University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Book of Mormon

Volume V • Autumn 1949 • Number 1
The Book Of Mormon

This article is part of a paper read at the meeting of the Pundit Club on February 26, 1929. Mr. Miner has placed the original paper and other material on Mormonism in New York State in the Library. The article seems especially appropriate because its author has done so much to assist in the development of our local history collection, which includes two copies of the first edition of the Book of Mormon.-Editor

Joseph Smith, Jr., the first Mormon prophet, and founder of Mormonism and the Church of Latter Day Saints, as it is now called, was born in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, (some twenty-five or thirty miles from the birthplace of Calvin Coolidge) on December 13th, 1805. He was the son of Joseph, Senior, and Lucy, his wife, the fourth of a family of nine children, six boys and three girls. When he was eleven years old, the entire family moved from Royalton, a village near Sharon, to Palmyra, New York, in the summer of 1816.

The entire assets of the Senior Smith at that time, consisted chiefly of his wife and nine children, so that immediately upon his arrival at his journey's end, he opened a small "Cake and Beer" Shop, from the profits of which, added to the earnings from occasional days' work for hire, by himself and his older sons, he provided a scanty living for his family. This common labor was divided among such jobs as gardening, harvesting, well-digging, and the like.

But a family of eleven hungry mouths could hardly subsist upon so meagre a supply, and so in 1818, (the year Illinois was admitted to the Union) they moved to a wild, unimproved piece of land about two miles south of Palmyra on the northern border of the town of Manchester, Ontario County. The title to this property was vested in some non-resident minor heirs, uncared for by any local agent, and so Smith took possession of it, by right of "squatter sovereignty." Here they remained in unmolested possession for some twelve years, and here Joseph Smith, Jr., passed his youth.

Their first home was a small, one-story, smoky, log house, divided into two rooms on the ground floor, with a low garret divided into two apartments; as the children grew older, a bedroom of sawed slabs was added. The elder Smith was too shiftless a farmer to do much in the way of clearing, fencing, or tillage, and his farming was of a slovenly, profitless character. The chief activities of the family on the farm seem to have been confined to the chopping and retailing of cordwood, the raising and bartering of small crops of agricultural products and vegetables, the making for sale of wooden baskets, brooms, and maple sugar, and the peddling of cakes and beer in the village on holidays. The larger portion of their time, however, appears to have been spent in hunting and fishing, trapping muskrats, digging out woodchucks, and idling around the shops in the village.

Joseph, Jr., generally took the lead in these pursuits, instead of going to school, and before long the neighbors began to connect him with an increasing number of nocturnal depredations connected with their sheepfolds, hen coops, smokehouses, and pork barrels. He was described by one of the narrators of that day as a dull, flaxen-haired, lying, illiterate, whiskey-drinking, shiftless, irreligious youth, the laziest and most worthless specimen in the community.

When one considers the general make-up of the population of an American semi-frontier village, as that was a hundred and thirty years ago, the filthy habits of body and mind, the prevailing illiteracy, the loose morals, and besotted ignorance of everything except their few primitive beliefs, one is forced to the conclusion that if Joseph was the worst of his brethren, he was bad indeed.

He was taciturn in his youth, seldom speaking to anyone, outside his intimate associates, unless first addressed by another; even then, his extravagances of statement caused but little confidence to be placed in his word. As he grew older, he developed a thinking, plodding mental make-up, given to low cunning, schemes of mischief and deception, and false and mysterious pretensions. Though proverbially good natured, at least to the point that he was not of a combative spirit, he never was known to laugh. As time went on and he grew into adolescence, he began to show a taste for reading, and this talent he cultivated assiduously.

Books were scarce in those days, in towns like Palmyra, and the youthful reader could only choose between the Bible and some religious books, and the lurid stories of Captain Kidd and other desperadoes, which circulated as "chap" books, from hand to hand. In the beginning, Joseph seems to have divided his time fairly evenly between sacred and profane literature, and the strong influence of both upon his thoughts and actions can be seen in his life, in succeeding years. In the earlier years of his adolescence, he came for a short time under the influence of a protracted revival meeting of the sort held in those days, "experienced" religion, and joined the probationary class in the Palmyra Methodist Church, but he soon "back slid," and in leaving the church announced that all sectarianism was fallacious, the churches rested upon false foundations, and the Bible was a fable; following this, he and the rest of the family turned atheists.

