April 6, 1830

Today’s guest post is by Bryan Westover. 

Traditionally, Church members have understood the organization of the Church to be a meeting of thirty to forty believers, assembled on April 6, 1830, at the Whitmer farm in Fayette.  However, after years of mulling over early church records and individual member accounts, I have come to know another story. It goes something like this:

It was late in the afternoon on a Tuesday.  A few friends gathered with the family of Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith. They had dammed the small stream behind the Smith log home, creating a pool of water deep enough to perform baptisms.  Martin Harris was eager to be baptized and went first; Joseph Smith Sr. followed. Oliver Cowdery performed the baptisms while Joseph Smith Jr. attended with his siblings and mother, along with a handful of neighbors.  

The scene of the baptisms moved the young prophet, who became visibly overcome with emotion.  Lucy remarked that Joseph wept aloud as he embraced his father, and Joseph Knight Sr. wrote, “…he was the most wrought upon that I ever saw any man. But his joy seemed to be full. I think he saw the great work he had begun and was desirous to carry it out.”1

That evening a small group met in the Smith home.  Six of the men present had been baptized by the restored priesthood authority, and would be confirmed as the first members of the restored Church of Christ. This was the founding of the first branch of the Church, in Manchester New York.  This humble beginning, of only six members, would become notable as the Church eventually spread across the globe. No minutes of that first meeting survive, but we can read personal instruction from the Lord to participants in Doctrine and Covenants 23.2  An account from Joseph Knight Sr. also provides some insight. He wrote:

“On the sixth day of April 1830 [Joseph] began the Church with six members . . . They all kneeled down and prayed and Joseph gave them instructions how to build up the Church and exhorted them to be faithful in all things for this is the work of God.”

Two or three days later, Joseph waded into the water to baptize his mother and neighbor Sarah Witt Rockwell, the first women to become members.  Church membership on that day numbered eight souls.

Shortly after that second day of baptisms, Joseph traveled to Fayette.  He was at the Whitmer home on April 10th recording the revelation known as the Articles and Covenants of the Church.3  The Fayette branch was organized on Sunday April 11th.  At this significant meeting, ten members were added to the rolls, including six of the Book of Mormon witnesses.  Oliver Cowdery gave the first public discourse, and the members rejoiced in the newly restored Church of Christ, which now consisted of two branches and eighteen members.4  Growth continued in the following weeks, and by the end of April, membership reached twenty-six, with the Smith and Whitmer families positioned prominently.

Around this time, according to David Whitmer, observers questioned the legality of the budding Church, saying it had not been properly organized.  Today it is clear that this criticism was unfounded — there were no laws in New York at that time regulating unincorporated religious societies5 — but in David Whitmer’s memory, this questioning resulted in efforts to more formally organize the Church.6  These efforts culminated in a meeting at the Whitmer home with an assemblage of more saints than had previously gathered together.  On June 9, thirty to forty believers formed the first conference of the church, with many traveling from surrounding areas for the occasion.  At this session, Church leaders and members ratified the Articles and Covenants, partook of the sacrament, confirmed new members, performed priesthood ordinations, issued priesthood licenses, and kept minutes of the business conducted.7  As time progressed, early members recalled this larger and arguably more substantial meeting as the organization of April 6, 1830, confusing the historical record.  

Palmyra/Manchester stream, “Crooked Brook,” site of the April 6, 1830 baptisms.

I was introduced to the confusion surrounding the organization as I read in Rough Stone Rolling, Richard Bushman wrote: “Historians have speculated that a Fayette meeting shortly after April 6 was confused with the Manchester organizational meeting.”8  As I became more familiar with the historical puzzle it drew me in, I wanted to know what caused the confusion and disunion of sources.  Early published references in The Evening and the Morning Star name Manchester as the location of the April 6th meeting, but in isolation this source is not unimpeachable — the printer could have been confused or misinformed.  However, Joseph’s father is known, by multiple witnesses, to have been baptized on April 6th in Manchester, not Fayette. I wondered if any baptisms also took place in Fayette on April 6th; the presence of baptisms would strongly indicate that a meeting was held there.

I realized that the answer to this last question resided in the complete list of the first twenty-seven members of the church, the full membership before the conference of June 9th.  History of the Church included most of them, but a few names were missing, and the locations of all the baptisms were not specified.  Compiling this list became my personal quest.

As the list came together, a new question emerged.  Seven men were baptized in 1829 before the organization.  The traditional account names six of them as founding members, excluding only one.  What happened to John Whitmer? Why were there not seven original members?

The list also confirmed that all the baptisms of April 6 occurred in Manchester.  How could a meeting so far away from the baptisms be explained? Assuming that thirty or more people met together on April 6, as the traditional account stated, I was surprised to find that only two were baptized on that day.

