In 1843, Mormon missionary John S. Fullmer encountered difficulties proselyting in Pennsylvania due to widespread rumors regarding Joseph Smith’s youthful activities in that state and in New York. In an effort to overcome local opinion, Fullmer wrote to Josiah Stowell Jr. asking for a statement regarding Joseph Smith’s character. Josiah and Joseph had been schoolmates and friends from 1825 to 1827, when Joseph worked for Josiah Stowell Sr. The following letter of response from Josiah Stowell Jr., including a postscript by Josiah Stowell Sr., conveys their firsthand knowledge of Joseph Smith’s character.
Most people who wrote about Joseph Smith during his lifetime were either faithful Latter-day Saints or carping critics. As one would expect, their respective viewpoints tended to influence that which they wrote. Unlike his father, however, Josiah Stowell Jr. never converted to the new faith. In fact, he kept aloof from all denominations. His letter of reply to John S. Fullmer thus provides a rare report by one who was both impartial in his religious convictions and well acquainted with Joseph during the time the Prophet was preparing to receive the golden plates. In addition, the elder Stowell’s postscript provides us with the testimony of one of the earliest believers in the divinity of Joseph Smith’s prophetic mission. The interchange between Fullmer and the Stowells offers two distinct and significant perceptions of the young Joseph Smith.
An early settler of Bainbridge, New York, Josiah Stowell Sr. owned hundreds of acres in the area, where he farmed and operated sawmills on the Susquehanna River.1 According to local historian William D. Purple, “Mr. Stowell was a man of much force of character, of indomitable will, and well fitted as a pioneer in the unbroken wilderness that this country possessed at the close of the last century.” Purple added that Stowell “had been educated in the spirit of orthodox puritanism” and that he was “a very industrious, exemplary man.”2
When Stowell met Joseph Smith in October 1825, he hired Joseph and his father to help him locate a legendary Spanish mine and to work on his farm.3 While searching for the mine, Joseph boarded at the home of Isaac Hale and there met Isaac’s daughter Emma, whom he would later marry.4
In March 1826, Peter Bridgeman, the nephew of Josiah Stowell Sr.’s wife, Miriam, brought Joseph Smith to trial for deceiving Stowell. During the trial, however, Stowell testified in defense of Joseph. Purple, who attended the trial, wrote that “as the testimony of Deacon Stowell could not be impeached, the prisoner was discharged.”5 Stowell would also testify on Joseph’s behalf in his 1830 Bainbridge trial.6
Perhaps because of Stowell’s confidence in him, Joseph told him about the visits of the angel Moroni. When Joseph went to recover the golden plates on September 22, 1827, Stowell was at the Smith home.7 Stowell later became a member of the Colesville branch of the Church. Although he never gathered with the Saints after their departure from New York, he remained firm in the faith throughout his life.8
Josiah Stowell Jr., youngest of the eight Stowell children, was sixteen when he met Joseph Smith, who was then nineteen.9 The two attended school together while Joseph was in Chenango County. Josiah probably also worked with Joseph on the Stowell farm.10 By 1833, Josiah Stowell Sr. had moved westward down the Susquehanna River to the village of Smithboro, Tioga County, New York. Josiah Stowell Jr. also moved west, settling near his father.11 The elder Stowell passed away in this area sometime in the middle-to-late 1840s.12
John S. Fullmer was born and raised in Huntington Township, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He later moved to Nashville, Tennessee. While living there, he received letters from his family, who had joined the Church in Ohio. In 1839, Fullmer rode his horse to Nauvoo to investigate his family’s newfound faith. After being baptized by Joseph Smith, Fullmer moved his wife and children to Nauvoo.13 In 1840 the Prophet employed Fullmer as a clerk and secretary, and the two soon became friends.14
In 1842, John S. Fullmer received a call to serve a mission.15 In the course of his labors, he made the acquaintance of Josiah Stowell Jr. The two discussed the subject of the Restoration, and Stowell shared his recollections of Joseph Smith. Stowell also mentioned that he had defended Joseph’s reputation whenever he had heard it slandered.
Leaving New York, Fullmer traveled southward into Pennsylvania. A few weeks later, he wrote to Stowell from Cambria, a tiny hamlet situated along the southeast slopes of the Appalachians in the northwest corner of Huntington—Fullmer’s home township.16 Fullmer probably came from this corner of Huntington Township. It was a standard practice for LDS missionaries to return to their hometowns to preach the gospel. If so, he may have been strongly motivated to change the opinions of his former neighbors and family connections.17
Fullmer wrote to Stowell regarding a number of epithets ascribed to the young Joseph Smith and requested that Stowell write concerning his personal knowledge of Joseph’s character. Fullmer entreated Stowell to write back as soon as possible and further asked that he have his father add something to the letter. Three days after receiving Fullmer’s letter, Josiah Stowell Jr. responded, providing a pithy, point-by-point rebuttal to the charges laid at the feet of his former acquaintance. In a postscript, he recorded his father’s dictated testimony regarding Joseph Smith’s character and the truthfulness of Mormonism. The postscript demonstrates that the elder Stowell still considered himself a faithful member of the Church.18
The extant letter from Fullmer to Stowell is a handwritten copy that Fullmer made before sending the original.19 Written sideways in the lower right-hand corner of the verso, Fullmer penned, “Copy of a Letter to Josiah Stowell, Verbatim et literatum.” The Latin phrase, which means “word for word and letter for letter,” indicates that the extant holograph faithfully represents the original letter. Fullmer made this copy in ink on the front and back of a 7¾” by 12½” sheet of paper.20 Josiah Stowell Jr. responded in ink on one sheet of paper (12½” by 15″) folded widthwise to form two leaves. Stowell wrote on the front and back of the first leaf. Then he folded the letter up, addressed it on the back, and sealed it with wax. The LDS Church Archives cataloged the Fullmer and Stowell letters in 1980 and 1972, respectively. Information about the dates of acquisition is not known.
