Book excerpt! Chapter 4 from THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST

| No Comments
Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

My mission began around the time the prophet Ezra Taft Benson forcefully reaffirmed Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Book of Mormon was “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion.” It was the absolute center of our proselytizing efforts, the axis around which all else revolved.

Joseph published the Book of Mormon in 1830, when he was 24 years old, in the wake of a revivalist firestorm that swept through western New York. New religious movements had sprung up left and right, and utopian societies were a dime a dozen. The region was fertile ground for experiments in faith, having already given rise to such charismatic figures as Jemima Wilkinson and Mother Ann Lee. Joseph and his book would go on to eclipse them all.

Joseph Smith, Jr.—named, like I was, after his father—was born into precarious circumstances in Vermont on December 23, 1805. He already had two older brothers and an older sister—another brother had died in childbirth—and his father shuffled the growing brood from one New England town to the next, hounded by bad luck and debt. Joseph’s was a childhood steeped in magic and visions from his father, but also, from his mother, in deep love and reverence for the Bible.

In 1816, the Smiths fetched up in the western New York town of Palmyra, where they found some measure of stability. Joseph’s father taught school and farmed ginseng root, but he was best-known in the region as a “money-digger”—a mystic for hire who used seer stones and other folksy implements to dowse for buried gold. As Joseph grew older he joined his father in this work, eventually leading his own band of diggers.

Joseph’s First Vision came, he later claimed, in 1820, when he was fourteen—though records would appear to suggest he didn’t talk about the experience at the time, even with family members. The divine visitation certainly didn’t seem to change him much, as he grew into something of a rogue in his mid-teens. Handsome, charming, and tall, he was popular with the girls, adept at street wrestling, and no stranger to wine. “[M]ingling with all kinds of society,” he wrote of those years, “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 divers temptations, offensive in the sight of God.”

More than anything, Joseph had a way with a tale. He was quick to embellish an anecdote for the amusement of his friends, and even his mother took note of his storytelling flair. She wrote that Joseph “would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of travelling, and the animals upon which they rode . . . This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them.”

Still, it weighed on Joseph that further celestial visions were not forthcoming. “I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections,” he wrote, fearing his sins and very character were to blame for the silence of the heavens. On the night of September 21, 1823, when he was seventeen, Joseph harrowed up his soul in bedside prayer, begging God’s forgiveness.

In answer an angel appeared before him, standing in the air and radiating light. The angel introduced himself as Moroni and announced that he’d been sent by God to lead Joseph to an ancient book buried in a nearby hill. The angel appeared twice more that night and once again in the morning—each time, like R2-D2 on the fritz, delivering the same message.

Joseph hiked to the hill Moroni had described. There the angel awaited, directing Joseph to pry a large, flat rock up out of the ground. Beneath the rock, in a box of mortised stone, lay a treasure for the ages—a book made from sheets of hammered gold and bound with wire hoops. These “golden plates” were engraved with strange hieroglyphs. He bent eagerly to retrieve the book, but the angel, sensing the greed in Joseph’s heart, forbade him.

Moroni explained that this was an ancient and sacred record kept by the former inhabitants of the Americas, a record Joseph would one day be called upon to translate if he remained faithful. Disappointed yet determined, Joseph agreed to meet the angel at that same spot one year later.

Joseph returned the next year, and the next, and still Moroni would not allow him to take the plates. Then in late 1825, Joseph traveled south, nearly to Pennsylvania, to work for an old farmer named Josiah Stowel. Talk of the boy’s treasure-finding abilities had spread, and Stowel hoped Joseph could help him locate a fabled Spanish silver mine. They hunted through the winter, unsuccessfully, with Joseph also doing handywork and odd jobs around the farm. His salary was fourteen dollars a month.

But in March 1826, according to court documents, Stowel’s nephew Peter Bridgman hauled Joseph before a judge on charges of being “a disorderly person and an imposter”—in essence, a con man. Joseph was found guilty, though his punishment is not listed in the report. This is the first recorded instance of his many encounters with the law.

Though he seems to have stopped his money-digging at this point, Joseph stayed on with Stowel several months longer, as he was secretly courting a beautiful Pennsylvania woman two years his senior named Emma Hale. Joseph somehow kept his annual appointment with Moroni near Palmyra in September—denied the plates again—then eloped with Emma in January 1827, quite against her father’s wishes.

The newlyweds moved in with Joseph’s parents. Joseph was now 21, with a wife and, perhaps, more incentive than ever to make something of himself. So it was that, on September 22, 1827, flushed with excitement, Joseph brought a heavy sack home to Emma and his parents. Inside, he told them, was a book of gold to which an angel had guided him. He couldn’t show it to them, for to look upon it meant certain death, but their help was needed to keep the treasure safe.

Word of Joseph’s golden treasure soon got around, and at least one attempt was made by thieves to secure the plates. Luckily, Joseph had foreseen the raid and, as he told his family the next day, whisked the plates away to a new hiding place in advance.

At last, using two seer stones as translating devices, and without even removing the plates from their sack, Joseph began the work, with Emma as his scribe, of rendering the strange engravings into English.

The plates, as Joseph’s dictation revealed, contained the writings of a series of prophets of ancient America and were engraved in a hitherto unknown language called Reformed Egyptian. The record began with an Israelite prophet named Lehi who fled Jerusalem in 600 BCE, ahead of the Babylonian invasion. Lehi and his sons built ships that carried them and their wives to America, where the family multiplied and splintered into two rival clans—the white-skinned Nephites, favored of God, and the dark-skinned Lamanites, savage and wicked. The account lent spectacular credence to a popular theory of Joseph’s day, that the American Indians were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

Joseph wasn’t far into his project when a prosperous farmer named Martin Harris visited him. Joseph had done work for Martin in the past, but now Martin was so enchanted by the story of the plates that he offered to underwrite the translation work. Neighbors would later testify to Martin’s suggestible and flighty character, but he did pay Joseph’s debts and provide enough additional money to let the younger man devote himself to the book.

