A Brief Historical Background
Joseph Smith History is a very brief history narrated by Joseph Smith and included in the scriptural cannon for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). The beginning of the narrative describes events that led to and include his very first vision of God and Jesus Christ and end at verse 26. Three years elapse unrecorded and Joseph Smith picks up the narrative once more. I think a couple of contextual insights are helpful. First, Joseph Smith was born into a hard-working but poor family. His parents inherited resources but both bad luck and bad investments caused them to lose their farm early in their marriage. Moving west to Palmyra to find better opportunities, they hoped to rent land and raise enough money to eventually obtain security in land ownership once more. And that goal was obtained shortly before the visions described in this history, but only by the skin of their teeth, and always under the constant threat of losing what they had gained, under constant pressure to earn enough money to make their payments for the land they obtained on credit.
Joseph’s Initial Reactions to Moroni
Joseph Smith describes briefly what happened in those intervening three years. He shared his first vision experience with a few notable people, word gets out and he receives persecution as a result. Personally, I can relate to the feelings he describes in verse 28 “persecuted by those who ought to have been my friends and to have treated me kindly, and if they supposed me to be deluded to have endeavored in a proper and affectionate manner to have reclaimed me”… If we want to help someone who has been deluded by bad ideas, probably better to try reclaim them with affection, although, I think often times, perhaps for reasons I don’t totally understand but also relate to, we can be harsh to those on divergent paths.
This narrative was also written by Joseph Smith in retrospect when he was much older, the official version being 1838 (verse 60). I think that’s relevant when he recounts his sins. In verse 29, he describes feeling “condemned for my weakness and imperfections”, driving him to prayer for “forgiveness for all of my sins and follies”. But earlier, in verse 28, he’s careful to caveat this feeling, that he wasn’t guilty of anything too serious. That seems to me to be somewhat of a contradiction. I think often we are much kinder to ourselves in retrospect than in the moment and that could be what’s going on here.
In verse 30, in response to his prayers, Joseph Smith receives a vision from Moroni. I think understandably, he spends some time describing Moroni, even though and also understandably being unable to do so in his earlier vision. When describing God and Jesus Christ, Joseph says “whose brightness and dglory defy all description”, with Moroni he’s much more explicit in verses 31 and 32. A couple of points stand out. Moroni’s robe’s color is of the “most exquisite whiteness”, “beyond anything earthly I had ever seen.” I don’t get the sense Joseph Smith, at that time of his life, had actually seen anything all that white. But I also know how difficult it can be to keep white clothing exquisite over time, giving his robe a transcendent quality. Beyond his robe, Moroni appears to be completely unprepared for the earthly elements – bare feet, no other clothing underneath that could be detected. Moroni was in the world, but not really affected by it. In verse 32, Joseph describes Moroni’s appearance as glorious and his countenance, in particular like lightening. Which, if I was concerned about my state with God (and who among us isn’t), I would find this type of person incredibly intimidating. And indeed he did, his first reaction was fear, but then for reasons unexplained but perhaps intuited, the fear left him. Moroni tells Joseph that God has a work for him (verse 33) and the first step in this work would be to obtain a record that would become the Book of Mormon.
Four Identical Sunday School Lessons Back to Back to Back to Back
Moroni decides to use most of this encounter to dive into a number of scriptures from the King James version of the Bible, mostly but not exclusively from Old Testament authors – Malachi 3 & 4 though with some edits in verse 1, 5 and 6. In verse 1, the edits seem to personalize the warnings a little more directly. In verse 5, Elijah brings the priesthood which is missing in the original. In verse 6, Moroni removes the bi-directionality of the turning hearts. In Moroni’s version, the promises of the fathers are planted in the children. Perhaps, in Moroni’s mind, the parents hearts have already been turned by this point. Isaiah 11 is quoted in full with the promise that the prophecy is about to be fulfilled. Isaiah 11 is a prophecy of gathering, a prophecy of Zion. Acts 3:22-23 describes a prophet like Moses, that prophet being Christ, but the reckoning for unbelief was still to come, Moroni quotes Joel 2:28-32 describing a day when God’s spirit will pour out so extensively that even our sons and daughter will have visions, dream dreams and prophecy. Finally, Moroni shows Joseph the location of the Book of Mormon plates in vision.
