Los Angeles, Monday, April 10, 1904
Joseph Smith's Early Efforts as a Prophet.
Discovery of Golden Plates and Book of Mormon.
Many Religions Born in Central New York.
(SPECIAL CORRESPONDENCE OF THE TIMES.)
PALMYRA (N. Y.) March 31, 1904. -- The testimony now being presented before the Senate Committee appointed
to investigate the eligibility of Apostle Reed Smoot, proving the continued prevalence of the practice of polygamy among
the Mormons of Utah, is bringing that sect into increased notoriety, and their picturesque history is being dug up by lovers
of the mysterious and bizarre.
The scene of the birth and early days of this religion, and the Mecca of devout Mormons, is this village and township of
Palmyra, in Western New York, for here it was that Joseph Smith, Jr., first prophet of the Latter Day Saints "lived and moved
and had his being." Four miles south of the village, just over the county line, stands Mormon Hill or the "Hill Cumorah"
of the Mormon Bible, on whose grassy slopes the prophet dug and found the golden plates engraved with characters which he
read by Divine aid.
In Palmyra too the first version of the Bible was printed. The old Washington hand press, No. 63, built by
Robert Hoe &: Co., is still on exhibition, the property of Fred W. Clemons, editor and proprietor of the
Wayne Country Journal at Palmyra, N. Y., and is viewed with veneration by the faithful pilgrim, while the very
man who set the type was living but a few years ago. "Major" Gilbert was a hale nonagenarian who celebrated
each birthday by setting a stick of type to "keep his hand in," possibly with the hope of printing Bibles in
the world to come. All honor to his memory.
That Joseph Smith has gone to a better land is not believed by those of the old inhabitants who knew him as a neighbor.
They say he was idle and shiftless, a dreamer, a treasure seeker and addicted to chicken raising. The family came from
Vermont in the early years of the last century and settled near Palmyra. They soon gained notoriety as diviners and fortune
tellers. The mother is now conceded to have been the genius of the family. She had an acute mind but it was perverted by
ignorance and superstition. She often gave out hints that one of her sons was to be a prophet.
The son Joseph began his prophetic career by finding an opaque stone shaped somewhat like a child's foot, which he
hoarded, and in which he soon claimed to have found strange properties. He called it a "peek stone" and he declared that
by putting it in his beaver hat and holding the latter close up to his face he could detect the whereabouts of underground
springs, lost property and hidden treasure.
Smith in the early '20s paid several visits to settlements in the Alleghany mountains in Pennsylvania,
where the settlers were more credulous than those in Palmyra. On a certain wilderness hill his peek stone
discovered a ton of silver bars which had been buried by weary Spaniards as they trudged up the Susquehanna.
As soon as Smith could collect enough followers the digging was begun and several excavations were made, one
of which was fully thirty-five feet in diameter and as deep. The diggers had proceeded with great labor and
were just ready to grasp the silver when Smith announced that it had suddenly moved three hundred feet to
the northeast. Again the faithful set to work and again the silver flitted away. The third hole had been sunk
about fifteen feet when the treasure slid over near the original hole. A black dog was then killed and its
blood sprinkled on the ground, after which the treasure did not move far away, but frequent tunneling proved
unavailing, and when Smith announced that one at their number would have to be sacrificed, the diggers at last
rebelled and went on strike. This story has been verified by old residents of Susquehanna who were eye-witness.
Several years later when Smith had set up as a prophet he frequently visited that neighborhood. A number of witnesses
in the vicinity of Nineveh remember that he set a day for that village to sink, but that he afterwards repented and
withdrew his curse. He did, however, announce that on a certain evening he would walk on the water. The place of his
selection was watched by boys until one of Smith's followers was seen to construct a bridge of planks just under the
surface. Watching their opportunity, the boys removed some of the planks. Before Smith attempted to walk he exhorted
his followers to have strong faith, and when the bridge suddenly gave way beneath him he paddled ashore and exclaimed,
"Woe unto ye of little faith! Your faith would not hold me up!"
Coming back to the days of the treasure-seeking we find that from 1820 to 1827 Smith persevered in the practice, retaining
his following with wonderful cunning, and gradually developing his pretensions, which culminated in the pretended discovery
of the golden plates and the promulgation or the Book of Mormon.
Smith claimed that as early as 1823 the "Angel Moroni" had appeared to him and told him that he would find golden plates
which he should be able to translate, but it was not until the night of September 22, 1826 [sic], that, according to the
faithful, the golden plates were taken from the "Hill Cumorah." Smith, according to his own story, at once hid the plates in
the woods, but was able to translate them at a distance by means of his "peek stone" and beaver hat. It is said that he
dictated his translation to Oliver Cowdery, one of his three followers.
The funds for printing the book were provided by Martin Harris, a well-to-do farmer, who mortgaged his farm for $3000.
The printing was done in the office of the Wayne Sentinel, E. B. Grandin proprietor, during the winter of 1829-30.
