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In the Book Episode 13: "Moroni’s Appearance to Joseph Smith, the Plates, and the Translation: Matthew C. Godfrey"

Episode Transcript

“Moroni’s Appearance to Joseph Smith, the Plates, and the Translation” with Matthew Godfrey

Rebecca: [00:00:00] Exactly 200 years ago this month, something happened in a small house in Palmyra, New York, that would change the course of history.

Joseph Smith retired to bed after a usual day's work on the farm and said a prayer to close the day. This one wasn't a rote prayer, though, and it wasn't any ordinary Friday night.

Matthew: And he says suddenly there's a light that gradually becomes brighter in his room and there's a heavenly messenger in that light that appears to him.

Rebecca: That night, and what came as a result of it, is entirely relevant to this podcast, because without it, none of us would be reading or talking about the Book of Mormon.

I'm Rebecca Devonas and I'm back with another season of In The Book, a podcast where we flood the earth with testimonies of the [00:01:00] Book of Mormon.

Matthew C. Godfrey is a general editor and former managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He has authored or co-edited several books, including Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith's Life and Character. He holds a Ph. D. in American and Public History from Washington State University, and in his spare time, he enjoys all sports, reading, and 80s alternative music. He is married to Carrie Huber and is the proud parent of four wonderful children.

The 21st night of September isn't just significant because Earth, Wind & Fire wrote one of the greatest hits about it. I sometimes wonder if the band members knew something about Moroni's visit in upstate New York… I mean, who knows?

On the 21st night of September of 1823, [00:02:00] a 17-year-old boy found out about an ancient record buried in the ground near his house. While he already knew he had been chosen for important restorative work three years prior, he didn't know anything about these golden plates or what translating them would look like. It would require his utmost vigilance and full faith in what he called the gift and power of God.

So let's get to know the teenage boy Joseph and what set him up for this heavenly visitation.

Matthew: So Joseph Smith came from a very religious family, a family that believed very strongly in the Bible.

Of course, when he was 12 years old, he started to become anxious about the state of his soul. Worried about whether he could gain forgiveness, and this was a large reason why he went into the Sacred Grove in 1820. It wasn't just to find out which is the only true church. That was a large part of it, too. But it was also a very personal thing for him that he was seeking forgiveness and seeking [00:03:00] how to access Jesus Christ's atonement.

And so when he is 14, he has this magnificent vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ. You can imagine that so as a teenager, you wouldn't really know quite what to do with this. You know that God has answered your prayer. You know that he's basically told you that the church is going to be restored through you, but you're 14. What, what does that all mean in your life?

So for the next three years, Joseph says that he tried to do what was right. He tried to help out on his family farm. His family had a farm that they were trying to operate at that time, much like most of the people around him.

Rebecca: Joseph writes in his personal history, “I was guilty of levity, and sometimes associated with jovial company, not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God, as I had been.” (Joseph Smith History)

Matthew: And so this kind of leads him, when he is 17, to wonder again about the state of his soul. He knew [00:04:00] that he had been forgiven when he was 14, but that had been three years ago, and he wondered, can I repent of these things that I've done since then?

Rebecca: Joseph writes, “I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of my sins and follies, and also for a manifestation to me that I might know of my state and standing before Him.” (Joseph Smith History)

Going into that prayer in 1823, Joseph says that he had full confidence in obtaining a divine manifestation, as he previously had. He knew that he could expect a response because of what had happened in 1820 in the Sacred Grove, and the response to his prayer was just as unusual and somewhat unexpected as the first.

Joseph is praying, and suddenly there's a light that gradually becomes brighter in his room, with a heavenly messenger in the light.

Matthew: You kind of wonder what's, what's going on because they [00:05:00] don't have a large house that the Smiths are living in. Joseph's sharing a bedroom with others, but in any case, this heavenly messenger appears, and he tells Joseph who he is, identifies himself as Moroni, and then he calls Joseph by name. He tells him that God has a great work for him to do, and then he tells him that his name will be had for good and evil among all nations.

Rebecca: I asked Matt if he had any thoughts on Moroni's comment.

Matthew: I think we've seen that. I think Joseph saw that, from the very first time that he had his First Vision, that there were people who believed in him believed that he was a prophet, and there were people who thought he was an imposter.

And so he was both adored by a lot of people and vilified by a lot of people during his lifetime, and I think we've just seen that continue over the years. I think we see that very much today, and I think this is part of what Moroni is saying here. It's not going to be an easy thing, Joseph, to believe that you've had these [00:06:00] manifestations, that you translated the Book of Mormon. People are going to have to have faith in that, and they're going to have to rely on the Spirit for that testimony.

Moroni also tells him about a record that is uh, hidden in a hill that's close by Joseph's house that this record, he says, was of the ancient inhabitants of the Americas and that Joseph is supposed to go there. That there are means, along with the record to translate it, and that this is a record that God wants Joseph to translate and to send out into the world.

