Joseph Smith's Visit to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
by H. Michael Marquardt
© 2000 by H. Michael Marquardt All rights reserved.
The New York saints and later other members gathered mainly to four areas after 1830. The gathering cities were first, Kirtland, Ohio where they built the House of the Lord (known as the Kirtland Temple); second, Jackson County, Missouri (where the New Jerusalem would be built); third, Far West, Missouri and fourth, Commerce (later named Nauvoo), Illinois.
On 29 October 1839 church president Joseph Smith and his fellow companions left Nauvoo for Washington, D.C. seeking redress for wrongs that occurred against church members in Missouri. Part of the time Smith and Sidney Rigdon traveled incognito for fear of enemies.(1) Joseph Smith met with President Martin Van Buren a month later. The President told Smith in essence, "What can I do? I can do nothing for you! If I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri."(2) While waiting for the Saints' petition to be presented to Congress Joseph Smith visited Philadelphia on 21 December. A few months previously in September Benjamin Winchester came to Philadelphia and preached in the city. On 1 October baptisms were performed in the Delaware River. Among those baptized was William Small "the first candidate baptized in Philadelphia" and Samuel Bennett who became the first branch president.(3) The Philadelphia Branch was organized on 23 December 1839 by Joseph Smith.(4) Apostle Orson Pratt wrote to his wife Sarah:
I went to Philadelphia on Saturday the 21st of December, there I found President J[oseph]. Smith jr.; he had just arrived from Washington city, where he had been about 3 weeks - 4 or 5 days after, Judge Higbee, with Porter Rockwell, came to Philadelphia; they are well. . . . I staid with brother Smith, in Philadelphia, about 8 days; we then took the rail road, and went some 35 or 40 miles, to a large branch of the church in Monmouth co. N[ew]. J[ersey]. Which numbers 90 members: there I left him on new year's day . . . Elder Winchester had when I left Philadelphia, baptized 45 in that city . . .(5)
Sidney Rigdon and Dr. Robert Foster arrived in the city by the time of the 13 January 1840 Philadelphia Branch Conference. Benjamin Winchester mentioned the conference held in the city, "We had a conference here the first [part] of Jan. 1840, J[oseph]. Smith, Jr. S[idney]. Rigdon, Orson, P[arley]. P. Pratt, and many other elders, were present. . . . J[oseph]. Smith, jr. bore testimony to the coming forth of the book of mormon which was the means of doing much good."(6) At the conference Parley P. Pratt spoke about the possibility of printing an edition of the Book of Mormon in New York. The minutes state that in the afternoon:
Brother Joseph Smith Jr dilated [expanded] at some length on the offices of the Priesthood and on the duties of Elders[,] Bishops, Priests, &c and directed it should be intered [entered] on the minutes as the injunction of the Presidency that travelling Elders should be especially cautious of incroaching [encroaching] on the ground of stationed & presiding Elders and rather direct their efforts to breaking up and occupying new ground and that the Churches generally refuse to be burthened with the support of unprofitable and dilatory labourers. It was unanimously resolved that this be received as the will and wish of the Conference.(7)
Evidently the day after the branch conference Joseph Smith preached at the pulpit of the Universalist Church at Fourth and Lombard Streets.(8) Apostle Pratt recalled this meeting years later, "a very large church was opened for him to preach in . . . Brother Rigdon spoke first, and dwelt on the Gospel, illustrating his doctrine by the Bible." Pratt wrote that Joseph Smith bore "testimony of the visions he had seen, the ministering of angels which he had enjoyed; and how he had found the plates of the Book of Mormon, and translated them by the gift and power of God."(9) Shortly after Smith traveled back to Washington, D.C. returning to Nauvoo by the first of March.
1. Robert D. Foster to Joseph Smith III, 14 Feb. 1874 in True Latter Day Saints' Herald 22 (15 Apr. 1875):226.
2. Joseph Smith, Jr. and Elias Higbee to Hyrum Smith, 5 Dec. 1839 as cited in B.H. Roberts, ed., History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1959), 4:40.
3. Walter W. Smith, "The History of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Branch," Journal of History 11 (July 1918):362.
4. Philadelphia Branch Minutes, 1840 -1854, 1880-1900, page 2, RLDS archives, Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Independence, Missouri.
5. Extract from letter of Orson Pratt to Sarah Pratt, 6 Jan. 1840, Times and Seasons 1 (Feb. 1840):61, Commerce, Illinois.
6. Benjamin Winchester to "Dear Brother in the Lord," 10 Feb. 1840, Times and Seasons 1 (May 1840):104. Winchester listed Orson Pratt as being present but he was probably not in Philadelphia at the time.
7. Philadelphia Branch Minutes, 13 Jan. 1840, pages 3-4, typed copy, RLDS archives. See Richard P. Howard, "Values in Old Minute Books," Saints Herald 123 (Dec. 1976):48.
8. Smith, "The History of the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Branch," Journal of History 11 (July 1918):363. The First Independent Church of Christ (Universalist) treasurer's book contains the entry on renting the building, "1840 January 14 For use of the Church from Rev. J. Smith by G. H. McCully $13.63." See John Shiffert, "Site of Joseph Smith's 1839 [sic; 1840] Philadelphia Sermon Identified," Ensign 23 (May 1993):101. This article quotes from Parley P. Pratt and says that he refers to the last week in December 1839. This is incorrect since the meeting was in January 1840. The building currently includes the Jewish Yaron Chapel of Congregation Kesher Israel, 412 Lombard Street.
9. Parley P. Pratt [Jr.], ed., Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1994), 260. Pratt wrote in 1840, "While in Philadelphia, I had the happiness of meeting with Elders J. Smith, Jun., and S. Rigdon, who had come from the west [Nauvoo] on a mission to the seat of government, to lay before Congress and the President of the United States, the facts of the Missouri persecution. From them I received much precious instruction, in which I shall always rejoice" (Editor, "Sketch of Travels in America, and Voyage to England," Latter-Day Saints Millennial Star 1 (July 1840):51, Manchester, England.