Chapter 2: An Angel and a Book
by Gordon B. Hinckley
LIFE for Joseph Smith was never the same once he had told
the story of his vision. For one thing, that remarkable experience had left
an indelible impression upon his sensitive nature. The knowledge he had thus
received placed him in a unique position. Nevertheless, his manner of living
was not greatly different from that of the ordinary farm boy of his day,
except that he was often referred to as a dreamer and was made an object of
ridicule. But he continued to work on his father's farm, to work for others
in the area, and to associate with companions of his own age. Those
acquainted with him describe him as a strong, active boy of cheerful
disposition, who enjoyed wrestling and other sports. The story of his life
and experiences at this time is again best told in his own words.
I frequently fell into foolish errors and displayed the
weakness of youth, which, I am sorry to say, led me into divers temptations
offensive in the sight of God. In making this confession no one need suppose
me guilty of any great or malignant sins. A disposition to commit such was
never in my nature.
In consequence of these things I often felt condemned
for my weakness and imperfections, when, on the evening of September 21,
1823, after I had retired to bed for the night, I betook myself to prayer
and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies,
and also for a manifestation to me, that I might know of my state and
standing before him; for I had full confidence in obtaining a divine
manifestation as I previously had done.
While I was thus in the act of calling upon God I
discovered a light appearing in my room which continued to increase until
the room was lighter than at noon day, when immediately a personage appeared
at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.
He had on a loose robe of most exquisite whiteness. It
was a whiteness beyond anything earthly I had ever seen; nor do I believe
that any earthly thing could be made to appear so exceedingly white and
brilliant. His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the
wrists; so also were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the
ankles. His head and neck were also bare. I could discover that he had no
other clothing on but this robe, as it was open so that I could see into his
Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole
person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like
lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as
immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him I was afraid,
but the fear soon left me.
He called me by name and said he was a messenger sent
from the presence of God and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work
for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all
nations, kindreds and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil
spoken of among all people.
He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold
plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and
the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the
everlasting gospel was contained in it as delivered by the Savior to the
ancient inhabitants [of America].
Also that there were [deposited with the plates] two
stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate
constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim. The possession and use of
these stones were what constituted `seers' in ancient or former times; and
God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book.
After telling me these things, he commenced quoting the
prophecies of the Old Testament. [The Prophet then lists some of the
passages of scripture quoted by Moroni.]
Again, he told me that when I got those plates of which
he had spoken I should not show them to any person; neither the breastplate
with the Urim and Thummim; only to those to whom I should be commanded to
show them; if I did I should be destroyed. While he was conversing with me
about the plates the vision was open to my mind that I could see the place
where the plates were deposited, and that so clearly and distinctly that I
knew the place again when I visited it.
After this communication, I saw the light in the room
begin to gather immediately around the person of him who had been speaking
to me, and it continued to do so, until the room was again left dark, except
just around him; when instantly I saw, as it were, a conduit open right up
into heaven, and he ascended till he entirely disappeared, and the room was
left as it had been before this heavenly light had made its appearance.
I lay musing on the singularity of the scene and
marveling greatly at what had been told me by this extraordinary messenger,
when, in the midst of my meditation, I suddenly discovered that my room was
again beginning to get light and in an instant, as it were, the same
heavenly messenger was again by my bedside. He again related the very same
things which he had done at his first visit, without the least variation.
Having related these things, he again ascended as he had done before.
By this time so deep were the impressions made on my
mind that sleep had fled from my eyes, and I lay overwhelmed in astonishment
at what I had both seen and heard. But what was my surprise when again I
beheld the same messenger at my bedside, and heard him repeat over again to
me the same things as before, and add a caution that Satan would try to
tempt me, in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father's
family, to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich. This he forbade
After this third visit, he again ascended into heaven as
before, and I was again left to ponder on the strangeness of what I had just
experienced; when almost immediately after the heavenly messenger had
ascended from me the third time the cock crowed and I found that day was
approaching; so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that
I shortly after arose from my bed, and, as usual, went
to the necessary labors of the day. But, in attempting to work as at other
times I found my strength so exhausted as to render me entirely unable. My
father, who was laboring along with me, discovered something to be wrong and
told me to go home. I started with the intention of going to the house, but
in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength
entirely failed me and I fell helpless on the ground, and for a time was
quite unconscious of anything.
The first thing that I can recollect was a voice
speaking unto me, calling me by name. I looked up and beheld the same
messenger standing over my head, surrounded by light as before. He then
again related all that he had related to me the previous night, and
commanded me to go to my father and tell him of the vision and commandments
which I had received.
