Celebrating the 199th Anniversary of the Birth of Joseph Smith
By Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor

Today marks the 199th anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith.  To help you in your study of the Prophet, on this day, we excerpt the first few pages of our book, Witness of the Light.

An Obscure Spot in Vermont

The golden-yellow leaves of the sugar maple begin their downward glide to the ground. The wind is gentle but sure as each tree forms a cover quilted by nature to capture the moisture of the oncoming winter. The constant chattering of the gray squirrels indicates the gathering-a time to prepare for the change of the seasons.

In an obscure spot in Vermont, in 1805, came a similar change of seasons. Golden maple leaves, yes, but much more. The world slumbered: “For the Lord hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.” (Isaiah 29:10.) But the breezes were blowing in a new awakening. The earth itself and all her inhabitants were about to enter a new season. It was not marked on the calendar or announced in the newspaper, but after centuries of silence from the heavens, when humanity claimed that the Lord had grown quiet, something was about to happen.

The Setting of the Nation

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The Tunbridge Village Store where, by tradition, the courtship of Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack (the Prophet’s parents) began.

That fall the Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr. family were expecting a baby. The new nation was not yet three decades old. Thomas Jefferson was president. Politicians of the day freely acknowledged the hand of God in forming the nation. And everywhere men and women were trying to tame a wilderness, where food for their families depended on their crops, and failure was as close as tomorrow’s turn in the weather.

The Smiths struggled to make a living. Windsor County, Vermont, was beautiful and harsh. It was inviting and unrelenting. It was a land of green mountains and stone fences.

Religion was on everyone’s mind. Many had come from the Old World to escape the captivity of doctrines and traditions that imprisoned free conscience and the Spirit. Many were searching for a restoration of New Testament Christianity, and those who earnestly looked for it were popularly known as “seekers.” Most were looking for opportunities-great opportunities-spiritual ones and more.

The Smith Heritage

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Scene of Tunbridge, Vermont where the Smiths lived for seven years.

Joseph Smith’s forebears had been in New England five generations. With a combined ethic of hard work, strict moral conscience, and Yankee independence, they had distinguished themselves and were a family of some means. They show a history of religious yearning, a desire to know the Lord, and a discontent for the religions of the day.

The Smiths’ independence of thought is indicated in a public document three of them signed in 1796, declaring that it was “Contrary to the dictates of our consciences, to pay money . . . towards the support of any teacher of any different denomination whatever.” [1]

That was nine years before the Prophet’s birth. Grandfather Asael Smith had had intimations from the Spirit that a great work was yet to come to the earth. He told a grandson “that he always knew that God was going to raise up some branch of his family to be a great benefit to mankind,” [2] “that something would turn up in his family that would revolutionize the world.” [3]

Joseph’s Mother:  Lucy Mack Smith

The woman preparing in the fall of 1805 for the birth of her fourth child had been prepared long before for the kind of man he would be.

Three years before, Lucy Mack Smith had developed tuberculosis. Burning with fever and so weak she could not abide even a footfall in her room, she was given only a few more days to live. Through the dim haze of sickness, she worried whether she would die, for then, as she later wrote, “I did not consider myself ready for such an awful event, inasmuch as I knew not the ways of Christ; besides, there appeared to be a dark and lonesome chasm between myself and the Savior, which I dared not attempt to pass.” [4]   Her husband, Joseph, cried, “Oh, Lucy! my wife! my wife! you must die! The doctors have given you up, and all say you cannot live.” [5]

She wrote: “I then looked to the Lord and begged and pleaded with him to spare my life in order that I might bring up my children and be a comfort to my husband. My mind was much agitated during the whole night. . . .

“During this night I made a solemn covenant with God that if He would let me live I would endeavor to serve him according to the best of my abilities. Shortly after this I heard a voice say to me, ‘Seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. Let your heart be comforted; ye believe in God, believe also in me.’

“In a few moments my mother came in and, looking upon me, she said, ‘Lucy, you are better.'” [6]

Lucy had been miraculously healed but spiritually disquieted. She spent much of her time reading the Bible, searching for the key to having “a change of heart.” The desire to have this change come upon her consumed every thought. She wanted to become a member of a church, but this presented a dilemma for her: “If I remain a member of no church, all religious people will say I am of the world, and if I join some one of the different denominations, all the rest will say I am in error.” [7]

Studying with all diligence to keep her covenant with the Lord, at last she came to a conclusion: “I said in my heart that there was not then upon earth the religion which I sought.” [8]

Joseph’s Father:  Joseph Smith, Sr.

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Scene of Tunbridge, Vermont where the Smiths lived for seven years.

Joseph Smith Sr. had also been prepared to father a prophet. During the early childhood of young Joseph, his father had received seven prophetic dreams teaching him that a great work was about to come forth upon the land and that his family would take part in it.

In one of these dreams, he was led by a guide who brought him to a pleasant valley where a tree stood that bore fruit of an unearthly, dazzling whiteness. Eating it, Joseph Sr. found it “delicious beyond description.” [9]   Joseph shared the heavenly fruit with his family. He asked the guide the meaning of the fruit and was answered that “it was the pure love of God, shed abroad in the hearts of all those who love him, and keep his commandments.” [10]

Well had the Lord spoken of such a family through the Old Testament prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” (Joel 2:28.)

Joseph’s Birth

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Scene of Tunbridge, Vermont where the Smiths lived for seven years.

The earth made her turns, and the darkest night of the year arrived. In ancient times at the winter solstice, people crept to the edge of mountains to watch the sky, praying as did the Zuni firekeeper, for the return of light: “To this end, my fathers, my children may all of you be blessed with light.” [11]   On the day when the light began to return, December 23, 1805, Lucy gave birth to a son, whom they named Joseph, after the name of his father.

He would grow up with a legacy of hard work and little education. In other places in the country, people lived on landed estates. They had titles and doctorates. Philosophers of religion and scholars of ancient languages studied their subjects.

“For ye see your calling . . . how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-27.)

Briefly on Joseph’s Childhood

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Details of granite shaft base in Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont.

What would we expect of a prophet’s childhood? We know little about Joseph’s early life except that he was “remarkably quiet and well-disposed,” and that though not given to much reading, was inclined toward “meditation and deep study.” [12]

With a living to wrest from an unyielding ground, Joseph worked with his family instead of attending much school. In his formal education, he obtained only the most rudimentary skills in reading, writing, and arithmetic. His education was of the land; his teachers were his parents and elder brothers Alvin and Hyrum, whose love and loyalty to him were unbending.

Wrote Lucy, “I suppose, from questions which are frequently asked me, that it is thought by some that I shall be likely to tell many very remarkable incidents which attended his childhood; but as nothing occurred during his early life except those trivial circumstances which are common to that state of human existence, I pass them in silence.” [13]



[1] Tunbridge Town Records, Book 1, Town Clerk’s Office, Tunbridge, Orange County, Vermont.

[2] George A. Smith, “Memoirs,” p. 2, Brigham Young University Special Collections.

[3] Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86), 5:102. (Hereinafter referred to as JD.)

[4] Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith, reprint (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), p. 34. (Hereinafter referred to as LMS.)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid,, p. 31.

[8] Ibid., p. 36.

[9] Ibid., p. 49.

[10] Ibid.

[11] As quoted in Blessed by Light: Visions of the Colorado Plateau, edited by Stephen Trimble (Layton, Utah: Peregrine Smith Books, 1986), p. v.

[12] LMS, p. 67.

[13] Ibid.

 


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