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Joseph and Emma Smith’s Home

Mark L. Staker and Curtis Ashton

As a newlywed couple in 1827, Joseph and Emma Smith—like many couples before and after them—lived in their parents’ homes. They spent time with Joseph’s parents first, near the hill where the golden plates were buried. Shortly after Joseph was entrusted with the plates, the couple moved back to Emma’s hometown of Harmony, Pennsylvania, and stayed briefly with her parents before moving into a neighboring home of their own.

It was in that small home on the Susquehanna River that much of the Book of Mormon was translated, many early revelations were received, and the process of priesthood restoration was begun.

 

Jesse Hale’s Farm

The house that became Joseph and Emma’s home first belonged to Emma’s brother Jesse. In 1815 Jesse married Mary Elizabeth Ann McKune, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. In preparation for his marriage, Jesse purchased part of his father Isaac's land on the banks of the Susquehanna River and next to the McKune property.1 Jesse built his home on that land, and for the next 10 years he and Mary improved the home and farm. Their family grew in that time, and by 1825 the couple was expecting their seventh child. By then Jesse was working with his brothers in a promising sawmill venture on the other side of the Susquehanna River, so he sold his farm back to his father and moved his family into a larger home closer to his work.2 Jesse’s brother David, who had recently married, moved into the house his brother had vacated.3

The year that Jesse moved across the river was also the year that Joseph Smith first came to Susquehanna County and met the Hale family. Joseph was immediately attracted to Emma Hale and courted her through the fall of 1825 and into the following winter. Despite objections from Emma’s father, Isaac Hale, the couple married on January 18, 1827. Joseph took his new bride to live with his parents on their farm between Manchester and Palmyra, New York, more than 100 miles (160 km) away.

After living in New York for eight months, Emma and Joseph visited Isaac Hale, who invited them to come and live near his residence, just as Emma’s siblings had done. Although they made no formal written agreement, Joseph Smith accepted his father-in-law’s invitation and made plans to move.

 

Golden Plates

Before Joseph and Emma left the Manchester-Palmyra area, Emma accompanied her husband to the Hill Cumorah, where, just after midnight on September 22, 1827, Joseph Smith obtained an ancient record written on golden plates from an angel of God.

Much of the Book of Mormon was translated at Joseph and Emma’s home, in the room where Emma worked

As word spread in the area that Joseph Smith had a valuable ancient artifact, multiple attempts were made to steal it from him. For the journey to Harmony, Joseph and Emma carefully packed the plates in a box hidden in a barrel under a bushel of beans. With some help from Emma’s brother Alva and a generous gift from Martin Harris, Joseph and Emma arrived at the Hale farm early in December 1827. That winter David Hale’s family vacated the little house next to the river. After living a few weeks with Emma’s parents, Joseph and Emma moved into the house—one of the few homes they would ever have of their own.

The home in Harmony provided Joseph and Emma a place to work on translating the ancient record. Joseph’s first, limited efforts had begun in December 1827 before the move to the house, but they continued in 1828. Emma helped her husband again briefly when he resumed work in 1829. At times, visitors from New York came to stay in the Smith home and help with the project. Martin Harris and later Oliver Cowdery volunteered to write for Joseph Smith as full-time scribes. The room where Joseph and his scribes worked became the place where the Lord taught about the process of translation as revelation. Today the Lord’s instructions regarding translation make up seven sections of the Doctrine and Covenants.4

 

Supporting a Family

Important as it was, the Book of Mormon translation was hardly the only demand on Joseph Smith’s time and energy during his three years in Pennsylvania. When he and Emma arrived there, Emma was expecting their first child. Joseph had to balance work on the translation with work to support the family and to make Emma comfortable as she entered the final months of her pregnancy. Martin Harris took over from Emma as scribe for Joseph Smith in April 1828. After translating accounts of the prophet Lehi and early Book of Mormon history, Martin insisted on taking the translated pages to his home in New York to reassure family and friends about the importance of the work he was doing. Shortly after Martin Harris left, Emma delivered a son on June 15, 1828.

The baby died shortly after birth and was buried in the nearby cemetery on the McKune farm. Joseph spent the next two sleepless weeks caring for Emma, who became seriously ill after the delivery.

As Emma’s health slowly improved, Joseph became more and more anxious about the lack of news from Martin Harris. At Emma’s insistence, he soon traveled to New York to see what had happened and learned that Martin Harris had lost the translated manuscript. Because of Joseph’s role in allowing Martin to take the pages, the Lord required Joseph to surrender the plates, and Joseph lost his gift of translation for a time.5

Even after Joseph had the plates again, translation could only progress slowly that fall as Joseph set about earning money to get through the winter. He had spent so much effort elsewhere during the spring and summer that he could expect little return from his own farm.6 After butchering his hogs early in the season, Joseph dug a well near the front door of his new home, making it easier to bring in water. Then he hired himself out to work for his in-laws and neighbors, husking corn, threshing grain, and hauling hay and wood.7

On one occasion, after working four days for three dollars in cash, Joseph spent 25 cents on a luxury—a comb as a present for his wife.8 Otherwise, the Smiths lived off resources on their farm while Joseph worked at odd jobs to make ends meet.9

At the end of January, Joseph’s father and Joseph’s brother Samuel arrived to help Joseph and Emma in their difficult financial situation. Together the Smiths tapped the maple trees on Joseph’s farm and boiled the sap into a cash crop of syrup and sugar. Sometime during his visit, Joseph Smith Sr. asked his son if there was more he could do to help him in his work. In answer to his request, Joseph Smith received a revelation for his father, now known as section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

 

Priesthood Ordinances

In the spring of 1829, another guest arrived at Joseph and Emma’s home in Harmony. Oliver Cowdery had heard about Joseph while working as a schoolteacher in New York and felt prompted to come help him with his religious work. Oliver served as Joseph’s scribe for most of the Book of Mormon translation. He and Joseph also talked through important questions that led to several revelations.