Thereafter, he reverted to his earlier habits, but his mind grew more versatile, about equally divided between sensuality and cunning. He affected great mystery in his movements, pretended to have the gift of finding treasure, travelled about the country, appearing and disappearing in a mysterious manner, and developed a wordy jargon made up of words remembered from what he had read, which seemed to captivate the minds of the simple neighbors.

In September, 1819, his father, while digging a well upon the premises of a farmer named Clark Chase, near Palmyra, unearthed a whitish piece of quartz, of a glassy surface, though opaque, and resembling somewhat the shape of a child's foot. Joseph, Jr., who was lounging around the well where his father and two older brothers, Alvin and Hyrum were digging, seized upon it and carried it home. Shortly thereafter he pretended that he could see wonderful things with its aid; and soon his spiritual endowment was so developed that he asserted the gift and power of not only being able to see existing things but also things to come.

That was an age of curious delusion, shared by many who otherwise seemed possessed of average common sense; a large number of people believed that buried treasure consisting of earthen jars or iron chests of gold and silver had been hidden by such widely diverse agencies as pirates, Spaniards, and the prehistoric races who had inhabited the country prior to the coming of the white man. No one stopped to inquire why a pirate intent upon hiding his loot should have journeyed almost four hundred miles inland, dragging such weight through a wilderness, when there were vast stretches of uninhabited seashore available, or why Spaniards, Incas, or Aztecs, came so far out of the way; nor why it was that the treasures must always be planted high up, on a hill, the higher the better, as far as burying went. All they knew was that the treasure was there, if you could only find it.

However, one serious drawback attended the operation: it could never be sought for except on dark nights and it was invariably guarded by a legion of devils, who seemed to have been hired to protect it in perpetuity. There was only one way they could be circumvented: if the digging was done without a word being spoken there was a chance of success, but if one word was uttered, even when the chest had been all but uncovered, down it went into the bowels of the earth, not to return until the diggers had departed.

In such a season Joseph, Jr., began to make hay. He pretended that his magic stone dazzled his eyes in the daylight, and he had to shade his vision by placing it in his hat, and looking at the ground through it. In this fashion he located several sites where he asserted treasure was buried and, for a consideration, he would divulge them. Having collected the money alleged to be required for the expense of digging, at a dead hour of night he and his dupes would repair to the hill on his father's farm and, after the mystical incantation had been completed, digging would begin at his signal. Sometimes an hour or two would elapse, the seer indicating by signs where to dig, but always when the chest was almost in view, someone, "tempted of the devil," would speak, the enchantment was broken, and the treasure vanished. He carried this on, at frequent intervals from 1820 to 1827, in various localities, and astounding as it may seem, he got away with it. It certainly was a tribute to his artful, persevering chicanery and must be taken as evidence of an extraordinary talent in deception, that he could keep it up over so long a period. That his activities were widespread is attested by the fact that many of the older inhabitants sixty years afterwards, could still point out the numerous pitholes and excavations that still remain as evidences of his work.

By 1827, the fame of his money-digging performances, had travelled the country round. Newspapers had reported them at length, and ridiculed them; the pitholes were numerous, and attracted alike the curious and superstitious. There were still those who believed and trusted him with an almost fanatical faith. It is well to remember the magic stone, and the long continued practice of "treasure digging," for the influence they exercised in the making of the Book of Mormon.

And now we turn elsewhere for a bit. About the year 1809 the Rev. Solomon Spaulding, a clergyman who had graduated from Dartmouth College, and settled in Cherry Valley, N. Y., removed to Conneaut, Ohio. The region was rich in evidences of a former occupation by those people who have been described as the "Mound Builders," and, as he was an ardent archaeologist, he delighted in exploring the remains. On account of failing health (he died later of pulmonary tuberculosis), he had retired from his profession, and, being possessed of a lively imagination, and familiar with the classics and ancient history, he employed his leisure hours in writing a history of this long lost race, purporting to be founded upon a manuscript he had discovered in one of these mounds.