I returned to my father in the field, and rehearsed the
whole matter to him. He replied that it was of God, and told me to go and do
as commanded by the messenger. I left the field and went to the place where
the messenger had told me the plates were deposited. Owing to the
distinctness of the vision which I had had concerning it, I knew the place
the instant that I arrived there.
The Hill Cumorah
About four miles south of Palmyra is a hill of
considerable size, rising abruptly on the north side and tapering to the
south with a long slope. On the west side, not far from the top, as Joseph
had seen it in vision, was the weathered surface of a rounded stone, the
edges of which were covered with earth.
Eagerly he removed the earth so that he might get a lever
under the edge. Lifting the rock, he looked into a box formed by a stone in
the bottom with other stones cemented together to form the sides. There,
indeed, was the treasure!—a book of gold leaves bound together with three
rings, the breast-plate and the two stones set in silver bows.
Anxiously he reached down to take them when he felt a
shock. He tried again and received another paralyzing shock. Yet again he
reached, and this time the shock was so severe as to render him weak and
powerless. In his frustration he called out, "Why can I not obtain this
"Because you have not kept the commandments of the Lord,"
answered a voice at his side. The boy turned, and there stood the same
messenger with whom he had conversed during the night. Guilt overwhelmed
him, and Moroni's solemn caution and charge flashed through the boy's mind
that Satan would try to tempt him because of the indigent circumstances of
his father's family, but that the plates of gold were for the glory of God,
and he must have no other purpose in mind in relation to them.
Thus rebuked, he was told that he should not receive the
plates at that time, but that he should undergo four years of probation, and
that during that period he should come to the hill each year on this same
day. "Accordingly," he writes, "I went at the end of each year, and at each
time I found the same messenger there, and received instructions and
intelligence from him at each of our interviews, respecting what the Lord
was going to do, and how and in what manner his kingdom was to be conducted
in the last days.
"At length the time arrived for obtaining the plates, the
Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate. On the twenty-second day of
September, 1827, having gone as usual at the end of another year to the
place where they were deposited, the same heavenly messenger delivered them
up to me, with this charge: That I should be responsible for them; that if I
should let them go carelessly, or through any neglect of mine, I should be
cut off; but that if I would use all my endeavors to preserve them until he,
the messenger, should call for them, they should be protected."
Joseph soon learned why Moroni had charged him so strictly
to guard the record taken from the hill. No sooner was it rumored that he
had the plates than efforts were made to seize them from him. To preserve
them he first carefully hid them in a hollow birch log. Then he locked them
in a chest in his father's home. Later they were buried beneath the
hearthstone of the family living room. A cooper's shop across the street was
their next hiding place. All of these and other stratagems were employed to
keep them safe from neighborhood mobs who raided and ransacked the Smith
home and surrounding premises, and even employed the services of a diviner
in their zeal to locate the record.
On two different occasions Joseph was shot at, and it soon
became apparent that he could find no peace in the neighborhood of Palmyra.
Some months prior to the time he received the plates he had married Emma
Hale of Harmony Township, Pennsylvania. He had met her nearly two years
earlier when he boarded at her father's home while working in the vicinity
for a Mr. Josiah Stoal. And when in December of 1827 an invitation came from
his wife's parents to live in their home at Harmony, Joseph accepted in the
hope that he could there find the peace needed for the work of translation.
Once comfortably settled, he commenced work on the record.
It was a strange volume, approximately seven inches in width by eight inches
in length, and six inches thick. The golden pages, or plates, were not quite
so thick as common tin, and were bound together by three rings on one side.
Approximately one-third of the plates could be turned freely, similar to the
pages of a loose-leaf book, but the remaining two-thirds were "sealed" so
that they could not be examined. Beautiful engravings, small and finely cut,
were found on the plates.
Joseph began his work by copying onto paper several pages
of the strange characters. Some of these he translated by means of the Urim
and Thummim, the "interpreters" which he had received with the plates. This
appears to have been a more or less desultory exercise, but it served a
Not far from Joseph's New York home lived a substantial
farmer by the name of Martin Harris. He had heard much of Joseph's
experiences, and in contrast with most of the people of the community, he
had shown a friendly interest in them. In February 1828 Mr. Harris called on
"I Cannot Read a Sealed Book"
He was shown the pages of transcribed characters with some
of the translations that had been made from them. They greatly interested
him, and he asked permission to borrow them. Joseph consenting, he took them
to New York City, and, according to his testimony, "presented the characters
which had been translated, with the translation thereof, to Professor
Charles Anthon, a gentleman celebrated for his literary attainments.
