Updated: Mar 22, 2022
Story by Vance Savage
Photography courtesy Kenneth Mays
Within the now-worn pages of the Vermont Bicentennial Guide, one will observe that Sharon, Vermont was “the birthplace of one of the immortals of American history, Joseph Smith.” Smith is widely known for translating The Book of Mormon and for establishing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Without question, Joseph Smith stood strong in the face of adversity. Within his brief 38 years, Smith was plagued by serious illness, the tragic loss of loved ones, and near-death experiences. In his later years, resolute and unwavering, he would fight numerous false arrests and malicious court trials.
Regardless of the daunting tasks presented to this man, Smith would adhere to his beliefs steadfastly and unrelentingly. How did this poor Vermont native become such an important religious and historical figure?
Joseph Smith was born in a small farmhouse on December 23, 1805 in the rural town of Sharon, Vermont to Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith Sr. Although Joseph Smith Sr. was once a prosperous individual, he lost a considerable amount of his fortune on a failed business venture. Ultimately, Lucy and Joseph Sr. were poor tenant farmers.
Both had strict religious backgrounds. Lucy was born in Connecticut; her mother was a Congregationalist, while her father, Solomon, stood firm in his beliefs of Universalism, an understanding that God would save mankind. Interestingly, Lucy remained unbaptized until her adult years and in her older years attended Presbyterian meetings.
Joseph Sr. was well taught in a wide array of theology. His father, Asael, a man steeped in Rationalism, was somewhat of a celebrity to those living in the community of Topsfield, Massachusetts. Asael rooted his beliefs in Universalism and Seekerism (a movement that sought a new revelation that would restore Christianity), and was displeased with the teachings in churches of his day. Joseph Sr. was suspect of all clergy and rejected organized religion. He not only refused to accompany Lucy to church, but also kept young Joseph at home by his side.
In his vital learning years, young Joseph would be taught that visions or dreams were divine messages communicated by God. Both parents, in addition to his maternal grandfather, were stern believers of this premise. In fact, Lucy often recorded her husband’s dreams and nightmares in utmost detail, believing they would lead to spiritual enlightenment.
As a young, influential boy, it can be imagined Joseph Smith was nothing short of confused and conflicted. He was deprived of any formal education, although instructed in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic. His mother penned that the boy was often “given to meditation and deep study.”
The year of 1811 brought horror to the Smith home when six of the children were diagnosed with typhoid fever. It was young Joseph who was struck hardest and would become prey to this awful disease. His leg would eventually become so infected that his physicians seriously discussed amputation.
Struck down with unspeakable pain that would have crippled an adult, young Joseph would go on to bear the agony of a grizzly procedure without any anesthesia. In “The History of Joseph Smith by His Mother,” Lucy Mack Smith delved into great detail about the boy’s anguish.
“The surgeons commenced operating by boring into the bone of his leg, first on one side of the bone where it was affected, then on the other side, after which they broke it off with a pair of forceps or pincers. They thus took away large pieces of the bone. When they broke off the first piece, Joseph screamed out so loudly, that I could not forbear running to him. On my entering the room, he cried out, ‘Oh, mother, go back, go back; I do not want you to come in—I will try to tough it out, if you will go away.’ When the third piece was taken away, I burst into the room again—and oh, my God! What a spectacle for a mother’s eye! The wound torn open, the blood still gushing from it, and the bed literally covered with blood. Joseph was as pale as a corpse, and large drops of sweat were rolling down his face, whilst upon every feature was depicted the utmost agony!
I was immediately forced from the room, and detained until the operation was completed; but when the act was accomplished, Joseph put upon a clean bed, the room cleared of every appearance of blood, and the instruments which were used in the operation removed, I was
permitted again to enter.”
Joseph would go on to later write of the incident: “I endured the most acute suffering for a long time under the care of Drs. Smith, Stone, and Perkins, of Hanover. At one time, 11 Doctors came from
Dartmouth Medical College, at Hanover, New Hampshire, for the purpose of amputation, but, young as I was, I utterly refused to give my assent to the operation, but consented to their trying an experiment by removing a large portion of the bone from my left leg, which they did, and fourteen additional pieces of bone afterwards worked out before my leg healed, during which time I was reduced so very low that my mother could carry me with ease.”
One cannot comprehend how traumatizing this surgery must have been to a 7-year-old boy. In this occasion alone, we are witness to his iron-clad spirit.
Incredibly, the incision in Joseph’s leg healed in a matter of weeks, but he required crutches for the next three years. Not one to indulge his disability, Joseph still went on treasure hunts with his family. (At the time, many folk believed magical stones would allow them to find the locations of hidden treasure.)
According to Lucy’s family memoir, at 14, the young Joseph was “out one evening on an errand.” Upon returning home, as he was “passing through the door-yard, a gun was fired across his pathway, with the evident intention of shooting him.” The family investigated the incident—finding one ball in the neck of a cow and the criminal’s tracks beneath a wagon. The boy was not injured, but was quite shaken from the incident.
Overcome with uncertainty, Joseph began attending numerous religious meetings, seeking out revivals and even joining a youth debate club. When attending the revival meetings, he was known as an “exhorter,” often speaking after the preacher’s sermon.
Joseph prayed for help, and according to his report, two beings of brightness and glory appeared to him (God and Jesus). They informed him that all churches were misguided in their teachings. A local minister, however, dismissed his vision as a delusion, but this did not deter the devoted young man in his convictions. After all, despite the many conflicted religious beliefs within his family, the belief that visions and dreams were divine was a constant.
On September 21, 1823, Joseph would go on to assert an angel named Moroni, who led him to two golden plates, enabling him to transcribe The Book of Mormon, visited him. Despite his sufferings and arduous religious journey, Joseph became a prominent, worldwide religious leader and prophet.
A granite obelisk on a hill in the White River Valley near Sharon and South Royalton, Vermont marks the place of Joseph’s birth. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints erected the monument; he is recognized as the first president and founding prophet. The obelisk was quarried in Barre, Vermont and has been cited as a remarkable feat of engineering.
When telling his own story, Joseph Smith customarily began with his Vermont birth. He asserted that his Vermont childhood shaped his character: “It is a love of liberty which inspired my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole human race.”