“A messenger sent from the presence of God”

I’ve always been interested in knowing what all Moroni said to Joseph Smith during their first conversation.  We have several accounts, both from Joseph Smith himself and from close associates like Oliver Cowdery, Orson Pratt, and Lucy Mack Smith of that visit, but all of them pick and choose what they discuss and all of them were written somewhere between 7 to 22 years after the event occurred.  Cowdery claimed that the visions began around “eleven or twelve, and perhaps later”,[1] and in Joseph Smith’s official account, he recalls that after three visions with the angel, “the cock crowed, and I found that day was approaching, so that our interviews must have occupied the whole of that night.”[2]  If we assume that the visions of Moroni began at midnight, that sunrise on 22 September 1823 occurred around 5:45 a.m.,[3] and that an insignificant amount of time passed between each visit, then that makes for an average of slightly less than 2 hours per vision.  Admittedly, the records indicate that each vision was longer than the last, but that still gives a lot of time for talking on Moroni’s part compared to the number of words we have in the Joseph Smith—History.  What all did he cover in that time?  The accounts we do have of what Moroni told Joseph Smith can give us some insights, even if they aren’t likely to be perfect in their presentation of the details.

The Contemporary Accounts

The earliest accounts from Joseph Smith are relatively brief and skimpy on details.  The first one is included in the Articles and Covenants of the Church, which was recorded in the spring of 1830 (and currently presented as D&C 20).  As far as any message from the angel, it only states that the angel “gave unto him commandments which inspired him from on high, and gave unto him power, by the means of which was before prepared that he should translate a book.”[4]  The next account came two years later and focuses primarily on revealing the existence Book of Mormon and that “the Lord had forgiven [Joseph Smith his] sins.”  In addition, the angel “revealed unto me many things concerning the inhabitents of the earth which since have been revealed in commandments & revelations.”[5]  These two early accounts give us some core ideas about forgiveness of sins and introducing the Book of Mormon and the Restoration.

The first second-hand account is the most extensive in laying out what Moroni taught Joseph Smith.  Oliver Cowdery worked to tell the history of the Church in a series of letters published in the Messenger and Advocate in 1834-1835.  In his first discussion about the angel’s visit, Cowdery recorded that Joseph Smith heard the angel “declare himself to be a messenger sent by commandment of the Lord, to deliver a special message and to witness to him that his sins were forgiven, and that his prayers were heard; and that the scriptures might be fulfilled,” specifically mentioning 1 Corinthians 1:27-29; Isaiah 29:14; and John 10:16.  The angel added that: “This cannot be brought about until first certain preparatory things are accomplished, for so has the Lord purposed in his own mind. He has therefore chosen you as an instrument in his hand to bring to light that which shall perform his act, his strange act, and bring to pass a marvelous work and a wonder.”  Following this: “He then proceeded and gave a general account of the promises made to the fathers, and also gave a history of the aborigines of this country, and said they were literal descendants of Abraham. … He said this history was written and deposited not far from that place,”[6] and indicated that Joseph would have the chance to translate it if he was faithful.  This account was the first lengthy record to be published that described what happened when the angel visited Joseph Smith.

Cowdery followed this up with a far more extensive attempt at recording what Moroni taught.  This later letter indicates that Moroni gave a lengthy discourse on the Restoration, the gathering of Israel, and the Last Days, with over two dozen Bible passages quoted.[7]  It is unclear, however, how much of the discourse is Oliver Cowdery’s (summarizing what he believed to be the message of Moroni using scriptural quotations) and how much is actually what Moroni said.  Interestingly, there is only partial overlap between the scriptures Joseph Smith would later recall Moroni quoting (Joel 2:28 and Isaiah 11:15-16 being the only common ground).  In any case, the series of letters from Oliver Cowdery were probably the best-known account of Moroni’s visit for most of Joseph Smith’s lifetime.

Joseph Smith had three more first-hand accounts of the angel’s visit recorded during his lifetime.  The first was a journal entry in November 1835 when he told a visitor about the experience.  According to this account, the angel:

said unto me I am a messenger sent from God, be faithful and keep his commandments in all things, he told me of a sacred record which was written on plates of gold, I saw in the vision the place where they were deposited, he said the indians, were the literal descendants of Abraham he explained many things of the prophesies to me, one I will mention which is this in Malachi 4 behold the day of the Lord cometh &c;  also that the Urim and Thumim, was hid up with the record, and that God would give me power to translate it, with the assistance of this instrument.[8]

This is the earliest mention of the angel referring to Malachi 4 as part of his explanation of prophesies.

The next primary account is the official history that is the basis of both the Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Covenants, Section 2.  The history was started in Missouri in late April 1838, aborted after a few weeks, then resumed in Illinois in the summer of 1839.  In this account, the angel told Joseph “that God had a work for me to do,” that “there was a book deposited written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent” and that God had prepared seer stones to translate the book. Then, “he commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old testament,” including Malachi 3-4; Isaiah 11; Acts 3:22-23; and Joel 2:28-32, with some commentary.  Joseph adds that: “While he was conversing with me about the plates the vision was opened to my mind that I could see the place where the plates were deposited.”  Each appearance of the angel included additional lecturing about things like “great judgements which were coming upon the earth” and “a caution to me, telling me that Satan would try to tempt me.”[9]  Although not as elaborate as Cowdery’s efforts to record the visions, this account is the most extensive of Joseph Smith’s own accounts of the event.