Moroni leaves allowing Joseph Smith to catch his breadth when he returns again, shares the exact same lesson with some additional warnings about the hardships about to come upon the earth (the Civil War is looming in the future and of course the horrors of World War 1 and 2). Moroni leaves for a moment and then returns and repeats everything again with a warning that Joseph’s aims in this work needs to remain pure.
The morning arrives, Joseph tries to go about his daily duties which he finds impossible. His father recognizes something is wrong and sends him home. On his way, Joseph collapses and after some time awakes to yet another visit from Moroni and has the entire message repeated a fourth time, is told to go back and tell his father. His father believes him and encourages Joseph to follow through which Joseph does. Joseph is young, likely lacks some confidence, having the assurances of his father must have been an essential step for his ability to push forward.
The Book of Mormon
Jospeh Smith is unable to retrieve the records immediately. He returns each year on the same day of the year at the location of the records burial in the earth to visit with the angel and receive instruction and preparation. In the meantime, life continues. Shortly after Moroni’s first visit, Alvin dies tragically. The official record is brief but Alvin is an enormous loss to the family – a leader of the family, both temporally and spiritually, a primary supporter and believer in Joseph Smith’s work. In addition, he meets Emma, who would become his wife despite her father’s objections. In verse 58, Joseph explains their disapproval due to his heavenly visits. Numerous biographies attribute it more to his reputation as a money digger, something he explains and defends in verse 56, though I think the true nature much more fully, complicating the official narrative provided here.
Marrying Emma and actually getting the plates (verse 59) are described together here. I don’t think these two events are coincidental. Joseph needed Emma. Joseph wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of translation until he had her in his life.
The narrative ends when Joseph Smith meets Martin Harris around the time Jospeh and his family are forced to leave Palmyra because of persecution fleeing into Pennsylvania. They receive support and help from Harris. Martin Harris serves an important early role in Joseph Smith’s life. He’s an early believer with some financial means and a skeptical wife. He believes, but has doubts. Martin Harris gets Joseph Smith to copy some of the characters off the plates to have an expert in ancient languages inspect and validate its authenticity. Professor Anthon confirms its authenticity and writes a note to confirm. However when told of the revelatory nature of the book and its translation, revokes his endorsement.
Doctrine and Covenants 2
Moroni gives Joseph Smith a Sunday School lesson four straight times. Jospeh Smith highlights in his history a subset of the scriptures cited, but he places special emphasis on the last two verses of Malachi, including them in D&C 2. Here the highlighted verses describe the Elijah bringing the priesthood to plant the promises of the father’s into the hearts of the children. Among the first instructions Joseph receives is that as part of his work, an outpouring of Elijah will come, as a spiritual gift, motivating us, the children to remember those who came before, eventually sealing us to them and them to us. And that work continues, each generation, more children, additional parents, all connected throughout time and history.
- Consider every verse in this record is scriptural cannon, why would Joseph Smith include his perceptions of the persecutors? What can we learn from it? How would it reflect Joseph Smith’s biases?
- Why would the kickoff to the restoration be triggered by Joseph Smith’s proactive decisions? What can we learn from that?
- How relevant was concern for his sins in triggering the event the kicked off the restoration?
- How connected were his sins and state of his soul to his inability to retrieve the plates for a period of time?
- How important was Emma’s role in obtaining the plates?
- Why was Martin Harris account included in this very brief record?
- What can we learn from Joseph Smith’s reaction and description to Moroni’s initial visit and physical description?
- Why were the particular verses sited by Moroni?
- Why was it necessary for Moroni to visit Joseph Smith four times relaying the exact same message over and over again?