Celebrating 200 Years since Moroni Appeared to Joseph Smith

Steven C. Harper

Steven C. Harper (steven_harper@byu.edu) is a professor of Church history and doctrine at BYU.

When Joseph left the grove after seeing the Father and the Son, he was not a prophet. He had no calling and no idea that he ever would have. The calling came three and a half years later. Joseph’s journal tells the story. “When I was about 17 years,” it says, “I had another vision of angels; in the night season, after I had retired to bed; I had not been asleep, but was meditating on my past life and experience. I was well aware I had not kept the commandments, and I repented heartily for all my sins and transgressions, and humbled myself before him, whose eye surveys all things at a glance. All at once the room was illuminated above the brightness of the sun; An angel appeared before me,” Joseph said, and declared, “I am a Messenger sent from God.”[1] The angel said his name was Moroni and that God had vital work for Joseph to do. September 21, 2023, marks two hundred years since that historic night.

That is the night Moroni began mentoring Joseph Smith through a probationary period in which Joseph became the choice seer he was prophesied to be (2 Nephi 3). Joseph did not simply pass the time until he received the Book of Mormon plates. Historical records show clearly that obtaining the plates was contingent on his growth and choices. According to Joseph’s mother, Moroni told him “he could not take them [the plates] from the place wherein they were deposited, until he had learned to keep the commandments of God—not only willing, but able to do it.”[2]

Moroni had Joseph in mind in his mortal lifetime, around AD 400. He seemed concerned that Joseph might not grow, learn, and choose to become a choice seer. He could, after all, cave to his temptations and potentially hinder all Moroni and his ancestors had done to prepare the Book of Mormon for latter-day readers. Writing to a young Joseph, chosen to translate the sacred records but potentially covetous of the wealth embedded in the plates, Moroni said, “No one shall have them to get gain; but the record thereof is of great worth; and whoso shall bring it to light, him will the Lord bless” (Mormon 8:14).

When Joseph prayed that September evening, he “had full confidence” that he would obtain a “divine manifestation” (Joseph Smith—History 1:29). His certainty stemmed from his reassuring vision in the grove three and a half years earlier. Joseph wrote,

I discovered a light appearing in my room, which continued to increase until the room was lighter than at noonday, when immediately a personage appeared at my bedside, standing in the air, for his feet did not touch the floor.

He had on a loose robe of the most exquisite whiteness. . . . His hands were naked, and his arms also, a little above the wrist; so, also, were his feet naked, as were his legs, a little above the ankles. His head and neck were bare. I could discover that he had no other clothing on but this robe, as it was open, so that I could see into his bosom.

Not only was his robe exceedingly white, but his whole person was glorious beyond description, and his countenance truly like lightning. The room was exceedingly light, but not so very bright as immediately around his person. When I first looked upon him, I was afraid; but the fear soon left me.

He called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be . . . both good and evil spoken of among all people.

He said there was a book deposited, written upon gold plates, giving an account of the former inhabitants of this continent, and the source from whence they sprang. He also said that the fulness of the everlasting gospel was contained in it, as delivered by the Savior to the ancient inhabitants. (Joseph Smith—History 1:30–34; emphasis added)[3]

Joseph’s characteristic straightforwardness in reporting these facts, or our familiarity with this story, might dull our amazement at the message and the messenger. As Terryl Givens has written, Moroni’s words seem “almost calculated to combine shocking novelty with a kind of wry nonchalance. He might as well have said the record affirmed those same ten commandments that God delivered to Atlantis.”[4] This was a messenger from God’s presence with a wonderful (that is, wonder causing) message that got more interesting as it continued. Buried with the plates, Moroni said, were “two stones in silver bows—and these stones, fastened to a breastplate, constituted what is called the Urim and Thummim . . . and the possession and use of these stones were what constituted ‘seers’ in ancient or former times; and that God had prepared them for the purpose of translating the book” (Joseph Smith—History 1:35).

Moroni “commenced quoting the prophecies of the Old Testament,” first from Malachi, including these words, which Joseph recognized as being different from the King James Version:

The day cometh that shall burn as an oven, and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly shall burn as stubble; for they that come shall burn them, saith the Lord of Hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch,” meaning that soon the wicked will be left without ancestry or posterity, burned as stubble and eternally alone. Then Moroni made Malachi’s distant prophecy proximate: “I will reveal unto you,” Joseph, “the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming” (Joseph Smith—History 1:36–39; emphasis in original).

