Question: Do contemporary documents shed any light on the possible persecution of the Smith family after Joseph Smith's First Vision?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: Do contemporary documents shed any light on the possible persecution of the Smith family after Joseph Smith's First Vision?

Contemporary newspaper articles report an episode that likely provides some window into the persecution which the Smiths endured

Milton Backman recounts the events surrounding the death of Alvin, Joseph's elder brother:

After the death of Joseph's brother, Alvin, who died November 19, 1823, someone circulated the rumor that Alvin's body had been "removed from the place of his interment and dissected." In an attempt to ascertain the truth of this report, Joseph Smith, Sr., along with neighbors gathered at the grave, removed the earth, and found the body undisturbed. To correct the fabrication, designed in the opinion of Joseph's father to injure the reputation of the Smith family, Joseph, Sr., placed in the Wayne Sentinel (which appeared on successive Wednesdays from September 30 to November 3, 1824) a public notice reciting his findings that the body was undisturbed. [1]

Richard Bushman noted:

What Joseph said explicitly was that the vision led to trouble, though his youthful sensitivity probably exaggerated the reaction. The talk with the minister, he remembered, brought on ridicule by "all classes of men, both religious and irreligious because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision." Local people seemed to have discussed his case, even though he said nothing to his parents. Eighteen years later when he wrote his history, the memories of the injustices still rankled.[2] For what ever reason, his father's family suffered "many persecutions and afflictions," he recalled, deepening a previous sense of alienation. William Smith remembered people throwing dirt, stones, and sticks against the Smith house. Later, after Alvin died, it was rumored someone had disturbed his body, and Joseph Sr. published a notice in the paper that the body had been exhumed and found to be untouched. Once someone fired a short at young Joseph for no apparent reason.[3][4]

This kind of malicious gossip is cruel and requires some motive. The notice that Joseph Smith Sr. placed in the Wayne Sentinel appeared four years after the first vision and one year after the first visit of Moroni to Joseph Smith, the visit in which Joseph was first shown the location of the plates but was not allowed to obtain them. This event is thus three years before Joseph's more-widely-known acquisition of the plates and five years before the publication of the Book of Mormon. If the Smith family could be the subject of such malicious gossip when faced with a tragedy like Alvin's death, without any other known motive for the ill treatment, can we reasonably presume that Joseph's vision had something to do with it? This should be considered in assesments of Joseph's claims to persecution[5]

Notes

  1. Milton V. Backman, Jr., Joseph Smith's First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts, 2d ed., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980 [1971]), 114.
  2. ManH A-I, in PJS, 1:273, 275. The only other evidence of persecution are a reminiscence by Thomas H. Taylor of Manchester about Joseph being dcuked in a pond for teaching what he believed, and an inexplicable attempt on his life recorded by Lucy Smith. She said an unknown attacker took a shot at Joseph one day as he entered the yard. The times of both incidents are uncertain. Thomas H. Taylor, Interview (1881), in EMD, 2:118; BioS, 73.
  3. Wayne Sentinel, Sept. 30, 1824; W. Smith, Mormonism, 13; Backman, First Vision, 119; BioS, 73
  4. Richard Bushman, "Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling" (New York, NY: Knopf Publishing, 2005) 43. Internal endnotes retained for reference.
  5. For a much more scholarly discussion of how the preacher's rejection of Joseph caused him to not speak of the event for many years, see Steven C. Harper, "First Vision: Memory and Mormon Origins" (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) 9-12.