The story eventually did come together, thanks in large part to the Joseph Smith Papers project and online access to original documents.  Invaluable insight also came from a BYU Studies paper of 2010, “Legal Insights into the Organization of the Church in 1830.”9  Here David Stott shattered my traditional understanding of the organization by concluding that there was no legal reason to recognize six original members, that the intent in 1830 was to form a religious society instead of a corporate entity, and that the organizational activities associated with the meeting at the Whitmer farm paralleled customary practices of other churches organizing in the region at the time.  This legal insight came to act as a third leg of my platform, and when teamed with 1) the list of the original twenty-seven members, and 2) the evidence supporting David Whitmer’s sequence of organizational events, then the narrative of the Manchester branch-founding as the first meeting of the Church came to rest on a stable footing.

The glue that holds these parts together, with a pinch of irony, is the significant confusion among early members between April 6 and the later more formal organization at the Whitmer farm. This confusion reveals how our traditional narrative originated and was perpetuated, but decoding it required a little digging.  Similar to an archeologist removing layers of sediment to arrive at the period of interest, I needed to step back in time, before assumptions had been established regarding the roll of charter members or trustees in forming a corporation, to the original statements that the Church was founded with six original members.  As I discovered these original members, the above story emerged.

Ultimately, it has been a lesson on the hazards of assumptions and expectations.  As long as I expected my assumptions to be validated, a portion of the history remained hidden from view.  I needed to let go of my long-held assumptions in order to see what I’d been missing.

For years I had read David Whitmer’s account without hearing what he was saying, I thought he was just another early member confusing the April 6 organization with later meetings in Fayette.  My assumption was firm that the organizational meeting of the Church was held on April 6. Finally, after I had made a deeper study of David Stott’s work, I was again reading Whitmer’s account of the organization when the light bulb came on.  Whitmer wasn’t just confusing a later meeting in Fayette with the Manchester organization, as Bushman had described the speculation of historians. While the first meeting of the Church was held on April 6, the evidence paints it as a small branch founding, not the general organization.  Whitmer was associating the date of the first meeting in Manchester with the actual organization in Fayette. The organizational meeting that I had grown up knowing did take place in Fayette, but on a different day, and that distinction explains all the contradictions in historical accounts.10  

The historical dislocation had originated when the description of the founding meeting, “April 6th with six members,” was attached to the Fayette organization, but it also makes perfect sense that it would be.  The larger meeting with a longer agenda was a significant memory that participating members would default to. As a result, two distinct days in 1830 were known to early saints as “April 6th.” With that insight, in my view, the final piece of the puzzle fell into place.

Notes:

  1.  “Lucy Mack Smith, History, 1844–1845,” Page [12], bk. 9, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 28, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/lucy-mack-smith-history-1844-1845/116

“Joseph Knight’s Recollection”, Jessee BYU Studies 17, 37.  Spelling and capitalization modernized for readability.

  1.  Martin Harris is not named in the revelation, but he would have been present at the meeting.  According to Joseph Knight Sr. Martin had received a lengthy revelation just days prior to April 6, 1830.
  2. “Revelation Book 1,” p. 52, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-book-1/36
  3.  Joseph Smith’s history reports the first public sermon by Oliver Cowdery on April 11, 1830.  “History, circa June–October 1839 [Draft 1],” p. [11], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-june-october-1839-draft-1/11

The number of eighteen members on that day comes from my paper, which is also the basis of the entire narrative recited here. “Original Members of the 1830 Church of Christ” see note 10 below.  The ten members added at the Fayette branch meeting of April 11, 1830 are discussed in the “Counting Heads” section, on page 11 of the paper.

  1.  David Stott “Legal Insights into the Organization of the Church in 1830”, BYU Studies 49, no. 2, 2010 p. 8: “Unlike religious corporations, in 1830 no federal or state statutes regulated the formation of religious societies.  Rather, formation was determined ‘by usage,’ or in other words, according to the policies and customs of each church.”
  2.  David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ 1887, p.33:   “Now, when April 6, 1830, had come, we had then established three branches of the ‘Church of Christ,’ in which three branches were about seventy members: One branch was at Fayette, N.Y.; one at Manchester, N.Y., and one at Colesville, Pa. It is all a mistake about the church being organized on April 6, 1830, as I will show. We were as fully organized—spiritually—before April 6th as we were on that day. The reason why we met on that day was this; the world had been telling us that we were not a regularly organized church, and we had no right to officiate in the ordinance of marriage, hold church property, etc., and that we should organize according to the laws of the land. On this account we met at my father’s house in Fayette, N.Y., on April 6, 1830, to attend to this matter of organizing according to the laws of the land…” The Colesville branch was organized at the end of June 1830.  Whitmer was obviously confusing the June and September conferences here; however, in an 1882 interview David Whitmer said there were 6 elders at the organization, which is a specific identifier of the June conference. The Saints Herald volume 29, 1882 p.189

 

  1.  “Minute Book 2,” p. 1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-2/3

