Mormonism originates solely from the early-nineteenth century visions and revelations of Joseph Smith, the first President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In this most fundamental fact, Latter-day Saints present no argument or dispute. As the tenth Mormon President and Prophet, Joseph Fielding Smith, affirms with prophetic conviction: "Mormonism must stand or fall on the story of Joseph Smith." Put simply, without Joseph Smith, there would be no such faith known as Mormonism today.
Joseph Smith's Early Years (1805-1820)
Early Mormon history unfolded in the cold winters of the northeastern United States, in such places as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and western New York. In Sharon, Vermont, Joseph Smith Jr. was born on December 23, 1805, to the poor farming family of Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith. The Smith family moved numerous times during Joseph's early teen years, seeking good farmland and a stable living. From 1811 to 1816, they seemed to be constantly on the move, looking for a place they could call home.
In 1816, Joseph Smith Sr. once again packed up his eight children and moved his family to neighboring Palmyra and Manchester Townships located in Ontario County, New York, where they purchased a hundred acres of land and built a small log home. In 1820, in a wooded grove near this log home, Mormonism officially began with Joseph's Smith's "First Vision" experience at the very young age of fourteen.
Joseph Smith's First Vision (1820)
In the early nineteenth century, the western frontier region of New York State experienced zealous Christian revivals and camp meetings common to America's Second Great Awakening. New York earned its reputation of being a "burned-over religious district" as the result of out-of-control spiritual wildfires. It was a region swarming with itinerant flamboyant preachers. Along with mass personal conversions, ecstatic experiences of encountering God, and transcendent visions, another general characteristic of America's Second Great Awakening was the desire by many Christian groups to break away from historical, creed-centered Christianity in the pursuit of "restoring" the pure practice of the New Testament church. Their efforts were often fueled by homespun theology and end-time predictions of the imminent return of Jesus Christ and his millennial reign.
Early Mormonism reflected many of the common Christian trends of the times: having an authoritarian prophetic leader and being noncreedal, staunchly Arminian, fervently restorationist, evangelistically driven, end-time-focused, and characterized by isolated communal living.
Which Christian Church Is True?
Unfortunately, denominational rivalries and theological debates were rabid in western New York, especially among the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists. As an impressionable, immature boy, Joseph Smith struggled deeply with the question concerning what church denomination was really the true one. During this troubled season, he wrote that he was determined to act on the familiar Bible passage of James 1:5: "If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him."
The First Vision of Joseph Smith
On a clear spring morning in 1820, fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith secluded himself in a grove of trees near his family's log home and knelt in desperation before God, requesting to receive divine wisdom concerning which Christian denomination was the true church. While he was battling the dark power of Satan, two distinct personages with tangible bodies appeared in indescribable glorious light. They were identified as Father God and Jesus Christ. This was the first of numerous divine visitations claimed by Joseph Smith throughout his lifetime, including Moroni, John the Baptist, the apostles Peter, James, and John, Jesus, Moses, Elijah, and many angels. It was during this momentous encounter that Jesus Christ reportedly exhorted the young boy not to join any Christian church because they were all corrupt and all their doctrinal creeds were simply teachings of men and an abomination to God.
The Cornerstone of the LDS Faith
For Mormons, Joseph Smith's First Vision marks the beginning of the restoration of the true authority-endowed church of Jesus Christ back to the earth. Although there are numerous separate written accounts concerning the actual details of Smith's heavenly vision, the LDS Church has officially canonized only the 1838 version that Joseph Smith wrote eighteen years after his apparent experience. This official version is published today in the Pearl of Great Price, one of the four Standard Works of Mormonism. The First Vision story is the cornerstone on which the LDS Church is built. An official LDS Web site says:
Joseph Smith's First Vision stands today as the greatest event in world history since the birth, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After centuries of darkness, the Lord opened the heavens to reveal His word and restore His Church through His chosen prophet.
Mormon President and Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley is even more precise in this General Conference statement:
Our entire case, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by, is of greater importance than this initial declaration.
It is Joseph Smith's First Vision story that Mormon missionaries are trained with scripted precision to tell potential converts.
Joseph Smith's Teen Years (1820-1823)
The three years or so following Joseph Smith's First Vision were uneventful. From the age of fourteen to seventeen, Smith experienced no further visitations, revelations, or visions, yet he did fall into significant temptation and error. Here is his personal confession:
I was left to all kinds of temptations; and, mingling with all kinds of society, I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into diverse temptations, offensive in the sight of God.
For Mormons, Joseph Smith's wayward teen years are chalked up as a time for the young man "to grow, mature, gain experience, and receive further nurturing."
One of the more startling bits of historical information, however, is that for years following Joseph Smith's First Vision, he and his father were actively engaged in the practice of magic and divination in their desire to discover hidden treasure. They used seer stones and divining rods as instruments. Joseph Smith Jr. found two stones in 1822 and used them to see "invisible things." He gained a reputation as someone who could use these seer stones to find lost property, buried money, and other hidden things. As we will see later, Joseph Smith even used seer stones to translate the Book of Mormon. LDS historian Richard Lyman Bushman writes:
Joseph Jr. never repudiated the stones or denied their power to find treasure. Remnants of the magical culture stayed with him to the end. But after 1823, he began to orient himself away from treasure and toward translation.
In 1888, the fifth Mormon President and Prophet, Wilford Woodruff, actually consecrated one of Smith's seer stones on a temple altar in Manti, Utah.
Another major chapter in the early origins of Mormonism opens with Joseph Smith's visits by an exalted angel named Moroni (pronounced mor-ohn-I).