He adopted the theory prevalent at that time in this country, that the American Continent had been peopled by a colony of ancient Israelites, the Ten Lost Tribes, and filled his story with mythical interest and legendary suggestions. During the time of its writing, some two or three years, he frequently read portions of it to his friends, as the chapters were completed. When it was finished in 1812, or 1813, he submitted it to a printer in Pittsburgh, named Patterson.

For some reason, the printing was not carried out and after it had lain in Patterson's office for three years, Spaulding reclaimed it, and carried it with him to Amity, Pennsylvania, where he died in 1816. In the employ of Patterson at that time, was a journeyman printer named Sidney Rigdon, a versatile genius whose chief delight was in disputations on theology, of whom we shall hear more as the plot develops.

It is at this point that we come to the only bit of mystery connected with the Book of Mormon. How did Smith come into possession of the Spaulding manuscript or a copy of it? There was not the slightest question in the minds of Mrs. Spaulding, the printer Patterson in Pittsburgh, or the numerous persons to whom Spaulding had read the manuscript, but that Smith had the original, or at least a copy, of "The Manuscript Found," for with the exception of a few changes here and there, to fit the alleged religious views of Smith and his conspirators, the Book of Mormon and "The Manuscript Found" were identical. Mrs. Spaulding testified that after her husband's death, the manuscript being then in her possession, she came to Otsego County, and then to the farm of a relative near Palmyra; that she had the manuscript with her in a trunk and that it was stolen therefrom while there. It is known that the elder Smith was at this farm for some time, digging a well and she assumed he took it, as several other things were also missing.

The other theory, and the one to which I incline, is that Sidney Rigdon made a copy of it, during the three years that the manuscript was in Patterson's office. Disputations on theology were his particular delight, which was nothing unusual, however, as that was the principal topic of conversation of the day. A dozen peculiar religious sects were in existence, round about, the air was filled with the din of revivals, the shouting of the exhorters, and the moaning of the sinners: the end of the world was believed to be at hand by many, and to use the modern vernacular, the easiest graft to work at that time was the religious one, and this made a strong appeal to the unscrupulous and cunning Rigdon. The description of Smith's treasure-digging had been heralded abroad through the newspapers, and as Rigdon was in a newspaper printing office, it is a fair assumption that he knew about it. The Spaulding manuscript suggested the idea, and Smith and Rigdon did the rest. However, it would be awkward to account for an actual manuscript if they said they had dug one up, in a goodly state of preservation, after lying in the ground more than fourteen hundred years, whereas plates of gold would fit finely into the treasure-digging mind, and be much more easily explained.

There have been several theories advanced as to the manner in which Smith and Rigdon came together but I incline to the one told me by John H. Gilbert, when I visited him nearly sixty years ago, in quest of information; and that was, that Rigdon came to Palmyra and there cooked up the scheme with Smith. This seems reasonable, as it was known that a mysterious stranger was frequently seen at the Smith house in the days preceding the revelation and also, because it was common knowledge that Smith was often absent for considerable periods on unknown missions. From all the evidence possessed, it appears that these two shrewd and unscrupulous schemers decided upon a plan of founding a new religion, using the Spaulding story as a base, and mixing with it whatever they thought would catch the popular fancy of the day. So it was probably arranged that Smith should make the first open demonstration and Rigdon would come in as the first convert.

Ten years had elapsed since Spaulding's death, and it was reasonably safe for them to assume that the manuscript had been forgotten, but nevertheless, it seemed best to have a little preliminary stage business, and so Smith had a vision. He pretended that while engaged in secret prayer alone in the wilderness of Ontario County, an angel of the Lord appeared to him with the glad tidings that all his sins had been forgiven, and remarked also that all the existing religious denominations were believing in false doctrines, and consequently none of them was accepted of God as of His Church and Kingdom. Joseph was also assured by the angel that the true doctrine and the fulness of the Gospel should at some future time be revealed to him. Shortly thereafter another angel revealed to him that he was, himself, to be the favored instrument of the new revelation; that the American Indians were a remnant of the Israelites who, since coming to this country, had their prophets and inspired writings; that such of these writings as had not been destroyed were deposited in a certain place, made known to him by the angel; that they contained revelations concerning the last days, and if he remained faithful, he would be the chosen prophet to translate them to the world.