Martin’s wife, Lucy, was less than pleased with this arrangement. She did not share her husband’s credulity and had watched him skip from one faith to the next like a stone skimming a pond. Certain Joseph would bleed her husband dry, she tried to no avail to talk Martin out of giving the prophet more money. In April 1828, Martin joined Joseph and Emma at a house Emma’s father had provided the couple in Pennsylvania. Emma was by now pregnant, and Martin took over as Joseph’s scribe. Lucy had come as well, determined to see these golden plates with her own eyes, but as often as she ransacked the house she never managed to find where Joseph kept them hidden. Why this might be so, I leave as an exercise for the reader.

Martin, like Emma before him, sat writing on one side of a curtained divider while Joseph dictated what he read in his seer stones. As June arrived and the manuscript crept past a hundred handwritten pages, Martin badgered Joseph to let him take it home to show his angry, skeptical wife, who had returned to Palmyra. Joseph resisted at first, but eventually Martin departed with the first 116 pages of the Book of Mormon in his possession.

Every writer worth his salt knows you don’t let the only copy of your manuscript out of your sight, but the young prophet had yet to learn this lesson. There were other things for him to worry about, such as Emma’s impending delivery. On June 15, Joseph’s first son was born but died the same day. Emma herself barely survived the birth. Joseph spent two weeks caring for her before he could think about traveling north to see what had become of the absent Martin Harris.

In Palmyra, Joseph arranged for Martin to meet him at the Smith family home. Martin arrived hours late, despondent, and, to Joseph’s horror, confessed that Lucy had stolen the manuscript. As hard as Martin had searched, he couldn’t find it anywhere.

This posed Joseph a vexing dilemma. He could go back and retranslate that first section of the book, but if the result did not match the original translation then Lucy and her confederates could demonstrate to the world that Joseph was no prophet. But to abandon the task he claimed was divinely assigned would be to make the same admission.

After much deliberation and prayer, Joseph issued a revelation from God. To frustrate Satan’s plan to discredit the book, he must stop translating Lehi’s account. Instead, Joseph must switch over to the writings of Lehi’s fourth son, Nephi, which covered the same events, then continue with the remainder of the plates.

With the trap neatly sidestepped, the work of God rolled on.

Martin Harris resumed his work as scribe for a time, until Joseph replaced him with the more capable and reliable Oliver Cowdery, a young schoolteacher. Between April and July of 1829, Joseph and Oliver cranked out the vast bulk of the translation.

The record, handed down from one seer to the next, detailed a thousand years of New World history—wars, intrigues, cataclysms, and prophecies. Most of its writers set down important discourses, filled with doctrine of the coming messiah, the Christ. Nephi copied fourteen chapters of Isaiah’s writings into the record, “for,” as he said, “my soul delighteth in his words.” Remarkably—or perhaps not so—they appear in Joseph’s translation nearly word for word as in the King James Bible.

Just as remarkably, the text reports that the Nephite civilization flourished over the centuries not just because of wise kings and democratic laws, but also with the aid of such tools as the wheel, refined steel, and domesticated animals like horses and elephants. That there is no credible archaeological or paleontological evidence to support the existence of any of these in the Americas during the period recorded in the plates only makes these claims that much more miraculous.

But most amazing of all, the record claims that Jesus himself appeared to the people of Nephi after his resurrection, performing miracles and delivering sermons that match his words from the Gospel of Matthew with uncanny precision. After this visit, we are told, peace ruled in the land for four generations.

Over the next two hundred or so years, however, the Nephites and Lamanites alike forgot Jesus and descended into wickedness and savagery. The prophet and general Mormon, having abridged the records of his predecessors onto one set of engraved gold plates, led the dwindling Nephites in a bloody war against the Lamanites. The dead of both nations were already heaped upon the land with their swords and shields, to be buried en masse under giant mounds of dirt, when the remnants of the two armies came together for one great final battle. By the time it was over, only Mormon’s son, Moroni, of all the Nephite people, still lived. The bloodthirsty Lamanites had triumphed utterly.

The Lamanites harried and pursued Moroni for the remainder of his days. Still, in about 421 CE the fugitive prophet completed the abridgment his father had begun. He added a few final words, then buried the plates in a hill called Cumorah.

It was this same Moroni who returned as a resurrected angel 1400 years later to lead Joseph Smith to their resting place.

Where are the Golden Plates today? No one knows. When Joseph completed his translation, Moroni took them back into his possession. But wherever they are, we can rest assured they remain safe from the clever hands of thieves and opaque to the prying eyes of archaeologists and linguists.

A penitent Martin Harris, having left his wife, mortgaged and eventually sold his farm to finance the first printing of the Book of Mormon. It appeared for sale on March 26, 1830. With that, the grand work of Joseph Smith’s life—the restoration of the lost keys of Christ’s gospel, and the reestablishment of God’s kingdom on earth—was underway.

Excerpted from The Accidental Terrorist: Confessions of a Reluctant Missionary by William Shunn, available now!

Leave a comment

Featured Book

William Shunn

About This Entry

This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on November 8, 2015 9:06 AM.

Book excerpt! Chapter 3 from THE ACCIDENTAL TERRORIST was the previous entry in this blog.

Memoir comes out tomorrow! Plus, a new missionary short story! is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.