The final first-hand account of the angel’s visit is from the Wentworth Letter of 1842.  In this account, Joseph Smith summarizes the angel’s message as “the joyful tidings, that the covenant which God made with ancient Israel was at hand to be fulfilled, that the preparatory work for the second coming of the Messiah was speedily to commence; that the time was at hand for the gospel, in all its fulness to be preached in power, unto all nations that a people might be prepared for the millennial reign.”  Joseph Smith was also informed about his role as “an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of his purposes in this glorious dispensation” and given an overview of the Book of Mormon.[10]  This last account gives an overview of what the angel was recorded as talking about.

There are, of course, a few more contemporary second-hand accounts, such publications by Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde, an interview with William Smith in 1841, and a recollection by Lucy Mack Smith that was recorded around the time of Joseph Smith’s death.  Pratt’s account, published in 1840, serves as a bridge between Cowdery’s 1835 account (since it quotes from that account in describing the angel’s visit) and the 1842 Wentworth Letter (which mostly quotes Pratt’s account of Moroni’s message).  Notably, Pratt’s account was also the first published account of the First Vision, which was not included in Cowdery’s earlier history.[11]  Similar to the Wentworth Letter, Hyde’s 1842 account of the angel’s message is based on Pratt’s summary.[12]  More distinctive are William Smith’s and Lucy Mack Smith’s recollections, which seem to conflate the First Vision and the visit of Moroni.  William is recorded as stating that when Joseph Smith was “one of several hopeful converts” in the midst of religious revival in 1823, he was perplexed and “prayed for divine direction, and afterwards was awaked one night by an extraordinary vision.”  In the vision, “a glorious angel appeared to him and told him that he was a chosen vessel of the Lord to make known true religion.”[13]  Similarly, in Lucy’s account, Joseph Smith was “pondering in his mind which of the churches were the true one” and the “angel of the Lord” came to answer his concerns.  The message of the angel covers material that we associate today with both the First Vision and the visit of Moroni, telling Joseph that “there is not a true church on Earth[.] No not one,” then adding that: “There is a record for you and Joseph. … It is to bring forth that light and intelligence which has been long lost in the Earth.”[14]  These secondary accounts give some different perspectives on the visit of Moroni, with Pratt’s seeming to be the most influential on how the vision was portrayed during the 1840s.

Analysis and Conclusions

What can we learn from the above about what the angel discussed?  While there are variations in the scriptures cited or the specific words, there seems to be a solid core to the accounts.  The angel told Joseph Smith about the Book of Mormon and revealed its location, promising him the chance to translate the record if he was faithful and rejected temptation to use the plates to get money.  Many of the accounts indicate that Moroni also explained or summarized the contents of the Book of Mormon in connection with that revelation.  Joseph Smith is frequently portrayed as seeking forgiveness for sins or for an indication of his standing before God, and some of the accounts indicate that the angel told him his sins was forgiven.  The longer accounts indicate that the angel also discussed the gathering of Israel to fulfill ancient covenants and the restoration of the gospel as part of the preparations for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the Millennium.  These topics are often portrayed as being explanation of prophesies in the Bible.  Specific Biblical texts are only mentioned in three accounts, with Joel 2; Isaiah 11; and Malachi 4 receiving the most frequent mentions.  Many of the accounts also note Joseph Smith would be an instrument used by God for to fulfill His purposes, sometimes even specifically mentioning founding the true Church (especially those that conflate Moroni’s visit and the First Vision).  Thus, the message of Moroni (whatever the specific details) seems to have primarily been focused on revealing the Book of Mormon’s existence and discussing the restoration of the gospel as part of the preparations for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the Millennium.


Further Reading:



Featured image from “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 12, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/5

[1] Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, 1:77–80.

[2] JS-H 1:47.

[3] https://www.timeanddate.com/sun/usa/new-york?month=9&year=1823.

[4] “Articles and Covenants, circa April 1830 [D&C 20],” p. [4], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/articles-and-covenants-circa-april-1830-dc-20/1.

[5] “History, circa Summer 1832,” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/3

[6] Oliver Cowdery, “Letter IV,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Feb. 1835, 1:77–80, https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/7058.

[7] See Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VI,” LDS Messenger and Advocate, Apr. 1835, 1:108–112, https://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/NCMP1820-1846/id/7085.

[8] “Journal, 1835–1836,” p. 24, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/25

[9] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 5, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/5

[10] “Church History,” 1 March 1842,” p. 707, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/church-history-1-march-1842/2

[11] “Appendix: Orson Pratt, A[n] Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, 1840,” p. 6, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/appendix-orson-pratt-an-interesting-account-of-several-remarkable-visions-1840/6

[12] “Orson Hyde, Ein Ruf aus der Wüste (A Cry out of the Wilderness), 1842, extract, English translation,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/orson-hyde-ein-ruf-aus-der-wste-a-cry-out-of-the-wilderness-1842-extract-english-translation/1.

[13] Cited in Francis W. Kirkham, A New Witness for Christ in America, Enlarged Edition, 2:410-413.

[14] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845, Page [1], bk. [1],” p. [10], bk. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 9, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/40

4 comments for ““A messenger sent from the presence of God”

  1. It’s more accurate to say that the early versions of the 1838-1839 history identify the angel as Nephi, since when documents written prior to that history identify the angel, they say it was Moroni.

  2. It’s interesting to see the value in preaching. Three visits of teaching. Approximately two hours each you say?

    Sounds like binge watching general conference.

  3. I hadn’t thought of it that way Sute, but I suppose it is. Except in this case, you have to watch the same session every time, maybe with one new talk added at the end each time.

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