signaled the approach of spring, they tapped so many of their sugar maples, it is recorded, that they manufactured from one season’s flow of sap three and a half tons of maple sugar, which made them winners of a bounty of fifty dollars as the leading producers in Wayne County.
Joseph was now tall enough and strong enough to do a man’s job. How he happened to be in the woods that edged the Susquehanna River at Great Bend, Pennsylvania, is not known, but the writings of a companion who lived in that area at the time, one J. B. Buck, recall an important event that colored the rest of his life. “Joe Smith was here lumbering soon after my marriage which was in 1818, some years before he took to ‘peeping’ and before diggings were commenced under his direction. These were ideas he gained later.”
Mr. Buck said that Jack Belcher (the Belchers came from Union Hill in Gibson Township) had shown Joseph a stone which he said would give to those who looked upon it in darkness clairvoyant powers. Jack had bought this “seeing stone,” as he called it, when he was working with the saltmakers at Salina in York State. Mr. Buck wrote that he had often seen the Belcher stone himself. “It was a green stone with brown, irregular spots on it. It was a little longer than a goose’s egg, and about the same thickness.”