John S. Fullmer’s Letter to Josiah Stowell Jr.21
Cambria, Luzerne Co. Penn.
Josiah Stowell Jr. Esqr.}
Elmira N. Y.
I hope you will pardon
pardonme for the liberty I am taking in addressing you this letter, which is intended, not as an obtrusion, but to elicit a statement of facts which came under your own personal observation, or such as you know to be facts from circumstances with which you are well acquainted, relative to the youthful, and also more mature character of Joseph Smith Jun.22 your play mate and school fellow, but now the leader of the “Latter day Saints.”
I have been laboring now for some weeks in this section of the country, by way of preaching the gospe[l]23 as understood by the said Smith and others, and find here a great deal of opposition & persecution, in consequence of the reputed bad character of Mr. Smith in his youth, and the consequent deception24 he is practising upon the public.
Being convinced of the great injustice done him everywhere in alledging charges of the most heinous ch[ar]25=acter against him, which are verily believed by the people here, and greatly to the prejudice of the spread of the gospel in this section; and having recently had an opportunity of conversing with you, (while at your house together with Mr. Bird) on the subject and learned that you were his youthful companion, and had, on many occasions, defended his character from the fulsome abuse of the slanderer; I cannot forbear to solicit from <you> a statement of such things as you feel warranted in making in his defence and in defence of the truth, & more especially as you are not a member of the <church.>
It is here stated and verily believed, that he, Smith, was a gambler, a Black leg,26 a notorious horse jockey,27 an adept at the slight of hand or juggling,28 and was notorious for frequenting grogshops, and intemperance, and that he was also exceedingly profane, &c. &c. Now29 if this matter can be answered to the satisfaction of some half [verso] a Dozen persons in this neighborhood, it would have quite a beneficial effect here; besides, it would be a vindication of the character and reputation of one who is receiving more than his share of misrepresentation and abuse. I have openly and boldly denied these charges, and although not required to prove a negative, have <still> agreed to do so in several instances, which if I can do, through you, will set the matter at rest in this place.
I hope you will take the trouble, (if you think me reasonable in requesting it,) to answer in reply to those charges as soon as circumstances will posibly admit of your doing so; <I should be pleased to have you>
markmake also such general remarks as the occasion seems to require. I should be pleased also to have the old gentleman, your father, subscribe to as much of your reply as he is knowing to.
Address to Cambria &c. as above.
Give my compliments to all that I had the pleasure of seeing at yr. house. & to Mr. Bird, should you see him.
Jno: S. Fullmer
P.S. I would gladly pay the postage on this letter; but to tell the truth I have not got it. am laboring with<out> purse or scrip, & without compensation, only such good as I may be the means of doing while on my mission. <& may God bless you & yours->
send yours without paying postage.
J. S. F.
Josiah Stowell Jr.’s Reply to John S. Fullmer30
Chemung31 Feb 17th 1843
Mr J S Fullmer
I rec[eive]d yours of the 10 Feb on the 14th and have binn so busy that I could not answer it until now & now I will as near as I can at this time you will know tis a Perplixing time for business men & my mind is fully Engaged in my buisness on ac[coun]t of the great derangement of the curency[.]32 I will give you a shrot history of what I know about Joseph Smith Jr I have binn Intemetely acquainted with him about 2 years he then was about 20 years old or there about I also went to school with him one winter[.]33 he was a fine likely young man & at that time did not Profess religion he was not a Profain man although I did onc[e] in a while hear him swair he never gambled to my knowledge I do not believe he ever did I well know he was no Hoars Jocky for he was no Judge of Hoarses I sold him one[.]34 that is all I ever knowd he dealt in the kind[.] I never new him to git drunk I believe he would now and then take a glass he never Pretend=ed to Play the Slight of hand nor Black leg, it was fashionable at that time to drink Liquor I do not Believe in any religion & there fore am friendly to all I Believe that there is a heaven & hell & those that do not right here through there lives will be damn=ed but still I believe I do right myself I State this for facts that any thing from what I have said about Joseph Smith that is wors than I say is fals & untru [end of first page] I am [a]fraid you Cannot read what I have wrote my pen is Poor I am in a glassy35 & tired after doing a hard days work
I am yours truly Josiah Stowell 2
I now write you for my father he says what I have wrote you is true & he has been acquainted with him 6 years & he never knew anything of him but that was right als[o] know him to be a Seeer37 & a Phrophet & Believe the Book of mormon to be
struetrue & all thethese Stories is fals & untue that is told about Joseph Smith[.] Im yours truly & Reply[,] you Brother in the Churgh of Latter day Saints
By J Stowell 2