Katharine Smith Salisbury was the last surviving member of the Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith family and the only member of that family to witness the dawning of a new century.Because she was a member of the first family of the Restoration, Katharine, like her mother, was frequently sought out by converts, missionaries, and reporters for her recollections of these early events. Such visitors reported that she was a willing and able conversationalist on matters pertaining to her family and was quick to share her testimony of the truth of the work they helped to establish. Her early connection with Mormonism and her willingness to speak and write about her experiences make Katharine’s recollections an important source for the study of early Latter-day Saint history. One such recollection, published by a newspaper in 1895, appears at the end of this article.
Katharine was born July 28, 1813, in Lebanon, Grafton County, New Hampshire.As a younger sister of the emerging prophet, Katharine became an eyewitness of and participant in many incidents connected with the founding of Mormonism during her youth in the Palmyra/Manchester, New York, area. She heard the earliest recitals of her older brother concerning the First Vision and visitations of Moroni. She was present when the Prophet first brought home the Book of Mormon plates, and she hefted the covered plates on several occasions. In succeeding years, Katharine experienced the events associated with the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the establishment of the Church. Shortly after the Church’s organization, she was baptized and confirmed by two of the three witnesses, and she was present at the earliest conferences of the Church.
When the call came to gather to Kirtland, Ohio, Katharine migrated with the Fayette Branch of Saints and was privy to the miracles and hardships common to that company.A few months after her arrival in Ohio, Katharine married a young lawyer named Wilkins Jenkins Salisbury, an enthusiastic New York convert. The couple eventually settled in Chardon, Ohio, several miles southeast of Kirtland. Jenkins, as he was called, served a mission for the Church in 1833 and marched with Zion’s Camp the following year. Because of his service in the camp, Jenkins was called to the first quorum of Seventies, organized in 1835. Although his standing in the Church was erratic, he and Katharine migrated with the Saints to Far West and then on to Illinois.
Once the Saints established themselves in Nauvoo, the Salisburys settled in the outlying community of Plymouth, Illinois, some forty miles southeast of Nauvoo. Despite the distance, Katharine remained close to her family and made frequent trips to visit her relatives residing in Nauvoo. After several unsuccessful business ventures following the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Salisburys went to live with the surviving Smith family members at Nauvoo in 1845. Here the family lived together in the William Marks home on Water Street.
When the majority of Saints left Nauvoo the following year, Katharine stayed behind with her mother, two sisters, and only surviving brother, William. Although not initially opposed to the doctrines of the migrating Saints led by Brigham Young, the Salisburys felt strongly that Church leadership rightfully belonged to the Smith family.Ultimately, Katharine and Jenkins established their family in the communities of Webster and Fountain Green, Illinois, thirty miles east of Nauvoo. In 1853, Jenkins died of typhoid fever, leaving Katharine a widow with four children to care for. For the next twenty years, she managed to provide a meager living for her family, until her sons were able to lend financial assistance.
In 1873, thirteen years after the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ) was formally established, Katharine was received into the church on her original baptism. She attended the Pilot Grove Branch of the RLDS Church, which her son Solomon presided over.Toward the end of her life, Katharine also attended the annual RLDS conference held in either Iowa or Missouri each April. She won the respect and admiration of RLDS members and citizens of Hancock County, where she resided until her death on February 2, 1900.
Significance of the Document
At an annual conference of the RLDS Church held at Independence, Missouri, April 10, 1895, Katharine shared the recollections of early Mormon history reproduced below. A reporter from the Kansas City Times newspaper covering the conference took down Katharine’s discourse “verbatim” and recorded her demeanor during those reminiscences. The document is significant because it recounts some of the earliest events of the Restoration. Its limitation is that it is late reminiscence, so Katharine could have been influenced by written sources that were prevalent during her lifetime, including her mother’s history. Still, Katharine’s account appears to have significant historical value. This conclusion is supported by several statements that are entirely unique to her account: she notes that Moroni wore a girdle about his waist; she recounts that, following the loss of the 116 pages, Joseph fasted for several days in order to have the plates and Urim and Thummim returned to him; and she states that her father and two of her brothers were the first to hear Joseph’s recital of Moroni’s visitations. These unique remembrances verify that Katharine was not just regurgitating what was available in print. In fact, Mrs. Salisbury’s recollections add significant details to existing accounts regarding early events in Latter-day Saint history.
Contained within the narrative there is also evidence regarding the accuracy of Katharine’s remembrances. Most noteworthy is the fact that she rehearses details that parallel other early converts’ written accounts to which she had no access during her lifetime. For example, her identification of Alvin and then Emma Hale Smith as the individuals who were to accompany Joseph to the Hill Cumorah to obtain the Book of Mormon plates harmonizes precisely with Joseph Knight Sr.’s account.Knight’s corresponding description of these events had been unique until the discovery of Katharine’s history. And although Katharine incorrectly reports several specific dates, the sequence of events that she recounts is remarkably correct, further substantiating the accuracy of her memory.