The "copy" was on ruled paper and the writing was so crowded together that the smallest monosyllables were
often divided between two lines. The copy was in Cowdery's handwriting, and only enough for one day was
brought in each morning by Hyrum Smith, the prophet's brother, who always called again at night to take it
away. There were no marks of punctuation in the copy -- a sore trial to Pomeroy Tucker, the foreman and Gilbert
in reading proof. At such times Cowdery had to be called in to assist, or the orthodox Bible was referred to for
enlightenment on some foggy passage.
The completion of the work was celebrated by Martin Harris, who invited the printers to his house. He introduced them to
his wife, who bowed coldly and took no pains to welcome them. At length Harris asked for the cider pitcher and went
to the spot indicated by his wife. Returning with it to his wife he showed her a large hole in the bottom. "Well"
said Mrs. Harris, "It has as much bottom as your old Bible has."
The narrative told in the Book at Mormon is as follows:
Some six hundred years prior to the advent of Christ a band of Israelites was inspired to seek the promised land, which
proved to be Central America, where they greatly increased. A vicious and ambitious Jew named Laman was detected in a
conspiracy, whereupon he and his adherents were driven forth and migrated northward. These were the progenitors of the
American Indians. A portion of the tribe, however, became a "fair and delightsome" people, and withdrew from their savage
fellows, who finally surrounded them at the scene of the discovery of the plates and slew them to the number of 200,000.
Mormon and his son, Moroni alone escaping. This son, obeying his father's injunction, buried the tablets containing the
sacred history of this wandering tribe. It being recorded that he who found them should become a prophet.
The accepted theory for the origin of this account is that it was written as a romance by one Solomon Spaulding, whose
manuscript was rejected by a Pittsburgh publisher and fell into the hands of Sidney Rigdon who worked in the office at
the time and later became acquainted with Smith, and after the alleged finding of the golden plates became a missionary in
the promulgation of the faith. The doctrines enjoined in the faith were those which were being agitated in Western New York
at the time. The doctrine of polygamy, however, was not incorporated in the faith until after Smith's death.
The physical appearance of Smith has been recorded. In height he was over six feet, of stout build but wiry;
his hair and complexion were light; his eyes were blue and mild, and "he did not look as if he knew enough
to fool people so," as one old lady expressed it. Another person who saw him in later years said: "General (?) Smith
is in stature and proportion a very large man: and his figure would probably be called a fine one, although by no means
distinguished for symmetry or grace. His arms and hands seemed never to have been developed by physical toil, and the
latter are quite small for his proportions. It seems impossible to account for Smith's hold on his followers, ignorant
and superstitious though they were, except by the theory that he possessed hypnotic power, which he doubtless inherited
from his mother. His greatest triumph was embodied in the affidavit of the three witnesses,
who testified as follows:
"Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and unto whom this work shall come, that we, through the grace of God
the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, which is a record of the people of
Nephi, and also of the Lamanites, their brethren, and also of the people of Jared, who came from the tower of
which hath been spoken; and we also know that they have been translated by
the gift and power of God, for His voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety, that the
work is true. And we also testify that we have seen the engravings which are upon the plates; and they
have been shown to us by the power of God, and not of man: And we declare with words of soberness that
an angel or God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw
the plates, and the engravings thereon; and we know that it is by the grace of God the Father, and our Lord
Jesus Christ, that we beheld and bear record that these things are true; and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Nevertheless, the voice of the Lord commanded us that we should bear record of it; wherefore, to be obedient
unto the commandments of God, we bear testimony of these things. And we know that if we are faithful in Christ,
we shall rid our garments of the blood of all men, and be found spotless before the judgment seat of Christ,
and shall dwell with him eternally in the heavens. And the honor be to the Father, and to the Son, and
to the Holy Ghost, which is one God. Amen!
It has been claimed that these three witnesses sooner or later all left the faith, but it is only fair to say that this is
not true. In 1887 David Whitmer, one of the witnesses, published a pamphlet in defense of Mormonism. He was then living in
Richmond, Mo., with that branch of the Mormons who did not accept Brigham Young's revelation enjoining the practice of
It is believed by many that these witnesses were sincere and that their vision was a demonstration of Smith's hypnotic power.
The scene has been described by the Rev. M. T. Lamb, formerly a Christian missionary among the Mormons.
"The scene is laid in the woods whither Harris, Cowdery and Whitmer have resorted to be convinced by Joseph that his book
is of God. The witnesses are seated upon a log when the prophet appears. He prays and labors with them, but the heavens give
no sign. There is a disturbing force present, and the prophet locates it in Harris and asks him to withdraw. Then he kneels
down by the other two, and at last the vision is vouchsafed. A shining form bearing the plates appears and the men fall
prostrate. Harris is then recalled, and alone Smith wrestles with his stubborn will. At last to him also appears the angel, and
the testimony of the church is complete! The prophet has played a great game and he has won. We may leave him to enjoy his
victory as heartily as any juggler on the banks of the Euphrates."
