The Mormon Prophet Attempts to Join the Methodists
By Wesley P. Walters
In June 1828 Joseph Smith, Jr., the founder of Mormonism, joined the Methodist Church [probationary class] in Harmony, Pennsylvania. This was a strange thing for this prophet of a new religion to do, and seriously challenges the story he put out ten years later about the origin of his work.
That later story claims that in 1820 Joseph Smith had seen two glorious personages, identified as the Father and the Son, and was informed that the creeds of all the "sects," or various denominations, "were an abomination" and he was twice forbidden to join any of them.
In retelling this same tale to Alexander Neibaur on May 24, 1844, Joseph specifically singled out the Methodist Church as being unworthy of his membership. Mr. Neibaur's diary recorded the divine warning as related by Joseph: "Mr. Smith then asked must I join the Methodist Church - No - they are not my People. They have gone astray there is none that doeth good no not one." (quoted in The Improvement Era, April 1970, p.12).
Perhaps the death of his first-born son on June 15, 1828 induced him to seek membership in the church his wife had belonged to since she was seven years old. Joseph had told his neighbor, Joshua McKune, that "his (Smith's) first born child was to translate the characters and hieroglyphics upon the plates, into our language, at the age of three years." (The Susquehanna Register, May 1, 1834, p.1). When this child died at birth instead, and his wife's life also hung in danger, Smith may have considered entirely abandoning his project of writing a book and decided to join the Methodist Church. At least Martin Harris later told Rev. Ezra Booth that when he went to Pennsylvania to see Joseph about the translation that "Joseph had given it up on account of the opposition of his wife and others," and Martin "told Joseph, 'I have not come down here for nothing, we will go on with it.' " (The Story of the Mormons, by William Alexander Linn, New York: Macmillan Co. 1902, p.36).
The young prophet's roll as a Methodist member did not last very long, however - only three days according to statements made by his wife's cousins, Joseph and Hiel Lewis. In their local newspaper at Amboy, Illinois they told of their earlier years with Joseph Smith in Pennsylvania and of his uniting with their Methodist class:
He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, in the absence of some of the official members. (The Amboy Journal, Amboy, Illinois, April 30, 1879, p.1).
When Joseph Lewis, who was twenty-one at the time (about a year and a half younger than Smith), learned of this act, he felt that Joseph's manner of life rendered him unfit to be a member and told him either to "publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation." Mr. Lewis gave further details about the incident a month after the first article appeared in the Amboy paper, and he wrote:
I, with Joshua McKune, a local preacher at that time, I think in June, 1828, heard on Saturday, that Joe Smith had joined the church on Wednesday afternoon, (as it was customary in those days to have circuit preaching at my father's house on week-day). We thought it was a disgrace to the church to have a practicing necromancer, a dealer in enchantments and bleeding ghosts, in it. So on Sunday we went to father's, the place of meeting that day, and got there in season to see Smith and talked with him some time in father's shop before the meeting. Told him that his occupation, habits, and moral character were at variance with the discipline, that his name would be a disgrace to the church, that there should have been recantation, confession and at least promised reformation-. That he could that day publicly ask that his name be stricken from the class book, or stand an investigation. He chose the former, and did that very day make the request that his name be taken off the class book. (The Amboy Journal, June 11, 1879, p.1).
Like so many of the early Methodist records, the early class books of the Harmony (now Lanesboro) Church are lost, so we will never know for certain whether Joseph Smith remained a member for only three days or six months. However, there was never any dispute that he had become a member, and by this one act he undercut the story he later put forth that God in a special vision had instructed him specifically not to join the Methodist Church.
- Wesley P. Walters
This event is also mentioned in Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith, by Linda K. Newell and Valeen T. Avery, University of Illinois Press, 1994, p.25.
Emma's uncle, Nathaniel Lewis, preached as a lay minister of the local Methodist Episcopal church. His congregation met in the homes of the members for Sunday services. On Wednesdays a regular circuit preacher visited Harmony. In the spring or summer of 1828 Joseph asked the circuit rider if his name could be included on the class roll of the church. Joseph "presented himself in a very serious and humble manner," and the minister obliged him.
