Audio for Episode 3, “I Retired to the Woods”
Spencer: This is where we are in the story. Joseph Smith, burdened with questions about God, worried about the state of his soul, seeking forgiveness for his sins, entered a grove of trees near his family’s farm. It was a morning in early spring 1820.
Have you ever wondered what the grove of trees looked like that morning? Have you ever thought about what it sounded like? Have you ever considered what it smelled like?
The vision has been portrayed in several films and even more paintings. Perhaps you know the lyrics to the popular Latter-day Saint hymn that describes a “lovely morning” replete with humming bees and “sweet birds singing,” “music ringing through the grove.” How do these portrayals of the grove compare to what Joseph Smith actually experienced?
In this episode, we are talking about Joseph Smith’s sensory experience in the Sacred Grove. We’re talking about the sights and sounds of that grove of trees at the time he entered to offer what turned out to be the most consequential prayer of his life.
This is The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode Three: I Retired to the Woods.
Spencer: As a historian, I have walked in the Sacred Grove multiple times. However, like the majority of visitors to that historic site, my visits have always been in the summer. The grove I have experienced is a lush and serene section of woods. The tall trees, their branches full of vibrant green leaves, form a thick canopy overhead with sparkles of light breaking through the small gaps between them.
And, for the most part, the artistic renderings we see of the grove match this experience. The Sacred Grove is commonly depicted as we see it in the summer—as a deciduous forest, teeming with life.
And I love many of these drawings, these paintings, these films, that depict the Sacred Grove in this way. They are beautiful and they evoke an emotional response, as most art is designed to do.
But as a historian, I cannot help but wonder what the grove looked like at the time that Joseph entered it to pray. After all, he entered the grove in the early spring, and not in the middle of the summer. Was the grove appreciably different in its appearance in the spring than it was in the summer?
To better understand what Joseph’s sensory experience likely was as he entered the woods, I spoke with Mark Staker. Mark is a curator with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. In working with the church’s historic sites team to restore and preserve the Smith family farm and the adjacent Sacred Grove, Mark has spent years researching the site and knows it well.
In our conversation, I started with the grove’s plant life. I asked Mark to describe the trees and other vegetation of the grove as Joseph would have known it in 1820.
Mark: When the Smith family purchased the property, it was all old-growth forest. What that means is, primarily, on their land, it was hophornbeam trees. And we come to think of those as a smaller tree, grown about sixty feet tall, a part of the undergrowth of the forest. In their dialect, they would have called them “hardback trees,” or today, most of us call them ironwood. And the ironwood trees were really good for split rails. We actually see some of those trees in their house that they made, and so, they’re harvesting some of that for their home, but there’s a lot of that in the forest. There are maple trees, particularly on the western half of their property. There’s wild cherry. Some of those grow a hundred feet tall and more brilliantly colored blossoms on those—white blossoms.
And to a lesser extent, you have ash, oak, hickory. And so, you have a dense forest, very large trees. Undergrowth would have some ferns, and the wild leeks grow in the early spring. A little bit in the open areas, you get some thorn bushes and things, but mostly the undergrowth is going to be clear.
Spencer: What about animal life? What animals might Joseph have seen and heard in the woods near his family’s farm in early spring?
Mark: Animal life in the early spring, which is the time we’re most interested in, you’re going to have peepers, which is small frogs, and you hear them in large groups chirping. You hear, early in the morning, the “peep, peep, peep” of all of these peepers are going. And then you have tree frogs, which are more of a deep-toned, bass sound. Sometimes they can throw their voice, so [you] don’t quite even know where they’re at when you’re hearing them.
Spencer: What about mammals? Were mammals such as rabbits and squirrels common in this place at this time? Or birds?
Mark: Skunks in the early spring are one of the first animals to come out, and you’ll occasionally see them. Susan Fenimore Cooper, the famous James Fenimore Cooper’s daughter, writes about forests in this exact area at this time period. She does a whole book describing the forest life here. And she mentions that robins are predictable, and that they watch for those in March usually, mid-to-late March, and they know within a two-week period of when those robins are going to come, and they’re actually watching to see them.
Spencer: Just how similar is the grove we visit or see depicted in the summer to what Joseph likely experienced in the early spring of 1820?
Mark: It’s not at all the same. We don’t know when early spring was for him. We have a kind of range, but if you consider March and April and even well into almost the end of May, it’s not green. The leaves come out toward the end of May, and they all come out at the same time—that open time period where all the leaves will just kind of burst out into green—but before that, a lot of people started thinking of the grove as brown, but it wasn’t brown either. In early spring, what you’re going to have are blossoms. These trees are going to be full of blossoms. The elm tree will have their purplish-brown flowers. The hophornbeam has these dangling—that’s where it gets it “hop” name from—they look like hops. If you’re not familiar with hops you can think of a small ice cream cone, upside-down all over the tree and bright cream colors. Cherry blossoms, white with a little bit of a tinge of pink on them, and a hundred feet of cherry blossoms—you can imagine this big, white presence in the forest. Lots of color. The beech trees. The blossoms are yellow, so you’ll have areas of yellow, and there was a lot of beech trees on the property, as well, and so you’re going to have whole groves of yellow out there. So, when Joseph goes out to pray, and you think a bit of brown, sure, but mostly color everywhere he’s looking. Lots of bright colors of all these blossoms from these trees.
