Three hundred miles from New York City, there’s a ten-acre patch of forest, which more than 100,000 people visit every year.
Why do they choose to come here?
To remember a prayer from almost 200 years ago. A prayer that has changed their lives.
More than 15 million people trace their faith’s roots to events that took place in this forest, to the questions a young Joseph Smith asked and the answers God gave.
Four firsthand accounts, combined with insights from historical research, give us a glimpse into the years that helped turn a boy into a prophet.
Joseph Smith’s journey toward the Sacred Grove began in 1816 with a devastating economic crisis. Frosts every month of the year and snowstorms in June killed crop after crop in Vermont, driving food prices up and thousands of poor, broken farmers—including the Smith family—from the state.
By the time 11-year-old Joseph Smith arrived in New York, he had experienced both the cruelty and compassion those desperate times drew out of people.
Over the next few years, as he worked with his parents and older siblings to carve out a living for their family of 10, he often reflected on “the situation of the world of mankind.”
Why were humans so often so thoughtless in spite of their best religious ideals? And why did he, as a youth, often fail to live up to what he knew was good and right?
“I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world.”
As a young person with deeply felt spiritual questions, Joseph felt drawn to the lively religious landscape of upstate New York.
He was not alone. In churches, homes, and open-air clearings, people gathered to discuss human nature, forgiveness, morality, and authority. Together, they struggled to understand the lessons of the past and the direction of the future.
Unfortunately, the debate was not always civil. Records from the era contain not only sharp rebukes of ideas but also snide attacks on those who held them. Joseph often felt caught in the crossfire of this “war of words.”
“It was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.”
In the face of the divisions and imperfections he saw in religion, Joseph could have given up. But he continued to attend the meetings of different churches “as often as occasion would permit” and to reflect on what he heard.
And as he searched for truth, Joseph felt God’s presence in the world around him: in the light of the sun and the beauty of the moon, in the richness of the earth and the wealth of life flourishing on it.
Though uncertain of his own standing before God and unable to find a religion that felt right, Joseph gained confidence that God existed and was worth reaching toward.
“God could not be the author of so much confusion.”
In addition to attendance at different churches and personal meditation, Joseph searched for God by studying the Bible. And one day, while reading James 1:5, he felt that God was speaking directly to him through that ancient text.
“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God,
that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not;
and it shall be given him.”
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine.”
Ask of God. It sounded so simple, but Joseph had never prayed out loud before—let alone asked God for a direct answer.
And yet there didn’t seem to be any other way. “At length,” he later wrote, “I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.”
“I retired to the silent grove...”
He chose a place first: a quiet spot in the woods where he could feel at once alone and surrounded by God’s creation. And then, early one morning, he knelt there to “offer up the desires of [his] heart to God.”
We do not and cannot know all that was in Joseph’s heart that morning. We know he felt the weight of a broken world and of his own shortcomings. We know he longed for a faith and community led by Jesus Christ. And we know that God knew his heart and saw that it was open.
After an initial struggle to pray, Joseph was “surrounded by a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day” and felt a “joy unspeakable.” In the light, he saw two figures “whose brightness and glory defy all description”—God the Father and Jesus Christ.
But as magnificent as the vision was, even more important was its message. Jesus told Joseph that people had turned away from Him; though they still spoke of Christ, they had lost the full power of his truth.
The church Joseph was looking for no longer existed on the earth — but the time would soon come when it would be restored, when old prophecies and covenants would begin to be fulfilled.
The time would soon come when the Lord would have a work for Joseph Smith to do.