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Moroni in Joseph Smith’s Bedroom

Moroni in Joseph Smith’s Bedroom

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Joseph Smith’s official, canonical account of Moroni’s first visitation to him includes specific details that pose some interesting and challenging difficulties for the veracity of the account. According to the account (written in 1838), Joseph was praying at night on September 21, 1823, when a light appeared in his bedroom and “continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday” (Joseph Smith—History 1:30). The angel then spoke to Joseph at length, reappearing two more times in the same manner, keeping Joseph awake most of the night (1:30-31).

What this account neglects to mention is that Joseph shared his bedroom, and even his bed, with some of his brothers. None of the adult children of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Smith had yet been married and all nine of them still lived with their parents. In September 1823 the Smith children and their ages were Alvin, 25; Hyrum, 23; Sophronia, 20; Joseph Jr., 17; Samuel, 15; William, 12; Katherine, 10; Don Carlos, 7; Lucy, 2.

In an article in the LDS magazine Ensign, Donald Enders described the Smith log cabin as “a one and one-half story structure with two rooms on the ground level and ‘a garret above divided into two apartments.’” Enders noted that “the chamber above the two rooms probably served as sleeping quarters for most of the Smith children.” A bedroom was added in July 1821 as the children became older, but even so, at the time of Moroni’s first visitation the log house was “home to parents and nine children,” with room for at most three beds to accommodate the seven boys.1 Thus, Joseph shared one small bedroom with at least four and probably five of his six brothers, and in fact must have shared a bed with one or two of them.

This fact renders the scene described by Joseph fifteen years later highly implausible, since he claims that the angel’s presence made the room as bright as mid-day and that the two of them engaged in conversation three separate times throughout the night.2 Even LDS historian and Joseph Smith biographer Richard Bushman indirectly acknowledges the problem when he explains that Joseph’s first vision (in 1820) took place in the woods because there was “no hope of privacy in the little cabin filled with children and household activity.”3

Mormon apologists have offered various ad hoc responses to this problem. Ashurst-McGee’s response is typical: “For those who do believe in Joseph’s visions, the argument sounds theologically naive. Could not Moroni manifest himself to Joseph only? None of Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus saw the resurrected Christ. A vision needs only to hold the attention of the visionary. Joseph’s brothers can sleep in peace.”4 The differences in the two cases are obvious: 

  1. Luke mentions Paul’s companions’ presence, but Joseph did not mention his brothers’ presence.
  2. However one interprets Paul’s experience, Joseph’s experience was supposedly not just a vision but a visitation; i.e., Moroni was supposedly literally, physically in the room. Here it is worth noting that Ashurst-McGee himself recognizes the significance of this distinction.5
  3. Paul’s companions did not see Christ, but they saw the light, saw Saul fall to the ground, and afterwards helped him to get to Damascus because they knew he had been struck blind (Acts 9:4-8). Joseph’s brothers and other family members apparently saw and heard nothing, despite the brilliant light and the long conversations that took up most or all of the night (JS-H 1:47). We know they did not see anything unusual that night because the next day Joseph’s father knew nothing about what had happened until after Moroni appeared to Joseph a fourth time and instructed him to tell his father (1:49-50).

The problem of how Joseph’s family could have been unaware of Joseph staying up all night talking to a brilliantly shining angel could be solved by taking the position that the experience was originally understood as a dream vision rather than a visitation. Such an explanation merely defends one element of the canonical account (the nocturnal experience in Joseph’s bedroom) by rejecting another element of the same account (the literal appearance of a resurrected man in the room). It therefore fails to make the account any more plausible.

It might seem easy enough to dismiss the problem as a mere trifle, an instance of carping at a minor detail. However, the credibility of the account and of the one who gave it depends on the credibility of its specific elements. If it is not plausible that Joseph and a gloriously shining Moroni carried on lengthy conversations in his bedroom at night, that conclusion calls into question the alleged event itself and raises legitimate doubt about the trustworthiness of Joseph Smith.

 

NOTES 


1. Donald L. Enders, “The Joseph Smith, Sr., Family: Farmers of the Genesee,” in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Black Eastman and Charles D. Tate Jr., Religious Studies Center Monograph Series 17 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1993), 213-25.

2. Cf. Clay L. Chandler, “Scrying for the Lord: Magic, Mysticism, and the Origins of the Book of Mormon,” Dialogue 36, 4 (2003): 54 (43-78).

3. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, with the assistance of Jed Woodworth (New York: Knopf, 2005), 39.

4. Mark Ashurst-McGee, “A Pathway to Prophethood: Joseph Smith Junior as Rodsman, Village Seer, and Judeo-Christian Prophet,” M.A. thesis (Utah State University, 2000), 293.

5. Ibid., 10.