Spencer: I found Mark’s description illuminating. He’s describing a grove that is very different in appearance than the summertime deciduous forest that so many of us naturally think of. But he is not describing a dreary brown forest in contrast. Instead, he’s describing a blossoming forest, and those blossoms make it a colorful and beautiful place.
We assume that the dead leaves and fallen twigs, the remnants of the past winter, crunched beneath Joseph’s feet as he walked across the forest floor. But throughout the woods were the sights and smells of spring—all around him the evidence of new and continuing life.
Spencer: Now, Mark said something that elicited another question. He said, “we don’t know when early spring was for him,” meaning we do not know exactly what Joseph meant by early spring. We do not have an exact date for the First Vision.
For historians, in the absence of sure facts and well-documented dates, we can look for clues that help us narrow down possibilities. And I wondered if we could do the same thing for the First Vision. Could we look at the nature of daily life on the Smith family farm and what was happening in their world in 1820 to help us better estimate when Joseph entered the woods to seek answers from God?
Mark: Well, early spring—if you’re looking at it from a work perspective—by the end of February, tree sap starts to flow in the maple trees and that shifts everything that they’re doing. From before then, they’re cutting down the forest because it’s easier to cut down these trees on the frozen ground and drag them across the ice than it is to try to drag them through mud and do that kind of work. And so, once the tree sap starts flowing in February, they shift from clearing the forest to gathering the sugar, and Joseph is going to be very much a part of that, particularly during the height of that period, which is going to be mid-to-late March. About March 27th is kind of the high flow, in 1820, for sap. And during that time, they’re going to be out in the woods constantly, gathering that sap, bringing it in to produce sugar.
Spencer: This is a particularly interesting way to think about it because in Joseph Smith’s 1843 account of his first vision, he stated that he had retired to a place near a stump where he had left his father’s ax upon stopping work the day before. While this description doesn’t give us the precise date and location of Joseph’s prayer, it demonstrates that Joseph’s memory of the event was, at least in this one aspect, tied to his work on his family’s farm.
So, given what Mark has described about the work on the Smith family farm in early spring, I asked him, if he had to give his best estimate of what Joseph Smith meant by “early spring,” what time frame are we talking about?
Mark: Sometime in most likely March, April, or the beginning weeks of May.
Spencer: So, we can slightly narrow down the time frame of Joseph Smith’s 1820 vision based on contextual evidence. But can we do the same for the location in which Joseph prayed? The woods around the Smith family farm were far larger in 1820 than they are today. Clearing the forest was a major and ongoing project for the Smiths and those who owned the property after them. The part of the property that remains wooded, that people visit today, was, of course, still wooded then.
So, what do we know about the location? What clues survive? Unfortunately, not as many as we wish.
Mark: He goes where his father’s ax is. This is a place where he’s going to be alone, not to be surprised by other members of the family.
Spencer: Mark suggests that Joseph may have gone somewhere near the areas that he and his family were actively clearing in 1820, but, at the end of the day, we do not know the precise location of the First Vision on the Smith family farm. And while historians love to pin down the concrete details of events, we also recognize than an event’s historical significance often transcends the minute details.
My conversation with Mark turns in this direction. He speaks about the experience of visitors to the Sacred Grove historic site and the meaningfulness of their experiences, even though there are details of the event that we cannot state with certainty.
Mark: A lot of times as historians, we tend to think of these sites as part of the historical record, you know, and we’re interested in the events and what happened there.
But there’s something about place that transcends the history. That place became sacred because of the events that happen there, above and beyond just helping us understand and appreciate those events more. And I think the Sacred Grove today is part of that, and I like to think of the whole Smith property as the Sacred Grove—not just that now twenty acres of woods we have on the property—but that the whole property represents this interaction between our Heavenly Father and His children to bring about our salvation though His Son, Jesus Christ. And so, going to that site becomes almost a pilgrimage.
That it’s an act of devotion of going to connect with God and worship God, ourselves. And not just learn about the events that happened there or even try to understand the setting better of those events, but it’s to actually not have the same experience, but to have our own experience, our own connection with God through a place that’s become sacred because He’s been there before.
Spencer: Although we do not know the exact place in the grove of trees in which Joseph prayed, we have a good sense of what the environment looked like at that time and in that season. He entered a deciduous forest coming out of winter—a forest blossoming in anticipation of warmer weather and more abundant growth.
And this brings us to the vision itself, to the prayer that Joseph uttered and the resulting communion with the divine. That is where we will pick up the story in the next episode of The First Vision: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.