Following this, in short season he had a still more miraculous vision, which he announced to his family and a few credulous adherents. Upon a secretly fixed day and hour, he was to go alone to a spot revealed to him by the angel, and there take from the earth a metal book of great antiquity, which was a record, in mystic characters, of the long lost tribes of Israel, who had inhabited this country. The book was so sacred, so the angel said, that no one but Smith could see it and live, and the power to translate it was also solely given to him.

At the appointed hour, Smith assuming his usual air of mystery, set out for the place with his spade and a large napkin, returning shortly with his alleged treasure concealed in the napkin. The going had not been easy, however, for the devil had got wind of the enterprise and started trouble; with ten thousand of his associates he set off a batch of celestial fireworks, filling the air with sulphurous fumes and smoke, and but for the help of the angel who called out the reserves and finally routed the host of evil, the golden book might never have reached the light. Joseph dilated upon this battle at some length during the next few days, whenever any of his believers were about, and this had its effect on the minds of the superstitious. Thereafter, he had a strong chest made to contain the treasure, to prevent the awful calamity which would befall any ordinary human who should chance to behold it with his natural eyes, and carried it into the attic of his father's house, where he was prepared to make the translations from the sacred book.

At the time of digging up the book, he found with it a huge pair of stone spectacles, so large that one stone covered both the eyes of an ordinary man, and again, through divine care, they were in a state of perfect preservatibn. These the angel called "Urim and Thummim," and announced that they were vitally necessary to translate the sacred characters on the plates of gold, since it had been specifically stated in the Book of the Prophet Ether, one of the books of the Mormon Bible:

"Behold these two stones will I give unto thee, and ye shall seal them up also with the things which ye shall write. For behold the language which ye shall write, I have confounded; wherefore I will cause in my own due time that these stones shall magnify to the eyes of men the things which I shall write."

Since no man living ever saw the book, except, of course, Smith, we shall have to be content with his general description. It consisted of metallic leaves or plates resembling gold, of about the thickness of ordinary tin plate, bound together in a volume by three rings running through the ends, the leaves opening like those of a book. Each leaf was filled on both sides with engravings of finely drawn characters which resembled hieroglyphics and which but for the sacred spectacles would have always remained a mystery.

The weight of Smith's testimony, borne out by the statements of the Book of Mormon, was that these characters were Egyptian and used because the Israelites had been in bondage in Egypt for so great a time that they had lost their knowledge of Hebrew. To further this idea, translations and manuscript transcriptions of some of these sacred characters were made and passed among the people. One individual not being able to satisfy himself as to their identity, carried his specimens to Charles Anthon, in New York, the most celebrated Greek scholar of that day in American life. In a letter dated February 17, 1834, Charles Anthon stated that "the paper contained anything else but 'Egyptian hieroglyphics'."

As to the "testimony of the witnesses" printed in the early editions of the Book of Mormon to the effect that they had seen the original plates, a story told by one of the residents of Palmyra may also be of interest:

"Some of the early followers of the prophet, the ones who afterwards signed the 'testimony of the witnesses' were anxious to see the plates; the prophet countered with the decision that they could not be seen with the carnal eye, but must be spiritually discerned; that power to see them depended upon faith and was the gift of God, to be obtained by fasting and prayer, mortification of the flesh, and exercises of the spirit, and that so soon as he could observe a strong and lively faith in his followers, he would gratify their holy curiosity."

When the days of their purification were accomplished and he could no longer delay, he assembled them in a room and produced the box which he said contained the treasure. The lid was raised, the witnesses peeped in and, seeing nothing, for the box was empty, said: "Brother Joseph, we do not see the plates"; whereupon the Prophet thundered: "Oh! Ye of little faith! How long will God bear with this wicked and perverse generation? Down on your knees, every one of you, and pray God for the forgiveness of your sins, and for a holy and living faith which cometh down from Heaven." The disciples dropped to their knees and for more than two hours, in unison, supplicated the Lord: - at the end of which time on looking again into the box, they were persuaded they saw the plates.