Joseph knew he needed forgiveness. He had no idea that the purpose for which earth was created was about to be null and void unless Elijah came soon and things would take a dramatic turn. President Russell M. Nelson captured the consequential gist of Moroni’s teaching in these words: “Eternal life, made possible by the Atonement, is the supreme purpose of the Creation. To phrase that statement in its negative form, if families were not sealed in holy temples, the whole earth would be utterly wasted.”[5]

How much Joseph Smith understood that night is not clear, but over time he learned that Moroni meant that God had chosen him to restore the Savior’s powerful priesthood ordinances in which solemn covenants could bind families to God and, by leading them to eternal lives, fulfill the plan of redemption for which earth was created and Jesus Christ came. That was heady stuff for a seventeen-year-old. And there was more. Moroni quoted from Isaiah 11, which foretells that Christ will come in glory, might, and vengeance to separate the righteous from the wicked. But not before setting “his hand again the second time” to gather “the outcasts of Israel” by setting up an “ensign for the nations” (Isaiah 11:11–12) or, in other words, a church with a commission to preach the gospel to the whole world.

Moroni then quoted Acts 3:22–23, prophesying that all who failed to hear the Lord’s warning voice and gather to his ensign would “be destroyed.” He then cited Joel 2:28–32: “I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.” Moreover, cataclysms and terrible judgments awaited. In the end, Zion builders alone would be delivered. Moroni told Joseph “that the fulness of the Gentiles was soon to come in,” meaning that the large-scale spread of the gospel to all nations loomed imminently in the future. Then Moroni “quoted many other passages of scripture, and offered many explanations which cannot be mentioned here” (Joseph Smith—History 1:41)[6]

Moroni explained that Joseph could not have the plates or seer stones then and warned that if he showed them off when he got them, Joseph would be destroyed. By the gift of God, Joseph envisioned the hillside on which Moroni had himself deposited the plates over a millennium earlier. Then the light gathered around the messenger, and he ascended through a conduit “right up into heaven,” leaving Joseph in a dark, still room, “marveling greatly at what had been told to” him “by this extraordinary messenger.” “I lay musing on the singularity of the scene,” Joseph remembered, “when in the midst of my meditation,” Moroni reappeared. He “again related the very same” message, then added more detail on the “great judgments which were coming upon the earth” before ascending again. “Sleep had fled from my eyes,” Joseph wrote, “and I lay overwhelmed in astonishment at what I had both seen and heard” (Joseph Smith—History 1:43–46).[7]

Moroni reappeared again, relayed the same message, and cautioned Joseph “that Satan would try to tempt me (in consequence of the indigent circumstances of my father’s family), to get the plates for getting rich. This he forbade me, saying that I must have no other object in view in getting the plates but to glorify God, and must not be influenced by any other motive than that of building his kingdom; otherwise I could not get them” (Joseph Smith—History 1:46; emphasis added). Terryl Givens wrote that “the angel had warned him against” seeking fame or fortune, “the twin temptations he would face. . . . He was neither to exhibit the plates to anyone nor think of alleviating his family’s acute impoverishment by selling them.”[8]

When Moroni ascended again, Joseph “was again left to ponder on the strangeness of what I had just experienced” but was interrupted by a rooster announcing “that day was approaching.” Joseph arose and, “as usual, went to the necessary labors of the day” (Joseph Smith––History 1:47–48). Joseph, his older brother Alvin, and their father began harvesting together, but Joseph seemed preoccupied. “Joseph, we must keep to work or we shall not get our task done,” Alvin told him.[9] Joseph Sr. sent Junior home when it became clear that he was too weak to work at his usual pace. “I started with the intention of going to the house;” Joseph later remembered, “but, in attempting to cross the fence out of the field where we were, my strength entirely failed me, and I fell helpless on the ground.” The next thing Joseph saw was “the messenger” whom he had seen the night before (Joseph Smith—History 1:48–49).

Joseph’s mother said that Moroni added “a few words of caution and instruction: thus, that he must beware of covetousness; and he must not suppose the record is to be brought forth with the view of getting gain; for this was not the case; but that it was to bring forth light and intelligence, which had for a long time been lost to the world: and, that when he went to get the plates, he must be on his guard, or his mind would be filled with darkness. The angel then told him to tell his father all which he had both seen and heard.”[10]

Joseph did not tell his father. “Why?” the angel asked. According to Lucy, Joseph said he was afraid his father would not believe him. “He will believe every word you say to him,” Moroni promised.[11] “I obeyed;” Joseph wrote, tellingly. “I . . . rehearsed the whole matter to him. He replied to me that it was of God, and told me to go and do as commanded by the messenger.” Joseph reported to the hill we call Cumorah because of the Book of Mormon, but which the Smiths knew simply as “a hill of considerable size.” There, near the top, on the west side, Joseph found the stone which concealed the box in which the plates were deposited. “I obtained a lever,” Joseph wrote, “which I got fixed under the edge of the stone, and with a little exertion raised it up. I looked in, and there indeed did I behold the plates, the Urim and Thummim, and the breastplate” (Joseph Smith—History 1:50–52).