When Emma's cousin, Joseph Lewis, discovered Joseph's name on the roll, he "thought it was a disgrace to the church to have a practicing necromancer" as a member. He took the matter up with a friend, and the following Sunday, when Joseph and Emma arrived for church, the two men steered Joseph aside and into the family shop. "They told him plainly that such character as he . . . could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation." Joseph refused to comply with the humiliating demands and withdrew from the class. His name, however, stayed on the roll for about six more months, either from oversight or because Emma's brother-in-law, Michael Morse, who taught the class, did not know of the confrontation. When Joseph did not seek full membership, Morse finally dropped his name.2"
Page 314, footnote 2:
Amboy Journal, 11 June and 30 April 1879. In 1879 Joseph and Hiel Lewis, sons of Uncle Nathaniel Lewis, debated with a Mormon named Edwin Cadwell over events in Harmony while Emma and Joseph lived there. The Amboy Journal reproduced their letters.
For more information on Joseph and Hiel Lewis and Michael Morse, relatives of Emma Smith, see Early Mormon Documents, compiled by Dan Vogel, Vol. 4, pp. 298-306; The Rise of Mormonism: 1816-1844, by H. Michael Marquardt, p. 61, 136-7; RLDS Saints Herald, Dec. 15, 1879, p. 376. Also see BYU prof. Marvin S. Hill's letter to the editor, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1983, p. 6. Another LDS historian, Richard L. Bushman, referred to Smith's involvement with the Methodists in his book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, Knopf, 2005, pp. 69-70.
Below is the complete quote from The Amboy Journal, Amboy, Illinois, Wednesday, April 30, 1879, page 1.
A NEW CHAPTER, ABOUT TO BE PUBLISHED,
Statements of Joseph and Hiel Lewis, sons of Rev. Nathaniel Lewis, concerning what they saw and heard of the sayings and doings of the prophet Joseph Smith, jr. while he was engaged in peeping for money and hidden treasures, and translating his gold bible in our neighborhood.
And that during all the time that said Smith was engaged in the above named business, in the township of, Harmony, Susquehanna Co., Pa., our home and residence was within one mile of where he lived and transacted his business.
First, we would add our testimony to the truthfulness of the statements of Isaac Hale, Rev. Nathaniel Lewis, (the letter 'C' in his name was inserted by mistake of the person copying the affidavit) Alva Hale, Levi Lewis, and Sophia Lewis, as contained in a somewhat abbreviated form in a book entitled "Mormonism and the Mormons," by Daniel P. Kidder, and published by Lane & Scott, (pages 30-35) 200 Mulberry St., New York, 1852. Also the statements of Joshua McKune, and Hezekiah McKune, as found in the history of Susquehanna County, Pa., page 579, by Emily C. Blackman, and published in 1873.
According to our recollection, the starting point of the money digging speculation in our vicinity, in which Joseph Smith, jr. was engaged, was as follows:
We are unable at this time to give precise dates, but some time previous to 1825, a man by the name of Wm. Hale, a distant relative of our uncle Isaac Hale, came to Isaac Hale, and said that he had been informed by a woman named Odle, who claimed to possess the power of seeing under ground, (such persons were then commonly called peepers) that there was great treasures concealed in the hill north-east from his, (Isaac Hale's) house. By her directions, Wm. Hale commenced digging, but being too lazy to work, and too poor to hire, he obtained a partner by the name of Oliver Harper, of York state, who had the means to hire help. But after a short time operations were suspended for a time; during the suspension, Wm. Hale heard of peeper Joseph Smith, jr., wrote to him, and soon visited him; he found Smith's representations were so flattering that Smith was either hired or became a partner with Wm. Hale, Oliver Harper, and a man by the name of Stowell, who had some property. They hired men and dug in several places, as described in the history of Susq. Co., page 579. The account given in the said history at page 580, of a pure white dog to be used as a sacrifice to restrain the enchantment, and of the anger of the Almighty at the attempt to palm off on him a white sheep in the place of a white dog, is a fair sample of Smith's revelations, and of the God that inspired him. Their digging in several places was in compliance with peeper Smith's revelations, who would attend with his peep-stone in his hat, and his hat drawn over his face, and would tell them how deep they would have to go; but when they would find no trace of the chest of money, he would peep again, and weep like a child, and tell them the enchantment had removed it on account of some sin or thoughtless word; finally the enchantment became so strong that he could not see, and so the business was abandoned. Smith could weep and shed tears in abundance at any time, if he chose.