Additional details for the June conference are given in Joseph Smith’s History: “History, circa June–October 1839 [Draft 1],” p. [14], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 8, 2019, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-june-october-1839-draft-1/14

 

  1.  Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, 2006 Alfred A. Knopf, page 109

Prominent among historians writing on the topic is Michael Marquardt “An Appraisal of Manchester as Location for the Organization of the Church” Sunstone Feb. 1992

 

  1.  David Stott “Legal Insights into the Organization of the Church in 1830”, BYU Studies 49, no. 2, 2010

 

  1.  Not to say it answers all questions or completes all puzzles, but it does give a WHY to the confusion between Manchester and Fayette. Bryan Westover “Original Members of the 1830 Church of Christ” https://www.millennialstar.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Original-Members-of-the-1830-Church-of-Christ.pdf

Comments

  1. The problem of course is that the official account is Scripture. Is it possible to have Scripture that is factually untrue but purports to be an accurate historical record?

  2. Peter if you’re referencing Section 20 of the Doctrine & Covenants then two items of note:

    1. The Church has revised the headings of the sections many times as the books that contain the books that contain the modern revelations have evolved. The headings are not scriptural but instead explanatory.

    2. The statement in of verse 1 explains the organization of the Church certainly but it is unclear as to which event it is speaking to as it does not scripturally establish geographic location. Further, the text is a compilation that appears to have been crafted together in draft form over at least a year between 1829 and 1830, including final additions after the 6 April 1830 date. If you look at the JSPP historical entry it is evident there are questions about timing of when the entry was completed.

    https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/articles-and-covenants-circa-april-1830-dc-20/1#historical-intro

    Further vetting of Bryan’s accounting is certainly called for but this would not be the first time a “well known event” in Church history changes as further exploration of the historical record provides deeper context.

    This is fascinating work Bryan and I look forward to seeing how the deeper evaluation brings further light to our understanding of the events. I love how we are gaining a more lively understanding of our History as our historians examine the records and carefully peel back the layers of sediment.

  3. Peter, no scriptural account that I’m aware of contradicts what Bryan (and Michael Marquardt) have argued here. Do you have something specific in mind?

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Elder Eyring just recited the traditional account of the organization over the GC pulpit.

  5. Bryan Westover says:

    Yes Kevin, I was waiting for someone to mention the organization today. I wouldn’t expect him to know or say any different. The book Saints puts a number of 40 at the Whitmer home, I consider that an update, President Eyring said 50, as the older manuals read. As they say old habits and traditions die hard. I would expect to still hear some of the traditional account even if there was a Gospel Topics essay making clarifications. In my mind a first meeting in Fayette would have produced more than six original members. There would have been a minimum of seven, but the Whitmer family members, Book of Mormon witnesses, who were baptized on April 11th would have been baptized at the first opportunity.

  6. jonovitch says:

    This is fascinating but my brain today isn’t letting me make sense of the details. Can you give me a clean, concise, bulleted list with just date, location, number of people, and other pertinent information? Thanks! :)

  7. Bryan Westover says:

    Hi Jonovitch, you can find a list of the first baptisms in order on about page 4 here: https://www.millennialstar.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Original-Members-of-the-1830-Church-of-Christ.pdf
    The confirmations, or first members of the Church, as I see them are:

    April 6 in Manchester: (original six members, first 4 previously baptized)
    Joseph Smith
    Oliver Cowdery
    Samuel Smith
    Hyrum Smith
    Joseph Smith Sr.
    Martin Harris

    April 8 or 9 in Manchester: (total up to 8)
    Lucy Mack Smith
    Sarah Witt Rockwell

    April 11 in Fayette: (brings total to 18, BoM witnesses, first 3 previously baptized)
    David Whitmer
    Peter Whitmer Jr.
    John Whitmer
    Hiram Page
    Catherine Whitmer Page
    Christian Whitmer
    Anne Schott Whitmer
    Jacob Whitmer
    Elizabeth Schott Whitmer
    Mary Page

  8. Gotcha, thanks! So to sum up:

    The first meeting on April 6, with the original six members, was in Manchester (not Fayette, and not with lots of people, passing the sacrament, ordinations, etc.).

    Over the next few days, April 8/9 and April 11, a few more people were baptized in Manchester and Fayette, respectively.

    The big meeting in Fayette (the one we traditionally think of as the “start” of the church), was actually on June 9. And that’s where they had the sacrament, ordinations, official adoption of the Articles and Covenants, etc.

    But because they hadn’t invented Franklin planners yet, as people reflected on the beginnings of the church, their memories conflated the April 6 date (the true start) with the June 9 meeting (the bigger, “official” conference).

    Thanks!

  9. Bryan Westover says:

    Yes, that is generally the idea. We don’t know exactly what happened at the earlier meetings without minutes. We do know some priesthood ordinations did happen before June 9, for example six elders had been ordained in April and May. The 7th elder to be ordained, Samuel Smith, was ordained on June 9.