The machinery being now in fairly good working order, the Prophet retired to the secrecy of his garret in the Smith mansion, to begin the work of translation; unfortunately, Smith could not write a legible hand, so the work of transcribing had to be performed by one Oliver Cowdry, a local school teacher, who had become one of his followers, and who was let into the secret because his help was necessary, as he was the only one of the Palmyra crowd who could write.

Smith sat behind a blanket drawn across one end of the attic, using the mammoth spectacles to translate the inspired characters into English, which he in turn dictated to Cowdry outside. When a few chapters of the new revelation had been thus produced, it became necessary to find a nineteenth-century Western New York angel to provide the funds for printing, for none of the Smith crowd had a cent; after much wrestling with the Spirit, the Prophet announced that the choice had fallen upon Martin Harris, one of the earliest believers.

Harris was a religious monomaniac, a constant reader of the Scriptures, so much so that he could repeat from memory nearly every text in the Bible, from beginning to end, and give the chapter and verse. While he was prosperous, and upright in his business dealings, he was worth very little mentally, for he was a slave to a peculiar religious fanaticism, which controlled all his actions. Superstitious, a believer in dreams, ghosts, visits of angels, and the interposition of devils to afflict sinful men, he was fruit ripe for the picking.

His cupidity was appealed to in the matter, for he was persuaded that much fame would accrue to his name, and he would also participate in the profits of the publication and sale of the new gospel. He was a covetous man, looking for the best chances in a bargain, so that while he gave his adhesion to the book as being of divine appointment, he desired some time for investigation and consideration, and requested that he be allowed to take the advance sheets of the manuscript while he thought over the proposition. He read a portion of them to his wife, a Quakeress with a mind of her own, who denounced the whole performance as silly, and he got the same advice when he discussed it with his neighbors. Mrs. Harris began to be more than disgusted with his actions, for she foresaw that if he mortgaged his farm, as would be necessary if he incurred the printing charges, it might mean the ruin of the family. So, biding her time, she arose one night while Harris was sleeping, secured the manuscript and burned it. As she refused, even long after the book was published, to admit that she had anything to do with the disappearance, Smith and the others were in a quandary.

Her husband accused her of selling the sheets to some of Smith's enemies, and as she refused to affirm or deny it, things were at an awkward standstill. It might be supposed that the Prophet, with the aid of "Urim and Thummim" could quickly duplicate the missing three hundred pages, but evidently he dared not attempt it, for fear that the missing chapters might turn up after he had printed the book and thus confound him, if there were any discrepancies. So, having quietly sent a hurry call for Rigdon, he announced he had received a revelation from the Lord, indicating His displeasure in so imprudently placing the manuscript in Harris' hands, and forbidding him to do any more translating for the present. Meanwhile, the mysterious stranger who has now been identified as Rigdon, had again appeared several times on the scene, and Smith was frequently absent on long journeys, so it was assumed by the unregenerate that the missing pages were in process of reconstruction.

At this time, a change was made in the method of translation. Instead of the garret, Smith dug a cave on the side of a hill near his father's house, fitted it inside with heavy planking supports and provided a heavy door of oak; behind this he and Cowdry sat carrying on the work of translation, while some one of the faithful stood guard outside. Within six months' time from the loss of the first sheets, they announced that a new and complete translation of the Book of Mormon had been prepared by the Prophet, and was ready for the press. This announcement was made with a sidelong glance at Martin Harris, for notwithstanding the fact that the Lord was still quite peeved over the loss of the manuscript, it also remained a fact that Martin was the only man in all Mormondom who had cash or credit, and without him, the "Bible" must remain unpublished.