But while he was engaged in looking through his peep-stone and old white hat, directing the digging for money, and boarding at Uncle Isaac Hale's, he formed an intimacy with Mr. Hale's daughter Emma, and after the abandonment of the money digging speculation, he consumated the elopement and marriage with the said Emma Hale, and she became his accomplice in his humbug golden bible and Mormon religion.
The statement that the prophet Joseph Smith, jr. made in our hearing, at the commencement of his translating his book, in Harmony, as to the manner of his finding the plates, was as follows.
Our recollection of the precise language may be faulty, but as to the substance, the following is correct:
He said that by a dream he was informed that at such a place in a certain hill, in an iron box, were some gold plates with curious engravings, which he must get and translate, and write a book; that the plates were to be kept concealed from every human being for a certain time, some two or three years; that he went to the place and dug till he came to the stone that covered the box, when he was knocked down; that he again attempted to remove the stone, and was again knocked down; this attempt was made the third time, and the third time he was knocked down. Then he exclaimed, "Why can't I get it?" or words to that effect; and then he saw a man standing over the spot, which to him appeared like a Spaniard, having a long beard coming down over his breast to about here. (Smith putting his hand to the pit of his stomach) with his (the ghost's) throat cut from ear to ear, and the blood streaming down, who told him that he could not get it alone; that another person whom he, Smith, would know at first sight, must come with him, and then he could get it. And when Smith saw Miss Emma Hale, he knew that she was the person, and that after they were married, she went with him to near the place, and stood with her back toward him, while he dug up the box, which he rolled up in his frock, and she helped carry it home. That in the same box with the plates were spectacles; the bows were of gold, and the eyes were stone, and by looking through these sbectacles [sic] all the characters on the plates were translated into English.
In all this narrative, there was not one word about "visions of God," or of angels, or heavenly revelations. All his information was by that dream, and that bleeding ghost. The heavenly visions and messages of angels, etc, contained in Mormon books, were after-thoughts, revised to order. The moving of Smith from York state to Harmony, Pa., has been stated by Mr. Hale, and while he, Smith, was in Harmony, Pa., translating his book, he made the above statements in our presence to Rev. N. Lewis.
It was here also, that he joined the M. E. church. He presented himself in a very serious and humble manner, and the minister, not suspecting evil, put his name on the class book, in the absence of some of the official members, among whom was the undersigned, Joseph Lewis, who, when he learned what was done, took with him Joshua McKune, and had a talk with Smith. They told him plainly that such a character as he was a disgrace to the church, that he could not be a member of the church unless he broke off his sins by repentance, made public confession, renounced his fraudulent and hypocritical practices, and gave some evidence that he intended to reform and conduct himself somewhat nearer like a christian than he had done. They gave him his choice, to go before the class, and publicly ask to have his name stricken from the class book, or stand a disciplinary investigation. He chose the former, and immediately withdrew his name. So his name as a member of the class was on the book only three days. — It was the general opinion that his only object in joining the church was to bolster up his reputation, and gain the sympathy and help of christians; that is, putting on the cloak of religion to serve the devil in.
We will add one more sample of his prophetic power and practice, while translating his book. One of the neighbors whom Smith was owing, had a piece of corn on a rather wet and backward piece of ground; and as Smith was owing him, he wanted Smith to help hoe corn. Smith came on but to get clear of the work, and the debt, said: "If I kneel down and pray in your corn, it will grow just as well as if hoed." So he prayed in the corn, and insured its maturity without cultivation, and that the frost would not hurt it. But the corn was a failure in growth, and was killed by the frost.
This sample of prophetic power was related to us by those present, and no one questioned its truth.
Go to Online Resources
Home | FAQs | What's New | Topical Index | Testimony | Newsletters | Online Resources | Online Books | Booklist | Order/Contact | Email | Other Websites