Reading in 3 Nephi about the Savior’s instructions to His disciples in the ancient Americas led Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery to ponder and pray about the authority to baptize. The Priesthood Restoration Site commemorates the visit of the angel John the Baptist to Joseph and Oliver on May 15, 1829, near the Smith home, in answer to Joseph and Oliver’s prayer. After conferring priesthood authority on the two men, the angel commanded them to baptize and then ordain each other. Joseph and Oliver baptized each other in the nearby Susquehanna River. While paintings have traditionally shown the ordinations taking place on the banks of the river, it is also possible that Joseph and Oliver went back to the Smith home to dry off and that they performed the ordinations there.

The home was the setting for other priesthood ordinances and revelations as well. Eight more sections of the Doctrine and Covenants give counsel to individuals about their role in the unfolding work of publishing the Book of Mormon and organizing the Church of Christ for the last time.10 Newel Knight remembered one occasion on which priesthood ordinances prompted additional revelation:

In the forepart of the month of August, I, in company with my wife, went to make a visit to Brother Joseph Smith, who then resided at Harmony, Penn. I found him and his wife well, and in good spirits. . . . As neither Sister Emma Smith, the wife of Joseph Smith, nor my wife had been confirmed, we concluded to attend to confirming them at this time. . . . We partook of the sacrament, after which we confirmed the two sisters into the Church, and spent the evening in a glorious manner. The Spirit of the Lord was poured out upon us. We praised the God of Israel and rejoiced exceedingly.11

 

Leaving Harmony

Many of Joseph and Emma’s Pennsylvania neighbors, including Emma’s parents and uncle, were uncomfortable about the emergence of a new faith in their community. By September 1830, opposition to the newly formed Church had grown so much in the Susquehanna Valley that the Whitmer family invited Joseph and Emma to come stay with them in Fayette, New York, instead.12

At that time, Joseph took steps to take care of his financial obligations. In April of 1829 he had made an agreement to pay $200 for the house and farm but was behind on the final payments.13 Before leaving, he arranged to shift the remainder of his mortgage debt from his father-in-law to a local shopkeeper named George Noble. A neighbor agreed to rent the land.14

Just a few months after Joseph and Emma left their home, a revelation called Church members to gather to Ohio.15 Though Joseph and Emma continued to make payments from Ohio on their Pennsylvania farm until they were able to sell it, they never came back again.

Today the home stands as a reminder not only of the translation, revelation, and restoration that took place there but also of Emma’s willingness to leave home and land, brothers and sisters, and even father and mother for the gospel’s sake (see Matthew 19:29).

Footnotes

[1] Mark L. Staker, “Isaac and Elizabeth Hale in Their Endless Mountain Home,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 83.

[2] See Staker, “Isaac and Elizabeth Hale,” 88.

[3] See Mark Lyman Staker and Robin Scott Jensen, “David Hale’s Store Ledger: New Details about Joseph and Emma Smith, the Hale Family, and the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3 (Fall 2014 [expanded web version]), 7–8.

[4] See Doctrine and Covenants 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10.

[5] See Doctrine and Covenants 3:12–14 and section heading.

[6] Research suggests that Joseph Smith planted buckwheat in his fields. If he returned to Harmony from Palmyra by mid-July and could not translate more of the Book of Mormon, he may have planted a crop of buckwheat that would have ripened by the end of September (see Mark Lyman Staker, “Where was the Aaronic Priesthood Restored?: Identifying the Location of John the Baptist’s Appearance, May 15, 1829,” Mormon Historical Studies, vol. 12, no. 2 [Fall 2011], 149).

[7] See Staker and Jensen, “David Hale’s Store Ledger,” BYU Studies Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 3 (Fall 2014), 110–12.

[8] Staker and Jensen, “David Hale’s Store Ledger,” 112.

[9] An archaeological exploration at Joseph and Emma’s homesite turned up shells from American mussels that live in the Susquehanna River. The shells show cut marks, suggesting evidence of human consumption. Mussels are purportedly unpalatable, a source of food only turned to in desperate circumstances. During the 90 years the home was occupied, only Joseph and Emma seem to have faced circumstances that would have turned them to eating mussels.

[10] See Doctrine and Covenants 4, 11, 12, 13, 24, 25, 26, 27.

[11] Newel Knight autobiography and journal, circa 1846, 13–14, Church History Library, Salt Lake City; spelling and punctuation modernized.

[12] Larry C. Porter, “Joseph Smith’s Susquehanna Years,” Ensign, Feb. 2001, 48, 50.

[13]Agreement with Isaac Hale, 6 April 1829,” page 1, josephsmithpapers.org.

[14] For more information about the agreement between Joseph Smith and George Noble, see forthcoming editorial notes in the first volume of the Legal and Business Records series of The Joseph Smith Papers (copy available at Church History Library, Salt Lake City); see also Mark Lyman Staker, “Joseph Smith’s Expanded Harmony Home: Church Headquarters,” Mormon Historical Studies (forthcoming).

[15] See Doctrine and Covenants 37:3; 38:32.