The narrative is also important because it verifies Joseph Smith Jr.’s early recital of the First Vision, something historians have challenged in years past.Katharine remembers that her elder brother had been pondering over his First Vision just before Moroni’s initial visitation, a significant fact that both establishes a time line and clearly differentiates between the two events—as Joseph Smith related. She also recounts important details of Moroni’s visitations and the impact they had on members of the Smith household.
Besides verifying other accounts written by early members of the Church, Katharine’s testimonial is important because she was one of a very small group of believers before 1830, which makes any of her reminiscences valuable in understanding Mormon origins.
Context of the Document
The account below was published on the front page of the Kansas City Times the day after the conference (April 11, 1895) under the title “An Angel Told Him: Joseph Smith’s Aged Sister Tells about Moroni’s Talk.” In keeping with the journalistic style of the time, the headline is followed by several subheadings.
The RLDS membership had gathered at this particular session of conference to pray for Alexander H. Smith (Katharine’s nephew and son of Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith), who was suffering intensely due to illness. Following an hour of prayer, the meeting was then opened up for testimonies. Katharine Smith Salisbury was the first to speak. Following her recital, “prayers of thankfulness were offered by many members to the Divine Being, expressing gratefulness to Him for allowing the conference the privilege and blessing of having Mrs. Salisbury present.”
Excerpts from the Kansas City Times, April 11, 1895
AN ANGEL TOLD HIM
Joseph Smith’s Aged Sister Tells About Moroni’s Talk.
THE FINDING OF THE RECORD.
Standing in Air the Heavenly Visitor Told Many Things.
FULFILLING ISAIAH’S WORDS.
Proceedings of the Mormon Conference in Independence.
MORE REVELATIONS COMING.
The story of Joseph Smith’s conversation with the angel Moroni, from which sprung the Mormon church, was the main feature of yesterday’s session of the conference of Latter Day Saints at Independence.
The story was told by Mrs. Catharine Salisbury, Joseph Smith’s sister, and the last survivor of his immediate family.
Mrs. Salisbury is a very old woman now—83 years of age. But she claims to recall the time of the wonderful vision as vividly as though it were but yesterday. She told how the angel had come to her brother in the night and had stood refulgent midway between the floor and ceiling of his room and had talked for hours, telling where the golden record was to be found in the hill of Conoran [Cumorah]. And then she told how the plates had been found and, after much tribulation on account of mobs of evil men raised up to create trouble, how they were translated and how the Church of Jesus Christ was founded. . . .
. . . Mrs. Catherine Salisbury arose from her seat by the reporters’ table and removed the shawl she has worn about her shoulders since the conference began. Seeing her intention to address the members Elder Terry requested her to step upon the rostrum, which by his assistance she did. Mrs. Salisbury is 83 years of age and, as has already been stated in The Times, is the only surviving member of the family of which Joseph Smith, Sr., the founder of the Saints’ church, was one.
Mrs. Salisbury was several times overcome with emotion during her allusion to former scenes, incidents and characters so dear to her heart and mind. After a few short preliminary and unimportant remarks she began her recital. It was heard with rapt attention. She said:
Mrs. Salisbury’s Story.
“I stand before you a remnant of the family that brought forth the sacred record, to bear my testimony.
“I can remember the time that this work commenced, that my brother had the vision, that he saw the angel and talked with him. After he had his first vision, he lay in bed one night studying what he had seen.And his room became light, and it grew lighter and lighter until an angel descended and stood by the side of his bed. He did not touch the floor, but he stood in the air. He was dressed in white raiment, of whiteness beyond anything Joseph had ever seen in his life, and had a girdle about his waist. He saw his hands and wrists, and they were pure and white, and he talked with him. He said that he was Moroni, and that he was sent as a messenger to tell him concerning the record that was hidden in the hill Conoran which was a history of the people that once inhabited this continent, and also that it was the pure gospel of Christ. That the gospel that he had had been adulterated, and this was the pure gospel of Jesus Christ, and would be preached in these last days.
“He also talked with him and told him concerning the prophecies of Isaaih [sic] and told him what was coming upon the earth.And he also opened the vision and showed him the hill Conoran where the records laid, and talked with him a while, and then ascended. And while Joseph was still thinking over what he had seen and what the angel had told him, he descended again and stood by his side, and repeated the same things. He told him the prophecies of Isaaih were being fulfilled and would come true, and that this record must be brought forth to the church established in the last days, for there was no true church on earth. He ascended again, and then he descended the third time; and then my brother said that the chickens crowed for day, showing that he had conversed with the angel all the blessed night.
“The next morning when my brother got up he went to the field to work, but he could not; the spirit of God was upon him and the angel was with him. Father told him he was not well, and he had better go to the house. Joseph started to the house, but fell by the way, and the angel Moroni appeared to him and said:
“‘Joseph, tell your father what you have seen and what you are commanded to do.’
“He said: ‘I am afraid my father won’t believe me.’