Rebecca: The means to translate the record were two stones and silver bows fastened to a breastplate, together all called the Urim and Thummim. These stones were used anciently as seers prepared by God for the purpose of translation. Also buried with the plates was the Sword of Laban, which when you read the Book of Mormon you'll have more context to where that comes from.

Moroni also tells Joseph that the record contains the fullness of the Gospel as delivered by [00:07:00] Jesus Christ to those ancient inhabitants.

Matthew: And then there are many biblical prophecies that Moroni quotes to Joseph. He quotes from Malachi about Elijah returning to the earth.

Rebecca: Moroni quotes Malachi saying, And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.

I asked Matt if he had any thoughts about why Moroni would quote those parts of the book of Malachi, specifically.

Matthew: I think for me, when we're talking about the hearts of the children being turned to the fathers, we refer to that as the beginning of family history, that there has to be these welding links that are made here on the earth to tie families together.

I think Joseph is very much like all of us. He learned line upon line, precept upon precept. He didn't know everything all at once, but the Lord revealed things to him over [00:08:00] time and certainly with the temple. Joseph knew that temples were important very early on, almost from the organization of the church, but he learned as he went along about why temples were important.

And so Moroni quotes this here, I think signifying that one of the most important aspects of the Restoration is the sealing power, is this tying of families together throughout generations.

And we see this in Joseph's life. You know, he's commanded in 1831 to build a temple in Missouri, which they can't ever do because they get expelled from Jackson County. He's commanded to build a temple in Kirtland, which the Saints are able to do. When they go to Far West he's commanded to build a temple there, which, again, they can't do because they're kicked out of Missouri. Then he's commanded to build a temple in Nauvoo. So every gathering place for the Church, Joseph's told the Saints need to build a temple here.

Rebecca: Moroni goes on, quoting from Joel and other books in [00:09:00] the Old Testament about what's going to happen in the last days.

Matthew: And I think Moroni is really trying to emphasize to Joseph that the Old Testament had prophesied about this final dispensation that was going to come that would prepare the world for Jesus Christ's return, where Israel would be gathered again.

And I think from quoting from these scriptures, from Isaiah, from other things, he's telling Joseph, this is it. It's starting right now. It's going to be restored. The Book of Mormon is going to be translated. You are going to be instrumental in gathering Israel again.

When he's done, Moroni then ascends back up into heaven, and Joseph's kind of left there in the dark, kind of stunned about what's happened, and then suddenly the room starts to get gradually lighter again, and Moroni appears a second time, says basically the same thing as the first time, ascends into heaven again, and then he appears a third time and says the same things to Joseph.[00:10:00]

Rebecca: Each time Moroni comes, he repeats the same scriptures as before, and then adds something new at the end of each message.

After his first visit, he instructs Joseph that once he has the plates, he should show them to no one, except to those who he'll be commanded to show them.

When he comes the second time, he talks about the destructions coming to the earth, specifically desolations by famine, sword, and pestilence, and speaks of grievous judgments.

After disappearing, appearing, and repeating everything again for the third time, Moroni warns Joseph that the adversary would try to tempt him to get the plates for the purpose of getting rich, forbidding him to do so, and that his only purpose in getting the plates should be to glorify God and to build his kingdom.

Moroni's three visits had lasted all night, and Joseph goes out to work in the fields entirely exhausted. His father, Joseph Smith, Sr., notices and tells him to go [00:11:00] home. Stripped of strength, he makes it a short way and then falls on the ground and passes out.

Moroni then appears to him again, repeats everything he had said during the night, and tells him to go tell his dad. Joseph goes back to his dad, tells him everything, and his father says that it was from God and that he should do as he was instructed.

Joseph goes to the Hill Cumorah where the plates are buried, removes the rock covering them, tries to take them out, and Moroni stops him.

Matthew: And Moroni tells him it's because your eye needs to be singled to God's glory, and you're not ready yet for this. And so he tells Joseph to come back the next year.

And so Joseph does. So he comes back at the same time; in September 1824, he returns.

I think certainly over the next four years before he gets the Book of Mormon and as Moroni is teaching him, I think he started to understand and have a much firmer grasp on what this all meant.

Rebecca: So now it's 1827, Joseph has the plates, [00:12:00] and Emma is with him.

Matthew: They have quite a wild ride back to their house, or to Joseph Smith, Sr.'s house. Word gets out that Joseph had, this experience with Moroni. People understood that there were these plates that were in the Hill Cumorah that Joseph was supposed to be getting.

I think that's another evidence of the Book of Mormon, though, because it's not like people are saying, oh, there's no such thing as these plates. You know, even those who didn't believe Joseph was a prophet who were living in Palmyra, they're like, there are plates in there, and there are gold plates, and we're going get them because they're worth a lot of money. So they knew that there were plates that Joseph was going to get.

