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Brigham Young University Studies Vol. 10 (1969 — 1970)
This article deals with defining the exact date of Alvin Smith’s death which helps the author to pinpoint the visits of Moroni.
While much that has been said regarding the origin of the Book of Mormon is beyond the experience of the average searcher, only as he accepts or rejects the credibility of the earliest witnesses, the existence of the book itself provides a common ground for careful investigation. But beyond this, some surviving, badly weathered fragments of the original manuscript permit a consideration of the Book of Mormon from a paleographic standpoint. It is the purpose of this study to review the history, and consider the handwriting and composition of the remaining segments of the original manuscript for what they may contribute to the credibility of early witnesses regarding the Book of Mormon origin.
The biographer of Joseph Smith’s early life will know his subject when he relies on sources that know their subject. This truism is more obvious in statement than application, for non-Mormon biography has not faced the severe limitations of the uniformly hostile affidavits taken by a sworn enemy of the Mormon Prophet. The image thus obtained is sharply discordant from the Joseph Smith documented in the 1830’s: a leader of physical prowess and vigorous manhood, a profound idealist with spontaneous humor and warmth, who displayed personal courage under tremendous odds. A similar youth in the 1820’s is discovered, not by editing out non-Mormon sources, but finding those non-Mormon sources that reflect definite contact with Joseph Smith. Such a study shows that collecting informed statements about the Prophet will produce a substantial favorable judgment. Although initial collection of statements against Joseph Smith is an oft-told story, its outline is a necessary background for the affidavits to be analyzed. D. P. Hurlbut, excommunicated twice by LDS tribunals for immorality; became so personally vindictive that he was put under a court order restraining him from doing harm to the person or property of Joseph Smith. He was next “employed” by an anti-Mormon public committee to gather evidence to “completely divest Joseph Smith of all claims to the character of an honest man. . . .” To achieve this goal he traveled to New York and procured statements at Palmyra Village, the largest business center adjacent to the Smith farm and also at Manchester, the rural district that included “Stafford Street.” Cornelius Stafford, then twenty, later remembered that Hurlbut arrived at “our school house and took statements about the bad character of the Mormon Smith family, and saw them swear to them.” The Painesville, Ohio, editor, E. D. Howe, replaced Hurlbut as a respectable author, and published the affidavits in Mormonism Unvailed (1834), laying the cornerstone of anti-Mormon historiography. Howe lived to see the solidity of the edifice, observing forty-four years afterward in his memoirs that the book “has been the basis of all the histories which have appeared from time to time since that period touching that people.” More accurately, Howe’s writing was insignificant, but the Palmyra-Manchester affidavits published by him have introduced Joseph Smith in every major non-Mormon study from 1834 to the present. Yet even supposedly definitive studies display no investigation of the individuals behind the Hurlbut statements, nor much insight into their community.
On September 2, 1829, a new paper was born in Palmyra, New York, called The Reflector and published by O. Dogberry, Jun. The object of the papers was to “correct the morals and improve the mind.” O. Dogberry was the pseudonym for a certain Esquire Cole, an ex-justice of the peace, who had obtained access on Sundays and evenings to the use of the idle E. B. Grandin & Co. press, the same press which was being used to print the Book of Mormon. Apparently rumors and gossip about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon were widespread; and Esquire Cole, who looked upon Joseph as an impostor, printed rather tart comments about him and the Book of Mormon.
With the many branch, ward, and stake organizations which currently bedeck the international scene of Mormonism, it is understandable that the activities of a small branch of Saints at Colesville, Broome County, New York, could have been virtually forgotten with the passage of time. Yet, at the close of 1830, it was one of some five principal branches serving as focal points for the gathering of the faithful in the new Church. Fayette, Seneca County, New York, served as the headquarters of the Church, while other branches existed at Colesville; Kirtland and Mentor, Geauga County, Ohio; and Warrensville, Cayahoga County, Ohio. The Colesville Branch was personally inaugurated by the Prophet Joseph Smith and its membership played a significant role in the initial years of the new dispensation. Drawn by Joseph’s affirmation of communication with the heavens and the supportive evidences contained in the Book of Mormon, the Colesville Saints gave impetus to the missionary zeal of the Restoration and provided elements of needed leadership for the rapidly expanding faith. From the very inception of “Mormonism,” the Saints comprising the Colesville Branch linked their lives inexorably with the Restored Gospel and the volume which had inspired their conversion, the Book of Mormon. They relinquished family, friends, homes and material comforts in pursuit of their testimonies. The Prophet Joseph Smith was not unmindful of these sacrifices. On August 22, 1842, while making entries in the Book of the Law of the Lord, he paid tribute to certain of the Colesville membership, which might well be applied to them all.
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In 1880 James T. Cobb, a graduate of Dartmouth and Amherst colleges and a resident of Salt Lake City, was making an attempt to establish the falsity of the Book of Mormon through an extensive examination of its origins. Among those to whom he directed letters of inquiry was William E. McLellan, whose close association with Joseph Smith and the witnesses of the Book of Mormon in the early years of the Church made him an appropriate subject for correspondence. William E. McLellan joined the Church in 1831. Although he became an early critic of Joseph Smith and other Church leaders, he nevertheless progressed to top leadership positions and on February 15, 1835, he was ordained as one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve. Yet due to his criticism of Church leadership he was excommunicated in 1838. The testimony reproduced in this article, written in reply to James T. Cobb’s inquiry, is significant because despite McLellan’s disillusionment with Joseph Smith, he nevertheless was unable to deny his conviction that the Book of Mormon was what it claimed to be.