Here Joseph’s Manuscript History is terse: “I made an attempt to take them out, but was forbidden by the messenger” (Joseph Smith—History 1:53). That account was composed after a high tide of persecution and “many reports . . . put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons” (Joseph Smith––History 1:1). Perhaps because of that opposition, Joseph minimized in his Manuscript History parts of the story that could be weaponized against him, including the covetousness Moroni warned him about. According to his brief 1832 autobiography, Joseph “cried unto the Lord in the agony of my soul why can I not obtain them [the plates].” Moroni appeared and answered,

You have not kept the commandments of the Lord which I gave unto you therefore you cannot now obtain them for the time is not yet fulfilled therefore thou wast left unto temptation that thou mightest be made accquainted of with the power of the advisary therefore repent and call on the Lord thou shalt be forgiven and in his own due time thou shalt obtain them for now I had been tempted of the advisary and saught the Plates to obtain riches and kept not the commandme[n]t that I should have an eye single to the Glory of God therefore I was chastened and saught diligently to obtain the plates.[12]

Moroni then gave him “instruction and intelligence” at the plates’ hillside repository (Joseph Smith––History 1:54).

Joseph’s mother and Oliver Cowdery were not there but both left accounts including details they learned from Joseph. According to Lucy Mack Smith, Moroni said to Joseph, “Now I will show you the distance between light and darkness, and the operation of a good spirit and an evil one. An evil spirit will try to crowd your mind with every evil and wicked thing to keep every good thought and feeling out of your mind, but you must keep your mind always staid upon God, that no evil may come into your heart.”[13] Oliver Cowdery added that Moroni taught Joseph, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and the impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that ye may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.”[14]

So Joseph returned home from the hill on September 22 chastened and without the plates but filled with knowledge and a growing understanding of what it meant to make his eye single to God’s glory.

In his Manuscript History, Joseph chose to render the story more matter-of-factly, and said simply that he learned on that first visit to the hill “that the time for bringing them forth had not yet arrived, neither would it, until four years from that time; but he told me that I should come to that place precisely in one year from that time, and that he would there meet with me, and that I should continue to do so until the time should come for obtaining the plates. Accordingly, as I had been commanded, I went at the end of each year, and at each time I found the same messenger there, and received instruction and intelligence from him at each of our interviews” (Joseph Smith—History 1:53–54; emphasis added).

It is easy to misread that passage to mean that Joseph knew from the outset that it would take him four years to receive the plates. But the italicized words tell what Joseph knew only after the fact. The rest of the passage is all he knew at the time. It did not have to take four years. And it was not inevitable that Joseph would ever receive the plates. In September 1826, according to Joseph Knight, Moroni told Joseph that if he did not “do right according to the will of God” within the next year, “he never would have them.”[15] Everything depended on how well Joseph responded to the messages God sent him through the messenger named Moroni.

In September 1827, Joseph Smith, still far from perfect, had become not only willing but also able to make his eye single to God’s glory and to become a choice seer and a great benefit to his fellow beings. Through sore temptations, difficult decisions, and repeated chastening by an angel, he had reached a turning point in his prophetic life. President Dallin H. Oaks described this process: “Line upon line, young Joseph Smith expanded his faith and understanding and his spiritual gifts matured until he stood with power and stature as the Prophet of the Restoration.”[16]

Joseph had to choose whether to keep God’s commandments and shun Satan’s temptations. Moroni chastened him repeatedly through this process, but the messenger knew what Joseph was prophesied to become. He blessed and mentored Joseph. Moroni did not expect perfection in either himself or Joseph, just a total commitment to bringing forth the marvelous work by the gift and power of God.


[1] “History, 1834–1836,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 121.

[2] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 85.

[3] See “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” The Joseph Smith Papers, 5.

[4] Terryl L. Givens, By the Hand of Mormon (New York: Oxford, 2002), 12.

[5] Russell M. Nelson, “The Atonement,” Ensign, November 1996, 35.

[6] See “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” The Joseph Smith Papers, 6.

[7] See “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” 6.

[8] Givens, By the Hand of Mormon, 13.

[9] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 11.

[10] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 82.

[11] “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1845,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 82.

[12] “History, circa Summer 1832,” The Joseph Smith Papers, 4–5.

[13] History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 109.

[14] The Messenger and Advocate, October 1835, 198. See Moses 1.

[15] Dean C. Jessee, “Joseph Knight’s Recollection of Early Mormon History,” BYU Studies 17, no. 1 (1977): 32.

[16] Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign, October 1987, 69.