They get chased. It's kind of like, I mean, when you read it, it's kind of like this scene out of an Indiana Jones movie, where at one point Joseph's, like, running down a trail and somebody jumps out, and he has to punch him, and he, like, hurts his hand in the process, and he gets back to the house, and he is all out of breath with the plates, but he's able to keep them protected [00:13:00]

Again, when he initially has them, I'm not sure he quite understood what he was supposed to do with them and how he was supposed to translate them. So he knew about the Urim and Thummim, but there are indications that he actually sought out educated people in New York who knew about ancient languages to try to see if they could translate any of the characters. Again, we're not quite sure, because the record isn't entirely clear what's going on there. But that's one reason why Martin Harris goes to see Charles Anthon, and where Charles Anthon at first says, “Yes, they're legitimate.” But then when he asks him where did he get these? And Martin Harris says, he got them from an angel. And he says, “No there's nothing like that that exists,” and he tears up the certificate of authentication at that time.

And so Joseph for a while doesn't really know quite how to proceed with the translation. There is a lot of opposition to him in Palmyra at the time. It's difficult for him to keep the plates [00:14:00] safe because there are people who are constantly trying to get them from him, even breaking into their house, trying to search for where the plates are. And so he eventually decides that he needs to leave Palmyra if he's ever going to be able to translate. And so he and Emma move down Harmony, Pennsylvania, where Emma's parents were living, and he really commences the translation at that point.

Rebecca: So what did the translation process look like?

Matthew: So most what we know about the translation come from other people. They come from people who were there at the time that Joseph was translating. So Emma talks about it, the process. David Whitmer talks about it as well. And Joseph and Oliver translate a lot of the Book of Mormon in the Whitmer home. So David would've been there through some of that. But Joseph himself doesn't really talk a lot about the translation. The only thing that he says in his life is that it was translated by the gift and power of God, and that's the only detail that he gives. He doesn't talk about anything else about how he [00:15:00] translated it.

And in fact, there's one occasion in a meeting that's held in October of 1831 where Hiram Smith says to Joseph, Joseph, why don't you tell everyone here about how you translated the Book of Mormon? And Joseph says, no, it's not for the world to know. I'm not going to relate that here. So again, all he ever says is, it was by the gift and power of God.

Rebecca: As a historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, and coupled with the fact he came all the way down to talk with me, I assumed that Matt, too, must have some conviction about the Book of Mormon.

So I asked him what his experience with the book has been. Interestingly enough, like Joseph first encountered the plates as a 17-year-old, Matt turned to the book at the same age.

Matthew: I love the Book of Mormon. Just absolutely love it.

I had an experience once when I was going into my senior year of high school and kind of struggling with some personal things and feeling very distant from God.[00:16:00]

And I remember as I talked to my father about this. He asked me, he said, President Benson has told us to read daily from the Book of Mormon, are you doing that? And I said, no, I'm not. And he's like, well, why don't you try to do what the prophet asked you to do and see if that helps in your relationship with God? And I said, okay, I will and I don't think a day has gone by since then when I haven't read at least one or two verses out of the Book of Mormon.

I tried Moroni's promise out, and the answer wasn't instantaneous, but after a few weeks, I think I just had this feeling of, you know it's true. You've always known it's true.

Rebecca: The scripture that Matt chose to share was one written by Moroni himself.

Matthew: Since we're talking about Moroni and Moroni visiting Joseph Smith, I'm going to go to Moroni chapter [00:17:00] 10:3. And we know this as the beginning of Moroni's promise, you know, where he says, if you'll read the book and pray about it, God will reveal the truth of it to you.

But I think sometimes I've glossed over something that's important in verse 3 about this whole process of revelation. So Moroni says, “Behold, I would exhort you that when you shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that you should read them, that you would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men from the creation of Adam, even down until the time that you shall receive these things and ponder it in your hearts.”

And so the first part, Moroni is saying before you even, you know, as you're reading it, remember how merciful God has been and how merciful God is, and I think that's an important part of obtaining revelation. [00:18:00] Moroni is telling us here, “God is merciful.” And if you remember those times in your life as well as in other people's lives, when he has spoken to you, when he's revealed things to you, when he's protected you. When he's comforted you, and remember how merciful he is, and that puts you in a frame of mind to get additional revelation.

I love that Moroni talks about that, and I think you see it throughout the Book of Mormon, too. The Nephites constantly being told, remember what God has done for the people that have gone before us.

The children of Israel were told the same thing. They were always told, remember what God has done for you.

And so I think it's really important for us to remember God's mercies in our lives, God's mercies in the scriptures, God's mercies in other people's lives, because it shows us how much he loves us.

And, again, a nice connection back to [00:19:00] Joseph Smith. because as you mentioned before, what does he say in there? I'd had a divine manifestation before, so I knew I could have one again. So he remembered that mercy of the First Vision while he was praying for forgiveness in 1823.

Rebecca: To think that when we look back at how the Lord has already spoken to us and in doing so can expect and anticipate that He will do so again is a really cool thought. We can fully trust that He can and has and does respond.

This is a Scripture Central podcast, directed by James Dalrymple, and I produced this episode. I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.