"Professor Anthon stated that the translation was correct,
more so than any he had before seen translated from the Egyptian. I then
showed him those which were not yet translated, and he said that they were
Egyptian, Chaldaic, Assyriac, and Arabic; and he said they were true
characters, and that the translation of such of them as had been translated
was also correct.
"I took the certificate and put it into my pocket, and was
just leaving the house, when Mr. Anthon called me back, and asked me how the
young man found out that there were gold plates in the place where he found
them. I answered that an angel of God had revealed it unto him.
"He then said to me, `Let me see that certificate.' I
accordingly took it out of my pocket and gave it to him, when he took it and
tore it to pieces, saying that there was no such thing now as ministering of
angels, and that if I would bring the plates to him he would translate them.
I informed him that part of the plates were sealed, and that I was forbidden
to bring them.
"He replied, `I cannot read a sealed book.'
"I left him and went to Dr. [Samuel] Mitchell, who
sanctioned what Professor Anthon had said respecting both the characters and
Some years later when he was approached by an avowed
detractor of Joseph Smith, Professor Anthon denied ever having commented
with favor upon the characters or the translation. Yet the fact remains that
Martin Harris was so impressed by the experience that he returned to Joseph
Smith, and then immediately proceeded to Palmyra to put his affairs in order
so that he might assist with the translation.
He arrived back in Harmony on April 12, 1828. Work on the
translation was begun and carried forward, although there were frequent
interruptions. By June 14, 1828 Martin Harris had written 116 foolscap pages
of manuscript from Joseph's dictation. Mrs. Harris for some time had
importuned her husband to bring the manuscript home so that she might see it
and he had asked Joseph for this privilege, but Joseph had denied him.
However, after much importuning, Martin was permitted to
take the manuscript, provided he would show it to none other than members of
his immediate family. Martin agreed, but when he returned to his home he
yielded to pressure from others who were curious, and the work was stolen
Joseph Smith realized too late that he had made a serious
mistake in permitting the translation to get out of his hands. He knew that
he had done wrong, and he suffered great mental anguish. This was a lesson
he never forgot; nor did Martin Harris ever forget it, for he was never
again permitted to assist with the translation. The lost portion was not
redone, since it was evident to Joseph that his enemies could alter the
original and publicly belittle him.
For the remainder of that year and the following spring he
did little with the plates. Most of his time was spent in farming his own
land and working for others.
Unfolding the History
On April 6, 1829 there came to his door a young man by the
name of Oliver Cowdery. He was a stranger to Joseph, but he knew his family,
having boarded with them while teaching school in the vicinity of their home
the previous season. He had heard the unusual story of the golden plates and
was determined to investigate it first hand. Two days following his arrival
he commenced writing as Joseph read aloud the translation of the record.
They found an unusual story. In the main it concerned the
descendants of a family which had left Jerusalem about 600 B.C. The father,
Lehi, had been inspired to flee the city which was doomed to the sorrowful
destruction which came shortly thereafter. Building a ship, the family
crossed the ocean and landed somewhere on one of the American continents.
From this family sprang two nations known as the Nephites
and the Lamanites. For the most part the Nephites were a God-fearing people,
while the Lamanites were generally indolent, quarrelsome, and wicked. The
Nephites had among them the history of Israel, up to the time the family had
left Jerusalem, and with this they kept a record of their own nation as well
as other writings. Prophets and priests taught them principles of
Most remarkable of all, the Savior visited among these
people, following his ascension, in fulfillment of his statement found
recorded in the Gospel of John: "Other sheep I have, which are not of this
fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall
be one fold, and one shepherd." He taught them the principles he had taught
in Palestine and set up his church among them, ordaining its leadership with
the power he had conferred upon the Twelve.
Following the teachings of Christ, these people lived in
peace and happiness for generations. But as the nation grew prosperous it
became wicked, regardless of the warnings of the prophets. Among these was
Mormon, who in his day kept the chronicles of the nation. From these
extensive records he had compiled on plates of gold an abridged record. This
he had given to his son, Moroni, who survived the destruction of the Nephite
nation at the hands of the Lamanites. Moroni, prior to his death, buried the
record in the Hill Cumorah, where Joseph Smith received it some fourteen
centuries later. A remnant of the Lamanite nation is found today among the