Once more the angel of the Lord was on the job, and convinced Martin that he must provide the means, so in June, 1829, the Prophet, his brother Hyrum, Cowdry the scribe, and Harris, first approached Egbert B. Grandin of Palmyra, publisher of the Wayne Sentinel, exhibited to him the title page and a few sheets, and asked him to make a calculation of the cost. Grandin refused, called Harris a fool, and the rest of them crooks, and told them it was an imposture designed to defraud Harris. Nothing daunted, they came to Rochester and approached Thurlow Weed, then publishing the Anti-Masonic Inquirer. In his autobiography, Mr. Weed says:

"About 1829, a stout, round, smooth-faced young man, between twenty-five and thirty, with the air and manners of a person without occupation, came into the Rochester Telegraph office and said he wanted a book printed, and added that he had been directed in a vision to a place in the woods near Palmyra, where he resided, and that he had found a 'golden bible' from which he was directed to copy the book which he wanted published. He then placed what he called "a tablet" in his hat, from which he read a chapter of the "Book of Mormon," a chapter which seemed so senseless that I thought the man either crazed or a very shallow impostor, and therefore declined to become a publisher, thus depriving myself of whatever notoriety might have been achieved by having my name imprinted upon the title-page of the first Mormon Bible.

"It is scarcely necessary to add that this individual was Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Creed. On the day but one following he came again, accompanied by Martin Harris, a substantial farmer residing near Palmyra, who had adopted the Mormon faith, and who offered to become security for the expense of printing. But I again declined." (Weed's Autobiography v.1, p. 358-359)

Next day, they turned to another Rochester book publisher, Mr. Elihu Marshall, who gave them his price and terms for printing and binding the book, which were evidently beyond their means for they again turned to Grandin. In time, he reconsidered his former decision, and finally entered into a contract for the printing and binding of five thousand copies at a price of $3,000, bond and mortgage as security for payment, and the entire edition was completed and delivered in the summer of 1829. Some interesting details of the printing were given me sixty-three years afterwards, when I visited the printer, Mr. John H. Gilbert, at Palmyra, in the autumn of 1892. He was then a man nearly ninety-one years of age, but in full possession of his faculties, both mental and physical.

In the beginning, he said, Smith held his manuscript as sacred and insisted on maintaining constant vigilance for its safety during the progress of the work, carrying each morning to the printing office the instalment required for the day, and withdrawing it at night. No alteration from the copy was to be permitted in any manner. Gilbert, after the first day, found the manuscript in such imperfect condition, especially regarding grammar, capitals, and punctuation, that he refused to go on with the work. His action resulted in discretion being granted him to correct such errors as he detected in syntax, orthography, punctuation, capitalizing, paragraphing, and the like, but even then, many errors escaped him, as appears in the first edition. He told me that it was the worst mess that had ever fallen to his lot to "set up" before or since.

When the time for payment came, Mrs. Harris had left Martin, and refused to be a party to the mortgage on the farm, so Harris had to divide the farm, giving her eighty acres, with a comfortable house thereon, and some other property. Harris retained the main part of one hundred and fifty acres, on which the mortgage became operative. In 1831, Grandin being still unpaid, the farm was sold and the printing debt discharged, but Harris was reduced to poverty as his wife had prophesied -- the only prophesy connected with the enterprise which came true.

It is true that Harris received at this time, a "special revelation" from the Prophet that in no instance must the "Bible" be sold for less than ten York shillings - $1.25 - but the wicked refused to buy, and the speculation fell dead. This made necessary another special revelation from on high, whereby Harris was deposed, and Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of the Prophet, was made General Sales Manager. He immediately started on the road, walking from place to place, carrying a basket full of the "Bibles," and trading them for various articles of farm produce and shop merchandise such as to use his expression, "wouldn't come amiss for family use in hard times." It is said that he never cut the revealed price but once; when, being arrested for debt in the sum of $5.63, he offered seven "Bibles" in settlement. The humor of the situation was recognized by the creditor, who, being a good sport, liquidated on the $.80 basis.

Such is the history of the birth of the Book of Mormon -- a record of almost unbelievable credulity and superstition; but if any one thinks that such conditions have vanished from among us, let him read the testimony in the witch trials in York, Pennsylvania, in the month of January, 1929, and ponder.