“But the angel told him his father would believe him. So he went to the house and sent for father and my two brothers, and they came to the house and sat and talked quite a spell. I wondered at it. I was young, and I didn’t know what they were talking about, because I knowed they were so busy with their harvesting.
“Father said: ‘Joseph, go and do just as you are bid.’
“So he went to the hill Comoran [Cumorah] (this was, I think, the 22d day of September, 1827,)and found it exactly as he had seen it in the vision. The earth was rounding on top, and he got a stick and pried the dirt away from the edges, and got a lever and raised the lid, and there beheld the records that were to be translated, and the Urim and Thummim, and the sword and the breast-plate of Laban, and the brass plates Lehi brought from Jerusalem.
“Moroni told him the time had not yet come for them to be brought forth, but that in due time he should bring them forth and translate them. Joseph said: ‘I am not learned,’ and the angel said: ‘There is the Urim and Thummim, and they will show you how to interpret them.’
“The next year at the same time Joseph visited the same place again, and the third year he went expecting to get the records. So he raised up the lid and took them out. And he thought that somebody might come along and see these things (not thinking that the Lord had watched them 1,400 years), and laid the record down and covered up the box. When he turned to take his record it was gone. The angel told him he must persevere and must not give up.
“He raised the lid again, and there was the record, just as it laid before. He reached forth his hands to take it and he felt a pressure pushing hom [him] away. He tried the second time, and the third time he fell to the earth with the pressure, and he cried in the bitterness of his soul:
“‘Lord, what have I done, that I can not get these records?’
“Moroni said: ‘You have not obeyed the commandments as you were commanded to; you must obey His commandments in every particular. You were not to lay them out of your hands until you had them in safe keeping.’
“Joseph said: ‘What shall I do?’
“He said: ‘Come here the next year at this time and bring your oldest brother with you, and you can receive the records.’
“In November my brother [Alvin] took sick, and through the ministering of medicine by the doctors he passed away.Joseph went to the place and inquired of the angel what he should no [do] now. The angel said: ‘you must bring some person with you.’
“And Joseph said: ‘Who shall I bring? My oldest brother is gone.’
“The angel said: ‘You will know her when you see her.’
“That fall he went down to Pennsylvania and became acquainted with his wife, Miss Hale, and he knew when he saw her that she was the one to go with him to get the records.
“In March they were married and he brought her home, and on September 22 she went with him to the place.She didn’t see the records, but she went with him. He took them up and brought them part way home and hid them in a hollow log. My father in a few days heard that they had got a conjurer, who they said would come and find the plates, and he came home. Emma was weaving, and he said to her:
“‘You will have to go after Joseph (Joseph was away at work), for they are determined to find them records.’
“She said: ‘If I had a horse I could go.’
“A few days before a stray horse (we had nothing but oxen then) had come to our place, and father said: ‘I will get you a saddle and bridle and you can ride that horse.’
“She went to where Joseph was at work and told him that the records were in danger and that father was anxious for him to come and take care of them. He came right home and went to the place where the records were and wrapped them up in his frock and started home. He stepped on a log, and a man raised up and struck at him. Joseph knocked him down. He stepped on the second and third logs, and three different men struck at him, but he made his escape and came home. When he got to the door he said:
“‘Father, I have been followed; look and see if you can see any one.’
“He then threw himself on the bed and fainted, and when he came to he told us the circumstances; he had his thumb put out of place and his arm was very lame.We got a chest and locked the records up in the house. From that time on our house was searched all around; and our field and our wheat stacks were searched. The mob was around our house nearly every night, and one night they went into father’s cooper shop and tore up his floor and dug the earth up. And from that time until we went to Pennsylvania we had to keep watch for the enemy.
“And when he went to Pennsylvania he commenced translating the book of Mormon, and translated some one hundred and sixteen pages that Martin Harris took home and lost, and when my brother found they were lost, he was very much troubled and said:
“‘I am afraid I have broken the commandments and will not be allowed to translate the record.’
“The angel came and took the Urim and Thummim from him.He fasted and prayed several days, and the angel returned them again, and told him that his sins were forgiven, and for him to go ahead and translate, but not to translate that that was lost, but to begin where he had left off. He commenced, and when he had got the record partly translated, persecution rose there, and he wrote for David Whitmer to come and take him to his house. David came, and he asked how he should carry the plates and he was told that they would be there when he got there, in the garden.
“When he got to Father Whitmer’s he found the records, as he had been told he would,and there he finished tra[n]slating the Book of Mormon, and there is where the three witnesses were showed the plates by the angel, that turned the leaves over one by one. And the angels told them that when the church became pure and the rest of the record (some of the plates were sealed) would be translated and brought to the church. After that the eight witnesses saw the book, and turned it over leaf by leaf and saw the characters that were on them. From that time on they commenced printing the Book of Mormon, and soon after the book was printed there were six that met together and organized the Church of Jesus Christ as it now exists in these last days.”