Before tracing farther the adventures of Smith and his followers after the publication of the Book of Mormon, we will
describe some picturesque features of their doings.
The place where this splendid fraud was planned was an
which the conspirators had dug in a
sidehill to the south of the highway running from the old Palmyra plank road to the residence of Mark Jefferson.
The entrance to this cave was guarded by an iron-plated door, and the cave itself was fully sixty feet in length
and ten feet high. At the end was a broad chamber furnished with a rude table and stools. Here it was that the
treasure-seekers were wont to meet and consult the "peek stone," and in the later days the first converts to the
new faith made it their rendezvous before they began to hold public meetings for the purpose of making converts.
It is stated that Darius Pierce, at the head of a party of neighbors surprised one of the nocturnal assemblies and
that a lively time ensued.
Another meeting place was the log cabin in the woods where dwelt the Smith family. Sometimes these meetings were
interrupted by thunderings overhead, as if the Lord were answering their prayers from heaven. In later years when the
building was torn down several cannon balls were found concealed under a false roof over the rafters. They could be
moved by a string so as to give forth rolling sound as of thunder. This is the method employed in modern theaters for
the same purpose. As soon as the printing of the bible had been completed, Smith and his followers, Harris, Cowdery
and Whitmer began to travel about the country seeking converts and selling copies of the book.
The canny farmers of that region, however, were as a rule able to discern Smith's true character, and that prophet was
without honor in his country. He often attempted to prove his semi-divine nature by various devices. He twice attempted
to walk upon the water but in each case the planking gave way and he was ingloriously ducked.
The writer's grandfather, a Walworth farmer, was approached by Smith one day while he was at work beside the fire in a copper
shop which he maintained on his farm. He became impatient of Smith's extravagant claims and at length offered to put Smith
in the hot coals as a test; whereupon the prophet desisted and withdrew, never to return.
In the early days of the church "speaking with tongues" was much in vogue, and the tongues were alleged
to be those of vanished Indian races. The mysterious gabble which was heard at the prayer meetings infected
the imaginations of the small boys who heard it, and they would imitate fluently upon the streets. One of
these boys, so it is related, was invited by Sidney Rigdon to speak at prayer meeting and the lad carried
away by the excitement of the occasion, fairly outdid himself in vehement nonsense. Then Rigdon arose and
gravely announced that a revelation from God had been transmitted through the boy. This he proceeded to translate
amid great excitement. Finally he exclaimed "The boy has gone beyond me. I can't find words to express the wonder
of it all." And thus he finished.
The first "Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints" was organized in Fayette, Seneca County; on April 6, 1830, but
converts were not as plenty as the ambitious leaders desired, so Smith soon had a "revelation" commanding them to go
to Kirtland. O. This revelation was the first in a long series reaching to the present day. They are made generally by
the leader or "prophet" as he is styled. These revelations are embodied in the "Book of Doctrine and Covenants" which
is the real Bible of the Mormons, containing as it does the doctrines which they profess.
At this time monogamy was as much a cardinal doctrine with the Mormons as in churches generally. The following was
among the specific directions given to the church by revelation in 1831: "Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart,
and shalt cleave unto her and none else."
This was moral and unequivocal and creditable to Smith, and it was not until several years after his death
that polygamy was adopted, at the suggestion of Brigham Young who slandered the dead by declaring that
Smith had before his death received revelation countenancing polygamy.
The early part of the year 1831
found the Mormons settled in Kirtland, whither Rigdon had preceded them and where the clever swindle
was resorted to of having him sensationally converted to the supposedly strange religion. Smith and Rigdon
started a wildcat bank and to support their credit, they showed visitors several copper boilers, apparently
full of gold coin, but after two years of prosperity they were compelled to flee from a sheriff's warrant.
The rest of the band soon followed them to Independence, Miss. [sic], whence they were obliged to flee in 1840
to Illinois. There, on the banks of the Mississippi they founded the town Nauvoo, which grew to be a large
city; and there on June 27, 1844, Smith and his brother Hyrum were shot while attempting to escape from a mob.
A Frenchman who was studying English history was led to remark: The Anglo-Saxons have invented a hundred
religions, but not one soup. If America is the home of religions then New York State is their birthplace,
notably that part of the State west of the Oneida lake, The counties of
Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga, Wayne and Monroe have been called the
Land of Faiths. Spiritualism, Mormonism, a half dozen sects of Shakers,
and the Cardiff Giant, the greatest frauds of the nineteenth century, were
products of Western New York. The home of the Fox sisters, where spirit
rappings were first heard, is but a few miles east of Palmyra.
To complete the fame of this image we must mention that it was the birthplace of the late Admiral William T.
Sampson, and it is an interesting fact that at the time of his death he was the owner, and his brother the
occupant of the famous "Mormon Farm." The hill is now the property of the Sampson estate. W. C.